James Lee Wong (Boris Karloff) is a Chinese private detective in San Francisco. His specialty is crimes that have to do with Chinatown and the waterfront. He is visited by Simon Dayton (John Hamilton), a local businessman. Dayton believes someone is out to kill him. He thinks he’s being followed. Lee makes an appointment to see him at ten o’clock the next morning in Dayton’s office.
The next day, at nine thirty, Dayton receives a note telling him he is in danger and to call the police. He calls Captain Sam Street (Grant Withers) of the San Francisco police department. Street arrives, sirens blaring. Dayton doesn’t answer his office door and it is locked. They break in to find Dayton dead on the floor. At that moment Wong arrives for his appointment. The coroner says it may be a heart attack but the autopsy says poison. The only thing in the office that is out of place is some small pieces of shattered glass. Wong has them analyzed and duplicated. The broken glass is from a round glass ball that had contained poison.
Dayton has two other partners Theodore Meisle (William Gould) and Christian Wilk (Hooper Atchley). Each one would benefit if Dayton dies. There also is Carl Roemer (John St. Polis). He invented the gas and was cheated out of the profits from his formula. There are other suspects. Olga AKA Countess Dubois (Evelyn Brent), Anton Mohl (Lucien Prival) and Mohl’s henchman Lescardi (Frank Bruno) are agents of a foreign government that want the formula for the gas. Then there is Mr. Russell (Wilbur Mack). He works for Dayton and has been slinking around a lot.
Captain Street accuses everybody of being the killer. Christian Wilk is the next to receive a letter warning him that his life is in danger. He locks himself in his library and calls the police. By the time they get there Wilk is dead inside his locked office alone and there are pieces of broken glass poison ball near him. Two down, one to go.
“Mr. Wong, Detective” was released in 1938 and was directed by William Nigh. It is a poverty row “B” film produced by Monogram Pictures. It is the first movie done based on the James Lee Wong detective stories in Collier Magazine written by Hugh Wiley. It is the first of five movies starring Boris Karloff as the Chinese detective and the first of six movies done based on the Wong character. The movies are believed to be Monogram’s answer to Twentieth Century Fox’s Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan. At least until Monogram picked up the Charlie Chan series from Fox in 1944.
Hugh Wiley’s James Lee Wong character is Yale educated, tall, smart and refined. All of that translates nicely to the screen. The one unusual aspect is that Wong, instead of being played by an Oriental is played by a British White guy. At the time it was par for the course. Only one Mr. Wong movie was played by an Oriental. In the last film, “Phantom of Chinatown (1940), Wong was played by Keye Luke.
Despite the political un-correctness of the day “Mr. Wong, Detective” is a fun movie to watch. Captain Sam Street is your basic bull in a china shop dumb cop to Wong’s polite, methodical intellectual. They play off each other well to Street’s chagrin and Wong’s amusement. Add to that Street’s love interest Myra, who is also more composed and logical than the detective, and you have a well written and well acted story. And a nice little mystery too.