Saturday, June 06, 2009


As someone who has actually read a couple of Fu Manchu books and is a fan of Boris Karloff's MASK OF FU MANCHU, I've been anxious to see more of Fu onscreen. I did see one of Christopher Lee's 60's films which was terrible, and I've also seen the 40's serial DRUMS OF FU MANCHU which is fine as an adventure serial but not very evocative of Sax Rohmer's novels. This is the first Fu Manchu movie and, though it has many of the problems of most early sound films, such as static camerawork and garbled sound, it has great atmosphere and probably comes the closest to actually bringing the stories to movie life. In 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion, while the British are fighting off "the Oriental hordes" in Peking, the mild and scholarly Dr. Fu Manchu (Warner Oland) is taking care of the young daughter of a British soldier. The British are victorious, but when the last of the rebels take refuge in Fu's garden, a gunfight breaks out and Fu's wife and son are killed. He rages against the white barbarians and vows to wipe out those responsible for his tragedy. Years later, in London, Inspector Nayland Smith (O.P. Heggie) warns Sir Petrie (Claude King) that someone is poisoning the soldiers who were in involved in fighting the rebellion and, sure enough, that very evening, Petrie is done in by poison gas. His son (Neil Hamilton) joins Smith in going after the killers, along with Lia (Jean Arthur), a young waif Petire has befriended. The family goes into hiding at a mansion on the coast of England, but Fu's reach is wide; it turns out that Lia is Fu's adopted daughter; he has her under his hypnotic power and is using her to track the Petries. Though there are sluggish moments here and there, the final confrontation is well played. Fu tells a bound Petrie that they are not characters in a "gigantic melodrama" in which a last-minute rescue will provide a happy ending, but of course, they actually *are* in such a melodrama, and Fu gets one of the last lines as, in his death throes, he tells us that the story is going to end "in the usual way." As much as I like Karloff’s over-the-top portrayal in MASK, Oland does a better job at bringing the character as written by Rohmer to life. Hamilton does a nice job as the stolid hero, though Arthur is rather bland and Heggie (best known as the blind hermit in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN) doesn't make much of an impression. William Austin has an excruciating turn as the mincing comic-relief butler who explains that he doesn't wear glasses because they make him look "slightly effeminate." The total lack of background music really hurts the film, and makes you realize how much we rely on such music to set mood and convey tension. The print of this Paramount film I saw, on a grey-market DVD, is a bad copy of an old TV print, but the movie is interesting enough to deserve a decent release, if better materials can be found. DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON, a sequel with Oland and Anna May Wong, is also worth seeing. [DVD]

1 comment:

dfordoom said...

I'm quite fond of Rohmer's Fu Manchu books, although I enjoy the Sumuru books even more. I'm slightly more fond of the 60s Christopher Lee movies than you are.