Thursday, October 10, 2002
The Inscrutable Cable Mystery
This morning at the gym I was flipping channels as I was doing my aerobic workout. I go to the sort of chichi place that has TV screens for people to watch as they're doing their thing, but that isn't the point of this post. I lit on a channel which turned out to be TCM (Turner Classic Movies), in the middle of a black-and-white murder mystery which looked to be from the 1930's. It seemed fairly run-of-the-mill, but I always enjoy looking at the cars, the furnishings and the clothes the actors wear in these things.
So we're going along, and a suspect gets murdered, and suddenly one of the characters addresses a dapper-looking guy with a carnation in his buttonhole as "Mr. Wong." Mr. Wong had looked Caucasian to me up until that point, but I suddenly realized that this movie was a subspecialty of the 1930's mystery programmer: the Oriental detective! (The word "Asian" was unknown in those days, so forgive me. I'm not trying to be offensive, just accurate.)
Now there were three main movie series which starred Oriental detectives which were produced during the 1930's and 1940's. All three had Caucasian stars playing the main characters. The first and best-known was the Charlie Chan series, from the books by Earl Derr Biggers. The next best-known was the Mr. Moto series, which was also drawn from a series of books written by John P. Marquand. (I've read some of the Mr. Moto books; they're not half bad.) Third came the Mr. Wong series. I don't believe Mr. Wong was a literary character at all - he was entirely derivative.
Charlie Chan was played at various times by two actors named Sydney Toler and Warner Oland. Warner Oland cut his teeth playing Fu Manchu, so you can see that he was tailor-made (by 1930's standards) for the role. The Charlie Chan movies are quite fun, for the most part, and often involve "cutting-edge" crime solving technology - I remember seeing one which involved transferring a photographic image long distance by means of something that looked like a hand-cranked predecessor of the fax machine. They also starred Keye Luke as Number One Son. (Years ago I was watching an episode of Remington Steele with my family; when the guest star list flashed across the screen, I startled everyone by shouting, beside myself with excitement, "Keye Luke is in this!" Somebody asked, "Who's he?" "He was Number One Son in all those old Charlie Chan movies!" I replied. Sadly, no one else was moved by this information.)
Mr. Moto, a globetrotting Japanese detective/spy, was played by Peter Lorre. Yes, that Peter Lorre. Mr. Moto was portrayed as a sympathetic character, probably unique for a Japanese character during the 1930's and 1940's. Interestingly enough, Mr. Moto spent at least part of his time helping the Allied cause. (What would the Emperor have said?) One of the Mr. Moto films started out as a Charlie Chan vehicle, but when the star (whoever it was at that point) dropped dead halfway through filming, rather than scrap the effort, they grabbed Peter Lorre, slapped some makeup on him, and popped him into it.
So, who was Mr. Wong? At first I couldn't remember. After studying the film carefully and ransacking my memory (fortunately or unfortunately, I have a bottomless capacity for this sort of trivia), I was pretty sure I knew which actor had played the role. When I got home I looked the Mr. Wong films up in my movie guide and found I was right.
Mr. Wong was played by Boris Karloff.
Stop laughing. Karloff did a pretty fair job in the part and he had an absolutely fabulous, actorly, British voice, sort of like Alec Guinness. It's too bad he was stuck in all those nonspeaking horror roles. As I was listening to him speak I could hear faint echoes of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." Would Karloff have thought that 65 years later, he'd be relegated to the early movie slot on some cable channel? Would he have cared?
I suppose the hallmark of being a professional is that you do the best job that you can. In spite of the faint air of absurdity that hung over the whole production, despite the fact that "Mr. Wong" was about as Asian as Tim Allen, Boris Karloff did his job. He was great fun to watch, grounded the movie and held it together. I'm actually sorry that I missed the denoument of the mystery (although I'm pretty sure I know who did it). In fact, I'm going to go hunt up some more Karloff movies this weekend just for the pleasure of hearing Mr. Wong speak those polished phrases and watching him carefully hook his cane over his arm.