Saturday, September 15, 2012

"The Mask of Fu Manchu," or Khan You Dig It?

The 1932 film "The Mask of Fu Manchu" begins in London, where Smith of the Secret Service (Lewis Stone) calls in explorer Sir Lionel Barton (Lawrence Grant).

Smith: The British government is asking you to risk your life again.
Barton: Oh, very well.
Barton's mission: To lead an expedition to China to find Genghis Khan's tomb and bring the artifacts back to England. What, you think they'd leave them with the "savages"? Preposterous!

Barton goes to the British Museum to get his team together, but on his way out he's taken hostage by bad guys dressed as mummies, except that they have pleated pants. And before you can say "yellow peril," Sir Lionel is face-to-face with the evil Fu Manchu (Boris Karloff).

Barton: You're Fu Manchu, arent you?

Fu Manchu: I am a doctor of philosophy from Edinburgh. I am a doctor of law from Christ College. I am a doctor of medicine from Harvard. My friends, out of courtesy, call me doctor.

Barton: All right, "doctor."

"The Mask of Fu Manchu" -- the film as well as the character created by Sax Rohmer -- is built on a foundation of pro-colonial sentiment (this is 1932, after all). But beyond that, the movie has classic cliffhanger action (if the people behind "Raiders of the Lost Ark" didn't see this movie, I'll eat my shoe), steamy torture scenes and Myrna Loy in one of her last faux-Asian roles as Fu's daughter. The idea is that Fu Manchu wants the scimitar and death mask of Khan so that he can proclaim himself the warrior's reincarnation.

Like Loy, Karloff is done up in heavy-duty makeup and costuming. Here's the first glance we get of him:



Meanwhile, the British team has come to China looking for Barton, including Barton's daughter (Karen Morley), her fiancee Terry (Charles Starrett) and a professor played by Jean Hersholt. The team finds the tomb:



Then Terry visits Fu Manchu in an effort to obtain Barton's release, but all he gets is goo-goo eyes from Fu Manchu's daughter. Soon he is held hostage, too, and injected with a special brainwashing serum while daughter smokes some opium and looks on longingly:


Fu Manchu then captures everyone else, and gets a chance to use all of his cool torture devices:



In the best tradition of movie villains, Fu Manchu's lair is ultramodern and fully staffed -- hey, those hydraulically-operated spiked walls aren't going to oil themselves!

As was the case in "Thirteen Women," Loy's character is much more interesting than the other woman in the film, the explorer's daughter played by Morley. And, as in most of his films, Karloff's character exists to be killed. Or IS he?!? And by the way, for a guy who specialized in monstrous types, Karloff had a very endearing lisp.

Here are full cast and credits for "The Mask of Fu Manchu," and a little about the character's history in books and other media.



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