Mr. Moto In Love
by Anne Sharp
I’d like to know more about Mr. Moto’s love life, but nobody in the know is telling. Not John P. Marquand, the novelist who created Mr. Moto, and certainly not the people who put together the Twentieth Century Fox Moto films starring Peter Lorre. So, in regards to sex and Mr. Moto, I’ll just have to fill in the naked spots myself.
Given Moto’s many similarities to James Bond–slick wardrobe, license to kill, unlimited travel expenses, and general air of detached bemusement–it’s too bad his makers didn’t go the whole route and give him a visible libido. True, his first adventures appeared in “The Saturday Evening Post,” which may be why Marquand seldom described Moto doing anything that couldn’t be drawn by Norman Rockwell. But however businesslike and soft-spoken, Marquand’s Moto is no wuss. With his shrewd knowledge of the ways of international espionage and samurai code of ethics, Moto serves as an Iron John figure to the wishy-washy American heroes of the Moto novels, guiding them with fatherly wisdom and tact through their exotic Pacific Rim adventures with bad guys and dangerous women. As for Moto’s personal life, other than his loyalty to Emperor Hirohito and hobby of helping out American slackers in peril, Marquand deliberately says nothing of it.
The Fox movies don’t give away much either about what Moto gets up to when he’s not saving the world from smugglers or spies. It’s possible that he has a wife and kids back in Japan, or Honolulu, or San Francisco or wherever he comes from. (Though in the novels Moto is specifically a Japanese national, Fox’s Moto seems more Japanese-American. He speaks perfect idiomatic American English, drinks cow’s milk and proudly identifies himself as a Stanford man.) He might even keep a geisha somewhere to entertain him; he does seem like the type who’d prefer the tea ceremony to a lap dance. But when it comes to sentimental attachments, one thing is certain: there’s no woman in the world who affects Mr. Moto in quite the same way as Lotus Liu.
She only appears in two of the Fox films, each time played by a different actress: Lotus Long in “Think Fast, Mr. Moto,” and Karen Sorrell in “Mysterious Mr. Moto.” But in both films she’s clearly the same woman, slender and pretty, with long hair dressed in an old-fashioned but becoming Chinese style. Considering that she, like Moto, is an agent of the International Police, she seems rather timid and delicate. At times Moto acts quite protectively towards her, though he can also seem shockingly unconcerned. He doesn’t even react when told that she’s been shot in a Shanghai speakeasy while trying to summon police backup for him in “Think Fast.” This seems cold, but given the fact that she shows up in perfect health in the later “Mysterious Mr. Moto,” he may just have been relying on Lotus’ instinct for self-preservation and perhaps a bulletproof vest under her bodice similar to the one he wore himself that evening.
Such stoicism is an essential part of the Moto character, if “character” is what you could call this person who prides himself on being a deliberate stranger, hiding his true self under a smiling mask of impassivity. If you look closely, you’ll see that Moto’s air of calm abiding also served as a cover for what the actor himself was feeling at the time: exhaustion, frustration, despair. The period when Peter made the Moto films, 1937-39, was an especially painful one. He was physically weak, having gone through drug rehab just before starting the series, which meant that even the easier parts of his action scenes had to be faked with a stunt double and tricks such as wiring up his arm and flying it like a marionette when he needed to throw a punch. His marriage to his first wife, actress Celia Lovsky, was breaking up, and he would come onto the Moto set in tears after listening to Hitler’s speeches on the radio. Peter was also taking an inordinate amount of flak from snobbish colleagues like Bertolt Brecht for “selling out” to Hollywood, Peter’s having appeared in the B-grade Moto series in itself signifying to them that he could no longer be taken seriously as an actor. The fact that the Moto series was a huge hit for Fox (it’s specifically mentioned in the infamous motion picture exhibitors’ “Box Office Poison” trade ad as the type of movies audiences couldn’t get enough of) and that, with the exception of the wretched “Mr. Moto Takes a Chance,” they’re quite well made for B-pictures, cut no ice with Brecht, who despite Peter’s generous help never did manage to make it himself in Hollywood.
If you can get past the sociopolitical issues involved with a supposedly Japanese character being played by a Jew with a Viennese accent, the Moto series was fairly enlightened for its time and holds up pretty well to contemporary viewing. In order to transform himself physically into Moto, Peter just wore dark base makeup, wire-rimmed glasses, and eyeliner, none of the other facial appliances in use at that time to make European actors look Asian. Some sources report that Peter used false “buck” teeth as Moto, but what you see in those films really are his own teeth. Peter the chronic morphine addict suffered what appears to have been a horrendous case of “meth mouth” at the end of the 1930s and had to get dentures around 1940.
In terms of psychological characterization, Peter seems to have used his own personal state of exhaustion as the core of his approach. Moto exists in a state of Buddhistic centeredness, still, poised, calmly alert, usually with a gentle smile on his lips. When he suddenly dives across the room to tackle an opponent or flips him over his shoulder, it’s like the punch line to a joke he’s been quietly contemplating for a long time. His body is a lethal weapon, but in his evidently enlightened state you trust him to use it wisely.
“A beautiful girl is only confusing to a man,” Moto advises his girl-watching young American companion at the start of “Think Fast, Mr. Moto,” the first Moto film Peter made. Shortly after saying this, Moto appears to ignore his own advice when he approaches the demure Miss Liu, the switchboard attendant at his hotel, and asks her if she’ll show a lonely Japanese visitor the sights of Shanghai. When she does, however, Moto sits at their nightclub table playing with glasses and matchsticks, seemingly uninterested in the floor show or his date. He asks somebody else to dance with her, goes off on business, and when later told that she’s been shot by a thug, doesn’t turn a hair. Which would lead you to think he doesn’t care for her.
Far from it, we learn four films later in “Mysterious Mr. Moto.” Working undercover as Ito, a gangster’s houseboy in London, Moto goes to a raunchy waterfront saloon named the Blue Peter, ha-ha, to make contact with Lotus, who’s posing as a prostitute that he, Ito/Moto, has been spending all his money having sex with. (It’s startling what sorts of things you could sneak past the censors back then if you were subtle about it.) Poor Ito, who wears geeky horn-rimmed glasses and doesn’t speak English very well, is roughed up by a bunch of Cockney barflies who tell him they don’t like “his kind.” Humiliated in front of his beautiful Lotus, he toddles upstairs with her in full view of the leering crowd of whites.
Next we see Lotus and Moto in her sordid crib, perched decorously on a sofa sipping tea and discussing the case they’re working on. While not exactly the sort of action we’d been led to expect from the previous scene, it’s still a startlingly frank, intimate moment for a Moto film. For the first and only time in the Moto series, Peter drops the fluty, condescendingly polite tones that he usually uses for Moto talking to the whites he’s always rescuing from disaster, and speaks in a low, masculine voice, sincerely and passionately telling her what he really thinks. Later, when he realizes that her cover has been blown, he helps her make her escape, gently hurrying her along as she’s a little confused and endearingly clumsy.
Is Moto’s tender concern for Lotus Liu reciprocated? At the end of the film Moto just barely survives a tussle with a murderous crook. Lotus is there at his moment of victory, and since this is after all a Hollywood movie you would expect her to throw her arms around him and say, “Darling, are you all right?” But there’s no Hollywood kiss, not even an exchange of passionate glances. Perhaps such a moment of physical demonstrativeness isn’t necessary for Lotus and her Moto. The feelings between them might just be too strong to translate into a simple American idiom.
© Anne Sharp. All rights reserved.