The success of Charlie Chan on the printed page and in movies led to imitators. Peter Lorre donned yellowface1 to play John P. Marquand's Mr. Moto, a Japanese-American sleuth whose third film actually crossed over with the "Charlie Chan-iverse."2 Hugh Wiley penned twenty stories about Jimmy Lee Wong, a Chinese-American detective modeled on Chan, but actually handled in a somewhat less stereotypical manner. Monogram Studios made a half-dozen Mr. Wong pictures, teaming a made-up Boris Karloff with gruff Grant Withers as his associate, Detective Street.
When Karloff left the series the studio made two then-remarkable decisions. They set the next film back in Wong's earlier, younger days, and they cast a Chinese-American actor, Keye Luke, in the main role. Withers kept the part of Street. The Phantom of Chinatown (1940), depicts their first meeting and the forging of their crime-solving partnership.
It's a b movie, with a running time of barely more than an hour and a beginning stuffed with file footage. It nevertheless holds up reasonably well.
At a university in San Francisco, a noted explorer, Dr. John Benton (Charles F. Miller) shows the footage of his expedition to Mongolia to discover the lost tomb of an ancient emperor. We get re-appropriated film from at least two different events featuring two different kinds of camels. When they arrive at the tomb, we see new film of Dr. Benton and other principals entering.
While the film rolls, Benton dies mysteriously, and a mysterious scroll discovered during the expedition is nowhere to be found. The police investigate, led by Detective Street. The university also calls in Jimmy Wong, because of his knowledge of matters pertaining to China.
The two investigators, along with Street's associate Grady (Paul McVey) and Benton's assistant/Wong's love interest, Win Lee (Lotus Long) quickly become involved in a plot involving ancient lore and modern greed. Of course, all investigative roads lead them to Chinatown.
What results proves less embarrassing than other examples of the Chan-inspired "Asian-American Detective" genre. Problematic and uncomfortable moments and depictions certainly exist, but the handling of Wong and Lee as just two young, competent Americans distinguishes the film from the majority of period Hollywood productions featuring non-white characters.
Wong even gets in some jabs at American ethnocentrism. Noting that a U.S. museum now has the tomb of an ancient Chinese emperor, he jokes that the Chinese will be coming over soon to exhume George Washington and take him back for display.
It's less successful as a whodunnit. Most viewers will figure out the killer's identity immediately and, if they don't, it gets revealed long before the end of the movie. It's more of a "whydunnit," with the mystery of the "eternal flame" flickering over the film until the end.
Though regarded as one of the series' stronger entries, audience interest faded without the star power of Karloff. Luke's first outing as Wong proved his last, and no subsequent Jimmy Lee Wong films followed.
Directed by Phil Rosen
Written by Hugh Wiley and Ralph Gilbert Bettison
1. The practice, once commonplace, of having Caucasian actors play key Asian roles in movies and on stage, often wearing exaggerated make-up.
2.Mr. Moto's Gamble (1938) started out as a Charlie Chan film. When Warner Oland died, the studio did not feel ready to replace him as Chan. A good deal of footage had already been shot, including scenes with Keye Luke as Chan's "Number One Son." The film was retooled as a Mr. Moto story, but Luke stayed on in the same role.