[left, Tang Jie early in his movie career. Click on any picture to enlarge it.]Throughout the history of motion pictures, common literary sources for screen adaptations have been comic strips or comic books, including real-life versions as well as animations. There have been many of the former in U.S. movie history, e.g. Dick Tracy, Batman, Spiderman, many others. Other countries have given their people's favorite comic characters the big-screen treatment as well: France, Greece, Turkey, the Phillippines, Finland, et al, have all turned comic/graphic novels into live action movies, and sometimes these have been so successful as to spawn multiple sequels. China has been no exception, and in the classic era the most successful of these was the "Mr. Wang" series of comedies. The comic character was a career milestone for two men involved with it: for the young cartoonist who created "Mr. Wang" it was the initial success in what would become a long and legendary career in Chinese art circles and education; for the character's onscreen portrayer, a veteran but hitherto unheralded supporting actor, it meant a breakthrough to stardom at last.
Around 1930, a young cartoonist named Ye Qianyu 叶浅予 (1907-1995) published a full-length comic graphic novel featuring a character he called "Mr. Wang." Readers found the character's misadventures hilarious, and gobbled up a series of sequels. (These collections are still in print eight decades after their initial publication.) "Mr. Wang" was a distinct and easily recognizable character, strangely dressed and usually wearing a pith helmet on his bald head. His partner in various comic misadventures was his friend Xiao Chen (小陈), who with his trademark Panama hat and horn-rimmed glasses resembled Harold Lloyd, although I don't know if that was the intention. The other regular characters in the series were the two men's wives and the Wangs' daughter. [below right, cover of a recent "Mr. Wang" book collection]
The popular character appeared ripe for a film treatment, and in 1932 Shao Zuiweng 邵醉翁 (aka Runje Shaw), studio head and director at the Shao (Shaw) Brothers' Tianyi studio obtained the rights to make a "Mr. Wang" movie. For the title role, Tianyi selected a newcomer to that studio, veteran character actor Tang Jie 汤杰, who had worked for a succession of Shanghai studios, one of those actors whose face is quickly recognizable while the name just as often is not. Although he was often in demand for important supporting roles, Tang had never been the lead in a major film, and by 1930 had decided his future lay behind the camera. Zhang Shichuan at the Mingxing studio liked Tang Jie and gave him the opportunity to train by co-directing, after which he was sole director of a successful film called "Mother and Son," co-starring Xuan Jinglin and Zheng Xiaoqiu. Tang's prospects at Mingxing seemed bright, but Zhang Shichuan's mentoring of Tang had aroused the jealousy of several other Mingxing employees. The result was that Tang Jie left and moved over to Tianyi.
Although "Mr. Wang" the movie, directed by Shao Zuiweng and released in 1934, was a success, as far as Tianyi was concerned that was the satisfactory end of the matter. But Tang Jie had other ideas: he recognized this as his big chance, and seized it. Since Tianyi had not thought of "Mr. Wang" as a franchise, they had only obtained the rights to make one movie; Tang secured the film rights to the character, set up his own studio Xin Shidai (New Era), and turned out three sequels in 1935, all directed by and starring himself. Correcting their earlier oversight, the Tianyi studio contracted with Tang to continue the series with them.
The "Mr. Wang" series of films were the most popular domestically-produced comedies on Chinese screens in the late 1930s, and after a decade of struggle (starting with being disowned by his family, who considered his career choice an unforgivable loss of face) Tang Jie had achieved genuine star status. He (or rather Mr. Wang) was in demand off-screen as well as on, portraying the character on stage and making frequent appearances at various public events. Tang Jie buried his own personality in that of Mr. Wang, shaving his head, assuming the character's distinct dress and appearance year-round and in public (complete with pith helmet and wispy moustache), and in the most extreme action, having his front teeth pulled. Tang was unmarried, but regarding the lack of teeth he once said, "Maybe no woman will ever love me, but all that matters is that I look ugly. The only real inconvenience is that sometimes when I'm eating, I'll swallow without really tasting the food." So total was the transformation of actor into character that he was always referred to in the media and in public as "Mr. Wang," and people who met him addressed him that way, not as "Tang Jie."
[from left to right, Tang Jie, Sang Shuzhen as Mrs. Wang, Huang Naishuang as Wang Liuru (Miss Wang), Zeng Xuesong as Xiao Chen, and Zhai Qiqi as Mrs. Chen in 'Mr. Wang Visits the Countryside' (1935)]
[Tang also portrayed Mr. Wang on stage, as in this 1930's production, right]
The last three Mr. Wang movies were released in 1940, after which Tang Jie abruptly left motion pictures and disappeared from public view, with nothing more heard of him until the announcement of his death in Shanghai in 1953.
Fang, Shuo 方朔. "Tang Jie zai ying jie shiwunian" 汤杰在影界十五年 (Tang Jie's 15 years in movies) Dianying Xinwen 《电影新闻》(Movie News), no.10, May 12, 1939.______________. "Tang Jie" Yingmi Huabao 《影迷画报》(Movie Fan Pictorial), no.16, August 10, 1940. [appears to be a slightly updated reprint of the previous citation, although not identified as such. The title link is to our archived English translation of the full article]
Lu, Jie 陆洁. "Tang Jie jun" 汤杰君 (Mr. Tang Jie) Dianying Zazhi《电影杂志》(Movie Magazine), no.7 (n.d.)