Movie Review: Phantom of Chinatown (1940)
“Phantom of Chinatown,” a wholly unremarkable film, is remarkable for casting a Chinese-American actor, Seattle's own Keye Luke, as its Chinese-American detective. At the time, that may have been unprecedented.
Most such roles, of course, went to white actors who put on yellowface: Warner Oland for 16 “Charlie Chan” movies, Sidney Toler for 22 more, and Roland Winters for six more after that. Peter Lorre starred in eight “Mr. Moto” movies in the late 1930s while Boris Karloff played U.S. Treasury detective James Lee Wong for five movies during the same time. Prestige pictures engaged in this practice as well: Paul Muni and Luise Rainier in “The Good Earth,” Katherine Hepburn in “Dragon Seed,” Marlon Brando in “Teahouse of the August Moon,” and up to the present day—if you want to call “Aloha” or “Dr. Strange” prestige pictures.
“Phantom” is another James Lee Wong flick—the last one. Apparently Karloff’s contract was up and apparently someone at “poverty row” Monogram Pictures decided to save on makeup by hiring Luke, who had already appeared as Charlie Chan’s No. 1 son, Lee Chan, in maybe a dozen Charlie Chan movies, as well as originating Kato in the “Green Hornet” movie serial that same year. Since he’s younger than Karloff, and since we see him introduced to Capt. Street, his nominal partner in the other movies, this one is essentially a prequel.
George Washington was disinterred here
Luke isn’t just the lead in the movie but the lead detective in a murder case—despite not being a detective himself and spending most of his screen time with a real detective, Capt. Street (Grant Withers), who, despite the title, is almost comic relief here. He grouses his way through the entire movie and seems to have zero ideas how to solve the crime. I enjoyed him immensely.
The movie opens, inauspiciously, with a lecture. Dr. John Benton, an archeologist, has recently returned from the Gobi Desert in southern Mongolia, where he and his team uncovered the tomb of ... wait for it ... a Ming Dynasty Emperor! What was the tomb of an emperor of the Ming Dynasty, which was based in Beijing and Nanjing, doing in Mongolia? Yeah.
Dr. Benton quickly introduces us to several of our supporting players and future suspects:
- his pretty daughter, Louise Benton (Virginia Carpenter), who winds up mattering not at all
- her fiancee, the handsome pilot, Tommy Dean (Robert Kellard), who ... ditto
- Benton's camerman, Charles Frasier (John Dilson)
- his secretary, Win Len (Lotus Long, alliteratively ready to be Superman’s girlfriend)
In the excavation, Dr. Benton found a scroll in the tomb but hid it in his jacket. Did he also unearth a curse? Fierce winds came up, and one of his party, the co-pilot, Mason (John Holland), went missing and was presumed dead.
At this point in the lecture, to quote a little e.e. cummings, “He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water.” Then, extending beyond cummings, he clutched his throat and died.
That’s when Jimmy Wong shows up, along with Capt. Street, forever griping. A day later, Jimmy figures out the water was poisoned, and there may be clues on the film Frasier was showing. Frasier is attacked in his home; Win Len, tied up in the closet, seems to be playing her own game, and the bad guys, rather than making a clean getaway, keep lurking in the shadows.
There’s not much of a phantom—not even the “Scooby Doo” kind. The title character is Mason, who never died, despite the best efforts of the two-timing Frasier, and who’s holed up in Chinatown until he gets his revenge and the scroll. As for the scroll’s secret? Coordinates to “an eternal flame,” which Wong realizes means a giant oil deposit. As for Win Len's secret? She’s working for the Chinese government to make sure the scroll, and the oil, remain China’s. As to which Chinese government she’s working for—Mao’s or Chiang’s—that goes unasked.
But she gets it. In the end, Wong delivers the ancient scroll to Win Len. “This is part of China,” he says. “I think we can trust you to see that it remains so.”
Most of the movie is a big nothing, but one scene is so ahead of its time it makes the movie worth writing about. Halfway through, Wong and Street show up at the Benton house, where they are greeted by the snooty French butler, Jonas (Willy Castello), and a few workers moving a coffin.
Street: What's all this?
Jonas: The sarcophagus from the Chinese tomb, sir, that once contained the body of a Ming emperor.
Wong: They tell me a Chinese archaeological expedition is digging up the body of George Washington in exchange.
Jonas (affronted): Sir?
Wong (offhand): Well, it gives you a rough idea. Is Win Len home?
Luke’s line reading on “rough idea” is perfect. Makes you wonder what might’ve been in a more enlightened movie industry.
China about to get its oil back. Its Ming emperor? Probably not.
Little mentioned but maybe long remembered?
How did Monogram get enlightened enough in 1940 to cast a Chinese-American in a Chinese-American role? Who knows? Maybe if you were a “poverty row” studio, you were allowed a more enlightened racial viewpoint than the majors. What did you have to lose? Cf., Philip Ahn, “Great Guy,” Grand National. Others?
A film noir website does say that the Wong series—based on 20 short stories by Hugh Wiley that appeared in Colliers magazine between 1934 and 1940—ended with this one because of Luke: “Rather depressingly, the substitution of Luke for Karloff persuaded many cinema managers, especially in the South, to ditch the series.” Their source on this? Unmentioned.
The unprecedented casting and breakthrough role goes unmentioned in Keye Luke’s New York Times obit as well. In an interview Luke did with Heidi Chang as part of a Seattle Chinese oral history project just before his death, he's asked about high points in his early career and mentions “Oil for the Lamps of China,” a 1935 Warner Bros. picture starring Pat O’Brien, in which he plays a Chinese communist officer who helps drive Standard Oil out of China. He also mentions playing the patriach in “Flower Drum Song” for three years on Broadway in 1950s. Of “Phantom”? 没有了. Gone like a ghost.