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In the Great Gobi Desert, a Mongolian named Ning attempts to murder a man in his sleep who recently joined his camel caravan, but the man instead kills Ning. At Peiping, when an ancient scroll is found by police hidden in the man's staff, he escapes to the Grand Hotel where he changes clothes and reveals himself to be Mr. Moto, known as a mysterious adventurer, explorer and soldier of fortune. Moto attends a party given by Colonel Tchernov in honor of Eleanor Joyce, the daughter of a famous importer. After Prince Chung refuses to sell Colonel Tchernov a set of scroll paintings from the Yu'an Dynasty, Tchernov pulls a gun on him. Eleanor sees the prince angrily leave with his mother, Madame Chung, and then finds Tchernov dead. When Moto arranges the death to look like a suicide, Eleanor objects but he warns her that the incident could provoke an international incident. At Chung's home, the prince thanks Moto for saving his life, as Tchernov was about to shoot the prince, when Moto entered and then killed Tchernov with a knife. In gratitude, the prince shows Moto the scrolls, which one of his ancestors painted. If placed in the proper order, the seven original scrolls, five of which the prince has, reveal a map to a great treasure in the hidden tomb of Ghengis Khan. The prince says that a sixth scroll is hidden in the Gobi desert, while the last has recently disappeared from a museum where the Chungs lent it for exhibition. After Moto reveals that he was sent to recover the treasure, Madame Chung rebukes her son for showing the scrolls and explains that it is their duty to see that the tomb is not despoiled. When Moto accuses an antique dealer, Pieriera, of stealing the scroll from the museum, Pieriera is about to name the man who paid him when he is shot from a passing car. In Moto's hotel room, he finds his belongings rifled, and when he perceives that the would-be thief is hiding, he places a gun loaded with blanks on a counter for the thief to find. He then takes out his scroll, which the thief, Schneider, steals after shooting Moto with the gun. Moto pretends to die, but then follows Schneider to the Tchernov home, where Eleanor, who is suspicious of Moto, is staying. Eleanor observes Madame Tchernov remove a scroll from her safe and leave with Schneider after speaking on the telephone with someone she calls "darling." Moto then reveals to Eleanor that he is really a detective for an importers' association. He traces the call to the Chung house and prepares to go there, but he is knocked out by the Tchernov butler Ivan. Schneider and his cohort, Eric Koerger, try to torture the prince, who refuses to reveal the hiding place of the scrolls. However, when they strike Madame Chung, the prince succumbs and the scrolls are found. Ashamed of her son, Madame Chung tries to attack the thieves with a dagger, but Koerger shoots and kills her. The thieves, having now obtained all seven scrolls, leave and take Eleanor hostage before Moto arrives with Tom Nelson, a member of the American Legation who has been courting Eleanor. After the prince, believing that he has shamed his ancestors, commits hara-kiri, Moto pledges that no one shall desecrate the tomb. He and Tom follow the thieves to a river where aboard a junk, Moto reveals that the scroll stolen from his room is an imitation. With Eleanor's help, he convinces Madame Tchernov that Koerger planned to get rid of her in favor of Eleanor. A fight breaks out during which Schneider and Koerger are killed. Moto then burns the scrolls thus keeping his promise to Prince Chung, whom, he says, can now face his ancestors without shame.
William Von Brincken
L. B. Abbott
Joseph E. Aiken
William H. Anderson
Harry R. Jones
E. J. La Valla
W. E. Meinardus
Sol M. Wurtzel
Thank You, Mr. Moto
With the death of Earl Derr Biggers, author of the Charlie Chan stories, Twentieth Century-Fox also felt it should expand its inventory of what were then referred to as "Oriental Sleuths" and purchased the Marquand stories in 1937. The screen version of Mr. Moto was initially envisioned as a one-off A-list project, but when more established producers passed, it was given to the "sausage factory" of executive producer Sol M. Wurtzel, with the thought that it might be serialized.
Fox was having trouble casting Peter Lorre at the time, and his small stature and reserve were considered a good match for the Moto character. Actor-turned writer/director Norman Foster, eager to step up the studio ladder, was offered the chance to direct. Foster was a world traveler and ex-husband of Claudette Colbert. He objected to Wurtzel's preference for Lorre in the role, hoping to go against the tradition of the time and cast an Asian actor. Instead, he was overruled and had to rewrite most of the inferior scripts, in most cases reworking the original stories into unrecognizable adaptations, which nonetheless played well onscreen.
Lorre was born László Löwenstein in what was then Austria-Hungary. He spent time on the stage in Europe and made several films in Germany, including the career-making M (1931), fleeing the country when Hitler took power in 1933. By all accounts, morphine addiction was a big part of Lorre's life during the Moto years. What began as pain relief for a gallbladder condition became a habit that had him in a number of sanitariums, and it was during one of these visits that he was approached for the Moto role. Both his health and his career were on the decline and so he accepted.
As did most white actors playing Asians in that era, Lorre donned some "yellow-face" for the role. His face and hair were slightly darkened and he reportedly wore a mouthpiece for some close-ups though other accounts state that the teeth were his own. With eyeliner and steel-rimmed glasses, the Mr. Moto look was complete. Lorre resisted the heavy makeup and putty common at the time, preferring to create the role of Moto internally. In Stephen D. Youngkin's biography The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre, Lorre explains:
"Mr. Moto is a Japanese, a clever, swift-thinking rather suave person. Well, then, I become that person and what I do is right. I do not need to study a real Japanese man to know what to do. That is wrong. There is a typed idea of each nationality and actors think they must imitate that idea, as if Japanese or Chinese men were not as varied as we are ourselves!....Each man moves according to what he is. When you have imagined what he is, you must move as he does."
Moto was also supposed to be a deadly martial arts expert and invincible in combat. At the time, due to his health problems, Lorre had trouble climbing stairs, let alone defeating international villainy, so he was paired with the perfect stunt double Harvey Parry, a living legend known as "Dean of the Hollywood Stuntmen." Together they imbued Moto with enough deadly agility to put a serious dent in international intrigue.
Thank You, Mr. Moto (1937), the second film in the series, is considered one of the best. In the books, Moto is not known as a detective, but that is one of the personas he picks up in the films, along with that of importer and international policeman. In Thank You, Mr. Moto, no one knows who exactly Moto works for, but his connections always get him what he needs, enabling him to be everywhere at once. The film is violent and fast-paced, with Mr. Moto's motives in question for the first third. As he kills and buries an assailant in the opening of the film and racks up another homicide shortly thereafter, it's unclear whose side this man is on. By the film's climax, when the body count really soars, we're secure in knowing that Moto is essentially working on the side of good. In subsequent Moto movies, hoping to make the protagonist more mainstream, the casualty count drops considerably. At the end of Thank You, Mr. Moto, our unconventional hero preserves cultural integrity by forever erasing the path to Genghis Khan's treasure, destroying the priceless map scrolls that the villains sought.
Foster, who wrote and directed six of the eight Moto movies and several of the Charlie Chan films, said that he worked hard to distinguish Moto from Chan. Certainly Moto is more proactive and violent than Chan, preferring to attack, rather than systematically plod his way to the story's solution. He also tried to boost the production values and populate the Moto films with new faces and high quality character actors. John Carradine appears in several of the films, including Thank You, Mr. Moto, as the antiques dealer, as does Sig Ruman (Colonel Chernov), among others.
Opinion varies on whether or not Lorre's drug problems affected the quality of his Moto performances. Though Foster says that the number of retakes needed to get Lorre to do anything dexterous was so excessive he gave up on it, Leon Ames, who joined Lorre in several Moto movies, found him unfailingly precise in the non-physical aspects of the role: "He was sharp. That man never missed a word or a line in his performance, ever. He was like a computer." Lorre's moods at the time, however, were rumored to be erratic and unpredictable. In The Lost One, Robert Anthony Foster, the director's son, recounts an incident in which Lorre, depressed and sequestered in his trailer, listening with obsessive horror to Hitler's speeches, bellowed, when called back on set, "The whole world is falling apart and you want me to make a picture!"
By 1937, the Moto series had to contend with the wave of anti-Japanese feeling that was spreading over the country after Japan's brutal invasion of China that year. Yet the series persisted in its essentially positive representation of its main character. More refined and educated than most of the Anglo characters he encounters, Moto uses the condescension of foreigners to his own aims, relishing the patronization that will prove their undoing.
Two years and eight Moto films later, Lorre wanted out of the role. He had initially been looking for escape from the villainous persona of his early career and instead found himself trapped in a new one. Though the Moto films were popular, they didn't take themselves seriously and neither did critics. Freed up for other work, Lorre went on to a long, if varied career, with two of his most memorable films - The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942) - being made after the Moto series.
Producer: Sol M. Wurtzel
Director: Norman Foster
Screenplay: Willis Cooper, Norman Foster; John P. Marquand (story)
Cinematography: Virgil Miller
Art Direction: Bernard Herzbrun, Albert Hogsett
Music: Samuel Kaylin
Film Editing: Nick DeMaggio, Irene Morra
Cast: Peter Lorre (Mr. Kentaro Moto), Thomas Beck (Tom Nelson), Pauline Frederick (Madame Chung), Jayne Regan (Eleanor Joyce), Sidney Blackmer (Herr Koerger), Sig Ruman (Colonel Tchernov), John Carradine (Periera), Wilhelm Von Brincken (Schneider)
by Emily Soares
Thank You, Mr. Moto
Please don't be alarmed. I am only attempting to break into the safe.- Mr. Moto
The novel originally appeared as a serial in The Saturday Evening Post (8 February-14 March 1936). This was the second film in the "Mr. Moto" series. For information about the series, please see the entry below for Think Fast, Mr. Moto and consult the Series Index.