Fu Manchu Dissected, or Accidental Art

As you can probably tell from this website, even in the days of DVD, pay-per-view, and uncut movies on cable, I still prefer the theatrical experience, even when it comes to old films. Last night, I had a chance to see two classics, on the big screen for the first time: FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (1932), both starring Boris Karloff. This should have been a real treat, and to a large extent it was; unfortunately, the experience was marred by the fact that the print of FU MANCHU was a heavily censored one, which made me think, "I could have stayed home and watched the laserdisc!"

For those of you who don't know the history, MASK OF FU MANCHU was made at MGM before the Hayes Commission started cracking down on Hollywood. Previous movies had starred Warner Oland as the fiendish criminal mastermind created by Sam Rohmer; with Karloff (a major horror star after FRANKENSTEIN and THE OLD DARK HOUSE) in the role, the emphasis was on torture and sadism, pushing the limits of what was acceptable in a Hollywood movie of the era. For example, Fu Manchu's daughter has the young leading man stripped to the waist and whipped repeatedly while she watches with what can only be described as orgasmic joy.

Later, when the film was re-released, the offending material was cut out, creating numerous visible jump-cuts in the movie. Because the film is so old, unaware viewers tended to think these jumps represented just a few missing frames -- the standard wear and tear one would expect from 35mm prints that had been running through projectors for decades. Actually, these jumps represents several extensive sequences, mostly involving dialogue of an outrageous racist nature that borders on camp.

With Karloff (an Englishman) as Fu Manchu and with Hollywood starlet Myrna Loy as his daughter, it's no secret that MASK OF FU MANCHU is a racist portrait of the so-called "Yellow Peril" (the same sort of stereotyping that later gave us "Ming the Merciless" in the FLASH GORDON serials). There are a handful of authentically Asian actors in bit parts, but in general this is one of those movies wherein Occidental actors are made up to look Oriental.

As if that were not bad enough, the whole plot centers on a RAIDERS OF THE ARK-type quest to beat Fu Manchu to the discover of the golden sword and golden mask of Ghengis Kahn. Why is this important? Because if Fu Manchu gets his hands on them, the entire Easter world will accept him as Ghengis reborn and follow him as he leads an Oriental uprising to overthrow the Western (i.e., White) world.

Much of the missing dialogue involves Fu Manchu's racist exhortations to his follows. My personal favorite is his hysterial advice to the Easter warlords: "Conquer and breed! Kill the White Man and steal his women!"

Politcally correct, it's definitely not. Fortunately, it's way too far over-the-top to take seriously. And in any case, from a historical perspective, I think it's essential to preserve films in their original form: good or bad, they're a document representing popular tastes and attitudes of their times. We shouldn't let this stuff go down the memory hole.

Consequently, much as I prefer seeing movies in theatres, MASK OF FU MANCHU is best seen at home -- if you can find it on laserdisc. The film was restored back in the 1990s for a laserdisc box set called "MGM Horror Classics" (which also included MAD LOVE with Peter Lorre, MARK OF THE VAMPIRE with Bela Lugosi, THE DEVIL DOLL with Lionel Barrymore). Unfortunately, the videotape release is the censored version, and the film is not yet available on DVD.

Sadly, although the print used for the laserdisc transfer was mostly in good shape, the missing footage had to be taken from inferior 16mm materials, so whenver one of the censored scenes comes up, the image suddenly turns grainy and scratchy, even a little faded. This creates a weird effect, which I like to call "Accidental Art." The poor image quality inadvertently announces the more disreputable moments in the movie. After a while, viewer response becomes almost Pavlovian: you see the graininess, and you know you are about to see something so sadistic and/or offensive that for decades it was supressed -- and only now, years later, are you able to see it in all its hideous glory.

I don't want to oversell the missing footage, because even the whipping scene is not graphic by today's standards. But the restored footage is powerful, if for no other reason than the one listed above: we know it was enough to disturb some people so deeply that it was censored. Today, it's the kind of film that Quentin Tarantino might call a "breath of fresh air" because it is, without apology, completely politically incorrect. That might not be enough to make MASK OF FU MANCHU a masterpiece, but it is essential viewing in its uncut form.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.