Yellow Peril

The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), directed by Charles Brabin, is perhaps the best of the Fu Manchu movies. The part of the naughty Doctor is played by Boris Karloff. He is the second Fu Manchu, the first being Warner Oland, the Swede who for some reason Hollywood liked to see as an Oriental. I wonder if that's why Karloff sounds rather more like an educated Swede or Norwegian than a Chinese, a bit like the distinguished Bergman actor Max von Sydow now that I come to think of it. His equally nasty (but infinitely seductive and desirable) daughter is played by a very young Myrna Loy. For some inexplicable reason Hollywood also saw Myrna Loy as an Oriental in the early stages of her career, before the golden age with William Powell and The Thin Man.

Nearly all Oriental roles are manned by Westerners. Well all the important roles. In those days one simply couldn't have an Oriental playing an important part. That's why Warner Oland played Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu, and another Scandinavian, Gale Sondergaard, cornered the market on Asian women. People weren't ready for authentic Asians playing Asians. Not that there was an abundance of Asian actors in Hollywood at the time, but there were a few. Very rarely did they get any important roles.

It was also a legal question. Anna May Wong was frequently up for parts - parts for which there was no way she could have been hired. Why? Because the parts involved romance, interracial romance. Love between an Asian Woman and white man. It was against Californian law for a white man and an Asian woman (and, of course, also vice versa) to kiss on screen. Therefore the Asian part had to be played by a white woman. This is why Anna May Wong always lost the parts to Gale Sondergaard.

This is also why Wong relocated to Europe, where legislation didn't make her work and carreer quite impossible. (Another reason was the law that forbade her to marry - Asians and whites could not marry one another.) It was, however, when she returned to Hollywood, possible for her to be the Chinese General's object of lust in Sternberg's Oriental Express, even though the General was played by a white man - again the Swedish Warner Oland (born Verner Öhlund in Västerbotten). But then again, there was no kissing, the General merely raped her.

But I digress.

In The Mask of Fu Manchu Nayland Smith tells a professor that he must find the mask and sword of Gengis Khan before Fu Manchu does, otherwise Fu Manchu will use them to unite all Asians and crush the white race and take over the world. The swine. The professor prepares an expedition but is kidnapped by Fu Manchu's minions in the British Museum. Fu Manchu tortures the professor but the professor refuses to divulge his knowledge to the terrible Doctor. The expedition continues without him, and using the professor's notes they find the relics.

Fu Manchu uses the professor's life as a pawn. Bring the mask and the sword or else -

The professor's daughter's fiancé takes them to him, but the sword is a fake. Where is the real one? Fu Manchu uses hus super science powers (he is after all a doctor - a triple doctor in fact!) and makes a potion that reduces the fiancé to a mindless slave that Fu Manchu can control from afar. The fiancé goes back, betrays the espedition and returns with the genuine relic. Thereby much pleasing Fu Manchu's daughter who's got her eye on him. Fu Manchu let's her have him as her toy.

But Nayland Smith is on the case. He traces Fu Manchu to his secret lair. Fu Manchu catches him and feeds him to the crocodiles. Only the way he does it is far too slow, sadistic and complicated to work so Nayland Smith escapes, rounds up and releases all the other remaining members of the expedition and foils Fu Manchu's evil plan in the nick of time by some nifty lightning work. It looks like Fu Manchu burns to a crisp and gives up his mortal coil. But does he?

In the end our brave white heroes are on an ocean liner on their way back to civilization. They chuck Gengis Khan's sword over board in the middle of the ocean, it's far too dangerous to be kept on display in the British Museum. Once again the white race is saved and emerges victorious. Rah-rah!

There is perhaps too much clumsy studio work in the movie (some of the sets look like, well, lazy sets), and the professor's daughter and her fiancé are pretty horrible to watch, but apart from that the movie works magnificently. Karloff is superb, Myrna Loy delightful, Lewis Stone's Nayland Smith eminently credible and authoritative.

Much of the movie focuses on Fu Manchu or his daughter torturing our heroes and taking base Oriental pleasure from so doing. That might put some viewers off. But as villains go they are absolutely first rate, as nasty and wicked as anyone has any right to expect. And they really use their imagination coming up with new and amusing ways to entertain our heroes - no lazy or substandard torture methods for them, not on your life!

The problem as always with these highly inventive and convoluted methods is that they're far too complicated and the hero always can escape. I remember Wodehouse writing an amusing piece on this: why can't the villain just get on with it and finish the hero off? No, the villain suffers from a bad case of hubris and is so in love with his own superior villainy that he will do literally anything to make it last as long as possible. Preferably while explaining to his captive audience every little dastardly and vicious and devilishly clever detail of his plan.

Which is always a bit of a mistake.

After this there don't seem to have been any Fu Manchu movies for a while and the next Doctor was none other than Christopher Lee. This, unless I'm very much mistaken, was in the sixties.

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