|Dr. Fu Manchu …
|Fah Lo See …
|Nayland Smith …
|Von Berg …
Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- The entrance to the villain’s lair is through an opium den.
- Upon preparing to torture a man, the mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu promises his victim that he will be starved, driven mad, and “unmistakably fowl”, which is a really cool euphemism for pooping yourself if ever there was one.
- Fu Manchu’s daughter has a man whipped while very clearly getting off to it.
- Some of the tomb architecture involves statues of naked ladies.
- The villains send throw a severed hand over into the hero’s hotel just to scare the bejeebus out of them.
- There’s a death ray. It kills a lot of people.
- Oh, hey, this film may have commentary on racial politics. Some examples of dialogue, no context really needed:
- “Don’t you think Fu Manchu knows we’ve got a white girl here?”
- “Then conquer and breed! Conquer the white man and take his women!”
The Mask of Fu Manchu: The Hidden Yellow Horror
“Do we ever understand these Eastern races? Do we ever learn anything?”
Movies that put the villain’s name in the title rather than the heroes have always had a certain fascination for me. Normally that’s reserved for the hero, the person you’re supposed to be rooting for. In this series, where the fiendish Dr. Fu Manchu is often at the center of the mischief, he’s a wonder of a villain, and the interest doesn’t lie in the audience rooting for him, but rather in their interest in discovering his convoluted plots and seeing him defeated.
To say that Fu Manchu is a rather nasty piece of racial caricature is common knowledge at this point. MGM (yes, MGM made this) even emphasize this grossly, with the malevolent man adorned in pointed ears and long fingernails. If you followed my advice from a few months back and watched The Bitter Tea of General Yen, then you can have some fun. The nightmarish and cartoonish Chinaman that Barbara Stanwyck imagines in that movie who is trying to rob her of her virtue is recreated identically here, only sans the cartoon.
It gets worse. How can it get worse? Easy: this Fu Manchu doesn’t just look the part of world conquering maniac, but he violates all of those prized Christian norms that a white Protestant audience adore. Not only does he urge his followers to kill the white man and procreate with their women, but his particular brand of sadism makes it pretty obvious with a few lip licking leers that he might not mind keeping a few hunky white guys around either.
Dr. Fu Manchu possesses doctorates in philosophy, medicine and law from the best universities in the world– one imagines the law degree is just so he can check them off as he breaks all of them. The man’s an obvious genius, and mixes occult in with his scientific learning to create a potent enemy. Better yet, he has a network of spies and thieves who operate under him which seems to consist of, oh, every single non-white person in the world. That kind of recruiting expertise is damned impressive.
With that kind of character, you can see why Fu Manchu is held in such fascination. He’s a monster that we made by sharing our knowledge, a bisexual madman who will exploit and combine all manners of science and mysticism to control the world and cast a genocide upon all of the cruel white oppressors.
And, you know, these days it’s hard to blame him, save for the genocide and rape parts. The West’s exploitation of the East was in full swing at this point, and Japan’s consequential push back was less than a half a decade away. It’s shown repeatedly throughout the film that not just the Chinese but anyone who looks Asian or black is an enemy of Western/Christian goodness and must be stopped. This was a widely held cultural attitude.
The film exalts the white hegemony to a ludicrous if unsurprising degree. Dr. Fu Manchu’s scheme here, which involves death rays and the mystical mask/sword combo of Genghis Kahn, are waylaid by a band of intrepid white archeologists and detectives who basically bungle their way into stopping him. There’s the thick hunky guy, the German guy who can dig pretty well, the beautiful blonde for Fu Manchu to drool over, and of course Inspector Nayland Smith. Nayland’s the Scotland Yard rep who keeps crapping his pants whenever Fu Manchu comes up in conversation.
And well he should! Dr. Fu Manchu is a more laid back version of Jack Bauer, as he murders and tortures with the relative luxury of someone who enjoys it too much. He has a daughter, Fah Lo See, whose idea of a good time is watching a white man get whipped repeatedly by two shirtless muscular black men.
And yeah, that’s America’s sweetheart Myrna Loy getting her rocks off royally. Her character’s use in the plot is to make sure the audience doesn’t suddenly feel sympathy for Asian women either all of a sudden.
The set design and look of the film is absolutely sumptuous. Fu Manchu’s lair, Kahn’s tomb, and the hotel the white people find themselves holed up in are intricately designed masterpieces of mood and menace. As always, I’ve provided a gallery below, and I highly suggest you look through it. Director Charles Brabin (Beast of the City) goes full out with moody lighting, smokey interiors, and mysterious shadows.
Besides the racial content, the plot is pure pulp nonsense, including an extended “Remember who you are!” speech which is pretty bad even for the standards of such moments. One fun moment, and a great example of just how money is on screen, is Nayland escaping from an elaborate timed seesaw of death that sees him aimed at a pit of alligators. They’re real alligators, jaws and all, and watching actor Lewis Stone race past them is a amazing rush.
Speaking of the actors, did I mention this movie stars Boris Karloff? His Fu Manchu seems to share a good amount of DNA with Poelzig from The Black Cat in terms of sexual chicanery and masochism. There isn’t a moment where it doesn’t look like he’s having an absolute blast personifying this man of such magnetic cruelty, and it makes the film much easier to digest. Myrna Loy, who sometimes underplays her parts to the point of sleepwalking, gives several good rises here following in Fu Manchu’s footsteps.
The bland as hell heroes rarely do the white race any favors. Lewis Stone is fine as Nayland, portraying the kind of guy who knows how hopelessly outmatched he is from step one and yet still enthusiastically encourages everyone to go on an expedition to Mongolia. The rest are pretty faces, save for Jean Herscholt who at least radiates respectability, something much of the film is in short supply of.
The Mask of Fu Manchu is a lavish paranoid fantasy. Anyone who scoffs at yellow face or simply gets infuriated by racial politics should probably avoid this one, as should anyone impressionable to this sort of hokum. For anyone who can look past it and meet these ideas straight on, the movie offers itself as a bizarrely entertaining time capsule of a romp. It’s dated, but undeniably unique.
Here are some extra screenshots I took. Click on any picture to enlarge!
Trivia & Links
- Black Hole Reviews does a thorough comparison between the movie and the book it’s based on. Many things are changed– the Chinese of the film were originally Muslim and Fu Manchu was reigniting a jihad!– with the most important change being the ending. Because Fu Manchu originally got away with it.
- Roderick Heath at This Island Rod tackles the film’s racial and sexual subtexts as well. This is an extremely well-written passage;
The racism is rendered in such flagrantly bogus terms that it’s hard to take seriously, and yet the film is certainly not in the least embarrassed about wielding the most paranoid, caricatured vision imaginable of Fu Manchu as an equal, opposite master of reverse-imperialism inciting the “East”, apparently a conglomeration of storybook Sultans, effete Asiatics and brawny, disposable Africans, to war against the West. Taken at face value, the ludicrous stereotypes, the rhetoric with which Fu whips up his followers, calling for them to kill all white men and marry their women, and even the jokey final scene offering up an ugly, dim-witted Chinese steward on a ship as a (phew) non-brilliant, properly servile representative of the east, could make you want to take a shower afterwards. Imperialist-era genre tales often revolved around paranoia over the importation of the signs of foreign culture, and that’s acutely visualized here in the almost surreal scene in which a collection of Egyptian mummy cases disgorge living agents of Fu, swathed in bandages, to drug and kidnap Barton, a touch that could have leapt straight out of Louis Feuillade, as well as deeper, darker artists of the unconscious.
- Only the Cinema does a good job of talking about the homoerotic undercurrent in the film:
As interesting as these surface elements are, the film’s strange undercurrents of homoerotic imagery and exoticization are even more fascinating. Once Terry is taken prisoner by Fu Manchu and Fah Lo See, he’s stripped to the waist and chained to a slab so that Fah Lo See can lounge over him, running her long claw-like fingernails across his chest. And then there’s the scene where Fu Manchu does the same thing, running his own nails across Terry’s chest, mirroring his daughter’s admiration of this white man. At one point, she even implicitly offers up Terry for her father’s appreciation: “He is not entirely unhansom, is he, my father?” To which Fu Manchu responds, “For a white man, no.” This homoerotic undercurrent certainly extends to the black servants who are kept by the Chinese: strapping, muscular dark men, half-naked in tiny underwear-like shorts. They stand around looking like statues with their sculpted bodies, and it’s hard to look at them without thinking that Fah Lo See, and probably Fu Manchu as well, likes having such models of masculine physicality hanging around.
- Moria has the details of the other films about Fu Manchu from the time that this was made, including a few from the early 30s starring Warner Oland. Greenbriar Picture Show goes into the other pre-Code Fu Manchu movies that are in legal limbo.
- For plenty of more links, take a look at FilmFanatic.Org’s take on the movie.
- Plenty of stills, lobby cards, and posters from Dr. Macro.
- Whenever we talk about the movies of the era, it isn’t a bad idea to bring up the radio programs either. Fu Manchu has a long history on the airwaves which are carefully documented via Martin Grams.
- Forget the Talkies has a long, in-depth article about yellow face in film. The article also details American/Chinese relations during this time and the effect that talkies had on silent Asian actors and actresses.
- And, seriously, if you watch this film, watch The Bitter Tea of General Yen afterward. It may make your head explode.
Thanks to Lantern, there are hundreds of issues of fan magazine and industry journals from the pre-Code era available for free. Here are some related articles; click on the ‘View Full Sized Image’ in the bottom right to view!
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- This film appeared in the Wikipedia List of Pre-Code Films.
- This film is available via Warner Archive Instant.
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