After taking several months off to rest following the production of The Old Dark House (1932), Boris Karloff was headed back to the make-up chair for his next role: the villainous Dr. Fu Manchu in MGM’s The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932). MGM spared no expense, creating large and impressive sets with sparkling costumes as only they could do. This was certainly no B picture and, one could argue, is the definitive Fu Manchu film because of it.
The character of Fu Manchu is a creation of British author Sax Rohmer and is usually depicted as an evil madman hell bent on conquering the world. The stories are full of secret societies and crazy creations from the mind of Fu Manchu. In this film, Karloff embraces the madness and offers us a tongue-in-cheek performance that rivals some of his other more well-known roles. As in the novels, his main adversary here is Sir Denis Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone, best known for the Andy Hardy series). The plot centers on Fu Manchu’s efforts to acquire the sword of Genghis Kahn and to wipe out the white race.
As the film is pre-code, it is filled with violence and sexuality. Numerous torture scenes push the limits, even for 1932, while the sexuality is highly present in the character of Fu Manchu’s daughter, Fah Lo See (Myrna Loy, The Thin Man). In fact, several scenes were removed from the 1992 home video release, including one of Loy in orgasmic delight as she watches a scene of torture.
Karloff is at his most evil here, more so than almost any other role. Usually, there are elements of good or some misguided motives in his villainous roles. Not with Fu Manchu. He is evil from beginning to end, complete with maniacal laughter and sinister line delivery. Personally, I think it is one of his better roles.
The movie was commercially successful but a bit controversial. Therefore, MGM never did another Fu Manchu film. Rohmer wrote a total of 13 novels between 1913 and 1959, so there was plenty of material for more. There were five Fu Manchu films prior to MGM’s, including three starring a pre-Charlie Chan Warner Oland. After the 15-chapter serial The Drums of Fu Manchu was released in 1940, it would be another 25 years before Fu Manchu was brought back to the big screen. In 1965, Christopher Lee started a new series of five films, somehow more accepted by today’s standards despite Lee being another Caucasian actor in the Asian role. There was also a brief television series in 1956. The last time Fu Manchu graced the theaters was in 1980 with the Peter Sellers spoof The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu. (Okay, I suppose we should mention Nicholas Cage appearing in the spoof trailer Werewolf Women of the SS in 2007s Grindhouse.)
Now, before you proceed with viewing this movie, there is the obvious elephant in the room we have to deal with. Karloff does play an Asian character in this film through the use of make-up. The practice of Caucasian actors playing Asian characters was common in 1932 but is seen as politically incorrect and insensitive by today’s standards. Some consider it racist and offensive. However, I believe that it would be equally wrong to censor and dismiss any film based on that premise alone. I believe more can be benefited by enjoying what the movie offers and using that as a stepping stone to more serious discussions about racial equality.
That said, some people will enjoy this movie while others will not. It really is a personal choice whether or not you can appreciate this film and I leave that decision to you. As for me, I enjoyed it and highly recommend it. It is still available on DVD as part of the Hollywood’s Legends of Horror Collection.