Directed by Charles Brabin and Charles Vidor (uncredited)
Produced by Irving Thalberg
Screenplay: Irene Kuhn, Edgar Allan Woolf and John Willard
Based on the novel The Mask of Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Film Editor: Ben Lewis
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).
If someone tells you they don’t see what the big deal is about pre-Code movies, show ’em The Mask Of Fu Manchu (1932). If its script has been floating around just a couple years later, it wouldn’t have been made.
The Mask Of Fu Manchu is a fever dream of an adventure story — or maybe a Chinese-food-stomach-ache adventure story, the kind of movie you get when writers and directors are fired, production is halted for a while, rewrites arrive minutes before scenes are shot, etc.
Boris Karloff: “It was a shambles, it really was — it was simply ridiculous.”
This chaos is evident on the screen. Characters come and go. There is little, if anything, in the way of character development. The plot simply doesn’t make sense. There’s no real flow from one scene to the next. And if you’re easily offended, well you’ll be easily offended.
But it’s absolutely fascinating from the MGM lion to the final fadeout. The evil Dr. Fu Manchu has kidnapped a noted archaeologist who claims to have found the tomb of Genghis Khan. Fu Manchu seeks the power contained in the Mongol emperor’s mask and sword. Torture, death and all sorts of mayhem ensue.
Fu Manchu (Karloff): “This serum, distilled from dragon’s blood, my own blood, the organs of different reptiles, and mixed with the magic brew of the sacred seven herbs, will temporarily change you into the living instrument of my will. You will do as I command!”
The entire cast is terrific, with Karloff and Myrna Loy (as Fu Manchu’s freaky daughter) giving it their all. Lewis Stone makes a great Nayland Smith, while Sheila Barton and Charles Starrett are fine as the damsel in distress and her rescuer. The set design is incredible, combining over-the-top Chinese influence with 30s art deco and a bit of Frankenstein’s lab (Kenneth Strickfaden, who made the equipment for Frankenstein, decked out Fu Manchu’s laboratory). It’s as lavish as it is crazy.
The Mask Of Fu Manchu is one of six Pre-Code horror pictures in Warner Archive’s Hollywood Legends Of Horror Collection. It’s a MOD re-issue of the 2006 collection, and it’s great to have it available again. The Mask Of Fu Manchu is my favorite of the bunch, and it looks great — and it’s completely uncut (it was softened a bit a few decades ago). The other films — Doctor X (1932), The Return of Doctor X (1939), Mark Of The Vampire (1935), Mad Love (AKA The Hands Of Orlac, 1935) and The Devil-Doll (1936) — look just as good. All the commentaries and trailers from the original release have been retained. For monsters nuts or fans of Pre-Code Hollywood, this is essential stuff — and a steal at $29.95.