The Alamo is an interesting place because they do show exploitation films, they do show controversial material, and at those special screenings, they usually have a host put a frame around what you're about to see. This movie was shown as part of the "Super Krime" series which also contained last week's Danger: Diabolik, but was the riskier showing, certainly. For pop-cultural anthropologists, there's a lot to chew on here from the casting to the racial issues to the pre-code genre-ambiguity and content and - for modern pop-culture which so often includes super-villains in the mix, Fu Manchu lays out the blueprint for so much of what would come afterwards.
By today's standards, your grandparents were racist as hell. Even if they were hip, bohemian folks - by the rules of what non-awful people consider decency and mannered public discourse, what you'd hear come out of Grandma and Grandpa's mouths was likely to get them the side-eye at Thanksgiving - but we're all a reflection of a time and a place. Attitudes change. Society, hopefully, advances. Insert your own election-related joke here.
I am not a paid or professional film historian or scholar, but I have an interest in the history of pop culture and the film industry as well as genre film and whatnot. A few years ago, I came across a picture of Myrna Loy playing the daughter of Boris Karloff in a film I'd never seen. The catch: they're both in yellowface as the nefarious Fu Manchu and his daughter.
A bit more digging told me that this movie was once a favorite, included in some circles as a premier classic horror film of sorts.
But you can't get access to a Fu Manchu film all that easily (and there are many), and it's something that doesn't screen all that often - a bit like the President's Day sequence in Holiday Inn (which they simply excise when they show it as it doesn't advance the plot, but it does feature a whole lotta your beloved Hollywood favorites in black face*). And, yeah, I saw the movie featured yellowface, and cast most of the Eastern hemisphere in a nasty light, so it made a bit of sense to me that the studio was in no big hurry to remind the world they had the film in the collection.
Fu Manchu is a character who first appeared in pulp novels of the very early 20th Century, a scheming mastermind supervillain before the concept had a name. And, really, once you get past the many, many issues of Fu Manchu's very existence as a symbol of England's attitudes regarding Britain's place in the world (some would argue that Fu Manchu has a reason to want to retaliate against the British), and absolutely as a symbol of the now rarely discussed "Yellow Peril" anxiety that ran rampant in Anglo nations in the 20th Century - Fu Manchu is an interesting character in a "backlash against colonialism" way, perhaps of a like-mind with Captain Nemo.
It's a bit of interesting that at the (sparsely attended) screening I attended of The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), the print they were able to obtain was a 16mm set of reels borrowed from UCLA's archive, which is home to much of the MGM library. The Alamo Drafthouse looks high and low for prints of films, and I've been privileged to see the only print known to be available of many-a-film at the theater, but - nope. No 35mm print was to be had.**
History is disavowing it's uglier children, and that's something about which I have mixed feelings. Film is too important an artifact of cultural attitudes and mores to simply abandon when it becomes inconvenient. Extending my privilege from seeing archival prints to being a white dude, I'll state that the preservation of this kind of material is highly important for future scholars and historians to better understand the world in which films were made. We simply can't afford to throw away evidence of the world from which we hope to move on from or it will disappear into legend. Let's have some concrete evidence.
So why see this movie?
Curiosity spurred this cat. Fu Manchu was cultural shorthand for folks a generation ahead of me, and I'd seen a still or two and could get some context. A creepy Asian guy, usually played by white people. But so what? What was the story? I'd seen The Mask of Fu Manchu included in at least one "horror" list and a horror collection of DVD's or two. Why was it horror? With all the Fu Manchu material that had once existed, what actually happened in one of these movies?
And, of course, I'll watch anything featuring Myrna Loy. And it's key to remember that Loy - in the days of black and white film, more intense segregation meaning less exposure for Anglos to other people, and with just the right make-up - was often cast as "an exotic", of various ethnicities.
|Oh, yeah. Totally an Asian lady.|
And, because I've a soft spot for Karloff, I wanted to see him in one of his most retroactively notorious roles.
|in it's way, still not as bad as Connery in "You Only Live Twice"|
If this all seems weird, it is. But, really, how much better are we in 2016 when, as we speak, Scarlett Johannson is filming Ghost in the Shell as a live feature in the lead role. If we won't put actors in yellowface in 2016, we'll just make the lead characters white people (we narrowly missed a white-washed Akira just a few years ago).
The movie itself, though, is not just clumsy mistakes like casting Boris Karloff as an Asian dude. It engages in a level of drunk-uncle racism that is both interesting to see actually play out and breathtakingly on the nose. I mean, how many movies survive today in which the villain, rallying a horde of blood thirsty Asian cutthroats promises them they'll kill all the white men and take all the white women?
If you want to see anxieties and fears delivered without nuance or dog-whistle language, this may be your movie. There's also a lot of language about how "we're gonna do you Christians in".
But the point of watching the movie is not to hear yourself say "holy @#$%" involuntarily after a few key lines in the film (yes, I may have slipped). It was too see one of the original blueprints for super-villainy.
In 2016, it's hard not to imagine a world in which a criminal mastermind sets deathtraps for our heroes, or in which a mysterious figure lays labyrinthine plans to take over the world, often via MacGuffin. And I really don't know exactly where this idea came from, but it's hard not to see echoes of Fu Manchu in everyone from Auric Goldfinger to Victor Von Doom, or even the wacky deathtraps of the Batman villains. Of course it's interesting that the series of books and movies in entitled after the villain rather than the hero - Fu Manchu's perpetual nemesis, Nayland Smith (played in the 1932 film by Lewis Stone). In some ways, it's a bit like Dracula with his Von Helsing in constant pursuit.
The actual movie of The Mask of Fu Manchu brings together all these elements in a story in which an archaeologist is set to go uncover the lost tomb of Ghengis Khan. He plans to bring the items back to the British Museum and England shall have more plundered goods for their amusement. However, Fu Manchu wants the items himself - in particular the funeral mask and scimitar - which he believes, when he has them, will inspire "The East" to rise up and sweep across The West.
Fu Manchu kidnaps the archaeologist before he can leave on his trip and tortures him with an extraordinarily creative use of a bell, and that was when I said "oh, yeah. If we consider The Old Dark House to be horror, and certainly The Black Cat, then this is totally a horror movie in the realm of something like Saw, I guess."
But - you know, Yellow Peril aside, Fu Manchu is a fascinating villain. He claims a western education in multiple disciplines, he's deeply cruel in a way you don't see in actual human characters - but always with a motive in mind. In short, diabolical. It's hard to see how many villains ever really got any better or worse than this from Ming the Merciless to Darth Vader (in Episode IV. Calm down).
Fu Manchu has an army of loyal minions, and beyond that, clearly a network of other angry folk who are totally onboard with running over The West with a steamshovel (and if you're up on your history of the era... well...). And, loin-swaddled, well-muscled black guys who seem to be on his side for some reason.
Further, his daughter is Myrna Loy, who he treats both with pride and like hot garbage, clearly needing to keep her on a short leash as she's at least as diabolical and perhaps even more sadistic than dear old dad and the hints of BDSM are more than a little subtle.
The movie is also beautifully shot in an almost proscenium arch style in some places, the camera backing up and just letting the action unfold. Fu Manchu's layer is fantastically designed - even if I wondered if parts of it are used sets from other movies repurposed. It doesn't matter, because the end result is a really pretty brilliantly visualized movie, complete with special FX and a mix of mysticism and science-fiction that feels pulp-tastic as you're likely to get. And, of course, the black and white is used to excellent effect with light and shadow helping to create illusions of scale.
There are crazy moments in the film, from an actual actor seemingly walking across actual @#$%ing alligators, to Myrna Loy seeming to want to turn a dude into her sex slave and then kill him (still worth it).
But, yeah, the horrible, horrible is going to be the reason to probably not watch this and what keeps it from being held up as a classic for the kids.
As this was a Fu Manchu double-bill, we also watched The Castle of Fu Manchu, maybe the last Fu Manchu movies ever made if you don't include a 1980 spoof starring Peter Sellers.
I can't say the movie was good, but it did star Christopher Lee as the notorious criminal, and I really did feel like Lee was taking it pretty seriously even if the camera work, direction, other actors, stunts, etc... were mostly left wanting. It's not quite as overtly racist, except that it's hard not to notice that the only people who make it out alive in this British produced movie are the Brits, right up to and including a character who has made a clean escape running back into an exploding building to save someone she had every reason she thought was dead while a British doctor is suddenly dispatching armed, trained assassins left and right.
Never mind. On second thought, it's pretty racist, too.
The plot has something to do with a scientist creating a crystal that can freeze water, and this will cause havoc if Fu Manchu deploys them around the world. The scientist who made the crystals is dying, and Fu Manchu can't let that happen before he, you know, something or other...
Frankly, it was a bad, bad movie and I believe MST3K rightfully took it on.
**That said, Friday morning when I got up to leave for Seattle, it was Boris Karloff day on Turner Classic and, lo and behold, the movie was showing at 9:00 in the morning. This always, always happens to me.