This is a creaky but entertaining relic from the early sound era. Basically an adventure story focusing on a race to prevent Fu Manchu from obtaining some lost relics, the movie feels like a proto-type for RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, with some science-fiction overtones; it edges into the horror category thanks to the fiendish torture devices used by the Oriental criminal mastermind – and his sadistic daughter. The pacing is frequently slack, especially in the early scenes, but the film has a genuinely, sometimes kinky (if admittedly offensive) kick, thanks to the unabashed racism of its plot. Boris Karloff gives a delicious performance in the title role, one of his relatively few portraits of outright evil. Although a horror star thanks to his performance as the monster in FRANKENSTEIN, Karloff tend to imbue most of his monsters with sympathy. Not so here – this is about as close as the actor ever came to camp, and it works, in an unbelievable, movie-movie sort of way.
MASK OF FU MANCHU was made at MGM before the Hayes Commission began cracking down on Hollywood. Previous movies based on the Sax Rohmer character had starred Warner Oland; with Karloff (a major horror star after FRANKENSTEIN and THE OLD DARK HOUSE) in the role, the emphasis was placed on torture and sadism, pushing the limits of what was acceptable in a Hollywood movie of the era. For example, Fu Manchu’s daughter has the young leading man stripped to the waist and whipped repeatedly while she watches with what can only be described as orgasmic joy.
Later, when the film was re-released, the offending material was cut out, creating numerous visible jump-cuts. Because the film is so old, unaware viewers might think these jumps represented a worn-out print missing a few frames. Actually, these jumps represented several extensive sequences, mostly involving dialogue of an outrageous racist nature that borders on camp.
With Karloff (an Englishman) as Fu Manchu and with Hollywood starlet Myrna Loy as his daughter, it’s no secret that MASK OF FU MANCHU is a racist portrait of the so-called “Yellow Peril” (the same sort of stereotyping that later gave us “Ming the Merciless” in the FLASH GORDON serials). There are a handful of authentically Asian actors in bit parts, but in general this is one of those movies wherein Occidental actors are made up to look Oriental.
As if that were not bad enough, the plot centers quest to beat Fu Manchu to the discovery of the golden sword and golden mask of Genghis Kahn. If Fu Manchu obtains them, the entire Eastern world will accept him as Kahn reborn and follow him as he leads an Oriental uprising to overthrow the Western (i.e., White) world.
Much of the missing dialogue involves Fu Manchu’s racist exhortations to his follows, including this hysterical battle cry to the Eastern warlords: “Conquer and breed! Kill the White Man and steal his women!”
The racist tone could be considered offensive; fortunately, it’s far too far over-the-top to take seriously. And in any case, from a historical perspective, it’s essential to preserve films in their original form: good or bad, they are a document representing popular tastes and attitudes of their times. We shouldn’t let this stuff go down the memory hole.
But down the memory hole is exactly where the offending footage went for decades; even the videotape release was the censored version. Thankfully, the film was restored in the 1990s for “MGM Horror Classics.” This excellent laserdisc box set included three other ’30s horror films: MAD LOVE with Peter Lorre, MARK OF THE VAMPIRE with Bela Lugosi, THE DEVIL DOLL with Lionel Barrymore, along with a few trailers from the original theatrical release of the films. Sadly, although the print used for the laserdisc transfer was mostly in good shape, the missing footage had to be taken from inferior 16mm materials, so whenever one of the censored scenes appeared, the image turned grainy and scratchy, even a little faded. This created a weird effect, which might be called “Accidental Art.” The poor image quality inadvertently announced the more disreputable moments in the movie. After a while, viewer response became almost Pavlovian: you see the graininess, and you know you are about to see something that was deemed so offensive that for decades it was suppressed.
The MGM Horror Classics collection was too expensive to appeal to anyone but hard-core collectors, and it went quickly out of print, making it difficult if not impossible to find MASK OF FU MANCHU in its original, uncut form for another decade. Then in 2006 the old laserdisc box set was reborn in DVD form as “Hollywood Legends of Horror,” a new three-disc box set that added the titles DR. X. and THE RETURN OF DR. X. At a more affordable price, the DVD version made FU MANCHU available not only to collectors but also to the merely curious, who want to see what the censorship was all about.
One should not oversell the impact of the missing footage; even the whipping scene is not graphic by 21st century standards. But the restored footage is powerful, if for no other reason than that we know disturbed some people so deeply that it was censored. Seen decades later, THE MASK OF FU MANCHU is the kind of film that Quentin Tarantino might call a “breath of fresh air” because it is, without apology, completely politically incorrect. That might not be enough to make the film a masterpiece, but it is essential viewing in its uncut form.
THE MASK OF FU MANCHU(1932). Directed by Charles Brabin. Screenplay by Irene Kuhn, Edgar Allan Woolf, and John Willard, based on the character created by Sax Rohmer. Cast: Boris Karloff, Lewis Stone, Karen Morley, Charles Starrett, Myrna Loy, Jean Hersholt, Lawrence Grant.