When Were You Born


1h 5m 1938
When Were You Born

Brief Synopsis

An astrologer tries to help the police catch a killer.

Film Details

Genre
Mystery
Classic Hollywood
Release Date
Jun 18, 1938
Premiere Information
not available
Production Company
Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.
Distribution Company
Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.
Country
United States

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 5m
Sound
Mono
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.37 : 1
Film Length
7 reels

Synopsis

Mary Lee Ling is a practitioner of astrology. She insists that astrology is a science that can solve crimes and predict the future. As the trans-Pacific ship on which she is traveling sails into San Francisco, Mary Lee predicts from Philip Corey's horoscope that he has only forty-eight hours to live. The next day, Corey is found dead by apparent suicide, but the police suspect that he was murdered and question Mary Lee. To clear herself, Mary Lee offers to use astrology to catch the murderer. Although the police are skeptical, she reveals certain things about them that she has learned from astrology and is allowed to help question the suspects. The suspects include Doris Kane, Corey's fiancée and an old school friend of Mary Lee's; Shields, Corey's valet; Fred Gow, Corey's business partner; Lawrence Camp, the man with whom Doris is in love; and Peter Finlay, Corey's lawyer. Mary Lee listens carefully when the police question the suspects and learns that Shields found the body. Doris, who denies that she was really Corey's fiancée, appears to be covering for someone else. When a man claiming to be Doris's brother is questioned, Mary Lee learns that his hair was found in Corey's hand and that he was a member of a shooting team, but after she reads his chart, Mary Lee announces that he is not Doris's brother. In fact, he is Lawrence Camp, an Aries, who was engaged to Doris before she met Corey. Larry admits that he fought with Corey, but insists that when he left with Doris, Corey was still alive. Mary Lee reveals that Corey was blackmailing Doris's mother to force Doris to marry him. Larry threatened Corey, who then tried to shoot him. Next, the police question Gow, who demands the return of some of Corey's business letters. After Mary Lee discovers Gow's birth date and notices that the letters are in code, she accuses Gow of posing as Corey in order to carry on a drug smuggling operation under the cover of Corey's business. Everyone thinks that Gow is the murderer, but before the police can catch him, he disappears through a secret passage. He is found dead and then Shields admits that he killed Gow who knew that after Shields accused Corey of losing his investments, Corey threatened him and he killed Corey in self-defense just as Mary Lee had deduced.

Film Details

Genre
Mystery
Classic Hollywood
Release Date
Jun 18, 1938
Premiere Information
not available
Production Company
Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.
Distribution Company
Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.
Country
United States

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 5m
Sound
Mono
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.37 : 1
Film Length
7 reels

Articles

When Were You Born


Mixing murder-mystery thrills with spiritualism, astrology and hocus-pocus is nothing new. Mystical gurus and ESP experts were a staple of dime novels long before being brought in to help solve crimes in real life. In the 1920s, superstitious content was used as a tease, perhaps to add an interesting red herring to a haunted house story. 1938's When Were You Born takes the subject of astrology seriously. It features the fascinating Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong as Mary Lee Ling, a soothsayer who uses the help of the stars to both solve and predict crimes. After she foretells the death of a business tycoon (James Stephenson), Mary is allowed to conduct a full investigation of the crime. The interviews she conducts of the possible suspects are actually astrological consultations. Mary uses her cards to clear some suspects, while learning everyone's hidden secrets; she eventually finds the murderer hidden in a web of crooked intrigues, false identities and romantic jealousy. The storyline is more than a little awkward, with the victim's sweetheart (Lola Lane) figuring importantly in early reels, only to be dropped somewhere in act 2. Even with the competent players Margaret Lindsay and Jeffrey Lynn involved, critics felt that the astrological minutiae slowed the film down. Not helping is an extended lecture by astrological expert Manley P. Hall (also author of the original story) that comes off as padding plain and simple. The show is so horoscope-happy that each character is also identified by his or her sign of the zodiac. Critics were not charmed by this overall endorsement of astrology as hard fact. Variety not-so-generously suggested that, "with all due respect to Anna May Wong, we wish she'd leave the solving of murder mysteries to Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan." Once a glamorous star as well-known as Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong eventually retreated to character parts, mostly as mysterious China Dolls. When Were You Born gives her a major role, but still as an outsider, an exotic mystery woman.

By Glenn Erickson
When Were You Born

When Were You Born

Mixing murder-mystery thrills with spiritualism, astrology and hocus-pocus is nothing new. Mystical gurus and ESP experts were a staple of dime novels long before being brought in to help solve crimes in real life. In the 1920s, superstitious content was used as a tease, perhaps to add an interesting red herring to a haunted house story. 1938's When Were You Born takes the subject of astrology seriously. It features the fascinating Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong as Mary Lee Ling, a soothsayer who uses the help of the stars to both solve and predict crimes. After she foretells the death of a business tycoon (James Stephenson), Mary is allowed to conduct a full investigation of the crime. The interviews she conducts of the possible suspects are actually astrological consultations. Mary uses her cards to clear some suspects, while learning everyone's hidden secrets; she eventually finds the murderer hidden in a web of crooked intrigues, false identities and romantic jealousy. The storyline is more than a little awkward, with the victim's sweetheart (Lola Lane) figuring importantly in early reels, only to be dropped somewhere in act 2. Even with the competent players Margaret Lindsay and Jeffrey Lynn involved, critics felt that the astrological minutiae slowed the film down. Not helping is an extended lecture by astrological expert Manley P. Hall (also author of the original story) that comes off as padding plain and simple. The show is so horoscope-happy that each character is also identified by his or her sign of the zodiac. Critics were not charmed by this overall endorsement of astrology as hard fact. Variety not-so-generously suggested that, "with all due respect to Anna May Wong, we wish she'd leave the solving of murder mysteries to Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan." Once a glamorous star as well-known as Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong eventually retreated to character parts, mostly as mysterious China Dolls. When Were You Born gives her a major role, but still as an outsider, an exotic mystery woman. By Glenn Erickson

Quotes

Trivia

Notes

Each opening cast credit includes photographs of the actors with the astrological signs of their characters but does not mention the characters' names. The plot of this film is very similar to Warner Bros.' 1933 film From Headquarters (above) with the device of forensics substituted for astrology.