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The Mask of Fu Manchu

Released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer - 1932

Directed by: Charles Brabin
Story by: Sax Rohmer (story)
Screenplay by: Irene Kuhn, Edgar Allan Woolf, John Willard

Boris Karloff .... Dr. Fu Manchu
Lewis Stone .... Sir Denis Nayland Smith
Karen Morley .... Sheila Barton
Charles Starrett .... Terrence Granville
Myrna Loy .... Fah Lo See
Jean Hersholt .... Professor Von Berg
Lawrence Grant .... Sir Lionel Barton
David Torrence .... 'Mac' McLeod


Early Hollywood occasionally, tragically, regarded race as a determining factor of moral and intellectual value. As well, there are many examples of Hollywood exploiting the xenophobic attitudes in existence back when the world was bigger. I recently watched one of Hollywood’s nastiest offenses, MGM’s The Mask of Fu Manchu from 1932. Truth be told, I had seen it before—multiple times.

Racist portrayals of Chinese are not the film’s only offense—just the worst part. Cinematically speaking, the movie suffers from a few bad performances, no music and a director who couldn’t capture a single moment of suspense despite utilizing every trap and torture contraption in a pulp-lover’s library.
Still, it’s a pretty entertaining movie.

click to enlarge
Karloff as Fu Manchu.

There are three main reasons why it’s so much fun even though it’s terrible—Boris Karloff, Cedric Gibbons and the fact it was made before the Hays Code, which surely would have censored some of the more salacious moments.

A British archeologist discovers the location of the tomb of Ghengis Khan, only to then suffer kidnapping by the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu. Fu Manchu believes the sword of the ancient Mongol ruler will bring him the power to amass armies in a war against the west and is desperate for the tomb’s location. Consequently, Sir Nayland Smith of the British Secret Service assembles a team of archeologists to find the tomb before Fu Manchu.

Once the relic is discovered, the story moves inside the evil genius’ hidden lair, where the heroes fall victim to all sorts of imaginative tortures and hypnotic spells. There’s a giant snake, tarantulas and an alligator pit; there’s a young Myrna Loy, dressed in exotic costumes, playing Fu Manchu’s sex-crazed daughter. In fact, the villains and their little den of darkness are far more watchable than the heroes here.

click to enlarge
Original poster.

The costumes and sets are all fantastic. Cedric Gibbons was the chief of MGM’s art department for many years. MGM had the most money of any studio and it showed in the lavish, fantasy-flavored sets imagined by Gibbons.

Karloff shows again how adept he was at playing monsters. He possessed an extraordinary ability to shed recognizable humanity from his performances so audiences could believe he was Frankenstein, the Mummy or Fu Manchu. Despite the make-up packed on to make Karloff look like a Chinese Doctor of Evil he still—as with the other fiends—creates a believable character.

The Mask of Fu Manchu may not be one of cinema’s highest achievements, but it does bring together some great talents who continue to inspire after decades—and anyone who is a fan of fantastic adventure, comics or Karloff might have a lot of fun with this. (Stephen Jared)


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