Thursday, March 3, 2011


One of the best things I like about Netflix -- in addition to its outstanding service -- is its broad selection of old movies and television shows. It’s fun to browse through the website and see all the selections. It’s almost like looking through an old family photo album.

I particularly like delving into film noir and old dramas from the 1950s, ’40s, and even the ’30s. (For the record, I was not alive in the ’30s.)

Many of these movies hold up well even by today’s standards as far as quality of production and story line -- Casablanca, Double Indemnity, and Laura come to mind -- but by far some of the most fun is checking out what used to be called “B” films. The campiness of the films with their cliched characters and stilted acting is a riot.

Among my favorites are the mysteries.

I grew up a fan of Sherlock Holmes and though Jeremy Brett’s portrayal of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s mastermind in the 1980s PBS series is more true to the original character, I still love Basil Rathbone’s interpretation. Of course, the Rathbone’s movies aren’t anywhere near the original tales (Sherlock Holmes taking on spies in WWII?), but they’re still fun.

I have always loved Charlie Chan, the Chinese detective created by Earl Derr Biggers. Very inscrutable.

Mr. Moto, played by Peter Lorre, also is another favorite of mine, though I didn’t see as much of him as I did Holmes and Chan.

But I discovered something recently that I had no clue about.

Back about the same time Chan was doing his detecting and Mr. Moto was out there breaking up criminal rings, there was another sleuth from the Orient cracking cases.

His name was James Lee Wong, a character that appeared in a series of stories in Collier’s magazine. (Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of Collier’s; it went out of business in 1957.)

Here’s the kicker: Boris Karloff played the title role!

Yes, the same guy who scared us silly playing Frankenstein’s monster and the Mummy, in addition to a very dark role in a movie called The Body Snatcher in which he brings cadavers in the dead of night (pun intended) to a doctor and his student for research, that guy plays a wise Chinese detective!

You might logically point out here that Karloff wasn’t Asian (he was from England), but not being inscrutably Asian didn’t keep Warner Oland and Sidney Toler from playing the Chinese detective Chan or Lorre from portraying a Japanese secret agent either.

Makeup artists slicked down Karloff’s hair so much it appears to be painted on his head, gave him a moustache, and had him put glasses to disguise his eyes in several scenes. A little bowing and a stilted accent and voila! You have a Chinese detective!

Karloff made five of the six James Lee Wong films. Keye Luke, who appeared as Charlie Chan’s No. 1 son, got the role for the sixth.

The films have all the stereotypical characters, like the homicide detective (played by Grant Withers in the ones I have seen) who is constantly harassed by a female reporter for story tips. I particularly like the one in which she implores him for a lead because she needs something for the “afternoon edition.” The afternoon what?

Despite their outward bickering, she, of course, is the detective’s love interest.

The detective’s sidekick is the usual bumbler and adds a bit of levity to the proceedings. Murder is always funnier with a bumbling detective around. In the Chan films, Charlie always had his son, and sometimes his daughter, around, and they were accompanied by a stereotypical black bungler played by Mantan Moreland; there was no political correctness back then. Mr. Moto, far as I can tell, was pretty much a loner.

The technical quality of all these films often leave something to be desired in these days of digital preciseness, but that just adds to the enjoyment. To save money, the producers often would take a scene from one film and work it into another if the situation fit.

I didn’t realize it at the time, because it was the first one I had watched, but apparently in one of the Wong movies a meeting between him and family leaders in Chinatown is taken from an earlier Wong film with the hilarious result that one of the speakers suddenly changes costume when the camera angle switches. I guess they were operating on the theory that all Chinamen pretty much look alike. (No offense intended there; it was pretty much a common opinion of the day. Where do you think stereotypes come from?)

I won’t get into any more of Mr. Wong except to say that the movies do have another virtue, and that is they are relatively short. Just over an hour or so from crime to detection and arrest (often on pretty flimsy evidence, it seems to me).

So if you’ve got some spare time, and Netflix, subscription, you might check it out. Several are available in the “watch instantly” queue.

No comments:

Post a Comment