Personal blog - and temporary home page until new website is finished - of writer, editor and graphic artist Christopher Mills

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Reboot of Mr. Wong

It's interesting that so many people - including myself, on occasion, complain so much about Hollywood's seeming obsession with sequels, remakes and "reboots." The thing is, none of this is new. As I like to point out, John Huston's classic The Maltese Falcon was a remake of a movie made ten years earlier. Reboots - as we call it when filmmakers take an established franchise character, and start over with a new actor, pretending that the previous film installments never occurred - like Batman Begins and Casino Royale, aren't exactly a new phenomenon, either.

Karloff as James Lee Wong
Over the two years of 1939 and 1940, Poverty Row film studio, Monogram Pictures, produced six movies about a Chinese detective living in San Francisco named James Lee Wong. These films were based on some magazine short stories by pulpster Hugh Wiley, and were intended as the low budget "answer" to Fox Studios' popular Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto film series. In the first five films, James Wong was portrayed by Caucasian screen bogeyman Boris Karloff, under some light makeup, as a sly, somewhat sedate, consulting criminologist. His police contact was Lieutenant Street of the SFPD, portrayed by burly character actor Grant Withers, and they were frequently aided/irritated by a pretty young reporter played by Marjorie Reynolds.

These first five entries - Mr. Wong, Detective, The Mystery Of Mr. Wong, Mr. Wong In Chinatown, The Fatal Hour and Doomed To Die - were decent enough B-mysteries, a little lethargically-paced, perhaps, but okay time-wasters. When Monogram began production on their sixth Mr. Wong mystery - Phantom Of Chinatown - Karloff was, for some reason, unavailable. But, instead of casting another Caucasian actor (like Roland Winters, for example), Monogram actually hired Keye Luke - probably best known as "Number One Son," Lee Chan, in the 20th Century Fox Charlie Chan films - to take over the role.

Keye Luke as Jimmy Wong
And, according to most sources, that bold casting choice made Phantom Of Chinatown the first American-made movie since the Silent Era to have an Asian actor in the lead role. Top-billed, no less.

Of course, Luke was in his early 30s at the time, and Karloff was in his 50s, so it seemed unreasonable to expect audiences to believe that Luke's Wong was the same Wong as Karloff's, so the characters call him "Jimmy" and Withers' Lieutenant Street acts as if he's meeting Mr. Wong for the first time. Now, for some reason unknown to me, Phantom was the last Mr. Wong film at Monogram (although the scripts would all be recycled when the studio got their hands on the Chan character a few years later), but it's pretty clear that they were setting things up to continue with Keye Luke in the lead.

Now, there were other film mystery series that replaced lead actors during the 30s-40s - Sidney Toler replaced Warner Oland as Chan at Fox, a couple of suave British actors took turns playing The Saint at RKO before and after George Sanders, Ralph Byrd took over for Morgan Conway as RKO's Dick Tracy after a couple of films, etc. - but there was generally no acknowledgement of the change, and, as far as I can recall, in no cases did they ever just act like they were starting over from the beginning!

Nowadays, "reboots" may be annoyingly trendy and way too common (a Spider-Man reboot? Already?) -- but the idea certainly isn't new.


BrittReid said...

Actually, Morgan Conway took over as Dick Tracy after the Republic serials starring Ralph Byrd, so Byrd returned to the role, much as Clayton Moore returned to The Lone Ranger after John Hart took over for awhile.

The only time the studios acknowledged a change in lead actors in an ongoing series was The Falcon, when George Saunder's character was killed and the character's brother (played by George Saunders' brother Tom Conway) became the new Falcon for the remainder of the series!

Christopher Mills said...

Well - not to be nit-picky, but as the serials were produced at Republic and the movies at RKO, they weren't really the "same" series.

And as for the Falcon, they were two different characters, after all - brothers. :)

BrittReid said...

Not to be nit-picky, but
1) Many (myself included) consider the Tracy film/serial studio change in the same vein as the Sherlock Holmes Fox/Universal crossover.
A number of b-movie characters switched studios. (Example: Tarzan went from MGM to RKO.)
And, any way you look at it, Byrd played Tracy on-screen first and then returned to the role.
2) since the Tom Conway films (both titles and character dialogue) referred to Conway's Tom Lawrence as "The Falcon" (not "Falcon's Brother" or "Falcon II") in nine films (except for "The Falcon's Brother" where he replaced George Saunders whose Gay Lawrence died) he was "The Falcon" to all concerned.

Christopher Mills said...

I still maintain that they're not the same Falcon. But, in any case, since one Falcon died and was replaced by another in the series continuity, it wasn't a "reboot," as I interpret the term.

Good point about series switching studios, but in the case of Dick Tracy, I personally still think of them as separate series.... after all, he was a G-man in the Republic chapterplays, while in the RKO B-movies, he was a city cop (like in the comic strips).


Anonymous said...

The two Fox Sherlock Holmes movies seemed to be set in the 1890's, while Universal's series was updated to the 1940's (he fought Nazi villains in several of them). And RKO's Dick Tracy series was closer to the comic strip than Republic's serials. Tracy was again a city cop (instead of an FBI agent) and RKO, unlike Republic, used other characters from the strip: Tess, Pat, Vitamin.