Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Johnny Deadline: THE MASK OF FU MANCHU

 by JB

Alas! Warner Archive has replaced our beloved Leonard Maltin with simple white letters on a black screen!

It has become both a meme and a truism that whenever Hollywood studios release “insensitive” older films on physical media, they hire Leonard Maltin to film a short introduction where he explains that it was “a different time,” that the film in question comes from “a different place,” that it contains “egregious, cringey stereotypes,” but that the studio still expects to “wring some major coin” out of this film “one last time.”

Actually, MGM went much further than that when they first released this controversial film on VHS in 1972. They edited out dialogue that was deemed “too inflammatory.” Inflammatory... 40 years after the film was first released.

This new release from Warner Archive went back to the original camera negative and features ALL THE INFLAMMATORY DIALOGUE... ALL THE REPREHENSIBLE RACISM... ALL THE STOMACH-CHURNING TORTURE... AND ALL THE SALACIOUS SEX... that MGM promised the film’s original audiences. But no Leonard Maltin; he used to have the market cornered, apologizing for Hollywood’s past at the start of countless home media releases. Here, he has been replaced by a single title card:
THE PLOT IN BRIEF: A trio of British adventurers (Lewis Stone, Karen Morley, Jean Hersholt) realize that with the discovery of Genghis Kahn’s tomb, titular baddie Dr. Fu Manchu (Boris Karloff) will try to possess the legendary emperor’s mask and sword, which will enable him to start a holy war against the entire Western World. They attempt to trick Fu with a false mask and counterfeit sword, but Fu is not fooled. He will get his revenge against the meddling adventurers by devising horrible tortures that will lead to their deaths and the audience’s entertainment.

The film is controversial because Fu Manchu, as played by the British Boris Karloff, is an exaggerated stereotype of the "Yellow Peril” that was being pushed at the time by the "Yellow Journalism” in newspapers owned by William Randolph Hearst. The stereotype is cringe-worthy; at the time, Boris Karloff said he could not fathom how anyone, Chinese or otherwise, could possibly be offended by such a cartoonish, melodramatic portrayal of evil. It would be like someone claiming that a children’s comic book was unrealistic or that a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon didn’t give its subject “a fair shake.” Still, it is a tad jarring to hear Fu exhort his minions at the end of the film to “steal white women and breed in prodigious numbers!”

I have never really considered the Fu Manchu films to be horror films, but Gregory Mank makes an excellent case that they are: these films were made in the wake of Universal Studios’ huge success with both Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931, MGM deliberately poached Universal Studios stalwart Boris Karloff to star in them, the studio leaned into horrifying material like torture and sadism, and MGM had already tried to steal Universal’s horror mantle with its epic misfire Freaks just the year before. Still, because the tortures presented in the film seem both hopelessly antiquated and comically overcomplicated, I never regarded Fu’s Rube Goldberg revenge machines to be the “horror content” they obviously were in 1932.
Obviously, a big selling point of this film back then was Fu Manchu’s penchant for dreaming up crazy, elaborate torture devices:

1) A man is tied beneath a huge bell and denied food, water, and basic toilet accommodations as the bell is made to ring incessantly, turning his brain to mush. Fu remarks that the recipient of this torture will be “unspeakably foul” when it is over. Later, Fu offers the starving man grapes, only to snatch them away before he eats them; he offers the man a goblet to drink from, but it is full of salt water. Poor sportsmanship, Fu!
2) Fu ties Lewis Stone to a crazy metal see-saw and slowly lowers him into a tank of alligators. Do guns not exist in his world? These alligators didn't even have lasers strapped to their heads.

In 2024, I’m afraid most of this comes across as very weak tea. A cartoonish villain with a stringy moustache; a silk kimono; and a sadistic, nymphomaniacal daughter (Myrna Loy)? A black-beanie'd intellectual ranting, lisping, and asking us if we “want to see his snake?” I do love the fact that MGM rented Kenneth Strickfaden’s original Frankenstein lab equipment for the part of the film where Fu uses some sort of electricity test to prove the Genghis Kahn sword is a fake.

Like most big studio films of the 1930s, The Mask of Fu Manchu features a big parade of deeply entertaining character actors to relish and enjoy: Lewis Stone is our hero here; he is most famous for playing Judge Hardy in MGM’s famous series of Andy Hardy films. The love interest is provided by Karen Morley; the year before she met Fu, she played Paul Muni’s mistress Poppy in the original Scarface. Jean Hersholt plays the comic relief. He was the villain in Erich Stroheim’s Greed; the Oscar’s Humanitarian Award is named after him. Fortunately, Myrna Loy chose NOT to build her a career playing duplicitous fake-Asian villain/daughters, preferring instead to play reliable spouses: Nora Charles in The Thin Man series, Fredric March’s wife in The Best Years of Our Lives, Cary Grant’s wife in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, and more than 140 other movie roles in a career that spanned 50 years.
The disc looks superb and the inclusion of another killer Gregory Mank commentary track makes buying this little oddity a no-brainer. The new Warner Archive release also includes two Warner Brothers cartoons from roughly the same era (era), "Freddy the Freshman" and "The Queen was in the Parlor."

(putting on my beanie, kimono, fake moustache, and outrageous accent)

I now command you to buy this new disc.

It will be the FIRST important step in obliterating the WHITE RACE!


  1. This column sent me down a wikipedia rabbit hole and I discovered this gem about the British author who created Dr. Fu Manchu in 1912:

    "According to his own account, Sax Rohmer decided to start the Dr. Fu Manchu series after his Ouija board spelled out C-H-I-N-A-M-A-N when he asked what would make his fortune"

    If they decide to make a third entry in the "Ouija" series from a few years ago I believe this could make for an interesting plot, but I will defer the titling of any potential sequel to the expert in such matters.

    Another lovely article JB. I'm on a blu-ray purchasing hiatus right now for financial reasons but your description of this film paints a strangely alluring picture.

    1. I know there are too many streaming channels at this point, but I sure wish Warner Archive had one…

  2. The Mask of Fu Manchu is one of those films I have intended to watch when I see it on the schedule for TCM. Of course, I have not gotten around to it yet.

    Have you watched any of the Fu Manchu films starring Christopher Lee? I believe that I have only seen the first one, The Face of Fu Manchu. It is a very 1960s take on the old story.

    1. I always thought the “Lee Fu’s” were okay; like you pointed out, very very Sixties.

  3. I love these Warner Archive releases. I think Myrna Loy was inspiration for
    Ornella Muti's Princess Aura.