Tuesday 1 May 2018

Pre-War Thrills:
The Mask of Fu Manchu
(Charles Brabin, 1932)

So, to get this out of the way right from the outset: if you’re going to take an interest in the pulp fiction or popular literature of the early 20th Century, you’re going to encounter a lot of racism.

H.P. Lovecraft may have taken most of the flak for this in recent years (largely due to the fact that he is one of the only pulp magazine writers still liable to be read by the kind of young/educated readers most liable to take offence at his repellent views), but, as fascinating as it may be to ponder the psychological underpinnings of Lovecraft’s errant fears and prejudices, the digger one digs into the work of his contemporaries, the clearer it becomes that these prejudices were far from uncommon.

Put into context alongside the unabashed imperialism and hysterical miscegenation fears of writers like Seabury Quinn and Dennis Wheatley, the deeply offensive caricatures of non-white characters that litter the work of Edgar Wallace or the dozens of other, more obscure, examples that blogger Samuel Wilson has chronicled over the past few years via his True Pulp Fiction project, Lovecraft’s more notorious passages are noteworthy only for the unusually strident manner in which he expressed his views, rather than for the views themselves (and, as fans and detractors alike will appreciate, HPL was writer who liked to express just about everything in pretty strident terms).

More than any other writer of course, it is Fu Manchu’s creator Sax Rohmer who must, through the very nature of his most famous creation, be singled out as the poster boy for all this Pulp Racism. I confess I’ve not read enough Rohmer to really make a call on the extent to which this assumption is justified, but…. well really this is all just a long-winded way of saying that I probably shouldn’t have been too surprised to discover that a Fu Manchu movie from 1932 is pretty damned racist.

Perhaps I’d been lured into a false sense of security here by my familiarity with the 1960s series of Harry Alan Towers/Christopher Lee Fu Manchu movies [see my reviews of ‘Brides of…’ and ‘Blood of…’ here and here]. Though still a far cry from what anyone would be liable to deem ‘politically correct’, these films are essentially pretty good-natured affairs that tend to treat their antagonist’s ethnicity as a mere incidental detail – a bit of exotic colour to liven up his Bond villain-esque schemes for world domination.

Charles Brabin’s film, by contrast, is definitely pulling no punches. “You hideous yellow monster,” heroine Karen Morley spits at Boris Karloff’s Fu Manchu at one point, shortly after he in turn promises to “..destroy your whole accursed white race”. Clearly sensitivity of any kind was not on the cards here.

Adapted by a veritable raft of screenwriters from the simultaneously published Rohmer novel of the same name, ‘The Mask of Fu Manchu’ indeed presents us with a villain whose motivations are somewhat different from those of the unilateral, ego-driven super-villain proposed by most other screen adaptations. Instead, Fu Manchu’s attempts to swipe the face-mask and sword of Genghis Khan from under the noses of the British archaeologists who have just excavated them is motivated by his plan to use the ceremonial power of these artefacts to inspire the people of Asia (yes, all of Asia) to unite and overthrow their Western oppressors.

Leaving aside the fact that, given the geo-political shit that had gone down in the century or so prior to 1932, people in many parts of Asia had pretty legitimate cause to want to overthrow their Western oppressors, the notion that the sight of a Chinese man carrying some paraphernalia belonging to a Mongol folk hero would somehow cause everyone from Istanbul to Yokohama to rise up in revolt is just so utterly bizarre that I don’t even know where to start with it really. It just left me speechless to be honest, but… such is the level of wilful cultural ignorance we’re dealing with here, apparently.

When, late in the film, we see Fu Manchu strutting his stuff on the stage of what looks like a disused theatre, rousing a crowd of guys who largely resemble moth-eaten Afghan warlords of some kind to a mild display of scimitar-rattling enthusiasm (“conquer and breed – kill the white man and take his women”, he memorably exhorts them), we have to wonder how the hell anyone was *ever* supposed to buy this idea, even in the further reaches of fanciful pulp delirium.

Needless to say, the film’s steadfast defenders of the British Empire spend a great deal of time asserting the seriousness of Dr Fu’s rather whimsical scheme, but it doesn’t help that those defenders aren’t really a very persuasive bunch, by and large.

For reasons best known to themselves, the scriptwriters on ‘Mask of Fu Manchu’ seem to have nixed the idea of including Rohmer’s likeable Holmes/Watson surrogates Nayland Smith and Dr Petrie, who usually provide the bulk of the heroic daring-do in these stories, instead entrusting our attentions to bunch of fairly grumpy, interchangeable middle-aged men who never really succeed in making much of an impression.

As our nominal protagonist, Morley does what heroines do in these kind of things – being alternately headstrong and hysterical, wearing a pith helmet and fretting about her missing-presumed kidnapped archaeologist father and/or archaeologist husband - whilst the assorted interchangeable chaps offer little in the way of reassurance once she’s out on-site in the Gobi Desert.

To be fair, Nayland Smith is actually present (in the shape of Lewis Stone, who also appeared in The Lost World), but he spends the first half of the movie directing operations remotely from back in London, and when he does finally get in on the action he proves only marginally more formidable than the other fellows, with his name warranting scarcely so much as a shrug from his supposed arch-nemesis.

Oh well. At least Boris Karloff’s take on Fu Manchu has got to be worth the price of admission, right? Well, perhaps, but, with all due respect to Karloff, I’m not sure he comes over all that well here to be honest.

Whereas Christopher Lee in the ‘60s movies presented an appropriately towering, saturnine presence (much as you’d expect I suppose), Karloff’s Fu Manchu feels like a physically smaller figure, with a loquacious, conniving sort of vibe about him.

Much is made in the script of Fu’s doctorates from Cambridge, Edinburgh, Harvard etc, and in light of this, Karloff speaks in his own delightfully melodious tones, without attempting any hint of an accent. As lovely as it must have been for him to give his voice a good work-out after non-speaking roles in ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘The Old Dark House’ however, the cliché-riddled diatribes the script equips him with are scarcely very edifying, and, well… perhaps it’s just me, but the idea of a Fu Manchu who is ceaselessly nattering away rather distracts from the taciturn, Confusion menace I prefer to associate with the character.

On plus side, Karloff does muster some splendidly diabolical expressions, and makes good use of his long, claw-like fingernails, but his performance can scarcely have been helped by a somewhat excessive make-up job – complete with pointed ears – that makes the “Devil Doctor” look more like a fire-damaged elf than a Chinese man. (Attempting to cash-in on Karloff’s recent breakthrough as a horror star, this explicitly monstrous/non-human Fu Manchu was rather optimistically billed as “The Frankenstein of the Orient” on some of the movie’s posters.)

Likewise, the casting of the great Myrna Loy as Fu Manchu’s lascivious daughter Fah Lo See bodes well, but production anecdotes suggest that Loy (who had often been cast in ‘oriental’ roles during the silent era, in spite of her entirely European heritage) made no secret of her distaste for the material, and her resentment at essentially being forced to appear in the film by MGM is reflected in a performance pointedly lacking in any kind of enthusiasm. (1)

Other gossip meanwhile relates that, when Karloff requested a script prior to shooting, he received nothing but gales of laughter in response, and subsequently had to deal with having his dialogue passed to him from day to day on single-spaced, typo-ridden pages. It also seems worth noting at this juncture that an initial attempt at principal photography on the film collapsed in chaos after three days, with initial director Charles Vidor subsequently finding himself sacked by the studio, and Brabin drafted in at short notice to replace him.

Under such circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that, in purely narrative terms, the completed ‘Mask of Fu Manchu’ is alternately boring and nonsensical, essentially boiling down to lot of stodgy, indifferently shot dialogue scenes interspersed – seemingly at random – with flourishes of morbid, horror movie atmospherics and grand, opulently transgressive set-pieces.

Thankfully though, the latter sequences survive as fairly jaw-dropping examples of deranged, pre-code decadence, and indeed, even as the film embodies the most regrettable aspects of its era’s pulp fiction, it also manages to bring the very best of the pre-war “Shudder Pulp” aesthetic to the screen, going all out to justify Fu Manchu’s reputation as “The Lord of Strange Deaths” with a series of hair-raising, grand guignol spectacles, rendered with such lavish enthusiasm that they feel like ‘Weird Tales’ cover illustrations come to life.

After minor bits of ghoulishness early on (one character gets a knife in the back, a severed hand falls from a tree at another’s feet etc), things really get underway in this regard when we see Fu Manchu subject the first of his English captives to “the torture of the bell” – a somewhat Poe-like conception that sees the poor chap spread-eagled across a slab whilst a gigantic bell bongs away immediately above him.

Not the most gruesome of on-screen torments perhaps, but it’s at least agreeably bizarre, and Fu Manchu’s attempts to entice information from his victim by dangling grapes from his claw-like finger nails and fooling him with salt water carry an icky charge of sadism that serves to set us up nicely for the depredations to follow.

Subsequent highlights include the extraordinary sight of captured leading man Charles Starrett stripped to a loin cloth and strapped to a table with metal brace around his neck as Fah Lo See covetously surveys his naked flesh, a phalanx of Nubian slaves arranged on pedestals behind her like human statues. When Dr Fu himself makes the scene – ominously clad in a surgical gown - the exceptionally icky action that follows involves the fresh blood of lizards and tarantulas being drawn into a syringe and mixed with snake venom pulled directly from the wound of a dying sacrificial victim(!), all to aid the creation of a mind control serum that we then see injected straight into Starrett’s neck.

One of the earliest horror scenes I’m aware of that dares to go straight for a gross-out / gag reaction, this alarming juxtaposition of bodily fluids and creepy-crawlies almost seems to prefigure the post-‘Black Magic’ excesses of ‘70s/’80s Hong Kong horror, and as such proves pretty hard to top in terms of nastiness.

Even more extraordinary in some ways however is a subsequent scene in which poor old Nayland Smith finds himself strapped to a kind of gigantic see-saw, balanced mere feet above a pit fill of – apparently genuine – alligators. Single shots appear to confirm that Lewis Stone himself was hanging mere inches away from the jaws of these surly looking beasts (no stuntmen here!), whilst, elsewhere, another captured good guy (who presumably won the on-set coin toss prior to shooting) merely has to contend with the none-more classic device of having horizontal spiked walls slowly closing in upon him.

Marvellously, all this madness is rendered in lavish, no-expense-spared fashion by MGM, who at the time were riding high as Hollywood’s top-grossing studio, meaning that, like Doctor X before it, ‘The Mask of Fu Manchu’ is able to take full advantage of the brief, magic window that followed in the wake of ‘Dracula’ & ‘Frankenstein’s box office returns, when horror and pulp adventure subjects could temporarily command something approaching A-picture production values.

Both the opening scenes, set in a shadow-haunted British Museum, and the later explorations of Fu Manchu's suitably extravagant subterranean lair employ a series of genuinely vast sets, elaborately dressed with a wildly imaginative mixture of scientific apparatus and faux-Chinese artistry, incorporating throne rooms, amphitheatre-like torture chambers and – my personal favourite – a curtained-off circular alcove carved from a dividing wall within Fah Lo See’s bed-chamber, wherein, we suppose, Fu’s daughter likes to recline with her “victims” (more on which below).

Tony Gaudio’s photography intermittently catches some fine, shadowy vistas on all this high camp weirdness, and, despite the chaos that apparently characterised the production, the film intermittently displays some great bits of visual imagination – most notably the introductory shot of Fu Manchu himself, in which we see Karloff’s fiendish visage reflected in distorting mirror, inexplicably raising a glass of dark, foaming liquid to his lips as electricity crackles dangerously from some off screen device, casting jagged shadow across his face.

It is in moments like this I think that the film’s conception of Fu Manchu really comes alive, portraying him as a man so completely immersed in his hermetic world of rare poisons, venomous concoctions and scientifically-derived terror machines that they have practically (or literally, in this case) become his food and drink, placing him beyond the threshold of mere humanity – a theme that is taken up later in the film, when we see him almost dancing with the sparking, unearthed electricity current that fly from his machinery.

‘The Mask of Fu Manchu’ also echoes ‘Doctor X’ in providing another fine exemplar of early horror’s post-‘Frankenstein’ fascination with the sinister properties of electricity. Indeed, Fu Manchu’s impressive array of spark-spewing equipment – including an actual death ray, no less - were built by Kenneth Strickfaden, the legendary architect of the laboratory sets in Universal’s Frankenstein series, and his creations definitely get a good work out here.

Perhaps we could read a touch of metaphorical significance into all these electricity bolts flying around the place too, given that, as has often been observed, there is something weirdly sexual about Karloff’s portrayal of Fu Manchu, with his sinuous movements and his propensity to unleash sighs of pleasure furthering the impression that the scenes within his lair were purposely designed to convey a particular kind of frisson to the thrill-hungry audience MGM were hoping to attract to the picture. (Heck, even the carved figures on doors of Genghis Khan’s tomb look a bit saucy.)

In this respect, the film is particularly keen to push the envelope in regard to Loy’s character, making the nature of the sexual interplay between Fah Lo See and her father’s captives abundantly clear whenever the opportunity arises. When Fu Manchu initially interviews his captured archaeologist, he basically offers to let the man sleep with his daughter in exchange for information about the location of Genghis Khan’s swag (“even this, my daughter, I offer to you”), but the boot is very much on the other foot later in the picture, when, prior to his ordeal with all the snake venom and tarantula blood, Charles Starrett finds himself chained to a dungeon ceiling, stripped to the waist and whipped (with what look like leather straps) by Fah Lo’s musclebound Nubian slaves… all whilst the lady herself looks up, working herself up into a bit of a sweat as she insists they hit him harder, and faster.

After this, we see Starrett’s exhausted body deposited – where else – in Fah Lo See’s bed chamber, where she lasciviously caresses his bloodied torso until the scene is interrupted by the entrance of her father. Essentially, the filmmakers outline her activities as a sadistic sexual predator about as unambiguously as they possibly could without moving into full on stag movie territory, and, though the power of these scenes is somewhat undermined by Myrna Loy looking as if she was being forced to emote at gun point, modern viewers can still thrill as they contemplate the long decades that would pass before American audiences would next be allowed to enjoy the sight of a woman experiencing orgiastic pleasure as she oversees a man-on-man bondage session.

To be honest, given the puritanical edicts that would begin to be imposed upon Hollywood productions just a few years after this film’s release, it’s surprising that the early proponents of the Hays Code didn’t suffer a collective coronary when they learned of the kind of depravity depicted in ‘The Mask of Fu Manchu’. In fact, having apparently failed to learn the lessons of the disastrous reception that greeted their release of Tod Browning’s notorious ‘Freaks’ a year earlier, it seems in retrospect as if MGM were hell-bent here on crafting a horror movie calculated to offend absolutely everyone on some level.

I mean, even if you were a 1930s citizen with liberal enough sensibilities to roll with all the sadistic torture and sexual perversity, chances are you might have drawn a line at the film’s blunt racial prejudice and dumb-headed colonialism (or failing that, at least been a bit grossed out by all the lingering close-ups of snakes and spiders).

As a result of this triple threat to public morals (and stomachs), it’s scarcely surprising to learn that ‘The Mask of Fu Manchu’ seems to have become one of the most widely censored films in history. It was banned outright in some territories (including many European countries and, unsurprisingly, in Japan), whilst other local jurisdictions proceeded to arbitrarily cut the film as they saw fit. Some excised bits of the more extreme content, whilst others snipped the inflammatory dialogue, and some even imposed cuts on the grounds of blasphemy, before moral guardians presumably did the same in the next state/county/town, until surviving release prints must have been sliced and diced beyond the worst nightmares of a Lucio Fulci/Jess Franco archivist.

Adding to the confusion, it seems that, when MGM staff returned to the film with a view to striking a new print in the 1970s, they were so shocked by the racially insensitive content that they sliced many offending lines of dialogue straight out of the negative, creating a bowdlerised version that became the only way to watch the movie for decades to come, until the nigh on miraculous discovery of a clean, uncut lab print returned it to circulation in all its unsavoury glory in the 21st century.

For all the multitudinous outrage that ‘The Mask of Fu Manchu’ provoked however, the moment modern viewers might be liable to find most unsettling is one that largely escaped to attention of censors at the time – namely, the scene during the film’s conclusion in which Nayland Smith and his comrades take control of Fu Manchu’s death ray and turn it upon the arch-fiend and his followers, who are gathered in the hall below.

What I found noteworthy here is that, rather than alarming the villains and prompting them to scatter (as would normally be the case with this sort of thing), our heroes actually mow down every single one of the quote-unquote “Asian” ne’erdowells, even leaving the weapon running to mop up the survivors as they head off in triumph.

Distantly recalling the same dark questions raised by the old College Debating Society chestnut about whether or not the USA would ever have dared to drop an atomic bomb on a European city, there is something genuinely chilling about the sight of the good guys in an action-adventure story casually massacring several hundred defenceless people in a locked room, without their heroism being at all called into question as a result.

Immediately after this meanwhile, the film reaches the nadir of its unapologetic racism in a deeply regrettable closing scene that finds Nayland Smith and his friends aboard ship on their way home to England. They are in the process of consigning Genghis Khan’s sword and mask to the bottom of the ocean (because, y’know, fuck that shit), when they freeze upon hearing the sinister crash of an oriental gong.

Their surprise turns to laughter however when a short, pot-bellied, gap-toothed Chinese man enters stage right to declare that dinner is served. Do you have a doctorate from Harvard, or from Christ’s College, Nayland Smith jokingly asks the man, who shakes his head in mute incomprehension, giggling along with his relieved interrogators as they shuffle past him and head off to get their grub. Cue triumphant musical flourish and ‘The End’ card.

The comparison between this pitiable ship steward and the defeated Fu Manchu is thus made explicit, and the message that the film leaves us with is clear: as long as we keep these people away from our institutions of learning and make sure they don't get any funny ideas, they’ll remain where they belong - illiterate, buck-toothed and banging the dinner gong – and all will be right with the world.

Taking the film far beyond a mere “this is the way they did things in 1932” level of background racism, it’s hardly surprising that these ugly sentiments proved controversial even at the time (apparently the Chinese Ambassador to the USA lodged a complaint about the film following its release), and perhaps, like ‘Freaks’ before it, ‘The Mask of Fu Manchu’ can best be seen as another example of MGM disastrously misjudging public tastes in their rush to try to cash in on the contemporary vogue for horror.

Certainly, no sequels to were forthcoming, despite the obvious potential for turning Fu Manchu into a series character. Karloff quietly returned to work at Universal after filming was completed, and, as we’ve discussed above, the film was withdrawn from circulation in its uncut form for pretty much the entirety of the 20th century.

But, eighty plus years down the line, we can hopefully at least strive toward some semblance of 20-20 hindsight and acknowledge that, for all of the deplorable attitudes it embodies, ‘The Mask of Fu Manchu’s errant combination of hare-brained colonialism and grotesque, sexualised sadism still proves fascinatingly unsettling and alluring, carrying with it an intoxicating whiff of the forbidden that edges it toward the same “dark camp” category within which ‘Freaks’ eventually found its niche as a celebrated cult film.

With its baroque excesses and general air of taboo-trampling derangement, ‘Mask..’ certainly stands up as just as much of an unforgettable viewing experience as the other (ostensibly far superior) films I’ve covered elsewhere in this review thread, irrespective of the hateful attitudes expressed within it.


(1) Confusingly, Fah Lo See inexplicably became Lin Tang (played by Tsai Chin) in the ‘60s movies, and she had already been renamed Ling Moy (played by the beautiful Eurasian star Anna May Wong) in an earlier Fu Manchu adaptation with Warner Oland, 1931’s ‘Daughter of the Dragon’. In Rohmer’s novels, she was Fah lo Suee, so ‘Mask of..’ gets it closest.


Mighty Jim said...

In my experience, the Sax Rohmer Fu Manchu novels completely transcend the kind of antiquated racial stereotypes or occasionally offensive language that you see in other contemporary pulps (and certainly vastly exceed anything in HPL's horror fiction). Setting aside the fact that Fu Manchu himself is inextricably intertwined with Orientalism, Rohmer has the omniscient narrator regularly stop the story to spend pages warning the readers about "the Yellow Peril." They are easily the most racist thing I've ever read outside of a Klan tract or Nazi propaganda. Not surprising that the film ended up mirroring that. Shame too, because otherwise all the death traps and such are a hoot.

Ben said...

Thanks for your comment Jim. Given that I have several Fu Manchu novels on my shelves waiting to be read, this is unfortunate news.

I was actually going to do a quick follow up post featuring scans of the covers, but perhaps I should hold off for now -- I wouldn't want to seem as if I'm promoting full on racist material by failing to take the time to sufficiently acknowledge/unpack it.

As you say, it's a shame... if I can put aside the racist/orientalist aspects of the character (which I'd argue is *just about* possible with the Christopher Lee movies), I actually find Fu Manchu and his antics quite appealing.

Perhaps it's about time somebody wrote a revisionist version that repositioned him as the good guy, fighting Western imperialism etc..? I'd probably read it.

Mighty Jim said...

Sure, or just strip out the Chinese elements entirely, like DC Comics did with R'as al Ghul.

I will say that I still enjoyed the novels. For me, at least, the brand of racism that Rohmer was pushing has lost most of its sting (unlike the treatment of blacks in some pulps, for example, which is still very distasteful). We still project our fears onto the Chinese, but not in the same way--Rohmer's characterization of them as inscrutable "celestials" lusting after our women is just weird and archaic now.

That said, I'm sure many reasonable people would still be disgusted by them.