By today’s standards, the “Mr. Moto” series that cast the Austrian Peter Lorre as the Japanese detective known as Mr. Moto violates several standards of political correctness. But in the 1930s Lorre’s portrayal of an Asian with an Austrian accent was not considered unusual. The “Mr. Moto” series proved to be successful enough for Twentieth Century Fox to produce eight films featuring the Asian detective between 1937 and 1939.
Inspired by the success of the studio’s films with the Chinese detective Charlie Chan (also using non-Asian actors), Twentieth Century Fox adapted the Moto mystery series from the novels of John P. Marquand. As with Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan film characterization, the movie Mr. Moto bears little resemblance to Marquand’s literary creation. In the novels, Mr. Moto speaks unaccented American English. The cinematic Kentaro Moto is more of a stereotypical Japanese with a definite accent that is more Austrian than Asian. Of course, even the literary Moto has a few flaws, including the fact that his last name, “Moto,” is not really a Japanese family name, but only part of a surname such as Yamamoto (mountain + origin) or Matsumoto (or a boy’s first name).
Directed by former actor Norman Foster (born Norman Hoeffer), the Mr. Moto series usually managed to rise above average, despite a relatively low B-picture budget. Foster originally wanted to use an Asian actor for the Japanese role, but Fox decided to cast Lorre as Moto, not the only time that Hollywood failed to fully utilize the Austrian actor’s true talents. Lorre was having both career and drug problems at the time, so he was in no position to bargain. When called for, stuntman Harvey Parry, a close match in appearance, filled in for Lorre in action scenes. But it was Lorre who made the Mr. Moto films successful, running from 1937 to 1939, when he moved to Warner Bros. and got some better parts in classics such as The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, and Arsenic and Old Lace.
See more about Lorre’s other films in our Filmography.
PETER LORRE’S MR. MOTO FILMS (1937-1939)
Norman Foster directed all but two of the eight Mr. Moto films. (He also directed three of the Charlie Chan films.) Mr. Moto’s Gamble was directed by James Tinling. The Danger Island film was directed by Herbert I. Leeds. All eight of the Mr. Moto films are available in two volumes on DVD. See below.
Think Fast, Mr. Moto (1937)
Lorre’s first appearance as Mr. Moto takes the Japanese detective to Honolulu and Shangahi to track down a band of smugglers. Thomas Beck and Virginia Field co-star.
Thank You, Mr. Moto (1937)
The second film in the series opens with Mr. Moto in the Gobi Desert traveling by caravan to Peking (Beijing). The plot revolves around some mysterious scrolls. Ward Bond, later of “Wagon Train” TV fame, plays a boxer. Thomas Beck and Pauline Frederick co-star.
Mr. Moto’s Gamble (1938)
Directed by James Tinling. The story concerns prize-fight fixing and gambling. Also stars Keye Luke (as Lee Chan) and Lynn Bari.
Mr. Moto Takes a Chance (1938)
In the fourth film, Mr. Moto is in French Indochina masquerading as an archeologist. The plot is a mixture of poison darts, ancient temples, mysterious maps, and political intrigue. Rochelle Hudson (as Victoria Mason) and Robert Kent (as Marty Weston) co-star.
Mysterious Mr. Moto (1938)
In an effort to track down a gang of international killers, Mr. Moto has himself imprisoned on Devil’s Island. Mary Maguire and Henry Wilcoxon co-star.
Mr. Moto’s Last Warning (1939)
The sixth Mr. Moto film is set in Port Said at the entrance of the Suez Canal. A fake Mr. Moto (Teru Shimada), working for the real one, meets his demise before Mr. Moto can upset a plot designed to start a war between France and Britain. The film features Ricardo Cortez as Fabian the Great, a ventriloquist (and saboteur). Also starring are Virginia Field and John Carradine.
Mr. Moto in Danger Island (1939)
Directed by Herbert I. Leeds. At the request of the US government, Moto is off to Puerto Rico to investigate a band of contraband diamond smugglers who are driving down the price of good diamonds. Jean Hersholt and Amanda Duff co-star.
Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation (1939)
Disguised as a German archaeologist, Moto helps unearth the priceless crown of the legendary Queen of Sheba and later saves it from a variety of thugs and criminals. The Austrian-born actor Joseph Schildkraut (as Hendrik Manderson), Lionel Atwell and Virginia Field also star in the eighth and last Mr. Moto film.
Note: The 1965 British production The Return of Mr. Moto starred Brooklyn-born Henry Silva as Moto. The ninth film was no improvement on the original series with Peter Lorre.
The Mr. Moto Collection (All eight films)
DVD SET 1 > Buy Mr. Moto Collection – Vol. 1 (Think Fast, Mr. Moto; Mr. Moto Takes A Chance; Mysterious Mr. Moto; Thank You, Mr. Moto)
DVD SET 2 > Buy Mr. Moto Collection – Vol. 2 (Mr. Moto’s Gamble, Mr. Moto in Danger Island, Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation, Mr. Moto’s Last Warning)
Next | Peter Lorre Films
AT THE GERMAN WAY
- Peter Lorre Biography
- Peter Lorre Filmography
- Germans (and Others) in Hollywood – About the three main waves of Germanic immigration to Hollywood
- Mini Bios A-Z – Brief biographies of people from the German-speaking world
- Featured Biographies – More detailed bios of notable people from the German-speaking world
- Notable Women from Austria, Germany, Switzerland
- Famous Graves in Germany – Where are they buried?
ON THE WEB
- See Peter Lorre – Part 1 for web links