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.’”