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Film / When Were You Born?

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When Were You Born? is a 1938 film directed by William C. McGann.

A ship crosses the ocean headed to San Francisco. A young woman, Nita Kenton, gets an astrological reading from Mei Lei Ming (Anna May Wong). Her lover Philip Corey, an importer of Asian goods, rolls his eyes and scoffs at what he regards as obvious nonsense. Mei Lei then flings a prediction at him: he will be dead within 48 hours.

Of course, it happens, as Corey is found dead in his condo the very next morning. And no, Mei Lei didn't do it to make her prediction come true, as she has a solid alibi. Was it Doris, the woman Philip wanted to marry? Larry, Doris's admirer who didn't like her spending time with Philip? Frederick Gow, Philip's extremely shifty business partner? (And he's very shifty, as the investigation reveals that the two of them were actually smuggling heroin.) Maybe it was Shields, the butler.

The cops zero in on Doris and Larry. As it happens, Mei Lei is Doris's good friend from school. She resolves to use her skill at astrology, which is totally legit, to find the real killer.


  • As Himself: Manly P. Hall, a mystic and astrologer who wrote the story to this movie, appears in a prologue before the film proper starts to explain the twelve signs of the Western Zodiac and insist that astrology is totally real and a science. (This intro takes up a good five minutes in a film that is only 66 minutes long.)
  • Asshole Victim: Philip Corey, who was a drug smuggler, who was attempting to blackmail Doris into marrying him, and who was generally an obnoxious jerk.
  • Astrologer: Mei Lei, who unlike most examples of this trope is not a fake but instead is a phenomenally talented real astrologer who makes eerily accurate deductions about people based on the date and time of their birth.
  • The Butler Did It: He did! Mei Lei observes Shields, who claimed to have little experience in firearms, display pinpoint accuracy when he shoots Gow. She realizes that he must have been the one to shoot Corey as well. Shields reveals that he got back to the condo just as Gow and Barrows were fleeing from a gun-toting Corey. Corey took a shot at Shields, and Shields then killed him in self-defense.
  • Calling Me a Logarithm: Mei Lei observes that Finlay the shyster lawyer must be a Sagitarrian. Finley objects, saying "I'm a native son and a member of the local bar!"
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: Nita is never seen or mentioned again after the opening scenes on the boat, despite the fact that she would have been a logical suspect, as she was angry that Philip wouldn't marry her and said she had some dirt on him.
  • Flashback: Multiple flashbacks from Shields, Doris, and Larry as they each tell the cops what went down. Sometimes the flashbacks are repeated differently after the cops catch one of them in a lie.
  • Have You Told Anyone Else?: Frederick Gow tricked a safecracker named Barrows into helping him break into Corey's safe, by pretending to be Corey. When Gow discovers that Barrows hasn't told the cops this, Gow kills him.
  • Never Suicide: Naturally Philip didn't kill himself. The gun in his hand wasn't the one that fired the fatal bullet.
  • Questioning Title?: When Were You Born?
  • Secret Passage: Gow has a hidden passage behind the walls of his house. He uses it to escape the police and kidnap Mei Lei.
  • Silly Simian: Mei Lei has a pet monkey named Venus who munches on wafers and in one scene is pulling on the pencil hanging from Mei Lei's neck. The climactic reveal is intercut with several shots of Venus making comical faces.
  • Spinning Paper: Done the usual way, as a series of spinning San Francisco newspapers carry headline stories about Philip Corey's "suicide".
  • Title Drop: Mei Lei asks Philip, "When were you born?"
  • Video Credits: At the start of the film, not only introducing the characters in 1930s movie style, but also specifying their astrological signs.
  • Zodiac Motifs: There are twelve principal characters in the story, and they each have a different astrological sign.