Directed by Phil Rosen; produced by Paul Malvern
An archaeological expedition to Mongolia brings back information pertaining to the fabled Eternal Fire, information to which the head of the expedition alludes during a lecture. He doesn’t tell much, however, as he dies during his talk - poisoned, as it is discovered. The death piques the interest of criminologist James Lee Wong (Keye Luke), who, aided by Captain Street (Grant Withers) of the San Francisco Police, hunts the killer, dodging knives, red herrings and suspicious dames along the way.
The last of the Wong series of low-budget mystery movies, The Phantom of Chinatown was the only one to feature Luke in the lead role, the others having starred Boris Karloff. Luke was younger than Karloff, which may have been the reason this entry in the series was a ‘prequel’: Wong meets his police partner, Street, for the first time, while they are already acquainted in the earlier films. Luke does very well here, showing that he was lead actor material, though I don’t believe he filled that role in any other movie. The other actors are capable, but don’t rise above the level required for such a film.
The story is simple, and simplistic. A chase after a hidden scroll, a couple of murders, the motive of one not really explained, tepid romance: none of this is very interesting, and expert knowledge in, well, anything, is lacking. Proper police procedure is of course ignored and the behaviour of the archaeologists would leave real scientists gasping in horror: when the lost tomb of a Chinese emperor is discovered, the team rush in, pulling away debris, prying open coffins and picking up artefacts without the slightest attempt to document anything. A film-maker is present, recording events on his movie-camera, but how he manages it in a cave-like mausoleum without lights is beyond me.
The script is a bit better than the over-all story. The characters of Luke and Withers are the most interesting but even the former is not well defined. We gather that Wong is educated; he is certainly intelligent and well-mannered, suave and affluent. But holes in his past and personality may have been due to the nature of the movie-series of those days. They were the equivalent of television series of decades later, and could not be expected to describe even the main character in every entry. The series would have benefitted from more episodes with Luke.
The treatment of Chinese and Chinese-Americans is almost completely modern. No one treats Wong as an inferior and, if his cook (Lee Tung Foo) is a comic foil, he is no more so than a thousand Caucasian characters in films of the time - and more capable than the idiotic police detective he captures. In a brawl, Wong uses traditional Chinese fighting methods, but is not invincible. The worst stereotype is a flowery use of (possibly pseudo-) Oriental phrases, over which even Wong smiles. There is even an acknowledgement of the Chinese point of view when, in referring to the archaeological journey, Wong mentions a ‘Chinese expedition to uncover the tomb of George Washington’; when this tongue-in-cheek statement is questioned, Wong mutters, “Well, you get the idea,” a jab that the police captain finds amusing.
Unfortunately, bright spots such as Luke, his character and the interplay with Street, are not nearly enough to float a movie with a routine plot, a merely adequate script, low-level acting and an almost child-like knowledge of its subject. The Phantom of Chinatown is for only the most undiscriminating of viewers. (And there’s no reference to or implication of a phantom; the film takes place only now and then in Chinatown…)