Friday, October 31, 2014

MM Movie Review: The Mask of Fu Manchu

One of the most visible “monsters” of the golden age of classic horror movies was the mad scientist. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, “Frankenstein”, “The Invisible Man” and many more featured the ever-present mad scientist. One, however, that must surely stand out from the rest was the villainous Dr. Fu Manchu, starring bad guy in a series of novels by Sax Rohmer. There have been many films featuring the western-educated Asian warlord and most probably associate the character with the great horror actor Christopher Lee. However, by far the best of all the Fu Manchu movies was one of the earliest; “The Mask of Fu Manchu” starring none other than the horror icon Boris Karloff in the title role. Released in 1932 by MGM it says something that “The Mask of Fu Manchu” was still considered extremely controversial many decades after its release and only very recently was released in its original, unedited form. Contrary to the title, the driving force in the story is not the mask of Fu Manchu but rather the mask of Genghis Khan, and his sword as well, which the villainous doctor is intent on gaining for himself. Karloff as Fu Manchu is one of the great horror performances of all time and the bad guy scenes dominate the movie thanks to him and the great Myrna Loy as his daughter Fah Lo See. Today she is probably best known as Nora Charles in the magnificent “Thin Man” series of films, but originally she was often cast as villainous, alluring, and usually foreign, femme fatales and her part in “The Mask of Fu Manchu” was one of her last (and greatest) such appearances. The movie was plagued with bad luck but, thankfully, it doesn’t show and deserves a place amongst the great horror classics.

Would this face lie to you?
One illustration of the problems had in making the movie is that it had two directors, one who started it and another who finished it. Charles Brabin is the one credited as the director but the original director was Charles Vidor, originally Karoly Vidor, a Jewish-Hungarian filmmaker from Budapest who served in the Imperial-Royal Army of Austria-Hungary in the First World War. If that seems unusual, keep in mind that such iconic horror actors such as Peter Lorre (star of such horror classics as MGM’s “Mad Love”) and Bela Lugosi (forever famous as Universal’s “Dracula”) were also veterans of the Austro-Hungarian military. Peter Lorre was actually the commandant of a POW camp for a time in World War I. This review is being included here because it’s Halloween and because the plot of the film centers around the immensely powerful symbolism of one of history’s greatest monarchs, the Mongol emperor Genghis Khan. However, there were plenty of monarchial connections among the cast & crew, though I doubt any of them were monarchists. Leading man Boris Karloff, a native of England with Anglo-Indian ancestry, never took American citizenship, despite spending most of his life in America and gaining his greatest fame in Hollywood and always remained a British subject. He was also a great-nephew of Anna Leonowens whose life inspired the famous musical “The King and I”, and other works and films, highly fictionalized accounts of her life at the court of the King of Siam. “The Mask of Fu Manchu” was a first for Karloff, being the first time he had a large speaking part.

"the Yellow Peril incarnate"
The film opens in London where Sir Denis Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone) of the British secret service meets with noted Egyptologist Sir Lionel Barton (played by Lawrence Grant). He knows Barton thinks he knows the location of the tomb of Genghis Khan. Along with the remains of the great conqueror, the tomb contains the mask and sword of Genghis Khan and Smith warns Barton that the villainous Dr. Fu Manchu is on the hunt for these treasures as well and that Barton must find them before Fu Manchu does or the consequences could be disastrous. Smith warns Barton that, “in your hands these things would be merely interesting archaeological specimens to go into British Museum, but should Fu Manchu put that mask across his wicked eyes and take that scimitar into his bony, cruel hands, all Asia rises. He’ll declare himself Genghis Khan come to life again. And that, my friend, is what you have got to prevent. You must find that grave, and you must be the first to find it.” Well, Barton is a patriot and agrees. He goes to a meeting at the museum late at night to tell his fellow archaeologists about the expedition and where they are going -and that they have to get there before Fu Manchu does. This prompts one of the men to quip, “A Chinaman beat me? He couldn’t do it!” This was only one of many lines that was edited out for being racist. Most, however, were actually lines spoken by “Asians” (usually Fu Manchu).

Terry meets the family
Unfortunately for Barton, Fu Manchu had some of his minions shadowing him, dressed as mummies and hiding in sarcophagi (perhaps a nod to Universal’s “The Mummy”, also starring Karloff, released the following month). They kidnap Barton and take him to the Far East, to the lair of Fu Manchu, somewhere in the area of northern China/Inner Mongolia. Back in London, Barton’s daughter, Sheila (Karen Morley) freaks out in a gloriously over-acted scene when she hears that her father is missing and most likely in the clutches of Fu Manchu who is, evidently, famous all over the world for his tortures. She decides to lead her father’s expedition herself, bringing along her hunky, muscle-headed fiancé Terry. Meanwhile, back in the palace of Fu Manchu (and props to the set designer for doing a spectacular job on that, all the sets in this movie look absolutely fantastic) Barton is brought before Dr. Fu Manchu, played to villainous, hissing perfection by Karloff (his natural lisp coming in handy for a change). He is such a great, colorful character, I don’t see how anyone could watch this movie and not start rooting for the bad guys, even as Fu Manchu angrily vows to “wipe out the whole accursed White race!” Although the film makes no mention of it, those familiar with previous films or the novels will know that Fu Manchu’s hatred of westerners comes from the fact that his family were killed during the Boxer Rebellion and the man knows how to hold a grudge. Whether such context would have made any difference to the censors who wiped out so many of his overtly racist lines in the film, who can say?

Can I keep him Dad?
Yet, Fu Manchu, say what you will of him, does try to be peaceful. He first tries to get Barton to tell him the location of the tomb by offering him money and women, even his own daughter (as she stands right there!) and it is only when Barton refuses that he subjects the Englishman to the infamous ‘torture of the bell’ which Fu Manchu delivers with sadistic glee, taunting his helpless victim on several occasions. In the meantime, Sheila and company discover the tomb, the enthroned corpse of the great conqueror and retrieve the mask and sword. Sir Denis meets up with them later and some of their number are killed as the minions of Fu Manchu try to steal the artifacts. Having no luck there, the villainous doctor sends one his chief lackeys to bargain for them with Sheila. He offers the life of her father in return for the relics and brings along Barton’s severed hand just to prove that he has him and that his threats are to be taken seriously. Sir Denis does not want to negotiate but Sheila uses her feminine charm to convince Terry to secretly snatch the sword and mask and take them to Fu Manchu. The villainous doctor is elated at first but a quick test shows the scimitar to be a fake and he is enraged, uttering one of the best lines of the movie when he calls Terry a “cursed son of a White dog!” Terry had no idea the items were fakes, Sir Denis having previously switched them out, but no one believes him. Fah Lo See, quite the sadistic little nymphomaniac, takes big, strong Aryan Terry away to be whipped by two big, Black African servants as she shouts in excitement. You can have fun watching scenes like this with friends to see how they react; will they be offended that all the good guys are White and all the villains are Asians with African henchmen or will they cheer at the White guy being tortured?

that is a courting hat if I ever saw one
Dr. Fu Manchu, however, has more in mind for Terry and does not allow his daughter to harm him too much. Using snakes, tarantulas and other evil creatures he creates a mind-control potion that makes Terry his automaton. He also delivers Barton’s dead body to Sheila, showing that he kept his word. Sheila goes off the deep end only to have Terry turn up (under Fu Manchu’s spell) and convince her to take the real sword and mask to a nearby town where Sir Denis is waiting to meet them. It is a trap of course and they are captured and taken before Fu Manchu who finally has his prize. In a gathering of Asian chieftains, his daughter tells them of a vision that Genghis Khan would come back again and would lead the hordes of the east against the west and their might will sweep the world. Dr. Fu Manchu sends the rest of the party away to be tortured to death but keeps Sheila as a human sacrifice, to be killed when he reveals himself with the sword and mask to the other Asian warlords. However, Sir Denis is still on the loose and finds Fu Manchu by following one of his minions. He is quickly captured of course, but escapes and helps to free the others while Fu Manchu, in full regalia, is giving a rousing speech to his fellow warlords, telling them, among other things, to “conquer and breed! Kill the White man and take his women!” in another line that was censored from the film.

Try to trick me you cursed son of a White dog?!
Above, in his laboratory, Sir Denis and company find the doctor’s death ray and start zapping the assembled crowd, starting with Fu Manchu, while Terry rescues Sheila in the confusion. The party then escapes, leaving the death ray on automatic fire, raining down vengeance on the Asian warlords while the Europeans make their getaway. We then cut to the party on a ship bound for England and, after a slight scare, Sir Denis drops the sword into the ocean, fearing that so long as it existed, someone would always be trying to steal it in order to carry out the same plan as Fu Manchu. With that “happy” ending, we fade to black and roll the credits. The ending, to me, seemed a little too easy, but I may be disgruntled simply because Fu Manchu was thwarted. One thing that always struck me as odd was the prominent presence of the death ray. I mean, if you have a death ray, do you really need an ancient sword and mask to start your campaign for world conquest? Why go to all that trouble when you already have a DEATH RAY to begin with? That never made sense to me but, again, I’m probably just bitter because I wanted Fu Manchu to win. I don’t care if you are as white as a sheet, he’s just such a colorful, entertaining character that I don’t see how anyone could not be taken in by him.

He will send you to your cold Christian heaven
“The Mask of Fu Manchu” is extremely racist, no doubt about it, yet I confess it is one of my favorite movies and far and away the best of the long list of films featuring the villainous doctor described as “the yellow peril incarnate”. Karloff and Myrna Loy really steal the show, the writing was excellent with so many memorable lines, there was great action and suspense and it is just an all around excellent horror-adventure story. It was also plagued with bad press from the outset due to accusations of racism from various Asian groups, starting with no less than the government of the Republic of China (which was still in charge on the mainland back then). It is hard for me to take seriously because, I was rooting for the Asian villains the whole time, their characters were just so much more entertaining. However, you can certainly see where they were coming from. The Asians are all really, really evil in this movie or I should say “Asians” because everyone with a speaking role, save one, was played by a European or American made up to look Asian. The only exception was a good-natured, stupid waiter at the very end. Yeah, all the cool bad guys are White people in disguise and the only actual Asian who gets a line is dumb, goofy and a servant. That is pretty racist, I think anyone would have to admit. It was also just the overall tone of the movie with Fu Manchu ranting against the “White race” and with his main crew being Asians and his “muscle” being Black men it was easy to take the movie as a showcase of the benevolent, civilized Whites being attacked by a horde of “colored” people at every turn. But, certainly today, we can see it for what it is, it’s just a movie and everyone should just relax. I would think anyone would be just a little proud to have so awesome a villain as Dr. Fu Manchu as one of their own. He’s certainly one of my all-time favorites, he just enjoys being bad so much.

Happy Halloween!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...