Sun 3 Aug 2014
PHANTOM OF CHINATOWN. Monogram Pictures, 1940. Keye Luke, Grant Withers, Lotus Long, Charles Miller, Huntley Gordon, Virginia Carpenter, John H. Dilson. Screenplay: George Waggner. Director: Phil Rosen.
The final film in Monogram’s Mr. Wong series, Phantom of Chinatown is notable for being the only movie in which an American actor of Chinese heritage, rather than the veteran horror film actor Boris Karloff, portrayed the Chinese-American detective.
With a screenplay by George Waggner, director of Man Made Monster, which I reviewed here, and The Wolf Man, it’s also a fairly good, if at times excruciating slow moving, mystery and spy film, set during an era when Imperial Japan threatened the territorial integrity of China.
Directed by Phil Rosen, Phantom of Chinatown doesn’t have a phantom or anything supernatural in it at all. It’s simply an entertaining and overall well-crafted mystery story with a dash of international intrigue. There are also some memorable scenes, including one with a trap door, which fans of 1930s pulp fiction, will most likely appreciate.
Most importantly, however, the film has Keye Luke as the youthful Jimmy (not Mr.) Wong. Fans of mystery films will know Luke primarily for his portrayal of “Number One Son” in the Walter Oland Charlie Chan films or for his role as Kato in The Green Hornet. Indeed, Phantom of Chinatown was the only film in which Luke was both the star and lead character.
In many ways, that’s a real shame. Luke’s portrayal of Jimmy Wong, although a bit too stiff, wasn’t bad at all. In fact, he was quite fun to watch, particularly in those scenes in which his character appeared to have a better understanding of the case at hand than Captain Street (Grant Withers). It’s too bad, then, that the filmmakers didn’t realize that Withers’s height advantage over Luke would, in some ways, make his character appear to almost overshadow Jimmy Wong.
The story follows Jimmy Wong (Luke) as he teams up with San Francisco policeman, Captain Street (Withers), to solve the murder of Dr. Benton, an archeologist who recently returned to the United States from Mongolia. The university professor brought back a scroll with him.
And as it turns on, what’s written on the scroll has something to do with why he was murdered! Adding to the mystery is Dr. Benton’s Chinese secretary, Win Lee (Lotus Long), whom Captain Street initially suspects as playing a part in her employer’s murder. There’s also a butler, who’s of course a potential suspect, but he gets ruled out pretty quickly once he’s found with a dagger in his chest. The movie wraps up in a similar fashion as other B-film mysteries from the same era, namely with a final showdown and a generally satisfying, if somewhat clichéd, explanation of all that’s transpired.
In conclusion, Phantom of Chinatown, while hardly ranking among the greatest of mystery films, is nevertheless worth a look. It’s just a fun little film.