by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The first film I screened for us was The Mask of Fu Manchu, a 1932 production by MGM based on a Sax Rohmer novel (yet more evidence of how quickly properties got filmed in those days: the novel was originally published as a serial by Collier’s from May 7 to July 23, 1932 and the film was begun in August 1932 and released November 5 of that year!), directed by Charles Brabin (most famous now as the man who got fired from the silent Ben-Hur and replaced with Fred Niblo), who according to the American Film Institute Catalog replaced the young Charles Vidor on the project. The script credits were even more convoluted: Courtenay Terrett wrote the script Vidor began shooting, Raoul Whitfield and Bayard Veiller were brought in for rewrites and the final screen credits listed Irene Kuhn, Edgar Allan Woolf and John Willard as the sole writers. (Woolf worked on The Wizard of Oz — it was his last assignment before his death — and while that may seem a very different property from a Fu Manchu story, Mask and Oz contain at least one element in common: the villain uses an hourglass to mark his/her plan to kill the hero.)
What’s kept this film in circulation well beyond the life of previous Fu Manchu films (which had been produced at Paramount with Warner Oland as Fu Manchu — thus making Charlie Chan at the Opera a “doubles” movie) is the cast: Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu and Myrna Loy as his nymphomaniac daughter, Fah Lo See, who demands that he keep white captive Terrence Granville (Charles Starrett) alive long enough so she can have his wicked way with him (aided by four Black servants who whip him on her orders while she gives us orgasmic looks while watching — as much as Loy hated parts like this you couldn’t tell from the full-blooded, all-out way she acts it, though how Fu Manchu acquired a retinue of Black muscle-men as manservants in the middle of northern China is left a mystery).
The plot is a farrago of melodramatic nonsense that has almost no dramatic coherence whatsoever, but Brabin paces it so fast we’re blown breathlessly from incident to incident and it doesn’t matter that so little of the film makes any sense. It also helps that cinematographer Tony Gaudio shoots in an atmospheric, “Germanic,” proto-noir style; that Cedric Gibbons’ set designs are large and spectacular (MGM may have recycled some big sets from older movies but it certainly looks like a far more opulent production than Karloff was used to at his home studio, Universal); and that Karloff’s “Asian” makeup is far more convincing than it would be in his other Chinese roles (the Warners melodrama West of Shanghai and the Mr. Wong films at Monogram), though as an actor Karloff was less effective playing an all-out villain than he was in the almost contemporary The Mummy (shot just one month after Mask and released December 23, 1932), in which he was a figure of some sympathy and not purely evil. Lewis Stone’s Nayland Smith (the Scotland Yard inspector who was Fu Manchu’s nemesis — Sherlock Holmes to his Moriarty, as it were) is a pretty stock characterization, but Karen Morley, playing the daughter of kidnapped British explorer Sir Lionel Barton (Lawrence Grant), is quite good, authoritative and convincing. — 10/25/03
The Mask of Fu Manchu is a really quirky movie — the third film based on Sax Rohmer’s Asiatic Moriarty character (the earlier ones were a 1923 British silent called Cry of the Night Hawk and the 1929 Paramount talkie The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu, with “yellowface” actor Warner Oland in the part), based on a Rohmer novel published the same year (1932) the film was made. This film has become legendary mainly because Boris Karloff was cast as Fu Manchu and Myrna Loy played his nymphomaniac daughter, Fah Lo See, who tries to seduce the male romantic lead, Terrence Granville (Charles Starrett), away from his Anglo girlfriend Sheila Barton (Karen Morley).
The plot is basically a knock-off of King Solomon’s Mines in which Sheila’s father, archaeologist Sir Lionel Barton (Lawrence Grant), is kidnapped while in the British museum discussing with several associates a planned expedition to northern China to discover the long-lost tomb of Genghis Khan. Just before his disappearance, Sir Lionel was called into the office of Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone) of the British secret service and told to expedite his expedition because it’s crucially important to the peace and security of the world that he acquire the sword and mask of Genghis Khan before Fu Manchu does, since if Fu Manchu gets hold of them he’ll be able to pose as the reincarnation of Genghis Khan and rally the people of China to join him in a genocidal war aimed at wiping out the entire white race. (The fact that Genghis Khan was a Mongol usurper and occupier, and most of the Chinese of his time hated him, doesn’t seem to have occurred to Sax Rohmer or the screenwriters, Irene Kuhn, future Wizard of Oz contributor Edgar Allan Woolf and John Willard.)
Alas, Sir Lionel is attacked in the British Museum by Fu Manchu’s minions, dressed as mummies; he’s kidnapped, put on a plane and flown to Fu Manchu’s redoubt in Liangchow, China, where he’s tortured by being tied to a table just below a giant bell that continually rings, depriving him of any chance to sleep. Of course he’s also starved and dehydrated — in one scene Fu Manchu comes in carrying a bunch of grapes and waves it across the poor man’s face, the way S/M doms sometimes caress their subs’ faces with floggers or whips to tease them before they actually start flogging or whipping them; later Fu gives him a drink of water and then says, “Oh, I forgot to tell you, it’s salt.” (I had visions of Dick Cheney watching this movie and thinking, “How cool! Where can we get one of those bells?”) The purpose of the torture, of course, is to get Sir Lionel to reveal to Fu where the tomb of Genghis Khan is. Meanwhile, the expedition from Britain has set forth and actually discovered the tomb — Nayland Smith took Sir Lionel’s place with it and Terrence and Sheila also came along. (Sheila had to deal with the usual this-is-no-place-for-a-woman crap to get into the expedition, but finally convinced the men to take her not only because she understandably wants to find out what happened to her dad, but he discussed the location of the tomb with her and therefore she’s the only other person who actually knows where it is.)
They’re followed by Fu’s minions, who at times seem to encompass the entire population of China, and the rest of the film is a long chase scene interspersed with torture scenes and picturesque sets reflecting MGM art director Cedric Gibbons’ rather demented idea of Chinese traditions. The Mask of Fu Manchu benefits from MGM’s financial resources — even for a 68-minute programmer like this they really shot the budget on the sets, with the result that the torture devices are spanking-new, gleaming and look genuinely intimidating instead of being thrown together with duct tape and baling wire the way they seemed to be at cheaper studios that tried this sort of film — and from a marvelous pre-Code kinkiness; not only do we see Charles Starrett wearing a loincloth and nothing else (Myrna Loy’s character has ordered him stripped as a preliminary to the sexual fun-and-games she wants to play with him) but we see a whole host of Fu’s manservants, large, muscular and inexplicably African-descended (was there a Black community in China or did Fu import them himself?), similarly undressed: a surprise treat for beefcake fans one doesn’t expect to find in a 1932 movie.
It also has a surprisingly good, emotional performance from the usually wooden Karen Morley — her anguish over her father’s fate and, later, over her betrayal by Terrence (he’s been given a drug by Fu Manchu that gets him to give up the mask and sword of Genghis Khan and also reject her in favor of Fu’s daughter), are totally convincing — and marvelously atmospheric direction by Charles Brabin (and Charles Vidor, uncredited) and cinematography by Tony Gaudio that ably captures the aura of slippery evil intrinsic to the story. On the down side are some ghastly overacting by Karloff — within a month, in The Mummy, he’d again play a mastermind prowling around old graves and looking for relics to serve his sinister purposes, but under Karl Freund’s direction he’d give a beautifully understated, almost heart-rending performance far better than his work here — and the story’s relentless racism.
Fu Manchu introduces himself as a “three-time doctor,” having earned Ph.D.’s in philosophy and law and an M.D. from Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard, but the message of the film seems to be that educating an Asian that way is a sure-fire recipe for creating a mad, evil genius. The only even remotely sympathetic Chinese character appears at the very end, after Fu has been vanquished and the surviving white principals are on a ship taking them from China to England, when Lewis Stone is about to throw the sword of Genghis Khan overboard (sort of like Gloria Stuart and the jewel at the end of Titanic) so no other Asian madman can get hold of it and try the same stunt, and the expedition’s survivors hear the sound of a bell and freak out — only it's just the ship's dinner gong, being rung by a Chinese steward (Willie Fung) who proudly and happily proclaims his ignorance of all the heavy-duty intellectual subjects Fu Manchu studied way back when.
The Mask of Fu Manchu was significant in Myrna Loy’s career; after this and Thirteen Women (made on loan-out from MGM to RKO) she went to see Louis B. Mayer and demanded, “No more Oriental nymphomaniac roles!” — whereupon Mayer saw her point, told her that from then on she’d only play ladies, sent her to RKO again for a far better loan-out film, Topaze, and then cast her opposite William Powell in Manhattan Melodrama and The Thin Man, which sent her career into superstar orbit. I remember watching the 1926 silent Mr. Wu with Charles and wishing MGM had remade it as an early talkie re-teaming Karloff and Loy as Chinese father and daughter (the casting directors at Warners and MGM had noticed the slight slant in Loy’s eyes and decided that fitted her for Asian roles — and Warners had even changed her last name from Williams to Loy to make her sound Chinese!), with Ralph Forbes repeating his role as the boyfriend in this Madama Butterfly-esque tale — but they didn’t, even though that would have been a better movie than this one and would have offered Karloff a more multi-dimensional role that probably would have encouraged him to give a subtler and more convincing performance than he does here. — 10/29/09