Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Pre-Code blogathon: The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)

They had themselves quite a time in Hollywood before the rigid enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1934. Join Karen of Shadows and Satin and Danny of as they host the 2015 Pre-Code Blogathon.

Where would pulp/crime fiction of the 20th century be without Chinatown? The enclave of Asian immigrants in port cities filled the niche of the exotic and the inscrutable in the imaginations of the public. Every fictional PI and B movie crime solver had to have at least one adventure in a "Chinatown". Among the ordinary citizens trying to get by in a new land you would find, as you would with any group of people, a criminal class. It was this criminal class that was the subject of freelance journalist Sax Rohmer's investigation in 1911. He wasn't interested in any random crook. Rohmer was certain readers would want to know about the top kick, the head man. As any Costa Nostra Don would let you know, an enterprise like crime works better if it is organized. It would take a special power to be the boss in Chinatown.

Rohmer did not have luck in obtaining an interview with the purported head of the Chinese underworld of Limehouse, but that didn't matter. Rohmer had his imagination, and his imagination conceived of the world's first super-villain. Fu Manchu, the holder of multiple doctorates, a man of incalculable wealth, personal magnetism and power, with a touch of megalomania. Why have all this power if you can't rule the world? The serialized stories and novels featuring the outlandish villain and his pursuer Sir Nayland Smith of British Intelligence brought Rohmer fortune and fame.

Historians and socialists can expound more fully on Dr. Fu Manchu's place in the perpetuation of racial stereotypes. Observation and experience prove that there are those who take their fiction too seriously. On the other hand, there are just as many people who know how to enjoy the respite and diversion of fiction and lay it aside. We go to Chinatown in search of bargains and restaurants with nary a thought that an over-dressed egomaniac is lurking behind a beaded curtain. It is in that spirit that I look at MGM's Grand Guignol pre-code opus The Mask of Fu Manchu.

Mad scientist at work.
Karloff as Fu Manchu

Karloff fan that I am, I had not seen The Mask of Fu Manchu until a few years ago when it was screened by TCM in an early morning time slot. Making the assumption that the film would creak like an old door hinge I planned on setting about with the morning tea and toast and getting in a bit of a.m. puttering without missing much of the plot. I was wrong! The Mask of Fu Manchu is a template for pacing that should be studied by all makers of thrillers.

The most problematic aspect of the screenplay is the racial invectives that pass between and about the characters in the play. They are many and heartily delivered; "yellow beast", "fiend", "accursed white race", "sterile Christian paradise", etc. They are shocking and harsh things to hear, but the setting is so preposterous and over-the-top that it is impossible to take them seriously. Only in the days prior to rigid "code" enforcement would this sort of language and the sexually charged torture sequences and relationships pass the censor.

We start off at Whitehall where Sir Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone) informs Sir Lionel Barton (Lawrence Grant) that his archeological expedition to the Gobi Desert to retrieve artifacts of Genghis Khan is of major importance to the British Government. The infamous Dr. Fu Manchu has his eyes on the treasure as a means of securing success for his current plan to rouse the East against the West for world domination. "Right ho", or words to that effect, says Sir Lionel.

The British Museum has lost its charm.

Bam!  We're in the British Museum where, before he can reach his colleagues, Sir Lionel is waylaid by three thugs and spirited away.  The thugs are disguised as mummies and hiding in the sarcophagus and they seem a part of the scenery until they come to life. You gotta admit, this Fu Manchu guy has style, but he must share the credit with director Charles Brabin.

What have we here?!
David Torrence, Charles Starrett, Karen Morley, Jean Hersholt

Bam! A week later we are in Nayland Smith's office where Sir Lionel's daughter (Karen Morley) announces her intention to join the expedition dragging her fiance Terry (Charles Starrett) with her. Bam! We view a silhouette of a caravan. Bam! We're at the end of the dig. Bam! Incredible solid gold tomb of Genghis Khan is opened and the long-sought mask and scimitar are recovered. A few of the native people get religion and are booted about.

If ever a fellow enjoyed his work, that fellow is super-villain Fu Manchu.
Boris Karloff 

Bam! We are at the opulent headquarters of Dr. Fu Manchu who is suavely entertaining his guest, Sir Lionel. Sir Lionel, stubborn cuss that he is, will not be swayed to reveal the location of the tomb - not for money and not even for Fu Manchu's daughter ("yes, even that"). Well, there's nothing for it but torture. Sir Lionel is bound beneath a booming bell, denied sleep, food and water. Fu Manchu:  "You can't move. You can't sleep. You will be frantic with thirst. You will be unspeakably foul. But here you will lie, day after day, until you tell." This cat knows his business!

Boris Karloff plays a self-satisfied villain who truly enjoys his vocation. His endearing lisp brings a subtle touch of the farcical to the grandiose pronouncements of Dr. Fu Manchu and Karloff wears the silks and headdresses with uncommon ease.

Dr. Von Berg and Nayland Smith formulate a plan.
Are reservations at Grand Hotel included?
Jean Hersholt and Lewis Stone

Bam! We're in a safe house somewhere close to Fu Manchu's location. The expedition has arrived and is greeted by Sir Nayland. Our middle-aged secret agent is everywhere! However, the spies and minions of Fu Manchu are everywhere as well. The scimitar is locked in a tower room with Dr. McLeod (David Torrance) who is promptly dispatched by Fu Manchu's gang. Bam! The next day a hand (Sir Lionel's hand!) is thrown into the yard. The gruesome sight prompts devoted fiance Terry, at Sheila's urging, to take the scimitar and bargain for her father's release. She figures Nayland can retrieve the scimitar later.

Do you like my hat?
Myrna Loy as Fah Lo See, the daughter of Dr. Fu Manchu

Bam! Terry is taken to Dr. Fu Manchu, the scimitar is proven to be a fake replace by the ever-busy Smith, and Terry is left to the tender mercies of Fah Lo See (Myrna Loy). It is a few years before the handsome Starrett will make his mark as a B cowboy star as the Durango Kid, but here he paves the way for the TV cowboys of the 1950s (Clint Walker, Robert Horton, etc.) who spent a lot of camera time being beaten with their shirts off. Such scenes do not give me the intense pleasure they seem to inspire in Fah Lo See, but I'm not complaining. 

Bam! The delivery of a corpse lets our group know that it is time to give up on poor old Sir Lionel. Nayland Smith sets out to retrieve Terry by finagling his way into an opium den, then a tavern of sorts where he follows a man through a secret entrance to the lair of Dr. Fu Manchu and is captured. Terry is drugged to do Fu Manchu's bidding and is released to lure Sheila and the verbose Dr. Van Berg (Jean Hersholt) to the evil genius.

As we come to the final moments of the movie:

- Nayland Smith is tied to a beam timed to release him into an alligator pit.

- Dr. Von Berg is about to be juliened by the world's largest veg-o-matic.

- Terry about to become the drugged sex slave of Fah Lo See.

- Sheila, gowned in virginal white is to be, as declaimed by Fu Manchu himself to his excited followers, "sacrificed to our god".  After all, there hasn't been a god going that won't bless an enterprise that starts off with a good sacrifice.

Bam! In short order, our greying Bond escapes the reptiles, frees Terry and in consort they free, just in the nick of time, Dr. Von Berg. One of Dr. Fu Manchu's own creations, some sort of electrical shock gun that would have been useful in The Thing from Another World is used to eradicate the malevolent mastermind and his followers. Bam! The saviors of the white race consign the golden treasures of Genghis Khan to the deep as they sail back to civilization.

Fu Manchu, of course, lives on. Like Conan Doyle with Holmes, Rohmer tried to kill off his creation, but the public wouldn't allow it. The character appears to be indestructible in terms of recognition, shelf life, and influence. Dozens of movies and TV programs have featured Fu Manchu. He has been intentionally spoofed by TVs Get Smart (Diplomat's Daughter) and Peter Sellers in The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu and, let's face it, Fu Manchu has the aura of a spoof in his organic state.

The character of Dr. Fu Manchu could be considered the grandfather of such villains as James Bond's Dr. No and Marvel Comics the Mandarin. As recently as 2010, the BBC series Sherlock episode The Blind Banker continued the tradition of a hero dealing with an omniscient Chinese criminal organization and in 2013s Iron Man 3, the Mandarin makes an appearance. Beware! There's no telling where the dastardly villain or his progeny will pop up next.


  1. Thank you for the great overview. I've owned this on VHS for years & agree it's a good 'un

    1. It's one movie where I felt spoilers couldn't spoil it. The good guys always win. It is a fun one alright.

  2. Well, well, well – here's yet another movie you've introduced me to. Even though this one sounds like it has flaws, it also sounds fascinating.

    I always learn something when I come to your blog. :)

    1. LOL! Caftan Woman's schoolhouse, eh?

      The movie is all kinds of off the charts crazy and must be seen at least once. Strong point in its favour - it won't take up much of your time.

  3. I can't say that I'll ever watch this movie, but I sure did enjoy your write up, CW! Your description of the film was a delight to read -- two thumbs up for this great contribution to the blogathon. Thanks so much for participating!

    1. I don't think this is a movie a lot of people would actively seek out, but if you happen to come across it half-way through while channel surfing, at least now you'll have some sort of idea just what in the name of all that's holy is going on.

      This is a fascinating blogathon and I'm enjoying it greatly.

  4. Well, I'll say this much: they certainly didn't go cheap on the costumes.

    Are those scars on Fu's face, or just a lotta wrinkles?

    1. Those are laugh lines, Rich. As I mentioned, the fellow was very happy in his work.

      They certainly didn't stint on the costumes (Adrien) and sets, but "The Mask of Fu Manchu" is not what we expect to come from MGM.

  5. You are so right - BAM! One thing you never do in a a film like this is check your watch. Great review of a very "CW" film! (you now have you own category).

    1. My own category! There will be no living with me!

      It is everything a film like this should be - never give the audience a chance to think.

  6. Excellent review! I cannot believe (and I'm ashamed to admit) that I have yet to see this film. The costumes, not to mention performances by Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy, should make it a must-see. I agree with you that the racist components make watching any film MUCH tougher but it sounds from your review that its over-the-top ridiculousness plus the pace of the film certainly helps. Bottom line- I gotta see this film!

    1. It is truly a jaw dropping experience and one of those surprising titles to come from MGM. Here's what Leonard Maltin's book had to say: "Elaborate chiller of Chinese madman Karloff menacing expedition searching for tomb of Genghis Khan. Adaptation of Sax Rohmer novel is ornate and hokey, but fun; Loy is terrific as Fu's deliciously evil daughter."

  7. Agree with the flaws you highlight, but I'm totally willing to overlook them as I think this movie is so incredibly well costumed (and do I spy Cedric Gibbons' art direction?!). Adrian really went to town on this one, surely audiences of the day wouldn't have been able to believe their eyes... I wonder if it revived an interest in 'the Orient'?

    1. I know I would have left the theatre craving some of those gorgeous silken gowns. That stark stairway leading who knows where (Lewis Stone running to rescue Charles Starrett) is breathtaking. I think the movie, for so many reasons, is an essential pre-code.

  8. At one point Ted Turner erased the racial epithets from this. Don't remember Rohmer ever really trying to kill Fu in the novels, who persisted til '57 (!). Rohmer's character is so principled in his evil, that in one book he keeps his word, costing him a victory. And no "FU Manchu mustache" in the novels. He's clean shaven.

  9. It always seems so strange when movies are edited for language. You see the lips saying one thing and hear another. And some of the decisions by different networks are puzzling.

    Visually though, the mustache is cool. Rather like Holmes deerstalker - an addition that works.

    Thanks for your knowledgeable input.

  10. Pre-Code Myrna = coolest Myrna!
    I have to say this movie just went higher and higher in my watchlist, thanks to you!
    Thanks for the always kind comments!

    1. Thank you so much. We have a good time sharing these films with each other.

  11. I haven't seen a Fu Manchu movie since I was probably in high school, but BAM! I think your review was more entertaining than the entire series put together. The next time this one comes my way, I'll have to pay more attention.

    1. It's a go-to movie for fashion and torment ideas!

  12. The Mask of Fu Manchu hits that sweet spot between absolutely horrifying racial caricature and campy insanity. I'm glad you get a kick out of it-- there are few movies that were ever made that are this nuts. :)



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