30 October 2009 | bkoganbing
The Yellow Peril
It didn't surprise me in the least that The Mask Of Fu Manchu was produced by Cosmopolitan Pictures. Even though the title is a bit of a misnomer. It isn't about The Mask Of Fu Manchu, it's about the mask and sword of Ghenghis Khan which Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu wants to discover and appropriate for himself so he can become a kind of Far Eastern Mahdi.
Cosmopolitan Pictures was the production outfit of William Randolph Hearst and while it's main reason for existence was to produce films for Marion Davies, it did produce other films. The Hearst press, especially on the West Coast was very big in stirring up anti-Chinese and anti- Japanese feelings among the white people constantly using the phrase The Yellow Peril to describe how if they're allowed to emigrate her they'll be taking over in a few generations. The fictional Fu Manchu fit the Hearst agenda quite nicely.
In the Fu Manchu stories it's like Professor Moriarty was the main protagonist. Fu Manchu's particular Holmes is Commissioner Nayland Smith played by Lewis Stone as stout a representative of the United Kingdom and their imperial pretensions as ever went out in the noon day sun.
As I said Fu Manchu is after the warrior symbols of Ghengis Khan so he can lead the Oriental people to their rightful place. Interestingly this Oriental messiah seems to have a number of black slaves doing his bidding in the film. The British government as personified by Nayland Smith wants archaeologists Jean Hersholt, David Torrance and Lawrence Grant to find the tomb and get this so the British can display it at the British Museum in London as a symbol of their superiority. Grant is kidnapped and tortured by Karloff, but Grant's daughter Karen Morley and her boyfriend, future Durango Kid Charles Starrett takes her father's place on the expedition.
Though I think that The Mask Of Fu Manchu is every bit as racist in its attitudes as The Birth Of A Nation, like The Birth Of A Nation it has some great performances. Led of course by that master of horror, Boris Karloff. Karloff played so many different and varied types in his long career, being Chinese was no big deal for him to play. Later on Karloff kind of made it up to the Chinese people by playing the educated detective Mr. Wong who unlike Charlie Chan never spoke in fortune cookie aphorisms.
Myrna Loy is Fu Manchu's 'unworthy' daughter and this is at the height of the phase in her career where she played Oriental temptresses. She conceives a real liking for Starrett to turn him into her Occidental boy toy. She's a willing and eager accomplice in her father's dirty deeds, perhaps to show herself as worthy.
The Mask Of Fu Manchu is as racist a film as you can get, but it's also holding up quite well as entertainment. And who was ever more sinister on the screen than Boris Karloff playing anything?