Ravening hordes of (gasp, choke) ORIENTALS are amassing in Asia with but one goal—to take over the world. Wait, make that two goals: take over the world and despoil white women while they do it.
Yes, it’s the pulp-infected world of Sax Rohmer brought to the screen for the 27th time by 1932, when “The Mask of Fu Manchu” was unleashed by MGM. Rohmer’s trashy but surprisingly readable novels and stories have provided the basis for over three dozen films, serials, and TV programs (Stephen King has him beat by over 50 titles, but King may not have the staying power.).
There are powerful stirrings in the East and British authorities fear that if a potent symbol of Oriental unity is discovered—say, oh, the legendary lost mask of Genghis Khan—unstoppable waves of the Yellow Peril will flow over the West and Civilization As We Know It will be submerged for generations to come.
Note right off the bat that the mask of Fu Manchu is really the mask of Genghis Khan, but we can’t let little things like that stand in the way of a good time.
Anyway, Scotland Yard worries that the mask could fall into the hands of the arch fiend, the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, Devil Doctor, Chinese genius, doctor of philosophy, medicine, theology, and just about every other damn thing you could be a doctor of, so top cop of the Empire, Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone) is sent to find the mask first.
That last sentence was long enough so I didn’t add the parenthetical thought “before James Bond” to the idea of the top cop, but the relationship isn’t that far off base. Watch Nayland Smith and Fu Manchu try to outwit each other and then think about Bond and Dr. No. You’ll see what I mean.
Okay, so Nayland Smith sets out with a team from the British Museum to find the mask and bring it back to London while Fu Manchu and his “insignificant daughter” Fah Lo See (Myrna Loy) want to use it to encourage their followers to take over the western world.
To this end, they lie, cheat, steal, murder, kidnap and torture (she’s especially fond of this as the pain of men brings her at least to the point of orgasm).
What happens will come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever sniffed the pungent aroma of decaying pulp magazines, and whether or not you enjoy the journey to film’s conclusion will depend greatly on your appreciation of or tolerance for 1930s melodrama that is more camp than a field full of tents.
“The Mask of Fu Manchu” was one of nine pictures Boris Karloff made in 1932, and the evil genius was his first horror movie role after “Frankenstein” the previous year. He and Loy, 18 years his junior, are famously on record as saying that neither of them could take anything about the film seriously, and many’s the take that was ruined when one of the other of them got a fit a giggles over the script’s ludicrous dialogue.
As a general rule, that kind of insistent corpsing (theatrical slang for laughing on stage during serious moments) is amusing for about five minutes and then becomes a pain in the ass, but none of Karloff’s and Loy’s incredulous amusement wound up on the screen.
Which is not to say that you can’t see any of it. Both of them try so hard to sell their characters’ villainy it must be because they know that if they can’t make themselves believe in their own decadence, no one else will, either. They snarl, they leer, they open their eyes as wide as Cecil Holland’s slant-eyed makeup will let them. Karloff waves his opulent fingernails gracefully and Loy quivers with the expectation of torturing white men before turning them into sexual playthings.
The film is an acquired taste, but once acquired it becomes a cornucopia of period movie delights. Truly is it said that some pictures you come to love not in spite of their weaknesses, but because of them.
Most films that have aged this badly have disappeared. This one survives because it has Karloff in it. Loy is always a plus, and it’s a treat to see her in one of her pre-“Thin Man” exotic vamp roles, but most of the movies in which she played the wicked seductress have gone to that great celluloid recycling dump in the sky.
Rohmer’s Fu Manchu books have managed, just barely, to stay in print, but the interest of readers alone wouldn’t have kept a movie this dated alive and on television for over 70 years.
No, I suspect it’s Karloff’s presence combined with Cedric Gibbons’ simple but evocative art direction—and the repeated reproduction of curiosity-inducing stills from the film in early 1960s issues of “Famous Monsters of Filmland”—that have kept this one’s pulse thumping.
“The Mask of Fu Manchu” is still entertaining, even if, for most viewers, it’s entertaining for all the wrong reasons. Unfortunately, it remains today what it always was: a pretty lousy movie.
But if you still get a kick, or even a small thrill, from “Doctor. X,” “The Mystery of the Wax Museum,” or “The Vampire Bat,” and you can overlook the painful stereotypes and clichés that make up the Yellow Peril subgenre, Rohmer’s criminal genius may be able to cast his spell on you.