Cyrus B. Wentworth (Melvin Lang) is the owner of the Wentworth Steamship Company. One of his ships, “The Wentworth Castle” caught fire and sank. Four hundred people lost their lives. Although he wasn’t found at fault, the tragedy affects Cyrus deeply. In addition to the loss of the ship and passengers was the cargo. The deal Wentworth made to transport the cargo wasn’t totally on the up and up.
Cyrus finishes up discussing some issues with his attorney Victor Martin (Henry Brandon). Next wanting to see him is Paul Fleming (Guy Usher). He operates a rival shipping company. Fleming is there to offer his condolences and his help. Cyrus is not receptive to Fleming’s overture and thinks there is an ulterior motive. Fleming’s son Dick (William Stelling) and Cyrus’ daughter Cynthia (Catherine Craig) are in love and want to marry. Cyrus is firmly against it. The visit ends in an argument.
Next up is young Dick Fleming. He is there to tell Cyrus that despite his wishes he and Cynthia will be getting married anyway. Cyrus blows a gasket. While they are arguing in Cyrus’ office, Dick’s father begins a conversation with Cyrus’ accountant Matthews (Wilbur Mack) out in the waiting room.
Suddenly a gunshot is heard in the next room. Fleming and Matthews rush into Cyrus’ office to find him dead on the floor. A gun near him and young Dick Fleming is missing. Cynthia is friends with reporter Bobby Logan (Marjorie Reynolds). When Dick is suspected of killing Cyrus, Cynthia asks Bobby for help. Bobby calls private detective Mr. Wong (Boris Karloff). Wong learns that one of the passengers on the Wentworth Castle was on a mission for a Chinese tong. He was smuggling tong money into the US. Now he’s gone and the money is gone. In addition to the missing money is a slimy blackmailer, a sneaky chauffer and an attempt on Wong’s life.
“Doomed to Die” was released in 1940 and was directed by William Nigh. It was the fifth of six Mr. Wong films. It was also the fifth and last Mr. Wong film directed by Nigh and starring Boris Karloff. It is also the last of the six and the third to feature Marjorie Reynolds as reporter Bobbie Logan.
All of these murder mystery stories in the Mr. Wong series are basic who-done-it stories, and for the most part, have either been recycled or will be recycled. Still they are enjoyable light fare that shows us a snapshot of quasi-noir cinema.
Karloff as an Oriental may be a stretch for some, off putting for others and downright insulting to many. Be that as it may films of the thirties and forties are what they are. What that is may be interpretive. Whether prejudice or ignorance the casting of whites as Asians goes back centuries. Known as yellowface, the first known appearance of a non-Asian playing an Asian was in 1767 in a play by Voltaire called “An Orphan in China”. One of the first known occurrences in film was D.W. Griffith’s 1910 short “The Chink at Golden Gulch”. Many of Griffith’s films were considered racist and debate still rages on if Griffith himself were a racist or just bringing attention to the issue. I don’t know how altruistic he was but Griffith was the son of a confederate colonel in the civil war who regaled his son with war stories. Griffith created such controversial films as “Birth of a Nation” 1915 and “Intolerance” 1916.
American films continued to use white people in Asian roles and many well known actors besides Karloff donned the make-up and stereotypic mannerisms of how white people though Asians acted. Among them was almost everyone who played Charlie Chan, Peter Lorre, Katherine Hepburn, Mary Pickford, Lon Chaney Sr., Bela Lugosi, Rex Harrison, Fred Astaire, John Wayne, Marlon Brando, Mickey Rooney, Christopher Lee, Alec Guinness, Leonard Nimoy, Peter Weller, Peter Sellers and of course Kung Fu’s David Carradine.
The stock footage used for the burning Wentworth Castle is actual footage of the liner SS Morro Castle. The Morro Castle caught fire on in 1934 during a trip from Havana to New York.