Lies, deceit, racism, greed, and moral turpitude. No, I’m not talking about the White House.
I’m referring to an unusual sub-genre of film that I find quite interesting — 1930s mystery movies that feature oriental themes and Asian characters.
By far the most well-known is the series of Charlie Chan movies starring Warner Oland (16 films from 1931 to 1937), Sidney Toler (22 films from 1938 to 1947), and Roland Winters (6 films from 1948 to 1949). Here’s my list of 10 such films that I’d take on a long ocean cruise.
1. Charlie Chan in Shanghai (1935) – This is the ninth Warner Oland film. I think Oland was the best Chan portrayer, but the scripts and production values of the first 11 Toler films are better. In this movie, Chan travels from his home in Hawaii to Shanghai with Number One Son, Lee. They expose a gang of smugglers.
2. Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (1939) – Sidney Toler plays Chan who travels to San Francisco. Chan goes to the Golden Gate International Exposition at Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay (which was actually going on from 1939-1940). Chan exposes a mystic who is blackmailing his clients.
3. Think Fast, Mr. Moto (1937) – The first of eight Mr. Moto films starring Peter Lorre. Mr. Moto is a Japanese agent, knows judo, has a gun and isn’t shy about using it. Here he ends up in Shanghai where he unmasks a smuggling operation.
4. Mr. Wong in Chinatown (1939) – This is the third of five films starring Boris Karloff as Mr. Wong, from 1938 to 1940. Wong is a Harvard-educated agent of the U.S. Treasury Department. A beautiful Chinese woman is murdered by poison dart in Wong’s San Francisco home, but she is able to leave a note that says just “Captain J”.
5. Drums of Fu Manchu (1939) – This was a 15-part serial, later put together into a movie. Fu Manchu is an evil mastermind. There are many different versions of Fu Manchu in film, novels, and TV. In this movie, Fu Manchu seeks the Scepter of Genghis Khan which will give him control of all of Asia. The hero, Sir Denis Nayland Smith, and his partner Dr. Petrie, foil the plan.
6. The Green Hornet (1939) – This was a serial that was later re-edited into a movie. Newspaper publisher Britt Reid and his Korean (not Japanese because WW II was looming) valet Kato defeat several plots by The Chief. Kato is played by Keye Luke, who was a great actor for decades.
7. Daughter of Shanghai (1937) – Anna May Wong (if you don’t know about her, look her up on Wikipedia — incredibly interesting personality) plays Chinese agent Lan Ying Lin. She stops human smuggling in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Her partner is Ki Lee, played by actor Philip Ahn (who appeared in many films from 1934-1977).
8. Thirteen Women (1932) – Very strange but interesting movie. Evil, Eurasian, Ursala Georgi kills off her former sorority sisters one by one. Ursala is played by Myrna Loy, who later became famous playing Nora Charles in The Thin Man series.
9. Robinson Crusoe of Mystery Island (1936) – Not too good, but somewhat interesting. Nothing to do with Robinson Crusoe. Another serial re-edited into a movie. U.S. agent Mala, played by actor Ray Mala, travels to a remote island where sabotage of a strategic air base is taking place by a ring of foreign spies.
10. The Shanghai Chest (1948) – This last movie on my list is a cheat because it wasn’t made in the 1930s. I include it because it’s one of the Charlie Chan series. Here Chan is played by Roland Winters. This is the third of his six films. Chan and Number Two Son Tommy help the San Francisco police unravel the murder of a judge. Did the nephew do it?.
11. The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) – This is a crazy movie. Fu Manchu is played by Boris Karloff. His evil daughter, Fah Lo See, is played by Myrna Loy.
12. Daughter of the Dragon (1931) -Warner Oland plays Fu Manchu and Anna May Wong plays his daughter Princess Ling Moy.