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‘The Mask of Fu Manchu’ Blu-ray (review)

 

People online are always talking about how they would never be able to make Blazing Saddles today. This, of course, is true, if only because most of its stars are dead.

We aren’t talking about Blazing Saddles here, though, we’re talking about a movie they REALLY couldn’t make today—1932’s The Mask of Fu Manchu.

Let’s get one thing straight out of the gate. The Mask of Fu Manchu is a blatantly racist motion picture.

It’s an old school Pre-Code adventure of the valiant white man against the vicious Asian “Yellow Peril” and it has cringeworthy racist dialogue throughout.

Our cipher of a hero is the future Durango Kid cowboy star Charles Starrett, along with MGM’s future Judge Hardy, Lewis Stone, as author Sax Rohmer’s usual protagonist, Sir Denis Nayland Smith.

They’re up against Boris Karloff as the terrifying (and slightly camp) Chinese villain, Dr. Fu Manchu, referred to in the script as “a fanatic in the east,” who’s willing to torture and murder any and all to retrieve the newly discovered mask and scimitar of Genghis Khan.

Ultimately his goal is to conquer the white race!

Here, briefly, is a bit of what I wrote about the so-called Yellow Peril in a 2017 article I penned for Back Issue magazine about Marvel Comics’ Shang-Chi, supposedly the son of Fu Manchu:

A quick history lesson is in order here. In 1912-1913, using the pen name, “Sax Rohmer,” British comedy writer Arthur Henry Ward serialized Sherlock Holmes-type chapters of a new character described in the American press of the day as, “a mysterious Oriental whose resourcefulness and courage in the committing of crimes is enough to test the ability of the world’s greatest sleuths.”

Over the course of 13 official novels by Sax Rohmer, spread out over nearly half a century and in print constantly until more recent times, we learn that the villain heads a vast organization known as the Si Fan. He is a master of poisons and arcane sciences, a collector of exotic and dangerous animals, has a femme fatale daughter named Fah Lo Suee, and a stated goal to conquer the Western World and restore the ancient glory of China.

On the one hand, it’s impossible not to see Rohmer’s writings as racist screeds of the worst sort, exploiting his audience’s anxieties of the Colonialist fears that the influx of supposedly less than human Asians would destroy the European (and later American) way of life—the so-called Yellow Peril.

On the other, though, it’s equally impossible not to see Fu Manchu as an early prototype of the typical comics and movie supervillain.

In the movie, the despicable daughter mentioned above is portrayed by the future Mrs. Thin Man, Myrna Loy, in the last of her many Asian roles. In her autobiography, Ms. Loy described her character here as a “sadistic nymphomaniac.”

What makes it all still work in this movie in spite of modern sensibilities is the great Karloff. Already a 20-year veteran in films, this movie came right after his breakout role as the monster in Universal’s Frankenstein and his red herring role in The Old Dark House. He would go on to The Mummy next, also for Universal, but here he was on loan out to MGM.

Being the largest studio in Hollywood, Metro’s budget for this type of B-Movie was larger than that of many other studios’ A-list pictures. There’s no denying that visually The Mask of Fu Manchu looks amazing! The cinematography, the art deco sets, the lighting, the very recognizable special effects equipment of Kenneth Strickfadden, and yes, even the yellow-face make-up work. Karloff, with his eyes peeled back and his long fake fingernails, is the epitome of the cliché definitive Chinese supervillain, and that image would last for decades, up through and including Marvel’s Master of Kung-Fu comic book in the 1970s.

Boris wasn’t the first Fu Manchu but he was arguably the best. Future Charlie Chan actor Warner Oland had then just played the role in several pictures. Many years later, another horror star, Christopher Lee, would be terribly miscast as the character in a handful of low-budget movies. Peter Sellers would finally bring the Yellow Peril cycle—and his own life and career—to an end with his disastrous 1981 comedy, The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu.

Karen Morely and Jean Hersholt (he of the Oscars’ Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award) are the only other recognizable names in the cast. Direction is by Charles Brabin after a false start from Charles Vidor.

Extras include audio commentary and two Merrie Melodies cartoon shorts.

Although it’s impossible not to cringe at times, if one can simply accept that this movie is from another era and enjoy it on its own terms, there’s a lot to appreciate. Full restored from a 4K Master, the film’s picture and audio are both amazing. The story itself, as stated, is slight, but individual scenes and performances carry it along for the most part and Boris’s creepy, but fun tongue-at-least-partly-in-cheek performance tops them all.

Booksteve recommends.

 

 

 

 

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