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I thought I'd kick the new year off with another movie marathon. I thought it was time to check out a few old school mystery flicks. Som...

Monday, May 8, 2023

Phantom of Chinatown (1940)

Dr. Benton has just returned from an expedition to the interior of China bringing with him a sacred scroll as well as the sarcophagus of a lost emperor. When the movie opens, we see him giving a talk to his colleagues while showing footage of the trip. There is a brief flashback of them smashing their way into the tomb before it returns to the present. He takes a drink from a pitcher of water and then collapses, though not before he mentions the curse! Well, that isn’t good.

James Wong, now played by Keye Luke, is late to the talk but arrives in time to see them carrying out Benton. He is friends with Benton’s daughter, Louise, and involves himself. We also see Captain Street show up to investigate the murder. Seems Benton was poisoned so it was murder. Though the pair don’t know each other, despite being friends in the previous five entries. Yes ladies and gentlemen this is the first known instance in Hollywood of a prequel! This is their first case together, which makes sense with the much younger Luke playing the character now. The pair work together collecting clues and fighting the bad guys before the killer is revealed and arrested.

This is a much better movie then the last two featuring Karloff in the role of Mr. Wong. The pacing is solid with the body hitting the floor in within the first ten minutes. From that point forward suspects are introduced and eliminated rapidly until the mystery is unraveled before our eyes. Though I will admit that this plays more like an two-fisted gumshoe movie then it does a cerebral mystery flick. Luke’s Mr. Wong is far more active throwing down in a fistfight as well as running around collecting the evidence. This makes for a much different movie, but one that I still enjoyed. I was very bummed to have watched this knowing that they didn’t continue the series with Luke. Based on Phantom of Chinatown I think it could have been pretty cool.

It is nice to be able to review and enjoy one of these movies without having to deal with the uncomfortable conversation involving yellowface (white actors playing Asian characters). Luke is excellent in the role and while he plays it differently is every bit as talented as the great Boris Karloff. Hell, if you look at the length of Luke’s career and some of the memorable roles he played it this shouldn’t be a surprise. His version of Wong isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty socking the bad guys in the jaw. He even gets a love interest! The movie is better when he is on screen.

Sadly, the powers that be didn’t think that an Asian actor could carry a movie and killed this series. Adding to the cancellation was the fact that by the time this one was made Monogram (the studio behind the Wong movies) had acquired the rights to the Charlie Chan series. Ironically, Luke would appear in a couple of those movies almost a decade later as Lee Chan, one of Charlie’s sons. We missed out on something cool.

I’ve watched all the other Mr. Wong movies before, but this was a first time watch for me. Not sure if it was because Karloff wasn’t involved or if I just never got around to it. Regardless don’t make the same mistake I did. This is well worth a look. I enjoyed the heck out of Phantom of Chinatown and highly recommend it.


© Copyright 2023 John Shatzer

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