Every amateur detective has his own approach to crime solving but Mary Lee Ling consults the stars and birth dates to narrow down the list of suspects. When Were You Born? (1938) has a terrific premise for a detective thriller and was quite unusual in its day. Its offbeat approach to the genre is further enhanced by the casting of Anna May Wong in the central role of an astrologist whose connection to a murder victim implicates her in the police investigation.
While the film, directed by William McGann , is an unpretentious little B-unit programmer from Warner Bros., it manages, in its brief 66 minute running time, to incorporate a Rashomon-like flashback structure with multiple suspects and climaxes with a double twist ending. And even though Wong’s astrological interests and beliefs are often used in comic contrast to standard police procedures, When Were You Born? treats this age old practice with complete seriousness.
To lend the subject some credence, producer Bryan Foy even opens the movie with a prologue featuring noted mystic Manly P. Hall, the author of The Secret Teachings of All Ages: An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy (published in 1928). In fact, Hall wrote the original story on which screenwriter Anthony Coldewey based his script, which explains Lee Ling’s rather pedantic behavior around non-believers.
Looking like some spooky charlatan out of William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley, Hall informs us, “A crime has been committed. Astrology can solve crime. It has solved many crimes in the past. Astrology is the strangest of the sciences but it is a science.”
In support of this, Hall points to Mother Shipton, the famous English soothsayer of the 15th century, whose predictions of the discovery of America, the gold rush in California, the invention of airplanes, submarines and several other events and inventions all came true. What has all of this to do with When Were You Born? Not much other then it’s just a gimmick that lends some exotic appeal to an otherwise standard whodunit.
The movie begins on a luxury liner returning from Hawaii to San Francisco. Aboard are Philip Corey (James Stephenson), a successful tycoon and importer of Chinese goods, his fiancee Nita (Lola Lane), his valet Shields (Eric Stanley) and Mary Lee Ling (Wong), who has befriended Nita. By the time the ship has disembarked, Corey has already broken his engagement with Nita and is trying to elude his shady business partner Fred Gow (British character actor Leonard Mudie).
The next day Corey is found dead and the newspaper headlines announce it as a suicide but the police know better and the parade of suspects includes Doris Kane (Margaret Lindsay), a woman who had been secretly involved with Corey. Before the whole affair ends in an ominous house with secret passageways, there are two more murders – one involving a silent gun that shoots jade fragments – and a plethora of details about the Zodiac signs.
Anna May Wong was well past her peak years as the most popular Chinese American actress in Hollywood when she starred in When Were You Born? She is actually second billed after Margaret Lindsay, even though her astrologer heroine is in almost every scene. Wong’s heyday was really the silent era though she is probably best known for her appearance opposite Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932). By the time she made When Were You Born?, she had slipped from A productions to B pictures though part of her shrinking popularity was due to the emerging international political climate that resulted in World War II.
Like Dietrich, Wong exuded a smoldering sensuality and dangerous allure in films such as Piccadilly (1929) and Daughter of the Dragon (1931) but as astrologer Lee Ling, she gives a surprisingly flat performance and comes off like some straitlaced schoolmarm, who alternates between officious behavior and mild irritation toward any naysayers.
She doesn’t seem like the sort of person who would carry around a pet capuchin monkey named Venus but she does. And her fixation on horoscopes becomes her dominant personality trait, which helps to explain while Lee Ling didn’t inspire a popular sleuth franchise like Charlie Chan or The Saint. For one thing, she is always on the sidelines observing the investigation instead of being in the thick of it like Nick and Nora Charles.
Luckily, Wong is surrounded by an energetic supporting cast and a wide array of colorful characters including two murderers, a forensic specialist (Maurice Cass) who loves his work a little too much, Corey’s lawyer (Olin Howland, the first victim of 1958’s The Blob) who offers his dubious services to Doris, and a blustery police sergeant (Frank Jacquet) who becomes Ling’s verbal sparring partner. In a typical exchange with the latter, Ling asks, “What day in March were you born, sergeant?” “The second,” he answers, suddenly startled, “How’d ya know I was born in March?” “From your feet for one thing,” she sarcastically responds.
James Stephenson, who is best known as the brilliant defense attorney for Bette Davis’s murderess in The Letter (1940), is the sort of callous, arrogant and unprincipled entrepreneur that probably deserves his fate in some ways and he makes the most of his juicy role. Margaret Lindsay provides the drama as the main suspect who can’t seem to tell the complete truth and Jeffrey Lynn dashes in and out of the movie briefly as a gung ho reporter. Lola Lane is also feisty and funny in her brief turn as one of Corey’s discarded girlfriends.
When Were You Born? is a genuine curiosity if nothing else. It’s just too bad the film, though diverting, doesn’t live up to the trailer which exploits the movie’s oddball potential with a series of scintillating come-ons. An earlier film from Warner Bros. entitled From Headquarters (1933), directed by William Dieterle, had also taken a behind-the-scenes look at police procedural with a focus on forensics (Margaret Lindsay starred in that film too!). But the astrology angle is a great hook and perhaps some contemporary filmmaker can come up with an astrologer detective heroine good enough to inspire a movie franchise.
When Were You Born? is not available on any format at this time but it could possibly end up as a DVD release from the folks at Warner Archive. In the meantime, you might want to check the Turner Classic Movies schedule to see if the film is going to air in the near future.
* This is a revised and updated version of a post that originally appeared on Movie Morlocks, the official TCM blog which was renamed Streamline.
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