Charles Brabin, 1932
Starring: Boris Karloff, Lewis Stone, Myrna Loy, Karen Morley
“I am a Doctor of Philosophy from Edinburgh. I am a Doctor of Law from Christ’s College. I am a Doctor of Medicine from Harvard. My friends, out of courtesy, call me ‘Doctor’.”
Based on the novel by Sax Rohmer, Fu Manchu (introducing himself in The Mask of Fu Manchu in the quote above) was a popular literary and cinematic villain from silent cinema through horror films of the ‘60s, who also made appearances in radio, comics, and television. Called “the yellow peril incarnate,” Fu Manchu is certainly a racist vision, but, like Rohmer’s direct influence Arthur Conan Doyle and his arch-villain Professor Moriarty, prefigures a lot of the cinematic evil masterminds that would populate spy, horror, and action films throughout much of cinema. While Rohmer wrote over a dozen novels and some short stories, the filmic adaptations began in 1923 with two silent British movies before traveling across the Atlantic for three films starring Swedish actor Warner Oland (he would also go on to play detective Charlie Chan). MGM produced The Mask of Fu Manchu in 1932, begrudgingly entering the horror genre. This was followed by a serial in 1940, a five film series in the ‘60s starring Christopher Lee, as well as a few spoof films.
Boris Karloff’s single portrayal of Fu Manchu is the finest and most iconic. A member of the British Secret Service, Sir Denis Nayland Smith, teams up with famed Egyptologist Sir Lionel Barton to prevent Fu Manchu from discovering Genghis Khan’s tomb. If he should open it before they do, he will uncover Khan’s legendary sword, which will give him the power to wage total war with the Western world and allow him to accomplish his primary goal: wiping out the white race. Barton is kidnapped and his hysterical daughter, Sheila, insists to go on the expedition to retrieve her father and the sword. Meanwhile, Fu Manchu tortures Barton by depriving him of food, water, and sleep, and places him under a giant, ever-tolling bell. He even offers Barton his own daughter, the seductive and vicious Fah Lo See, but Barton refuses to talk.
Smith, Sheila, her fiancé Terry Granville, and a few other archaeologists find the tomb with the sword and a number of other treasures. Sheila is desperate to get her father back and convinces Granville, in secret, to exchange the sword for her father, believing they will get it back somehow. Smith has also secretly replaced the sword with an expertly made decoy and Granville is taken captive when Fu Manchu discovers that the sword is fake. Granville is whipped and injected with a drug that brainwashes him and puts him under Fu Manchu’s control. He returns back to camp and the surviving members, including Smith and Sheila, accompany him into Fu Manchu’s lair. They are captured and tortured, while Sheila is prepared for a final, ultimate sacrifice. Can someone defeat Fu Manchu in time? Or will he raise the sword of Genghis Khan and wipe out the world?
Make no mistake, this film is incredibly racist and in so many ways it is almost difficult to describe them all. All of the white characters are annoying, unlikable, stereotypical colonialists. The Asian characters (in this film “Asian” is a lump term and seems to refer to Chinese people, but it doesn’t really make a distinction among the numerous Asian countries and cultures or seem to understand that there even is one) are almost all played by white people in make up, namely Fu Manchu (Karloff) and his daughter (Loy). Fu Manchu and his would-be Mongolian hordes are also extremely racist with a singular goal that Fu Manchu so succinctly sums up: "Kill the white man and take his women." Apparently they want to exterminate all white men, but rape and impregnate their women? Fu Manchu is also not against having black slaves, who are forced to stand around in loin cloths and are sometimes killed in experiments.
Despite these things, The Mask of Fu Manchu is incredibly enjoyable and remains one of my favorite pre-Code horror films. MGM, so reluctant to get involved in the horror genre but willing to give the public what they wanted, really bit off more than they could chew with two of the most extreme pre-Code films: The Mask of Fu Manchu and Freaks. Both were banned or heavily censored over the years. It was difficult to see the uncut version of The Mask of Fu Manchu for a number of decades. After a very strong (and understandable) reaction from the Chinese government, MGM edited out most of the overtly racist dialogue, which is absurd, as there is no way to remove the blatant racism from this film. While I love the movie, it represents the worst of a certain era of American thinking.
Boris Karloff, while I love him in so many other things, is incredible in The Mask of Fu Manchu and is given free range to be totally diabolical. You actually want Fu Manchu to win, despite the fact that it means his subsequent extermination of half the planet. He is charming, educated, debonair, and absolutely over the top. He delights in torture, murder, and brainwashing and relishes the same qualities in his daughter, the second major star of the film.
Myrna Loy, who would rise to fame with her portrayal of an idealized American wife, Nora, in The Thin Man series, is fantastic here as Fah Lo See, Fu Manchu’s demented daughter. Her character represents the most overt pre-Code element of the film and numerous references are made to her sexual appetite. She plans to use the brainwashed Granville as a sex slave and is clearly is a state of orgasmic ecstasy when a number of scantily clad black slaves take his shirt off and whip him. While films of this period are typically misogynistic to a certain degree, Fah Lo See is obviously Fu Manchu’s equal, his partner in villainy and his heir. He mocks traditional roles by introducing her as his “ugly and insignificant daughter,” when she is obviously the most beautiful member of his court and the most important next to himself.
It’s a lot easier to enjoy the film if you ignore the fact that Fu Manchu is a horrible Chinese stereotype, meant to embody the “Yellow Peril,” and take him at face value as essentially a comic book villain and the precursor to some of James Bond’s more extreme villains or Ming from Flash Gordon. Elements of this type of villain and his Grand Guignolesque tortures also appear in the original Batman television series, Indiana Jones, and Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy remake, which blatantly lifts several scenes from the film and seems to have based its hero on an updated version of Granville.
Charles Starrett is a handsome but bland Terry Granville, and like the male stars of Universal horror, is able to accomplish little on his own without the help of an older, more experienced male (in this case Smith). Though most of the heroic characters are either uninteresting or unlikable, Lewis Stone is compelling as British Secret Service agent Sir Nayland Smith, unafraid to leap into danger at any moment.
Karen Morley’s performance as Sheila Barton is, frankly, hysterical. She is one of many blondes in gauzy white dresses about to be sacrificed during this period. Though she is less famous than Fay Wray in King Kong, the scene of her intended sacrifice is quite impressive and involved an ecstatic horde of Fu Manchu’s followers, his artfully designed court room, and Myrna Loy bearing an elaborate headdress, smoking opium, and looking serenely out at the proceedings.
The pulpy and fantastic visuals from production designer Cedric Gibbons are another strong point of the film. They run the gamut of everything from the British Museum to Fu Manchu’s ominous laboratory, throne room, opium dens, and elaborate torture chambers. Fu Manchu and Fah So Lee have some incredible costumes and some of his cronies are even disguised as mummies at one point.
If you can excuse or ignore the racism, The Mask of Fu Manchu comes highly recommended and I am not ashamed to admit that it’s one of my favorite action-horror-crime mashups. It is available in the Hollywood Legends of Horror Collection along with Doctor X, The Return of Doctor X, Mad Love, The Devil Doll, and The Mark of the Vampire.