Mask of Fu Manchu, The (1932)

“We’re fighting a thing we can’t understand, with everything against us.”

Mask Fu Manchu Poster

Synopsis:
An archaeologist (Lewis Stone) travels to Mongolia with the daughter (Karen Morley) of a kidnapped colleague (Lawrence Grant), hoping to rescue the contents of Genghis Khan’s tomb from the clutches of evil Fu Manchu (Boris Karloff) and his grown daughter (Myrna Loy).

Genres:

Review:
British author Sax Rohmer introduced the fictional master-criminal Dr. Fu Manchu in a series of novels published near the beginning of the 20th century, and he quickly became the embodiment of “Yellow Peril”, tapping into Westerners’ fears about Asian “Others”. This early cinematic adaptation, while not the first, remains perhaps the best known, given that cult horror star Boris Karloff was cast in the title role (affording him one of his first starring roles). While there’s much to enjoy and admire about the film — including creative direction, eye-popping set designs, glittering costumes, and Karloff’s bizarre but compelling performance — it’s unfortunately, as DVD Savant labels it, “almost pornographically racist”.

A 1992 video release removed some of the most offensive dialogue (“Would you all have maidens like this for your wives? Then conquer and breed! Kill the white man and take his women!”), but these scenes have all been restored in the recent DVD release, so modern viewers can see for themselves how riddled with vitriol it truly is: “Men of Asia! The skies are red with the thunderbolts of Genghis Khan! They rain down on the white race… and burn them!” Just as disturbing as these racist rants are the seemingly endless scenes of torture inflicted by Manchu on his various victims, which literally dominate the final 20 minutes or so of the film; while his devices are indeed ingenious, they’re fetishized to the point that your tolerance will likely be sorely tested (mine was).

Watch for Myrna Loy in her last performance as an “exotic temptress”, playing Manchu’s sadistically predatory daughter (she herself is reported to have said, “Say, this is obscene!” when reading the script).

Note: Fu Manchu wouldn’t appear again on-screen until over 30 years later, in the Hammer Studios production The Face of Fu Manchu (starring Christopher Lee in the title role). Read Wikipedia’s article on this infamous character if you’re curious to read about other cinematic adaptations.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu
    Mask Fu Manchu Karloff
  • Tony Gaudio’s cinematography
    Mask Fu Manchu Cinematography2
    Mask Fu Manchu Cinematography
  • Creative direction
    Mask Fu Manchu Direction
  • Cedric Gibbons’ baroque sets
    Mask Fu Manchu Sets
  • Adrian’s “exotic” costume designs
    Mask Fu Manchu Costumes

Must See?
No, though I do believe it’s worth a look simply for Karloff’s performance, and the impressive visuals. And, as DVD Savant notes, it’s recommended “to anyone living in denial about the reality of racism” in the early 20th century. Listed as a film with Historical Importance (which I won’t deny) and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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One Response to “Mask of Fu Manchu, The (1932)”

  1. A once-must, for its notorious place in cinema history.

    ~however, I’m not particularly recommending the actual film itself. The actual film has a very silly screenplay. More to the point, it’s a bunch of hooey which, as it reaches its conclusion, does manage to reach a level of hysteria that affords some unintentional laughs. What ‘saves’ the film (to a small degree) as a viewing experience is the way it’s been shot. It all certainly looks appropriately exotic. There’s a fair amount of spooky lighting effects, and one reasonably effective sequence during a storm.

    Listening to the thing, though, can become increasingly tedious since the dialogue implies that it’s Amateur Night in Hollywood. Karloff and Loy do what they can to earn their paychecks but, for most of the rest of the cast, this is something of an embarrassment.

    (Oddly, the film turned a profit, thanks mainly to its mix of sex, horror and comic book-like appeal.)

    What ffs will find most intriguing is what the DVD commentary supplies. ‘Mask…’ (fully restored and uncut) is part of a horror series comprised of double-bills and is paired with ‘Mark of the Vampire’. The commentary by Greg Mank attempts to prove ‘Mask…’ is some kind of camp classic. (It isn’t.) But what’s more interesting about the commentary is the behind-the-scenes story of the film (how chaotically it was made) and the details of decades of censorship problems the film had…worldwide! It’s quite a story in itself – immensely more interesting than the film, and the kind of fact expedition ffs are likely to find riveting.

    (Near the end of the commentary, Mank remarks that Karloff’s hat in the climactic scene seems to pre-date Carmen Miranda. I had thought the exact same thing. Well, I thought she had maybe designed it herself.)

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