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Friday 28 April 2017

Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation (1939)

Director: Norman Foster
Writers: Philip MacDonald and Norman Foster, based on the character created by John P. Marquand
Stars: Peter Lorre, Joseph Schildkraut, Lionel Atwill, Virginia Field, john King and Iva Stewart

This review is part of the Great Villain Blogathon hosted by Silver Screenings, Shadows & Satin and Speakeasy.
The Great Villain Blogathon is in its fourth year, appropriately hosted by Silver Screenings, Shadows & Satin and Speakeasy, given that all those S’s sound rather like a hiss. It has covered villains from silent era Lon Chaney to modern day Pixar with all the usual suspects in between, so I chose a slightly different approach for my entry into year four: a rapid-paced black and white film which paints San Francisco rather like Ben Kenobi’s famous description of Mos Eisley. It’s a ‘wretched hive of scum and villainy’ in which an assassin hovers outside every window, a ne’erdowell skulks in every shadow and the script racks up so many candidates for the role of master thief that we end up sitting back and letting Mr. Moto solve this one for us. This isn’t a film with a single villain, nor even a pair, but three distinct bands of them. Most dangerous among them is Metaxa, a legendary jewel thief believed to be dead. Mr. Moto is not so sure, so he’s taking a fake vacation under the firm expectation that our MacGuffin will draw him out.

That MacGuffin is the crown of Balkis, the Queen of Sheba, which is of such importance that there’s a radio journalist reporting on its excavation live from the back of a truck parked under the ‘pitiless Arabian sun’. It’s utterly priceless, of course, and is promptly whisked out of the country on its vulnerable journey to San Francisco’s Fremont Museum. You won’t be surprised to find that ‘the young and brilliant archaeologist, Howard Stevens’ is a Hollywood leading man take on the real archaeologist, Howard Carter, who, in 1922, discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun and, through the effusive prose of journalist H. V. Morton, kickstarted Egyptomania across the western hemisphere. Actor John King gives off a self-effacing Jimmy Stewart sort of vibe as Stevens, a rare character to not rank on the Metaxa possibility chart, so he tends to fade into the background when the villainy commences in earnest. He’s a mild fish out of water here but he found his feet within a year as ‘Dusty’ King in a series of westerns that wrapped up his career.

Mr. Moto is right there when Stevens hauls out the crown, masquerading as a Viennese professor called Heinrich von Something or Other. He wears a believable beard but the dulcet tones of Peter Lorre are rather hard to disguise, even when not pretending a Japanese accent. He was much better at Viennese, given that he was born in an Austro-Hungarian town called Rózsahegy that has since become a Slovakian town called Ružomberok. He also began his stage career in Vienna, before finding creative outlet in an array of sinister characters in movies, starting with the child murderer, Hans Beckert, in Fritz Lang’s German masterpiece M, but continuing on in England and Hollywood in early films like The Man Who Knew Too Much and Mad Love. Moto is not often a typical hero but he’s certainly not a villain and he gave Lorre a good opportunity to highlight his versatility. However, after eight films, he wanted out as he found the character had become childish and restricting, though we never see his frustration on screen.

Lorre didn’t have to worry, because the way the world was changing rendered the series obsolete anyway. For those not familiar with him, Mr. Moto was a character brought to the screen from the world of books. John P. Marquand, a young American author with a few literary novels behind him, spent the thirties alternating more of those, including the Pulitzer-winning The Late George Apley, with short stories for the slicks, especially the Saturday Evening Post. It was this magazine which serialised No Hero in 1935, a novel which saw book form as Your Turn, Mr. Moto, the first in a new series. The Post had been seeking a new Asian hero since the death of Earl Derr Biggers, the man behind the Charlie Chan novels, in 1933. At that point the Orient was an exotic and fascinating place, with Japan an ‘inscrutable’ nation, to dabble in a much-overused cliché. However, only a few years later, after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the western world had a different viewpoint and an Asian hero was the last thing on anyone’s minds.
Four Mr. Moto novels had been published before Pearl Harbor and a fifth, already serialised in Collier’s Weekly, was waiting for its book publication. Apparently, these are different from the ensuing film series, not least because Moto wasn’t the protagonist but an oft-encountered character by a selection of more traditional American heroes, albeit usually ex-pat ones seeking something in the East. Moto himself was more a ruthless spy than a genial policeman, into which role he was soon transformed by Hollywood, working either for Interpol or a fictionalised take on it. While Asia generally was still exotic, this was an era of Imperial Japanese expansion, epitomised by their invasion of Chinese Manchuria in 1931, which they occupied until the end of World War II, and an increasing awareness of this eventually put paid to these stories. The attack on Pearl Harbor prompted Marquand to mothball his character for good, though he did return to him in 1956. The eight films came and went in between books three and five.

Lorre was surprisingly good in these films, given that he was playing in what’s known as yellowface, when a Caucasian actor plays an Asian character. Some examples are truly appalling, such as Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and some just beggar belief, like Katharine Hepburn in Dragon Seed. Much rarer are the instances when the actor, regardless of whether they should have been given the role, actually does it justice: Lon Chaney as Mr. Wu, Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto and Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu are perhaps the only classic examples I can come up with. Lorre was short, only 5’ 3½”, and he had rounded features, so it didn’t take much to change his screen race. What’s most important is that he occupies Moto’s skin with respect, combining a polite tone of voice with impressive posture and modest approach. He’s clearly not only intelligent but the most intelligent man in any room in which we see him, but he doesn’t use that to belittle anyone. Combining these aspects makes him inherently trustworthy.
That’s a particularly good thing in this picture, because there don’t appear to be many trustworthy characters in San Francisco. In fact, we don’t even have to get there to know that. Soon into the cruise over, Moto’s disguise as a Japanese tourist called Shimako is rumbled by an exuberant idiot from Scotland Yard by the name of Archie Featherstone and, in that very moment, villains crawl o500ut of the woodwork and wire home with the news. We soon learn who some of those villains are, but we aren’t let in on Metaxa’s secret identity; that’s left for the finalé, which is capable in every way but the one that wreaks havoc in the Fremont Museum, the hero and villain’s battle destroying a painful number of exhibits. This is certainly action-packed for a mystery picture, the editing of Norman Colbert, a veteran of two earlier Mr. Moto movies, being notably sharp. I saw the cruise to San Francisco as the coiling of a spring, which is let loose as soon as they arrive and the crown is loaded into a fantastic armoured truck manned by fake cops.

While viewers could easily argue about the best aspects of this picture, few would disagree about the worst, namely Featherstone, a tiresome caricature of a bumbling buffoon, a sort of proto-Clouseau without any of his redeeming qualities. He spends the movie stumbling into scenes that were doing just fine without him, immediately making them worse, then stumbling into situations that would have unfolded much better without his presence. For instance, that clever heist at the docks is a great idea, but having this annoyance in human form give chase by grabbing a ride with an uncredited Willie Best really isn’t. I like Best, as awful as many of the parts he was given were, but here he’s just an unwitting sidekick to Featherstone, who promptly traipses right into Chinatown and accidentally saves the day. That gets his face on the front page of the papers, while we bemoan the fact that the villains failed to shoot him dead in a back alley. He deserved that for the utterly unnecessary blackface scene alone.
Whenever Featherstone isn’t on screen, we’re being introduced to a variety of shady characters played by a variety of actors often known for playing shady characters. First up is David Perez, a Chinatown jeweller played by Morgan Wallace, an actor whose SAG membership number is 3. He’s a crook only because he believes it’s safe, in the game to cut down jewels removed from the crown of Balkis for resale, but he’s unwilling to put his neck on the line when Mr. Moto is in the picture. He’s working with Joe Rubla, an overt gangster type, who’s more than willing to rub Moto out. While his toughness is tempered by awkwardly dated dialogue like, ‘You think a little Japanese dick is going to scare me?’, regular serial actor Anthony Warde (he was Killer Kane to Buster Crabbe’s Buck Rogers) plays him with all the necessary bravado. This pair, along with the usual minions, constitute the first villainous band but there are many others whose honesty is also clearly in doubt. Perhaps they’re villains but perhaps they’re only red herrings.

Next up is Eleanore Kirke, in the form of the lovely Virginia Field, making her third appearance in the Mr. Moto series, each time playing a different character. She initially appears to be Stevens’s girlfriend, travelling home with him to San Francisco, but that’s not the case; his girlfriend is really Susan French, secretary to Prof. Roger Hildebrand of the Fremont Museum, who will be taking over control of the crown, so three guesses as to what she’s really up to and the first two don’t count! Hildebrand is automatically sinister because he’s played by Lionel Atwill, a prolific horror actor and one of the most prominent second tier icons after the big names at Universal. He was so good at playing sinister that he comes off that way even when he’s not playing a sinister character and we can’t be too sure about him here. Also suspicious is his chess partner, Hendrik Manderson, a cantankerous old gentleman who partially financed the Stevens expedition; he’s played by Oscar-winning character actor Joseph Schildkraut.
But wait, as they say, there’s more! Manderson has a Chinese assistant by the name of Wong, who is actually played by a Chinese actor, born Ho Chee Chung but credited, as always, as Honorable Wu. His big scene takes place at a Chinese restaurant called the Laughing Buddha, in which all the apparent staff are also ethnically appropriate. Ironically, all the Chinese actors listed at IMDb are named Wong except for one playing the character of Wong. The most prominent is Victor Wong, who plays the owner here but is surely most remembered for being Charlie the cook in the original King Kong. There’s also Victor Varconi portraying Paul Borodoff, an investigator from the Pacific Insurance Corporation who shows up out of the blue, automatically a suspicious move. At this point, we start to wonder about the rest of the characters, like Susan French, played by Iva Stewart in the biggest role of her career, and the cops and the security guards and, well, all those unidentifiable assassins taking potshots at Mr. Moto!

And, of course, with all this going on, the Fremont Museum spends about five minutes after receiving the crown of Balkis to have it out on display in a special room with special security measures, which are about as much use as a chocolate fireguard. I kid you not, Hildebrand attempts to demonstrate the alarm to a collected throng of notables and journalists but, after it fails to sound, he carries on regardless as if such a catastrophic failure of crucial systems couldn’t possibly constitute a concern! This inept take on security doesn’t help the film, especially as the only person the guards ever catch is Archie Featherstone, with his habit of trying the most ill advised actions in the most ill advised ways. G. P. Huntley plays him as he was surely expected to, but he’s a sad try at comic relief. Featherstone comes across as a series regular but this was the only film he was in. If it was ever intended for him to continue on into further pictures, I’m unabashedly happy that the series ended here, just to stop that from happening.
Featherstone is the Jar Jar Binks of the Mr. Moto series. Every time he’s on screen, the quality of the film plummets, just as every time he leaves the screen, the quality of the film increases. For the eighth movie in a series about to end, this is a heck of a lot of fun whenever Featherstone is gone. The technical aspects are strong, especially visually, with Colbert’s sharp editing backing up some striking cinematography from the four-time Oscar nominee Charles Clarke. Mostly though, everyone seems to be having a blast, even down to the minor support roles, like that of Benny the bellhop, to whom Moto teaches a single judo move which has immediate application within a minute or two. Oddly, it’s Lorre who appears to have most fun, even though he was disguising an increasing disdain for the character. He delivers with style, especially for an actor for whom English was a second language. One memorable moment has Moto find a phone cord cut and comment drily, ‘Someone deprived this instrument of all utiity.’

Running only 65 minutes, this 20th Century Fox production has everything you could possibly want in a tale of intrigue. If only it didn’t also have Archie Featherstone and a few cheap devices to keep things moving along. Beyond its own merits, though, it’s an excellent example of the American fascination with the Japanese psyche at the time and of the practice of yellowface, especially given that the lead Japanese character is played by a white Austro-Hungarian, even though a number of capable Asian actors play much less important parts deep into the uncredited credits. I find yellowface fascinating, especially as it’s not looked upon with routine disdain the way blackface is, but I find even more fascinating America’s relationship with Japan, from Commodore Perry opening up the country in 1854 after centuries of self-imposed isolation and possibility sparking in the minds of far too many all the way up to thoroughly racist wartime propaganda cartoons like Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips in 1944.
It feels weird in our 21st century internet world to realise how little Japanese culture was understood, how slowly news travelled and how much of the world was hidden to the eyes of most of its population. After Perry, Japan transformed itself in merely half a century into a powerful modernised nation. Americans could well have been distracted during the early thirties by things like the Great Depression but, emerging from that in the late thirties and forties, they wanted to look outward and Hollywood was happy to provide their particularly exotic take on the country and its culture. In many ways, this is the quintessential take because it’s a yellowface lead interacting with an occidental story, all film noir intrigue and B movie detection, but with moments of real actors of Asian descent playing characters of their own race in appropriate settings, like the Laughing Buddha. Forgetting Featherstone, it’s a whole bundle of villainy, wrapped up with intrigue and topped off with Peter Lorre. Happy Great Villain Blogathon, folks!


  1. Sounds like a lot of great goings-on in this film. I know I'll like it, despite any convenient plot devices. I found it on Daily Motion & have bookmarked it for later.

    Thank you for sharing all this research, and putting this film (and North America's fascination) in context. Now that I've read your post, I think I'll get a lot out of this film – much more than I would have otherwise.

    Thanks also for joining the blogathon. It was a pleasure to read about Mr Moto and his "fake vacation". :)

  2. This is a great post! I know I have a detective film DVD set, and that at least 2 of the films are Mr. Moto ones---I hope this one is on there. I have liked Peter Lorre since "M", through his work at Warner Brothers, and in "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea". I'm really looking forward to savoring this one, based on your article.