Fu Manchu is one of the original ‘supervillains’ of popular culture. He was first created in a series of novels by author Sax Rohmer, and they featured the ‘Yellow Terror” in a series of adventures where he wanted to take over the world, with English gentlemen thwarting his evil schemes. His character represents every single ‘isolationist’ fear that existed in the first half of the 20th century, the western world’s fear of the Chinese and their ‘strange culture’. The first Fu Manchu of the movies was played by Warner Orland over at Paramount, in a series of movies where the most famous one is Daughter Of The Dragon (with Anna May Wong). Nevertheless, it’s this one that gets the lion’s share of the fame, and with good reason.
The story deals with the Yellow Terror being in an insane quest for the mask and golden sword of Genghis Khan, trying to take over the world yet again. The British government sends a team of archeologists to find the items first, but they all fall prey to the evil doctor and his torture devices. It’s up to Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone), an aging archeologist ala Indiana Jones, to save the team before the evil Fu Manchu captures the items and takes over the Earth.
It’s very hard to watch this movie and take it too seriously nowadays, but when this film came out, it was quite shocking. You see, it was MGM’s answer to the Universal horror films that were so popular at the time (this explains the casting of Karloff). Because of this, they upped the horror elements, so we have these very sadistic torture sequences that could have easily shocked people back in the 30’s, and even today they’re still interesting to watch. But what’s really shocking is how incredibly racist this movie is against the Asian culture. Here, every Chinaman is played by a white man in yellow-face make-up, and they are all sadistic, greedy, and rat-like, and all the lust for is white women. But it’s so over-the-top that it’s very hard to watch with a straight face. It’s not like Birth Of A Nation where it ranges on the offensive. The racism in this movie actually elevates the film into party movie territory, and a lot of that has to do with the casting. Boris Karloff is having a ball playing the title role. He hams it up to the hilt, playing the super-villain part with all the glee of a comic book. His weird face and long fingernails add to this. However, it’s Myrna Loy who steals the show. This is before Loy became a huge star thanks to the Thin Man films, and here she plays the daughter of Fu Manchu (a role originated by Anna May Wong). She is even more sadistic than Fu Manchu, and Loy screams it up, shouting “Again!” repeatedly as a man gets himself whipped. Classic.
I have to say that my favorite part of the film was the production design. Everything looks like it’s made out of gold, and it’s full of sculptures that recall everything Asian. The torture rooms are also very beautifully done, with the laboratories filled with your typical mad scientist electric gizmos. Even if sometimes it does get into what the fuck territory, with the hero stepping over alligators to escape in one scene. And it’s no special effect, he’s really walking over the damn things! You’d never see that in today’s movies. The ending is hilarious, with our heroes electrocuting the shit out of every Asian in the room. So I assure you and recommend you this great film, it’s very entertaining and enjoyable, and if you think it gets ridiculous at times, it’s only because it does.