The Mysterious Mr. Wong,
directed by William Nigh
(Monogram, 1934)

Following the success of The Mask of Fu Manchu (starring Boris Karloff) in 1932, Monogram Studios sought to exploit MGM's success with their own Yellow Peril-inspired film. And so it was that a down-on-his-luck Bela Lugosi donned the Oriental dress and stereotypical Fu Manchu mustache of Mr. Wong, a megalomaniacal madman bent on seizing full control of the Chinese province of Keelat. All he needs is to get his hands on the 12 coins of Confucius, for legend decrees that the holder of all 12 coins (even if it's a Chinaman with a Hungarian accent) will be granted the power to seize and control Keelat.

The fact that Chinamen are dropping like flies on a daily basis is little more than an annoyance to the police, so the lion's share of the crime solving falls upon sharp-witted, fast-talking newspaper reporter Jason Barton (Wallace Ford), who manages to find and pursue a clue that leads him inexorably toward Wong and his power-hungry, murderous plans.

The real mystery here is how several of Confucius' coins ended up in the hands of relatively poor shop owners and laundrymen in China Town. Obviously, this wasn't the best plan for keeping the coins separate and hidden, for Mr. Wong finds them with little trouble and sends his henchmen out to forcibly retrieve them. Hidden away behind a secret identity and a network of secret passages, he appears to be safe from the likes of the local Irish cop and even Keelat's own secret service agents -- but not from a nosy reporter who isn't even intimidated by a verbally dazzling barrage of "maybes." (OK, you really have to see the movie to know what I'm talking about here -- sorry about that.)

Yes, this is a Monogram studio release, but don't let that scare you off. While Monogram's cache of low-budget B movies is hardly impressive as a whole, The Mysterious Mr. Wong is a very entertaining film (and far better than most of the later films Lugosi would make with this Poverty Row studio). While miscast, Lugosi turns in his usual great performance (in something of a dual role, no less), while Ford is nothing short of delightful as the eminently quotable and disarmingly persistent news hawk determined to get to the bottom of the story. Barton's knack for witty repartee is front and center throughout, and his girl Peg (Arline Judge) more than holds her own in the same regard when he gets her mixed up in his dangerous investigation, as well. The banter isn't on the level of His Girl Friday, but it's some really good stuff.

You certainly don't have to be a Bela Lugosi fan to enjoy The Mysterious Mr. Wong.

review by
Daniel Jolley

15 January 2011

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