Monday, May 06, 2013

Dead Languages

The Mysterious Mr. Wong (1935)
directed by William Nigh
rating: 1 out of 5 cravats
watched on Netflix Instant

I am not a very adventurous movie watcher. I almost never pick a title at random, and I rely on someone's recommendation somewhere–be it friend, critic, or random blog comment–before I strike. There are so many movies I haven't seen that I prefer a little guidance. But it's good to be reminded, from time to time, that some movies are terrible. Not overambitious, or pretentious, or condescending, but lazy and unremarkable.

I don't know that I've ever encountered a less likable protagonist than Wallace Ford's Jay Barton. Ostensibly an insistent, wise-cracking reporter, he is flagrantly racist, tacky, and mean to waitresses. Ford's "zany" facial expressions anticipated my every eye roll (he had a past in vaudeville). Whether ashing his cigar into the mortar and pestle on the counter of a Chinatown pharmacy or stealing a plate of food intended for another customer while lobbing insults at his own date, he really is something special.

The love interest is as much of a bigot as her beau, and of course they find a way to bail on dinner at a Chinese restaurant without paying for it. Between Peg, Barton, and Officer 'Mac' McGillicuddy (assigned to the Chinatown beat), it's a wonder that there's any time left between slurs for a plot. There is, but it's thin, and that's fine. The Hungarian criminal mastermind in search of the "twelve coins of Confucius" cons them all into a basement for torture eventually, and there's always fun to be found in old Hollywood dungeons.

Monogram Pictures–"that bottom of the barrel movie mill," per IMDb–has a pretty good production logo (a kind of soaring future monorail set), but this movie's contributions to history end there. I do like an effective cheap special effect, and "light coming up through a bowl of dry ice" is a fine stand-in for a shadow-casting cauldron of fire. But that really is it. Part of me can't even believe I watched it all.