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
Still, it’s a pretty entertaining movie.
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
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
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.