Tuesday, October 03, 2017
The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)
Who’s In It: Boris Karloff (Frankenstein) and Myrna Loy (The Thin Man)
What It’s About: Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone) tries to steal the treasure of Genghis Khan before Fu Manchu can get it and use it to recruit a world-conquering army.
How It Is: You gotta know going in that a Fu Manchu movie is going to be super racist, even before you consider all the white actors in yellowface. The Sax Rohmer novels were speaking directly to and capitalizing off British fears about Southeast Asia, so the very concept is that the West is under attack by the East and that white people are perfectly justified in doing whatever they need to do to protect themselves. Even with that basic understanding though, The Mask of Fu Manchu is uncomfortable to watch. It's summed up in a final scene where the white heroes encounter a Chinese servant and are afraid of him until he reveals himself to be an idiot. That's the only kind of Chinese person these characters are comfortable with.
It gets labeled as a horror movie because of Karloff, I guess. And I suppose that for Westerners at the time, the Fu Manchu stories did represent something that they were truly terrified of. But it's not a scary movie. It's really just a treasure-hunting adventure with a colorful supervillain. And unfortunately, it's only a mediocre one of those.
I do like that the damsel in distress is actually a dude in distress (Charles Starrett). And the sets and props around Fu Manchu's palace and the treasure are pretty fun. But none of the acting is good and Karen Morley is especially horrible as the daughter of one of Nayland Smith's companions. A very simple plot and just the ugliness of the overall tone drag it down and make me never want to watch it again.
Rating: Two-and-a-half out of five warlord swords.
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I thought myself rather clever for noticing the similarities between the appearance of Fu Manchu and Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon but then found that Wikipedia has a page on Fu Manchu's cultural impact with a long list of characters he has inspired, particularly in genre series and comic books.
GW Thomas wrote a cool guest post a while back that touched on the connections (especially the visual ones) between Ming, Fu Manchu, and other evil wizards from the time period.
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