The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)


(director: Charles Brabin; screenwriters: Irene Kuhn/Edgar Allan Woolf/John Willard/based on the novel The Mask of Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer; cinematographer: Tony Gaudio; editor: Ben Lewis; music: William Axt; cast: Boris Karloff (Dr. Fu Manchu), Lewis Stone (Nayland Smith), Karen Morley (Sheila Barton), Charles Starrett (Terrence Granville), Myrna Loy (Fah Lo See); Jean Hersholt (Von Berg), Lawrence Grant (Sir Lionel Barton), David Torrence (McLeod); Runtime: 72; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Irving Thalberg; MGM; 1932)
“An entertaining but politically incorrect hokum escapist adventure story.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An entertaining but politically incorrect hokum escapist adventure story of the sinister master Chinese criminal, Dr. Fu Manchu (Boris Karloff), who wants to rule the world. It’s directed by the reliable Charles Brabin (“The Beast of the City”/”The Bridge of San Luis Rey”/”Rasputin and the Empress”) from a story by Sax Rohmer (the English writer’s real name is Arthur Sarsfield Ward, who lived from 1883-1959 and began the Fu Manchu series in 1913 and ended it in 1959). It’s fast moving, well-paced and offers a suitably campy presentation. Brabin replaced Charles Vidor, who was fired after a few weeks on the set.

The evil Dr. Fu Manchu is searching for the tomb of Genghis Khan, whose golden sword and mask are rumored to contain supernatural powers. Fu is in a race to get it before an expedition for the British Museum and thereby to present himself to his Oriental people as a reincarnation of Khan, and he would then be prepared to conquer the world. The head of the British Secret Service, Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone), urges his friend from the Museum, Sir Lionel Barton (Lawrence Grant), to find the tomb of Genghis Kahn before it is discovered by the Chinese scientist Fu. However Sir Lionel is kidnapped by Fu’s henchmen and tortured by ringing bells in his ear while strapped to a bench in Fu’s Far East hideaway, but still refuses to reveal where is the tomb. The British expedition is now led by Sir Lionel’s daughter Sheila (Karen Morley), who treks with a bunch of English archaeologists to unearth the invaluable tomb on the edge of the Gobi desert. Smith is there to get the relics out of the enemy’s country the next day in secret, but Fu learns of their plans and has a member of the expedition who is guarding the treasure in a locked room, McLeod (David Torrence), killed by a dagger thrown through a window, and sends a messenger to Sheila’s fianc√©, Terry Granville (Charles Starrett), with a human hand wearing Sir Lionel’s ring. This lures Terry to act foolishly and go to Fu carrying the sword and mask. Fu’s daughter, Fah Lo See (Myrna Loy), a sadistic nymphomaniac, falls for Terry, who is whipped after the relics he delivered are discovered to be phonies. Fu then injects Terry with a serum that will make him follow all his commands, but only a small amount so he will recover in order for his daughter to enjoy having sex with him. The madman also has his minions dump Sir Lionel’s body in front of the British expedition compound, with his Manchu tattoo etched into his forehead. This leads Smith to go to an opium den, where he tracks down Fu’s hiding place by following a Fu henchman with a similar tattoo. But Smith is overtaken by Fu. Terry under the influence of the drugs, lures Sheila and scientist Von Berg (Jean Hersholt) to go with him to Fu’s headquarters and they are captured. The whites are being subject to torture by the ruthless Asian: Smith is lowered head first into a pit of hungry crocodiles, Terry is manacled to an operating table for the purpose of having some more serum injected into his blood, Von Berg is about to be impaled by daggers attached to two sliding walls and Sheila is one step away from being hacked into small pieces by the madman Fu as a sacrifice to the gods. Things look bleak, but if you ever saw any of those cliffhanger serials from the 1930s you know that the good guys will persevere.