Tuesday, 17 August 2010

The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)

I will start by stating the obvious, so there can be no mistake. “The Mask of Fu Manchu” is an incredibly racist film. It’s not just the imperialist mind set that European civilization is both the apex and the protector of the rest of mankind – although there is plenty of that. It’s not just the yellow menace frame, with an enemy that is menacing because he is highly intelligent, without scruples of any kind and avid for power, but most of all because he aims to destruct that same civilization that allowed him to improve himself by getting three PhDs – although, yes, there is a lot of this. The moment where penny drops on realising how racist this really is, is when you realise that evil and sexual predators as they are, Fu Manchu and his daughter are far from being the bottom of the race hierarchy. For that there are plenty of black men that will happily serve as set decoration until they almost willing become human guinea pigs for Dr Fu Manchu’s experiments. Interestingly, I think it is one of the most interesting points of situation of 1930s American society.
The film further suffers from a silly script and an uninspired cast: Lewis Stone personifies the worst of the stiff upper lip British colonialism, which made me dislike him more than root for him; Jean Hersholt is an actor that I am growing to dislike more and more; and the romantic leads are dull (he seemed to be chosen solely on how hunky he looked). There are some good thrills I concede – when the heroine’s father reappears. There are two sole redeeming things. Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu and Myrna Loy as Fah Lo See, his daughter, who turn this as into a camp romp – which I believe is the reason of the film’s continued popularity. When they are onscreen the film lightens and you can’t resist their charms.

Karloff, post-“Frankenstein”, being established as a horror king. I had the feeling at some points that he is here as a replacement to Lon Chaney – the make-up, the tone of terror, etc. – and since MGM could no longer have the late actor, they got the best next thing. Even better is Myrna Loy as his nymphomaniac, sadist daughter – she has the best moments of the film, among them a sexually charged torture scene. It is one of the pinnacles of Pre-Code cinema and it has to be seen to be believed. I only regret that they don’t appear enough.

Finally an interesting game you can play if you watch it on the WB R1 DVD. The film was cut at some stage to tone down the racism and the sexuality. The restored version has these scene reinstated (as they should) but the quality is considerably inferior – so you can amuse yourself trying to spot them.

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