I gotta admit, I love Mr. Moto.
It's a guilty pleasure. I don't really care that it's politically incorrect having a German actor play a Japanese spy. Or that they are cheesy b-movies.
I haven't read the books. They're not in print. From what I hear, I would probably like the character of Moto even more than I do in the movies. In the books, I'm told, he is my favorite type of character -- not the protagonist, but an "impact character" of the paragon type, who lurks in the background and saves the day.
But I gotta tell you, I love Peter Lorre, too. Always have. And the character of Mr. Moto, as presented, meshes completely with the Lorre persona. A small, diffident, polite character who is a lot more dangerous than people think he is.
The fun of this series is that, unlike the other Asian detectives of the time, Mr. Moto is an action hero. Which not only goes against the stereotypes of the time, it also goes against the stereotype of Peter Lorre. He's a secret agent and international law enforcement agent, who goes undercover, and fights badguys and has chase scenes.
But mostly he's just smarter than everyone in the room, and a bit of a show off, though he pretends modesty. (Which, of course, does fit the stereotype.)
He's also a master of disguise, and one of my favorite bits, of course, is when he disguises himself as ... an odd little German gentleman! Which he has done in at least two of the pictures.
This is in contrast to, say, Mr. Wong -- who is played by Boris Karloff. Just as Lorre plays Moto as a variation of his own persona (small, watchful, sometimes disguised as simpering or sniveling or sneaky -- with broken English), Karloff plays Wong as one of his own personas (large, patrician, well-educated, no accent at all). I don't recall Mr. Wong ever going in disguise -- he's a thinker. He's someone who directs a case, and questions suspects, and looks at evidence. If there is an adventure component to any Mr. Wong mysteries, the action is provided by others.
The Mr. Moto movies themselves are not quite B-movies. Yes, they are well produced with a decent cast, but the plots are just excuses to throw in whatever spy/thriller tropes they have lying around. The humor depends on whichever character actor they have on cast as sidekick at the moment. (Often it's a silly English sidekick, but sometimes it'll be a cringe-worthy negro servant. These are not politically correct movies.) Mr. Wong seems to be a little more down-scale, with actors you've never heard of to go with the formula scripts, and the cheapest sets.
What do I learn, as a writer and a student of story, from Mr. Moto and Mr. Wong?
(After all, if a guilty pleasure is still a pleasure, then something MUST make them that way.)
Been thinking about that, and I'm still not sure, but here's what I've got so far:
B-movies are a kind of folklore -- they follow patterns and tropes the way fairytales and myths do. And they do it so broadly that you can often see the wheels cranking. Also with a dated b-movie, it's easier to tell the real tropes from the fashions of the time it was made. Here are some tropes:
1.) We love to see underdogs who are not really underdogs at all. When Moto fools somebody because of their prejudices, that is satisfying now, and was even more satisfying back in the day.
2.) A good actor, used well, shines above the material. In particular both Lorre and Karloff bring a presence to the character that isn't fully in the script. With Lorre it's an edge -- that touch of controlled hostility that is in his other roles. With Karloff it's a sense of benevolent power that justifies the utter confidence people put in him.
Writers should study such acting to understand characterization, and the subtleties involved in creating a rich character even in pulpy material.
3.) You don't have to have one of those oh-so-hip stories full of irony and "meta" references to have a little fun with irony. Just a tiny bit of it can pick up a shallow little story. (A little German actor, pretending to be a Japanese spy pretending to be a little German professor? Priceless.)
4.) As with children's fiction, sometimes the real fun is in taking silly things seriously. And that may mean not just suspending your disbelief, but sending it on a rocket to the moon.
The value in that last bit can't be overstated: a writer has to capture the courage of childhood, that ability to go with the outrageous and the silly, and the irrational, in order to discover new things. That's a part of what creativity is, to shake off the guilty part of the pleasure so you can find the pleasure.
Both Mr. Moto and Mr. Wong are available DVD, mostly in collections. IMHO, they aren't quite worth the investment of a whole set, but you should be able to rent them. I think one of the better Mr. Motos The Mysterious Mr. Moto. (Which is at Amazon in this collection.) Also Mr. Moto's Last Warning, which has George Sanders in it as one of the villains. (Any picture with George Sanders gets extra points.) That's in a different collection. You might find them on YouTube, because it might be in the public domain. (A lot of b-pictures of the period are.)
Some Mr. Wong flicks are available free on Hulu (like Mr. Wong, Detective), and also via Amazon Prime Instant Video. (NOTE: if you find a Mr. Wong movie staring Bela Lugosi, it's a different series -- Mr. Wong is the villain.)
See you in the funny papers.