September 30, 2008
The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)
Created by British author Sax Rohmer, the evil Dr. Fu Manchu appeared for the first time in 1912, in a story serialized in one of the many pulp magazines of those years. While originally a personification of the racism present during the time of its creation (the infamous "Yellow Peril"), Fu Manchu has become one of the most famous characters in science fiction, serving as model to other villainous character as one of the earliest examples of the Supervillain archetype. The fascinating evil genius (and his nemesis, Sir Denis Nayland Smith) appeared in so many successful novels that of course, film adaptations became the next step, resulting in many different versions of the stories made since the first British film serial in 1923. Many talented actors like Harry Agar Lyons, Warner Oland and Christopher Lee have played the famous criminal, but the most famous interpretation of Fu Manchu is definitely the one done by horror legend Boris Karloff in the 1932 film, "The Mask of Fu Manchu".
Based on Rohmer's story of the same name, "The Mask of Fu Manchu" is the story of the discovery of Ghengis Khan's tomb, where his legendary Mask and Sword are supposed to be hidden. British archaeologist Sir Lionel Barton (Lawrence Grant) has discovered the exact location, but he is kidnapped by Dr. Fu Manchu's (Boris Karloff) criminal gang, in order to proclaim himself Kahn's heir and lead the Asian nations to a war against the British empire. Knowing this, Sir Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone) takes his own group of archaeologists and, along with Barton's only daughter Sheila (Karen Morley) and her fiancée Terry (Charles Starrett), attempt to find Kahn's tomb before Fu Manchu, hoping to rescue Sir Lionel Barton in the process. However, Dr. Fu Manchu and his daughter Fah Lo See (Myrna Loy) will prove to be terrible enemies for the British agent and his team.
Written by the prolific writer Edgar Allan Woolf (with Irene Kuhn and John Willard as collaborators), the film is as faithful as possible to its pulp novel origins, keeping the essence of the Rohmer's series of books in both style and substance. As in the novels, the story flows at a fast pace, mixing horror and science fiction as the adventurers must face the criminal mastermind, who here is presented as a fascinating and very powerful adversary of Smith and his team. In fact, it could be said that the writers seemed more interested in the villains than in the heroes, as Fu Manchu and his daughter are easily the most developed characters. The treatment of Fah Lo See is really interesting, as the script (written in the years before the Hays Code) allows her to be a very sexual predator, and as wicked as her father.
"The Mask of Fu Manchu" was directed by Charles Brabin, a very experienced director of silents who after the introduction of sound, directed several "talkies" before retiring. Brabin's experience in Silent films may be the reason behind the very visual flare of the movie, as he gives an amazing use to Tony Gaudio's cinematography to create one of the most stunningly looking pieces of science fiction of the 30s, truly capturing the "feeling" of the pulp novels where the story had its origins. As the writers, Brabin seems to fall in love with his villains, and injects them the haunting mix of sadistic eroticism that previous incarnations of Fu Manchu lacked. Interestingly, this movie, Brabin's 8th film with sound, was also the first "talkie" directed by Charles Vidor, who here received his first chance as an assistant in a big studio movie.
As written above, it's the villains what make "The Mask of Fu Manchu" special, and fortunately, the cast portraying them was the most perfect one for the job. Myrna Loy is simply gorgeous as Fah Lo See, and while her role doesn't have too much screen time, she makes every scene memorable as Manchu's daughter. Legendary horror icon Boris Karloff makes wonders in the role of Fu Manchu, as he takes the character of the evil genius to higher levels of monstrosity. While the make-up (by Cecil Holland) is not as effective as the ones by Jack Pierce at Universal, Karloff manages to be a very convincing Fu Manchu in probably the best representation of the character. As Fu Machu's nemesis, Lewis Stone shows the necessary dignity and wit of the British gentleman he is portraying, but sadly his screen time is very limited and instead we get more of the mediocre performances by Karen Morley and Charles Starrett, who look very weak as the romantic couple.
It seems like time hasn't been nice to this film when compared to other films inspired by pulp novels, and not only because of it's constant racism towards the Asians (like with the novels, the "Yellow Peril" stereotype is quite notorious), but mainly because it uses devises so typical of adventure films today, that it make the film look dated and clichéd; however, taking into account the times when this movie was made, one can see it as the possible source of those clichés. On a different subject matter, the movie indeed suffers from the bad performances of those put on the main spotlight, as like many directors that started in silent films, Brabin struggles with the most dialog-based scenes. Still, Karloff, Loy and Stone shine despite Brabin's own problems and the lack of talent of the two lead actors.
True, "The Mask of Fu Manchu" looks campy and terribly dated by today standards, but it certainly has many characteristics that make it worthy of the title of "classic". It's horror elements are few, but it's an enormously influential film for the action and adventure genres (an influence that can be traced even to the "Indiana Jones" series). While not exactly a perfect movie, "The Mask of Fu Manchu" delivers a nice pack of thrills and fun, and one of Karloff's finest performances.
Buy "The Mask of Fu Manchu" (1932)