Mysterious Mr. Wong, The
U.S.A. Before 1950
Directed by William Nigh.

Bela Legosi is the sinister Mr. Wong -- he's sinister, I think, because he is supposed to be Chinese, but speaks with a Hungarian accent -- who will stop at nothing to complete his coin collection.

It must be true that anything Boris Karloff could do, Bela Legosi could do almost as well. And so after Boris did his yellowface turn in The Mask of Fu Manchu, it was inevitable that Bela would have his chance, and at last it arrived in the form of The Mysterious Mr. Wong. As is typical of their careers, Mask was a big budget, slick production, while this film was a slap-dash, cheap programmer. Mask is legendary, Mr. Wong forgotten. And there are very good reasons that it should be forgotten still, not least of which is its obnoxiously racist hero, and "yellow peril" script. But despite its faults, there are some features which redeem the picture at least slightly.

The Mysterious Mr. Wong is based on a pulp novel, The Twelve Coins of Confucious, by Harry Stephen Keeler, though anyone who had seen The Mask of Fu Manchu could have got a similar idea. Apparently evil oriental masterminds are really into collectables. Fu Manchu wanted the mask and sword of Ghenghis Khan. Mr. Wong (embarassingly, his full name is supposed to be "Fu Wong"), by contrast, wants twelve coins, which were given by Confucious to his friends on his death bed. These coins give one absolute power -- but only in the province of Keelat. I'm a little confused about how these coins could actually have such a specific power, but apparently they are not to be trifled with, and in short order Mr. Wong has collected eleven of the special coins, mainly through having their previous owners brutally murdered. "One more, and the province of Keelat shall know it's rightful ruler!" he cries, filing the coins away, I imagine, next to his baseball card collection. His neice (Lotus Long) protests, but he dismisses her with a threat.

Meanwhile, Jason Barton, a young, wise-cracking journalist (Wallace Ford) gets put on the case and is sent to Chinatown to find out what is going on. And a more obnoxious character I have yet to encounter. I guess he's the one that audiences are supposed to identify with, and maybe in 1935, they did. But he is a despicable racist bastard whom I kept hoping would get a knife in the back. Sadly, it doesn't happen. Here's an example of his witty repartee:
Boss: Another killing in Chinatown. Laundryman on Huron Street.

Barton: Ah, what do I care about another Laundryman, the world is full of them. Besides, I send my stuff out to a steam laundry anyway.
Charming. He goes down to Chinatown, where he falls in with an Irish cop, which every Chinatown thriller seems to require. It is also required that the cop doesn't care about the killings, doesn't investigate it, and makes occasional derogatory remarks about the Chinese. Barton discovers a clue the police missed, a laundry ticket with some Chinese writing on it. But although he brings it to the University to get a Chinese professor to read it for him, he cannot give him the entire ticket, because, as this film makes very clear, you can't trust anyone Chinese.

The only person in Chinatown proper who will talk to the reporter is the herbalist, Li Si, who the audience knows is actually Mr. Wong in disguise. It's only a matter of time before the reporter figures it out, too, and with the help of the Irish cop and Mr. Wong's neice they put an end to Mr. Wong's evil schemes.

Watching this film seventy years after it was made is a decidedly different experience for the viewer. At least I should hope it is. I can hardly imagine that the newspaperman was ever somehow the hero of this tale, but for many, perhaps he was. The modern viewer, however, can only sympathize with Bela. Although he was performing in yellowface, Legosi did not try to do an oriental accent -- he spoke his usual thick hungarian sounding english. His makeup is quite absurd, and when he is disguised as Li Si, the herbalist, he looks like some kind of mysterious Spaniard more than anything else.

What makes Legosi's portrayal interesting is the way he changes the way he speaks when disguised as Li Si. When he is Mr. Wong, his command of english is perfect (well, as perfect as Legosi's command of english ever was). But when he is Li Si, and he is dealing with the reporter and the police, he effects a fake pidgen english, playing into their expectations of how a chinaman should speak. "Are you playing games with me?" the reporter asks. "Sometime, play fan tan," Li Si responds. "No play games." Our ace reporter then proceeds to mock the way he speaks for the rest of the film, little realizing that Li Si doesn't really speak that way at all. Audiences in the thirties may have been amused at how he made fun of broken english, but it makes him look like a complete jackass today, while Wong scores some points by exposing the reporter's deep seated racism. And that's good fun.

The other yellowface actors do not acquit themselves as well. Mostly just goons for Mr. Wong, these guys mangle simple lines like, "No, me no steal," which should never even have been spoken. Bela didn't fake a Chinese accent, so why do these guys with only one or two lines bother?

Another poor show is the reporter's girlfriend (Arlene Judge). Perhaps I am too used to the convention of the sensitive girlfriend who balances out the rougher around the edges man. But she proves she's no slouch in disliking the Chinese herself. When the reporter takes her out to a Chinese restaurant, she simply picks at her food in horror and complains about not being at a steakhouse. She grabs chopsticks out of his hands and tells him to stop playing around like a fool with them.

The Mysterious Mr. Wong did have some asian faces among the yellowface performers, notably Hawaiian-born Lotus Long as Mr. Wong's neice. Regrettably, her part is underdeveloped and pointless. She might have been a love interest, but given our intrepid reporters prejudices, that was quite out of the question. Instead she serves merely to remind us of the villainy and cruelty of Mr. Wong. She aids the reporter, and the film suggests that she may be tortured as a result of that, but the film ends without ever going back to clear up that loose end...apparently, it was assumed that no one would care what became of her. The actress got better parts than this afterwards, but not much better, like many asian faces in Hollywood she was relegated to flower-vase roles. Her biggest role may have been the 1947 picture Tokyo Rose, in which she played the title character, a Japanese-American who went to Japan to help the enemy by broadcasting Japanese propaganda to American troops. Such is a successful career in Hollywood for an Asian-American.

There is one last character in The Mysterious Mr. Wong that is worthy of note: Chinatown itself. It is depicted as a dark and dangerous place, where the police are totally ineffectual. Hidden passages and secret corridors make chinatown a labryinth of terror. Coolies lurk in the shadows, ready to throw knives, or just to stare and look vicious. Those that do speak use broken english, or as the Irish cop remarks, "Them chinamen is jabbering away like monkeys." It is telling of the attitude of the main characters toward the place that when the reporter and his girl hail a cab, they get in and he shouts, "Take me to America!" Ha! Where does he think he is? Keelat?

Rating: Marginally Recommended (Marginally Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on April 28, 2004.

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