There’s no such thing—at least that I’ve ever seen—as a really good Fu Manchu film, but Charles Brabin’s The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) is probably as close as one comes, especially considering the unavoidable racism aspect of the whole “yellow peril” genre. It’s a super slick MGM production—even Fu’s torture devices are all chrome plated and shiny—and it’s fast-paced. In fact, it’s so fast-paced that it feels more like a 15-chapter serial that’s been crammed into 68 minutes. The real selling point, of course, is Boris Karloff as Sax Rohmer’s super criminal—and Myrna Loy helps, playing her last faux-Oriental role as his oversexed daughter. Actually, the whole cast is at least fine within the admitted limitations of their roles. Let’s face it, future movie cowboy Charles Starrett is mostly around because he looks hot (to the point of appealing to both Fu and his daughter) wearing nothing but a diaper and some chrome straps on an operating table. Plotwise, it’s a lot of nonsense about keeping Fu Manchu from getting his mits on the sword and mask of Genghis Khan, which would allow him to claim he’s the reincarnation of the legendary warrior and enable him lead the East against the West. It’s rife with torture, S&M and other thrill scenes, and it’s pretty entertaining in those areas. It should also be noted that it’s pretty racist on occasion, with various racial slurs and Karloff exhorting his followers to “kill the white man and take his women.” OK, so it’s really racist, but that’s part and parcel of the whole genre, and has to be viewed in the context of its time. Plus, it’s very obvious that Karloff—at one point wearing a hat Carmen Miranda would envy—thinks the whole thing is just plain campy. Hey, we’re dealing with a movie in which henchmen disguised as mummies (with zippers) emerge from coffins in the British Museum to kidnap Lawrence Grant. Actually, for such a slick movie, there are a couple of really obvious gaffes—like showing Karloff’s platform shoes, and a scene involving an electrical arc where Karloff is clearly being doubled by some other guy in Asian make-up. But in this sort of movie, this kind of thing doesn’t matter much.
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