Wednesday, April 05, 2017

The Mask Of Fu Manchu

Boris Karloff may seem miscast to today’s eyes as Sax Rohmer’s Chinese supervillain, who first appeared in 1912’s THE MYSTERY OF DR. FU-MANCHU, but this marvelously campy (and sleazy) slice of pulp fiction is a terrific movie.

MGM spared little expense on this “A-picture,” showering THE MASK OF FU MANCHU with lavish sets, props, special effects, and production values. And because it was produced before studios paid much attention to the dreaded Motion PIcture Production Code, MASK rings with brutality, racism, jingoism, and overtones of sadomasochism. What a terrific adventure.

Karloff and Myrna Loy as Fu’s horny daughter Fah Lo See are so delightfully evil that MASK tends to suffer a bit when director Charles Brabin cuts away from their lair. Fu Manchu’s glee while torturing archaeologist Barton (Lawrence Grant) under a giant bell, rubbing grapes across the starved man’s lips and pouring salt water down his throat, ranks among Karloff’s best moments. And Loy’s sensual reaction to the hero, tied up, helpless, and shirtless, is quite unlike her fast-talking debutante in THE THIN MAN.

Fu kidnaps Barton to find out where Genghis Khan is buried. Legend has it that Genghis Khan’s golden mask and scimitar, when charged with electricity, will enable Fu Manchu to lead an army that will conquer the world. Out to find the tomb on the edge of the Gobi Desert before Fu can are Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone), archaeologist Von Berg (Jean Hersholt — yes, the guy with the Oscar named after him), Barton’s daughter Sheila (Karen Morley), and her fiance Terry Granville (Charles Starrett, soon to be the Durango Kid).

Kenneth Strickfaden, who created the impressive futuristic electrical gizmos for FRANKENSTEIN, does the same here and even doubles Karloff in some shots. Much of the incendiary dialogue was censored for television broadcasts, but was later restored for home video. Unless you’re really squeamish, MASK’s mixture of hidden caves, secret doors, ripe dialogue, kinky torture, subversive sex, spiders and snakes, awesome death traps, and exotic locale should delight the adventure lover in you.


Bill O said...

Think it was only censored for, and by, TCM. My early tv memories have it playing uncut in an MGM package.

Joe Dante said...

No, it was cut for MGM's 1972 theatrical reissue.