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Monday, December 13, 2021

'When Were You Born?' - Manly P. Hall's Metaphysical Murder Mystery

by Christopher Hodapp

Late one Saturday night a few weeks ago, Alice and I were buttoned up in the Airstream as wind, rain and snow swirled around us outside. Winter isn't really the ideal time of year to be driving and camping across the country. So instead of sitting around a glowing campfire in the Great Outdoors, we gathered around the glowing neon lavender of our TV screen, fired up the streaming service, and went sculling for buried treasure on the Turner Classic Movies app. We've been on a kick for about three years of hunting down rarely seen mystery movies from the 1930s and 40s, and on this particular evening we stumbled onto a peculiar artifact of which we had been blissfully unaware. It was an odd Warner Brothers B-picture from 1938 called When Were You Born? And as the opening credits flickered across the screen, we both suddenly let out the sort of collective yelp often made in unison on TV shows about ghost hunters and haunted house investigators when a moth flits by their infrared camera.


The original script for the movie was written by none other than 20th century esotericist, mystic and founder of the Philosophical Research Society, Manly P. Hall. (Yes, the title card misspelled his name.) In fact, the movie begins with a 7 or 8 minute introduction featuring Hall himself, sitting behind his desk, explaining what each of the twelve signs of the Zodiac mean, and how they purportedly affect people's behavior. At the conclusion of his monologue, Hall stares into the camera with earnest intensity, and intones: 

“A crime has been committed. Astrology CAN solve crime. It has solved many crimes in the past," he assures the audience. "Astrology is the strangest of the sciences, but it IS a science.”

Well, okay, I guess.

The picture features Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong as astrologer Mei Lei Ling aboard an ocean liner bound for San Francisco from the Orient. One by one, she casts the horoscopes of twelve people (one for each Zodiacal sign) and warns one of them that he will be murdered within 48 hours. Sure enough, the arrogant chiseler is found toes up at room temperature and stiff as a carp two days later. In the course of the film, Ling – accompanied by her pet rhesus monkey – uses the astrological signs and horoscopes of the passengers and crew instead of physical evidence to assist the police and determine the murderer. 

Eventually, more killings up the body count before the solution is finally determined. Along the way are skeptical cops, drug smugglers, a shifty butler, spooky chases through hidden passageways, and even a Chinese dragon-shaped 'silent' gun that fires chunks of jade instead of bullets at its targets!

No wonder the Chinese are beating us at hypersonic weapon development these days. 

Ling uses horoscope sessions to solve the murders instead of interrogation, investigation, or even physical clues, and the picture carries the whole astrology-as-science theme throughout, right from the start. In the opening credits, each member of the cast is pictured along with their Zodiacal signs. (Their names don't even appear in the movie's theatrical trailer - only their signs!) 

In truth, it does get annoying every time Mei Ling meets someone new, she raises an eyebrow and immediately demands, "When were you born?"

If you only know of Manly Hall from his Masonic books — The Lost Keys of Freemasonry, The Secret Destiny of America, Freemasonry of the Ancient Egyptians, and Masonic Orders of Fraternity — you might wonder how he managed to get this odd little picture made and distributed by Warner Brothers. We don't have many celebrities these days whom everyone just seems to uniformly recognize because pop culture is too fractured anymore. But Manly P. Hall was hot stuff in the 1930s. Just four years before When Were You Born? was released, Hall had established the Philosophical Research Society in Los Angeles, dedicated to the study of religion, mythology, metaphysics, and other occult subjects. He was wildly popular as a public speaker, and filled auditoriums to capacity. His masterwork, Secret Teachings of All Ages, had been published in 1928, and the public was fascinated with all things metaphysical and occult-ish at the time. 

"See it! It's different!"

Detective pictures and murder mystery stories were a mania throughout the 1930s, especially yarns about private dicks with a character quirk or two. And mysterious mystics (usually wearing turbans on their noggins and taking advantage of rich addlepated widows by peddling metaphysical mumbo jumbo) were common staples in 1930s movies. But When Were You Born? took a different approach, elevating astrology to the status of serious science. 

Warner Brothers reportedly wanted to make an entire series of Mei Lei Ling mysteries featuring Anna May Wong's astrologer character solving more crimes – a sort of metaphysical variation on the wildly popular Charlie Chan/Mr. Moto/Mr. Wong oriental detective characters of the period. (My favorite quote by a villain in Mister Moto's Gamble: "I'm not afraid of a little Japanese dick!"). But disappointing box office receipts for this movie scuttled that plan. And once America entered the war in the Pacific three years later in the wake of Pearl Harbor, audiences almost immediately gave up their enjoyment of brainy Asian detectives.

Lots of new Masons stumble across Manly Hall's early books about Masonry written when he was in his 20s and are fascinated by his theories and explanations. But modern Masonic scholars regard most of what he wrote about the fraternity to be flights of fancy. Although Manly Hall wrote about Freemasonry in the early part of his career, he didn't actually join the fraternity until 1954 when he was initiated into San Francisco's Jewel Lodge 374. The following year, he joined the Scottish Rite in the Valley of San Francisco. In 1973, he was crowned as a 33° Scottish Rite Mason. It should be noted that he never wrote about Freemasonry again after joining the fraternity.

1 comment:

  1. No one remembers, but Hall was in an early Three Stooges short titled “Nutty Necromancers.”



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