In 1932, Boris Karloff first donned makeup that would transform him into the Asian character Dr. Fu Manchu in The Masks of Fu Manchu. Five years later, he would do so again in the seldom-seen West of Shanghai (1937). Insensitive by today’s standards, Caucasian actors playing Asian characters was not that uncommon in the 30s and 40s. Karloff was actually quite good at it but it is a little hard to watch today. However, if you can reconcile that with the understanding of the time in which the film was made, West of Shanghai is actually a fun and quick film at just 64 minutes long.
West of Shanghai is actually based on a play by Porter Emerson Browne and was originally set in Mexico. However, with the ongoing war and interest in China, the location was changed. While Karloff plays the lead role of General Wu Yen Fang, there are actually many other Asian roles played by Asian actors, which greater enhances the film.
Gordon Creed (Ricardo Cortez) heads to a remote village in search of Jim Hallet (Gordon Oliver) in an attempt to buy his oil field. Creed’s estranged wife Jane (Beverly Roberts) happens to be there as well, working with the local mission. Meanwhile, General Fang is terrorizing the countryside and just happens to stop off in the village at the same time. He takes over and begins to show interest in Jane, which Creed uses to his advantage in attempt to cheat Hallet out of his oil fields and escape from Fang.
Karloff is given some wonderful lines that bring a sense of levity to his otherwise evil character. Some believe his makeup wasn’t convincing but I actually thought it looked quite good for the time. Whatever is lacking in the appearance is well-made up in Karloff’s performance. While the story is simple, the production never comes off looking cheap and Karloff certainly makes the film a fun way to spend a late night or an early afternoon.
West of Shanghai isn’t Karloff’s best but it certainly is worth checking out. For many years, the film was rarely seen other than an occasional showing on Turner Classic Movies. After years of being unavailable on home video, it was finally released two years ago as part of the Boris Karloff Triple Feature DVD set from Warner Brothers with The Invisible Menace (1938) and Devil’s Island (1939). Watch the trailer and track down the movie. If you can accept Karloff in the lead role, you’ll have some fun with this one. Not his most iconic role but certainly worth a watch.