Wednesday, March 29, 2017
TCM TiVo ALERT
April 1–April 7
DAVID'S BEST BETS:
SLEEPER (April 1, 8:00 pm): Besides Take the Money and Run, Sleeper is the best, most clever and entertaining of Woody Allen's "earlier, funnier movies." Allen's character, Miles Monroe, is frozen in 1973 when a routine gall bladder operation goes bad. He's defrosted 200 years later by doctors who are members of a resistance group living in a police state. The gags are fast and funny. One of my favorites is when the scientists ask Miles about life 200 years earlier, including this gem. Allen's interaction with Diane Keaton (Luna, a self-centered socialite) is pure magic, particularly when she helps Miles relive a scene from his younger days and when the two are disguised as surgeons stealing the government leader's nose – all that's left of him after a rebel bomb blows up the rest of him. While the dialogue is smart and funny, Allen also proves himself to be an incredibly talented physical actor. Allen's slapstick comedic talent – think Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton – shines best in this role.
THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (April 7, 10:15 pm): An authentic film that pulls no punches about three soldiers returning home from World War II attempting to adjust to life. The film features incredible performances by the legendary and lovely Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Fredric March and Harold Russell (an actual WWII vet who lost both his hands in the war). The film won seven Oscars, including Best Picture. Unlike some multi-Oscar films, this one is truly a classic that remains as real and as powerful as it must have been to movie-goers when it was released in 1946. It's very touching and beautiful.
ED’S BEST BETS:
SHADOW OF A DOUBT (April 2, 6:00 pm): One of the things that made Alfred Hitchcock the master of suspense was his attention to the finer points of human nature. And this movie is an insightful essay on what happens when evil comes to a place where no one would expect it; when it is right there sitting nest to you at the dinner table. Teresa Wright is Charlie, an extremely happy young girl in the happy and charming town of Santa Rosa, California, a picture-postcard kind of place. She is elated when her Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) comes to pay a visit, for she is especially devoted to him, with the two sharing almost a sort of telepathic relationship. But what she doesn’t know is that her beloved Uncle Charlie is on the lam, being suspected by the police as the “Merry Widow Murderer,” responsible for bumping off a number of rich widows back east. The fun in the film is her gradual realization that not all is well with Uncle Charlie and her growing suspicion that he’s not what he appears to be. Hitchcock is at his best in exploring their relationship as it develops and starts to change. But what really makes the film so effective is Hitchcock’s emphasis on what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.” To look at Uncle Charlie or talk with him, one wouldn’t notice anything especially unusual. He is nondescript in almost every way, his only talent being in his ability to poison so many women. That a child completely undoes him only adds another dimension of irony to the picture. It was one of Hitchcock’s favorites and it is a film that I don’t believe gets the credit it should when compared to his thrillers of the ‘50s and ‘60s.
DAY FOR NIGHT (April 2, 4:00 am): This is one of Francois Truffaut’s wittiest and most subtle films – a film about the making of a film. While on the set of Je vous presente Pamela (Introducing Pamela), the story of an English wife running off with her French father-in-law, we also get to know the cast and crew shooting the film, each with his or her own set of problems. Hence the title: a technical cinematographic term for simulating a night scene while shooting during the day. Special filters and optical processors are employed to create the illusion. While Nathalie Baye and Jean-Pierre Leaud are wonderful in their roles, Valentia Cortese steals the picture as the fading actress Severine. For those new to Truffaut, this is the perfect introduction and one not to miss.
WE AGREE ON ... CALL NORTHSIDE 777 (April 2, 12:00 pm)
ED: A. As film noir caught on in the late ‘40s, it begat a new sub-genre: the semi-documentary. Of all the films shot in this format, Call Northside 777 is exceeded only by He Walked by Night. Jimmy Stewart is in top form as reporter P. James McNeal, who, the more he digs, comes to believe that Frank Wiecek, (Richard Conte) imprisoned for the murder of a policeman back in 1932, is innocent. To prove Wiecek’s innocence, McNeal must take on City Hall and the corridors of police corruption. Though the odds are greatly stacked against him, the dogged reporter digs through the piles of testimony, eyewitness accounts, and the like to prove his case. The film as the brainchild of producer Louis De Rochemont, famous as the producer of The March of Time newsreels, who came to Fox after the war and put together a unit to make semi-documentary dramas. In the hands of Fox’s best director, Henry Hathaway, a movie that could have bogged down in its own details instead comes to life as an absorbing and compelling slice of life, especially as experienced by the lower classes in Chicago. The only glitch in the film is the obligatory statement from McNeal to Wiecek that not many governments in the worlds would admit to such a mistake, but it is minor and comes at the end, almost as a afterthought. Besides Stewart several performances stand out: Conte as Wiecek. Lee. J. Cobb as McNeal’s editor, and Betty Garde as Wanda Skutnik, whose testimony sent Wiecek to the pen. It’s a film that should be seen, not only by noir lovers, but by all those interested in a good movie.
DAVID: A. As a journalist, I love movies that make reporters look like superheroes. This 1948 film, done in documentary style and based on a true story, stars screen-legend Jimmy Stewart as Chicago Times newspaper reporter P.J. McNeal. After his editor, played by the underrated Lee J. Cobb, sees an ad in the newspaper placed by a woman who believes her son was falsely convicted 11 years earlier of killing a police officer, he sends a skeptical McNeal to talk to her for an article. Over time, McNeal believes the son, Frank Wiecek, played by Richard Conte, is innocent. Despite roadblocks put in his way by state officials who don't want to be embarrassed by a potentially mistaken prosecution and conviction of a cop-killer, McNeal fights on. Do I really need to tell you how it ends? The movie is at its best when Stewart's questioning and tenacity are front and center. This is one of Stewart's finest and lesser-known performances.
For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here.
For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here.
Sunday, March 26, 2017
By Ed Garea
Bully For Bugs (WB, 1953) – Director: Chuck Jones. Writer: Michael Maltese (story). Animation: Ken Harris, Lloyd Vaughan, Ben Washam. Background: Philip DeGuard. Layout: Maurice Noble. Sound: Treg Brown. Music: Carl Stalling, Milt Franklyn (uncredited). Voices: Mel Blanc. Color, 7 minutes.
If there was anything that could be considered as the quintessential Bugs Bunny cartoon, this might be it, a knock-down, drag-out battle between Bugs and an angry bull loaded with marvelous sight gags.
According to Chuck Jones in his memoir, Chuck Amuck, the idea for the cartoon came one afternoon when Jones and Michael Maltese were in their workroom wrestling with a new story idea:
Suddenly, a furious dwarf stood in the doorway. ‘I don’t want any gags about bullfights, bullfights aren’t funny.’ Exactly the same words he had used to Friz Freleng about never using camels. Out of that dictum came Sahara Hare, one of the funniest cartoons ever made, with one of the funniest camels ever made.
After Eddie Selzer, Warner's animation producer and the “furious dwarf” mentioned above, returned to his office, Jones and Maltese had solved their storyline dilemma. Selzer was famous among the staff for his lack of judgment about cartoon subjects. He had once told Jones that a skunk that speaks French wasn’t funny. Result: For Scent-imental Reasons, which won an Oscar for Best Short Subject in 1950. Selzer, as Jones recalls, had no trouble going up to accept the award.
Bully For Bugs opens at a bullring somewhere south of the border. An impeccably dressed and self-assured matador is standing in the middle of the arena. We hear a bellow and a bull crashes through the doors marked “Toros.” He sizes up the matador and smiles knowingly. The matador grows nervous and we see sweat beading up on his forehead. He throws his cape up in the air as the bull charges through it and begins to chase him around the arena.
Suddenly we see that someone is tunneling into the arena. It’s Bugs, who immediately grasps that he’s in the wrong place. “Hey, this don’t look like the Coachella Valley to me,” he says as he gets out a map and issues that frequent line: “I knew I should’ve made that left toin at Albuquerque.” He sees the matador run by. “Hey, I know. I’ll just ask this gent in the fancy knickerbockers.” He catches up to the fleeing matador and asks if he can direct him to the Coachella Valley and “the Big Carrot Festival therein.” But the matador is too busy fleeing for his life and climbs over the wall. Toro stops right behind Bugs and is snorting heavily. Bugs turns around and smacks him on the nose. “Stop steaming up my tail!” Toro retreats and chalks his horns like a pool cue. He then charges and rams Bugs out of the arena into town. As Bugs sails through the air he tells us, “Of course you realize this means war!”
Toro celebrates his triumph by moving a bead over a line like in a pool hall and bowing to the cheering fans, who are throwing roses at him. We quickly cut to two doors marked Cuadrillas. The doors open to reveal Bugs in a matador’s outfit holding a cape. Toro charges. Bugs stands still. Just before Toro reaches him Bugs holds out the cape, pulls it away and Toro runs head-on into an anvil atop a concrete block. Dazed (his eyes turn from red to light blue), he follows Bugs, who is waving his cape at him and they prance to the underscore of “La Cucaracha.” Toro regains his senses and makes a full charge at Bugs, who once again lifts the cape as Toro runs into the bull shield, piercing it with his horns. Bugs quickly nails them down with a hammer, as one would do with a nail. He thinks he has Toro where he wants him and remarks, “What a gulli-bull! What a nim-cow-poop!” But he is unaware that Toro has detached his horns (this is a cartoon) and bops Bugs in the head with his hoof, knocking the rabbit cold.
While Toro sharpens his horns on a manually powered grinding wheel Bugs interrupts to place a large rubber band over the horns. He then pulls back the band and places a boulder on the end like a slingshot. As he lets it go we see everything from the bull’s perspective. Now it’s Bugs’ turn to bow to the cheers, but as he does so he has his back to Toro and the bull rams him in the behind as he takes his bow, driving him through the wall. Bugs merely peers out at us with his hand on his face, much like Jack Benny, and gives us an embarrassed look.
The next scene finds Bugs wearing a sombrero, dancing up to the bull in tempo to the accompaniment of “Las Chiapanecas,” slapping Toro twice in the face each time he comes up to him. Toro follows, but gets the same treatment. As Bugs goes into a wild dance Toro charges and Bugs disappears into his hole. His arm reaches out to pinch the bull twice on the nose.
A very angry bull is once again sharpening his horns on the wheel as Bugs waits with a shotgun behind his cape. He turns to the camera and says, “Booby trap,” as Toro charges through the cape, swallowing the shotgun, which transforms the shape of his tail. When he strikes his tail against the ground, one of his horns fired a round. The Bull quickly grasps what’s going on, and smiling at the rabbit, begins to chase him, firing bullets from each horn. Suddenly we hear a ‘click, click’ as Toro runs out of bullets. He quickly gets a box of elephant gun bullets and proceeds to swallow the entire box. When he hits his tail against the ground to test fire, however, he explodes.
All this is noticed by Bugs, who is standing before the entrance gates, remarking, “What an im-bezzile! What an ultra-maroon!” Suddenly Toro charges and Bugs realizes he’s trapped against the doors. He awaits his fate by writing out a will and praying, but as the bull reaches him, Bugs simply opens the gates like a garage door as Toro runs past him through the town and out into the horizon. We hear the sounds of hammer and saw in the ring as we cut back to Toro, who bellows loudly and begins running back to the arena. Just before he arrives, Bugs has laid a slick of axle grease, which the bull hits dead on, sliding him up a ramp. He sails over a platform on which there is a paint brush laden with glue, on past a platform with a sheet of sandpaper, which sticks to the Bull’s underside, then past a platform holding a match. The sandpaper lights the match, which in turn lights a fuse. The bull floats at the same speed as the fuse burns and they arrive simultaneously over a barrel of TNT, which explodes, sending the unconscious bull flying into the wooden bull shield.
The cartoon ends with the unconscious bull’s hindquarters sticking out, over which Bugs holds up a cape with the words “The End” stitched on it.
Several things about this cartoon stand out. One is that Jones did take some of his producer’s advice seriously and made sure the bull he drew was merely a caricature. In later interviews he remarked that if he drew the bull anatomically correct, it would have the effect of making the audience root for the bull and evoke feelings of pity, considering what happens to him.
When the bull moves, Jones and his animators have him leave behind multiple hooves in the air to simulate quick movement. He would do the same thing with Witch Hazel later on; when she moved quickly, hairpins were left in the air.
The gag with the bull holding the rubber band in his horns as Bugs placed a boulder on the other end and lets it go was first used in Jones’ 1948 boxing cartoon, Rabbit Punch. In that cartoon, the boulder moving forward and connecting is also shown from the victim’s perspective. Over the years, Jones experimented with perspectives. In his 1946 cartoon, Hair Raising Hare, he shows Bugs inside a suit of armor atop a horse galloping quickly to the sound of a freight train at the monster, who is also in a suit of armor, waiting to waylay Bugs. The action is seen from overhead as Bugs’ lance hits the monster head-on, driving him into the wall and bouncing off as a tin can labeled “Canned Monster.”
The cartoon follows the format of Tex Avery’s Señor Droopy (1949) which sees challenger Droopy taking on the champion matador The Wolf for the affections of actress Lina Romay. Avery’s gags, however, were a lot wilder than those of Jones.
In turn, the opening segment of Bully For Bugs would be reused by Friz Freleng in his 1963 Speedy Gonzales cartoon, Mexican Cat Dance. Animator Ken Harris also used part of the cartoon in his 1959 Hare-Abian Nights, in which Bugs entertains the Sultan with tales from his cartoons Bully For Bugs, Sahara Hare, and Water, Water Every Hare. And even the Pink Panther got in on the act, as Bully For Bugs was remade twice as Bully For Pink (1963) and Toro Pink (1979).
Jones’ memoir, Chuck Amuck has other anecdotes about producer Eddie Selzer. According to Jones, Selzer’s stupidity knew no bounds. He was always asking to see the script for a cartoon. The simple fact of the matter is that cartoons do not have scripts, but are laid out on storyboards. No matter how many times his directors told Eddie about this, it simply went in one ear and out the other, and he continued to ask for scripts.
Another classic Selzer story as related by Jones was the time he walked in as four or five of the staff were laughing over a storyboard. “Just what the hell has all this laughter got to do with the making of animated cartoons?” he thundered.
Those interested in the art of animation should obtain a copy of Chuck Amuck. It’s a scintillating peek into the mind of a creative genius, who, along with Friz Freleng, Tex Avery, Robert McKimson, Bob Clampett, Frank Tashlin, Michael Maltese, Tedd Pierce and a group of superbly talented artists gave us some of the finest animation ever produced.
Wednesday, March 22, 2017
TCM TiVo ALERT
March 23–March 31
DAVID’S BEST BETS:
THE PETRIFIED FOREST (March 23, 8:45 am): In one of his first major roles, Humphrey Bogart plays Duke Mantee, a notorious gangster on the run. Bogart was so great in this 1936 film as the heavy – bringing depth, emotion and character to the role – that Warner Brothers spent nearly five years casting Bogart in other movies as the bad guy. But very few were of this quality. Duke and his gang end up in a diner near the Petrified Forest in Arizona with the police chasing them. The gang takes everyone inside hostage, including Alan Squier (Leslie Howard), a once great writer who is now an alcoholic. Not fearing death because of what life has become for him, Squier engages Duke in conversation, pushing his buttons. The interaction between the two is outstanding. Also at the dinner is Gabrielle Maple (Bette Davis), who owns it with her father and grandfather. Davis is excellent and even subdued as a secondary character.
A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (March 24, 1:30 am): It's horrifying in parts, but the story is told so well and the acting is superb. Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is the leader of the Droogs, a gang of thugs who get high on drug-laced milk and then terrorize London with "a little of the old ultraviolence," They brutally beat up, rape and/or kill arbitrary people for kicks (pun intended). The scenes are graphic, but some include a bit of entertainment. You'll never hear the song "Singin' in the Rain" the same way again. Alex is caught by the authorities and agrees to go through a process to remove his violent behavior by being repeatedly exposed to graphically violent scenes. He's then sent out into the world without the ability to defend himself, and payback is a bitch. Director Stanley Kubrick points the finger at people and government for society's violence and its failings. It's very well done, but be warned again, it's deeply disturbing.
ED’S BEST BETS:
GOJIRA (March 23, 8:00 pm): This is not your father’s Godzilla, with Raymond Burr inserted for American audiences. No, this the original, inspired by a tragic accident that took place when America exploded the first H-Bomb in the Marshall Islands, which used to belong to Japan until World War II. A nearby fishing boat, thought to be out of range of the fallout, got caught and the crew died horribly. That was eight months before this film went into production. Godzilla is a metaphor not only for The Bomb, but for America. In other words, Godzilla R Us. Forget about the American version of the film, which at times didn’t appear to make sense amid all the cuts. This version makes perfect sense and it’s meaning is clear. It’s also a very frightening and serious film, in contrast to the ever increasing silliness of its sequels (except for the first, Gigantis the Fire Monster). It’s a picture that deserves to be seen.
THE THING (FROM ANOTHER WORLD) (March 23, 1:30 am): It’s the scientists (led by Robert Cornthwaite) versus the military (led by Kenneth Tobey) in this sci-fi classic about the discovery of a flying saucer and its occupant near the North Pole. The occupant is alive and represents a wealth of knowledge from an advanced society. One problem: he lives on blood and regards humans as only necessary for his subsistence. Also, he’s busy breeding more of him. Written by Charles Lederer, produced by Howard Hawks, and directed by Christian Nyby (though many film historians assert that it was Hawks who actually directed the movie and giving Nyby, his film editor by trade, a director’s credit), it combines horror and thrills with dark comedy, utilizing its setting well to give the film a claustrophobic feeling. If you’ve seen it before, watch it again. And if you haven’t – this is one film you can’t afford to miss. Also of note is composer Dimitri Tiomkin’s haunting score, achieved with a Theremin.
WE AGREE ON ...TORMENT (March 26, 2:00 am)
ED: A+. Director Alf Sjoberg’s bleak, coming of age drama, with a screenplay by Ingmar Bergman, is also an anti-fascist allegory in its study of the relationship between an idealistic and sensitive student (Alf Kjellin) in a strictly repressive school and his bullying Latin teacher (Stig Jarrel), who makes life hell for the young man. The fact that the young man’s father takes the side of the teacher without even listening to his son’s rational explanation is used by the director and screenwriter as a commentary on parents who ignore their children’s inner lives. The student’s ongoing relationship with an alcoholic store clerk who also moonlights as a prostitute leads to the discovery that the man she says is tormenting her is none other than the Latin teacher, and this discovery will lead to the student’s doom. Though the film is somewhat never in its narrative and execution, it gets points for its subject matter and its sharp black and white photography. Consider that while Sjoberg was making this drama, in America the best we could put out was a weak Val Lewton drama on the perils of juvenile delinquency (Youth Runs Wild) and that MST 3000 favorite – PRC’s I Accuse My Parents.
DAVID: A+. Ingmar Bergman wrote the screenplay and directed small parts of this film, including the finale with Alf Sjoberg as the director, If you watch Bergman-directed films you can see Sjoberg’s influence: The crisp black-and-white cinematography, effective use of shadows and the slow mental breakdown of one of the main characters. Torment is about problems at a Swedish high school, primarily caused by a cruel and sadistic Latin teacher, (Stig Jarrel). We never learn the teacher’s name, but all of the students and some of the other teachers call him Caligula behind his back. (Yeah, he’s that bad.) The movie focuses on one student, Jan-Erik Widgren (Alf Kjellin), the target for much of Caligula’s torture. Widgren falls in love with a slightly older woman who works at a store near the school, selling cigarettes. A troubled soul, she tells Widgren of her victimization at the hands of a mysterious older man. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out who is the older man. It's a deep and compelling film with an impressive conclusion.
For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here.
For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here.
Sunday, March 19, 2017
The Psychotronic Zone
By Ed Garea
The Mask of Fu Manchu (MGM, 1932) – Directors: Charles Brabin, Charles Vidor (uncredited). Writers: Irene Kuhn, Edgar Allan Woolf & John Willard (s/p). Sax Rohmer (novel, The Mask of Fu Manchu). Stars: Boris Karloff, Lewis Stone, Karen Morley, Charles Starrett, Myrna Loy, Jean Hersholt, Lawrence Grant, & David Torrence. B&W, 68 minutes.
It’s hokum, hokum on a grand scale, but what saves it from being just another excursion into camp is the strength of its performances and the money lavished on sets. Despite a plot that bordered on the ridiculous, it went on to influence not only just about every serial featuring mortals versus super villains from the ‘30s to the early ‘50s, but also goes beyond that to James Bond and Indiana Jones.
As America slid deeper into the Great Depression, the studios were seeking to make films that not only appealed to an audience shell-shocked by the economy, but would provide enough of a return to keep the studio afloat. Universal had great success with Dracula and Frankenstein the year before and the other studios rushed to cash in on the horror boom. But MGM, like Warner Bros., eschewed the supernatural approach in favor of flesh-and-blood villains. For their villain they turned to the pulp novels of English writer Sax Rohmer (real name Arthur Sarsfield Ward), whose Fu Manchu series (14 novels and story collections published between 1913 and 1959) depicted the adventures of the Chinese criminal mastermind. For many readers, the series reinforced the concept of the “Yellow Peril,” a common fear of Asian domination at the time. Fu Manchu was the incarnation of the Yellow Peril: highly educated (with a doctor of philosophy from Edinburgh, a doctor of law from Christ’s College, and a doctor of medicine from Harvard), inscrutable, and totally amoral, seeking to wipe out the white race. He was not the first supervillain (that honor goes to Fritz Lang’s Dr, Mabuse), but Rohmer’s evil mastermind has been the subject of a number of films. A series of 23 short silent films starring H. Agar Lyons as Fu Manchu was made in England between 1923 and 1924, all of which seem to be lost today. Warner Oland, who later portrayed Charlie Chan, played Fu Manchu in three prior films for Paramount: The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (1929), The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu (1930), and Daughter of the Dragon (1931).
The studio beat the publicity drums to rouse audience interest. Colliers magazine serialized Rohmer’s latest Fu Manchu adventure, The Mask of Fu Manchu (on which the film is based) from May to July of 1932. Doubleday published the hardcover edition of the novel in October 1932.
The film began production in early August 1932, with Charles Vidor as director and Courtenay Terrett writing the screenplay adaptation. Within a couple weeks, they were fired. A new team of scriptwriters and a new director – Charles Brabin – were hired as replacements. The production was rushed and chaotic, with Brabin reshooting Vidor’s material. Hollywood wags called it The Mess of Fu Manchu. It was also quite elaborate, accounting for the picture's relatively high cost for the period – over $327,000.
For its rendition of Fu Manchu, MGM borrowed Boris Karloff from Universal. To play his sex-crazed daughter, Fah Lo See, the studio called on its resident Exotic, Myrna Loy. When Karloff saw an early version of the script that called for him to bounce back and forth between speaking flawless Oxford English to speaking pidgin, he decided that the only way to approach his role was to not take it seriously. When Loy complained about the quality of the script he told her of his plans and she agreed to follow along. Being as the two of then had to be there, anyway, they might as well have some fun with it. In her autobiography Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming, the actress noted that when she saw the film many years later, “It astonished me how good Karloff and I were. Everyone else just tossed it off as something that didn't matter, while Boris and I brought some feeling and humor to those comic-book characters. Boris was a fine actor, a professional who never condescended to his often unworthy material.”
That attitude is what makes this film such fun to watch. We take a perverse pleasure in watching the wily doctor at work, and his daughter is an enticing piece of eye candy, a sadistic and sensual dragon lady. Lewis Stone was cast as Fu’s nemesis, Commissioner Nayland Smith of the British Secret Service, who was forever battling Fu wherever and whenever he appeared.
As the film opens, Sir Lionel Barton (Grant) has been summoned to the office of Commissioner Nayland Smith (Stone). Sir Lionel is astonished to to learn that Smith knows about his proposed expedition to the Gobi Desert to seek the tomb of Genghis Kahn. Smith informs Barton that Khan’s golden mask and scimitar are also being sought by Dr. Fu Manchu (Karloff), who believes that, once possessing these ancient artifacts, he can unite the Asian peoples in a war against the West. Thus, it is imperative that Barton get to the tomb before Fu Manchu.
Later, at the British Museum, Barton tells his long-time friends and collaborators, Von Berg (Hersholt) and McLeod (Torrence), about the mission. They immediately agree to accompany him. However, as Barton leaves his office at the museum, he is set upon by three sinister figures who were disguised as mummies. They overpower and kidnap him.
Days later, Smith is visited in his office by Barton’s daughter Sheila (Morley), who is inquiring about the whereabouts of her father. Smith tells her he received a telegram informing him that Fu Manchu is holding Sir Lionel captive somewhere near Liangchow. He also tells her he is sending an expedition to rescue her father, and that McLeod and Torrence, along with Sheila’s fiancé, Terry Granville (Starrett), will carry on with the quest for Genghis Kahn’s artifacts. Sheila wishes to go with them, arguing that her knowledge of the expedition, learned over the years from her father, will save precious days of searching. Despite Smith’s apprehensions, she is determined to accompany the mission.
We now find ourselves at Fu Manchu’s headquarters, where he is attempting to bribe Sir Lionel for the information on the whereabouts of the secret tomb, first with the offer of money, then by the offer of his own daughter, Fah Lo See (Loy). When Barton rejects both with the proper amount of contempt, Fu subjects him to the “torture of the bell,” tying Barton under a large bell that is constantly rung. After some time has passed, Fu enters the room, stops the bell, and gives Barton a drink of salt water. He then offers fresh water, food and sleep if only Barton will tell him where the tomb is located. Barton still refuses, so Fu has the bell restarted.
Meanwhile, with the help of Sheila, the expedition finds the entrance to Genghis Khan’s tomb. Von Berg, McLeod, Granville and Sheila lower themselves into the underground tomb. As McLeod breaks the seal on the tomb the group notes a warning posted above: “May the curse of the gods descend upon him and his forever who dares enter herein.” Once inside they discover the skeleton of Genghis Khan wearing the legendary golden mask. Resting on his lap is the golden scimitar. As Terry removes these artifacts, the team’s Chinese laborers rush into the chamber and throw themselves at the feet of Khan’s skeleton. They are only dispersed when the archaeologists fire their guns into the air.
Back at Fu’s palace, he is holding court, having gathered the leaders of all the Asian nations. He calls forth his “ugly and insignificant daughter” to address the assembly. Fah Lo See informs then that the prophecy is about to be fulfilled: Genghis Khan has returned to lead Asia against the world.
The archaeologists reach town and find Nayland Smith waiting for them, having joined in the hunt for Fu Manchu. He takes them to a deserted house, telling them that he knows that Fu Manchu is in the vicinity, and that it is imperative that the artifacts are shipped out of the country as soon as possible so that they are in a position to negotiate for Sir Lionel. The artifacts are placed in an upper room with McLeod locked in to guard the treasures. However, Fu Manchu’s minions are watching, and before long McLeod is found dying with a knife in his back.
Smith now tells Granville it is imperative that they leave with the artifacts that night. Granville replies that everyone is worn out from the events of the day, but Smith reminds him of what Fu might do if he discovers they have a beautiful white woman with them.
The next day, Terry finds a human hand wearing Sir Lionel's ring. Fu sends a messenger to inform the expedition that he will return Barton for the artifacts. Sheila agrees and Terry delivers the sword and mask to Fu. Fah Lo See, who is attracted to Terry, orders her father's men to whip him when the sword turns out to be fake. She wants to make love to him later, but is stopped by her father, who has other things in mind for Terry. Fu then has Sir Lionel's body delivered to the expedition's compound and Smith sadly reveals that he had made the phony relics to fool the evil warlord. He then tells Von Berg that he knows where Fu is hiding and sets out to rescue Terry.
Smith enters an opium den, where he sees a man with the Tattoo of Manchu on his shoulder. He follows the man and locates the secret entrance to Fu's headquarters. After Fu discovers Smith, Smith demands the release of Terry just as Terry is about to be injected by Fu with a serum that will make him totally subject to the Doctor's will. Fu prepares the serum, derived from various reptiles and deadly insects, and tells Terry that it is the smallest dose, so that he will be himself again for Fah Lo See. Smith is tied to a table in a room where below him are alligators.
Soon Terry, now under the drug’s influence, goes to Sheila. Sheila suspects that Terry has been drugged when he blankly asks for the real artifacts, but she and Von Berg still go with him and are captured by Manchu's men. At Fu's headquarters, Sheila sees Fah Lo See with Terry and manages to snap him out of his stupor. Fu orders Sheila to taken away to be prepared as a human sacrifice to the gods. The next morning, as Sheila lies on the sacrificial table, Smith breaks free from his alligator-infested cell and releases Terry. Together they free Von Berg and tamper with Manchu's electricity machine, sending an electrical charge to the sword, killing the Doctor. While Terry rescues Sheila, Smith and Von Berg use the machine to send shocks to Manchu's men. On the boat back to England, Smith decides to throw the evil sword overboard, making the world safe once more for British imperialism.
The Mask of Fu Manchu is nothing if not outrageous, a lavish fantasy of paranoid Yellow Peril anxiety. The idea of the Yellow Peril was a common one in the Western world. In America, it dates back to the immigration of Chinese and Japanese after the Civil War. The fear really took off with the emergence of Japan as a world power after the First World War. One of the main sources for this fear was the media empire of William Randolph Hearst. Thus, it seems to be no accident that Hearst’s film unit, Cosmopolitan Productions, was the one behind the film. The racism runs throughout, commencing right from the opening scene where Nayland Smith cajoles Sir Lionel to take up his expedition by conjuring up visions of an all-out race war should Fu Manchu get to Genghis Khan’s relics first: “He’ll lead hundreds of millions of men to sweep the world.” This gets right to the roots of the fear – that a charismatic leader will emerge, unify the masses and lead them to the conquest of the West.
Rohmer, on one hand, saw Fu Manchu, as “yellow peril incarnate.” Yet, despite these anti-Asian sentiments, Rohmer made Fu Manchu extraordinarily intelligent, even displaying noble traits. Rohmer also allowed for a certain grudging respect between the Chinese master criminal and his thoroughly British nemesis, Nayland Smith. This subtle point is lost in The Mask of Fu Manchu.
Of course, what every Asian man and woman desires is white men and women as bedmates. When Smith exhorts the expedition’s team to leave camp as soon as possible, he gives them a warning: “Do you suppose for a moment that Fu Manchu doesn’t know we have a beautiful white girl with us?”
Later, when Terry is captured, Fu Manchu turns him over to his nympho daughter, Fah Lo See. She orders Terry to be strung up, stripped to the waist, and whipped into unconsciousness. She cries “Faster! Faster!” to the black slaves wielding the whips, watching in a state of undisguised and increasing sexual arousal. (In the original script, she does the whipping herself.) Having had her victim carried to her bedroom, Fah Lo See runs her long fingernails over his chest and is about to jump his bones when her father interrupts. She makes it clear to her father that she has designs on him as her next boy toy. "He is not entirely unhandsome, is he, my father?" To which Fu Manchu responds, "For a white man, no.” But the Doctor has thought up a way to get the knowledge of where the real treasures are. “May I suggest a slight delay in your customary procedure?” he says to his daughter, giving us a possible hint that this scenario has played out frequently before. The Doctor then uses his knowledge to extract the blood from a variety of toxic animals, including rattlesnakes and tarantulas, and mixing it with some of his own blood, concocts a serum that will render Terry completely under his will. After he has served his usefulness, Fu will return him to his daughter as her personal sex-slave.
Another instance of undisguised racism occurs after Fu Manchu takes Sheila into custody. “You hideous yellow monster,” she spits at him. The Doctor intends using her as a sacrifice to the gods in front of his assembled guests. Decked out in shimmering white robes, Shiela is carried in by the Doctor’s black servants while the crowds stretch out to paw at her. As she is placed upon the alter, Fu Manchu looms over her and addresses the crowd: “Would you all have maidens like this for your wives? Then conquer and breed! Kill the white man and take his women!” The crowd responds much as we expect, enthusiastically endorsing his idea.
At the end, after Fu has been vanquished, the heroes are on a boat when they suddenly hear a gong, followed by the arrival of a Chinese man (Willie Fung). Their worries are put to rest when the man, dimwitted and properly servile, speaking in pidgin English, is only announcing – between short bouts of inane giggling – that dinner is being served. We can all rest easy.
While the Asians, and Chinese in particular, are endowed by the scriptwriters with some intelligence (Fu Manchu, after all, has three doctorates), the Africans are reduced to little more than mindless brutes. Fu Manchu keeps a small army of black henchmen serving as muscle, and sometimes as victims – nameless, faceless ciphers who stand around wearing nothing but nappies, lending a homoerotic undercurrent to the proceedings. It's hard to look at them without concluding that Fu Manchu and his daughter like having such models of masculine physicality on the premises.
Interestingly, as time passes and more Fu Manchu stories are put on film, none comes close to the malevolent spirit of this film. Even looking over this film today, the attitudes are so over the top as to be laughable, perhaps because we can see clearly that neither Karloff nor Loy is taking the nonsense seriously. In an interview given years later, Loy told of reading into psychology in order to understand her character better and going up to director Brabin, saying, “I’m playing a nymphomaniac.” In fact, the attitude of both Karloff and Loy gets us in the audience to sympathize with them, as the whites are so obviously humorless.
The film's main problem is its pacing. It seems to have been shot while the crew was on speed. Everything is happening at an accelerated pace, as though the object was to get the film over with as quickly as possible, making it seem even shorter than its 69 minutes. There were so many rewrites that the fate of Fah Lo See was entirely forgotten at the end. Director Brabin’s main failing is that he is not an action director. As a consequence, the film runs to the static and talky. Though it was shot by the noted cameraman Tony Gaudio, Brabin prefers to let the camera hang back and let the action play out in front of it rather than immersing it into the action. Brabin shoots Karloff for maximum malevolent effect. We first see him appearing on the right side of the frame while on the left an oval funhouse mirror distorts and stretches his face into a disembodied mask. The director’s use of underlighting for both Fu Manchu and Fah Lo See heightens their exotic menace. To further emphasize the difference, Karen Morely's Sheila is blonde and clad in white, while Loy's Fah Lo See is dark and clad accordingly.
Fortunately for Brabin’s rather static style, the film’s main attraction is its torture scenes, which are truly amazing, ranging from Sir Lionel tied upside-down inside a huge bell and tortured by dangling grapes over his lips and giving him salt water to drink to Nayland Smith placed on a bed precariously suspended over a pit of alligators along with a sand-timer that slowly causes it to overbalance. And, for added effect, Von Berg is tied to a seat between a giant clamp-like device with two spiked pads slowly moving towards him.
The sets, designed by Cedric Gibbons, are simply inspired. Brabin does an excellent job decking out Fu’s hideout, Kahn’s tomb and the hotel where the heroes stay with moody lighting and mysterious shadows. Also impressive are entire wall-size maps in the museum, the tomb interior filled with opulent costumery, and a bed built into the wall.
Kenneth Strickfaden, famous for designing the laboratory equipment for Universal's Frankenstein films, was employed to create the film's electrical equipment. The makeup designed to transform Karloff into Fu Manchu required three hours preparation each day before shooting, with putty to fill in the area around his eyes and a reshaping of his nose. Tooth caps and long fingernails were applied, along with a wig, mustache and painted eyebrows.
The performances overall are excellent. As mentioned previously, both Karloff and Loy excel as the villains of the piece, even though there were times when both would break down into giggles reciting their lines. Karloff does a marvelous job playing his character to the hilt while being careful not to go overboard. He takes obviously obscene delights in the tortures he inflicts on his victims, balancing them out against a subservient, perfectly mannered Hollywood-type Chinese accent. Karloff’s interpretation is in direct contrast to the Fu Manchu portrayal by Christopher Lee over 30 years later: Karloff’s Fu Manchu is delightfully lascivious, while Lee’s is cold and distant.
Myrna Loy brings energy and conviction to the role of Fah Lo See. Exotically beautiful in her gowns and headdress, her sensuality and libidinous attitude pushed the limits of the Pre-Code era.
As Nayland Smith, Lewis Stone is given little to do besides direct traffic. Jean Hersholt, Karen Morely and Lawrence Grant bring solid professionalism to their black and white roles. Charles Starrett, playing boy toy Terry, didn’t make much of an impression in the film. Prepped by both Paramount and MGM to be a romantic star, he failed and landed at Columbia, where he made quite a niche for himself in the ‘40s as B-Western hero The Durango Kid. When the series finally ran out of steam in the early ‘50s after almost 50 movies, Starrett retired. Shrewd investments returned a small fortune that he and his wife used to travel the world.
Fu Manchu proved a difficult character to kill. He returned in 1940 in a 15-chapter serial for Republic, The Drums of Fu Manchu, with Henry Brandon as the Doctor. There were six Mexican films from 1943 to 1949 starring David T. Bamberg. John Carradine was Fu Manchu and Sir Cedric Hardwicke was Nayland Smith in a short televised play for NBC directed by William Cameron Menzies, The Adventures of Fu Manchu: The Zagat Kiss, in 1952. In 1956, Glen Gordon starred in a 30-minute syndicated series about the Doctor. It lasted for only 13 episodes before being canceled.
Christopher Lee starred in five Fu Manchu films produced by Harry Alan Towers: The Face of Fu Manchu (1965), The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967), The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968), and The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969). Tsai Chin played his daughter Lin Tang. Finally, Peter Sellers played both Fu Manchu and Nayland Smith in The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu (1980).
But perhaps the most lasting effect of The Mask of Fu Manchu is the influence it has had on the action/adventure films that followed it. Such serials as Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and those with Commando Cody among others featured their heroes up against villains that employ elaborate electronic devices to try and enslave the earth. The James Bond series, both books and films, takes many cues from both Rohmer and The Mask of Fu Manchu. The most recent influence of the film can be seen in the Indiana Jones series, with archeologist Indy taking on the forces of evil wherever he finds them. While we may never see Dr. Fu Manchu again, we will still be able to enjoy those influenced by the style for years to come.
Fu Manchu introduces himself to Sir Lionel Barton: “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.’”