Friday, December 16, 2016
The Mask of Fu Manchu
A renaissance man if ever there was one, Dr. Fu Manchu bridges the gap between the two, often opposing, cultures of science and religion. Tinkering with exotic poisons and Tesla coils, Fu Manchu seems to be a man of science and technological innovator -- his electrically powered Death Ray is an excellent exemplar of his scientific acumen. And, yet, at the climax of this 1932 film, The Mask of Fu Manchu, the doctor preaches a sermon to the "Men of the East" while orchestrating the elaborate human sacrifice of a lingerie-clad maiden to the great God Shiva: a grinning idol wielding a scimitar is pressed into service to accomplish this religious observance. MGM's adaptation of a novel by Sax Rohmer is racist to the core, expensively mounted with an all-star cast, and directed with staggering incompetence by someone named Charles Brabin. Presumably, the movie was intended as some kind of campy comedy but the racism is too thoroughgoing and nasty to be funny and the sadism is too vicious to be merely amusing. The film isn't scary and it's too ineptly directed to be suspenseful. Visually, some aspects of the picture are impressive but the film's poor direction tends to undercut the legitimately effective elements of the film's set-direction and costumes. And the acting is uniformly wooden and inert. Boris Karloff plays Fu Manchu and his "yellow-face" effects are wholly unconvincing -- in order to preserve the illusion that he has Asiatic features, Karloff squeezes his eyes to slits with the result that he simply looks sleepy. (Myrna Loy playing Karloff's dominatrix daughter is equally hapless with respect to her make-up effects -- she also has to play her part with eyes squeezed shut and seems half-blind throughout the film.) Lewis Stone, most memorable as the disfigured German Junker in Grand Hotel, seems baffled by the ridiculous plot -- he is whitest of all white men, a slender alabaster pillar the color of an acetylene flame, and like a torch, is entirely without expression. The rest of people in the film, a cast consisting, more or less, wholly of people who Fu Manchu will torture at one time or another are unconvincing and mouth their lines with obvious disdain. The director, Charles Brabin, has an uncanny facility for locating his camera in the worst possible location. At first, Brabin seems to be filming a stage play -- characters sit in box-like sets, confined to the bottom quarter of the image, the upper three-quarters generally just empty space. Brabin likes to film people coming and going through doors. If someone approaches a door, Brabin obligingly shows the character entering the room. The sets look like an old-style Chinese restaurant -- there was a place in Duluth in the 80's called "The Brass Lantern" filled with ornate arched entryways and filigree screens with lacquered wall-coverings depicting mother-of-pearl dragons. It was dark in the old Brass Lantern and to get to the toilets you had to walk over a little arched bridge spanning a koi-crowded pool beside a faux-ivory wishing well full of pennies pitched into the water by patrons. Chinioserie knick-knacks were everywhere and, after completing your supper of sugary chop-suey, syrupy sweet-and-sour shrimp with egg foo yung, you could go into a gift shop and buy yourself a fist-sized Buddha with a fat belly as a souvenir of your adventures in the exotic Orient. The Mask of Fu Manchu seems mostly set in a Chinese restaurant of this kind, dimly lit, and crammed with waitresses in imitation silk kimonos. Brabin doesn't know how to make the best of his kitschy, if expensive, sets and they are either ridiculously overlit or dark as grottos. Brabin also doesn't know anything about editing a film for effect -- hence, the repeated shots of people walking through doors into tableaux that look like they belong on stage. At the climax of the movie, the Caucasian heroes use the death-ray to spray artificial lightning on about five-hundred "Men of the East", a writhing mob that we see only in long shot since earlier closer images showed the men not to be Asiatic in appearance, but, rather, a medley of Sikhs, Indian maharajahs, Bedouins, and desert dwellers, all of these parts acted by ethnic-looking Jews. For some bizarre reason, Fu Manchu's factotums are all giant Black men, almost entirely nude who stand on plinths with arms akimbo, looking exactly like Oscar Schlemmer's glistening and ebony Academy Award. Addicted to Baroque tortures, Fu Manchu, of course, keeps his victims alive long enough so that they can escape and wreak havoc on him. Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone) playing a plucky archaeologist and explorer finds himself strapped to a teeter-totter above a pit full of vicious-looking crocodiles. Smith wiggles free and, then, blithely walks right through the crocs who don't really pay much attention to him. Smith's side-kick, a comical German who looks like Trotsky, is being pinched to death by some spikes in a conveniently nearby room. Smith goes into that torture chamber, shuts off the machine by flipping a lever, and, then, the two of them release the hunky and stalwart male hero who is being fondled by Myrna Loy -- she is lovingly caressing the lash marks on his chest and belly and ribs, stigmata from some earlier torture. This character previously was fed poison extracted from a tarantula, Gila monster, scorpion, and boa constrictor (a serpent that is not venomous, of course). This poison turned him into a zombie and sex slave for Myrna Loy's depraved Chinese princess, Dr. Fu Manchu's daughter. In the throes of the gu poison, Ken-doll hero throws a fit in a wild rainstorm and laughs maniacally as he delivers his fiancee and the rest of the Caucasians into the elaborately curved fingernails of Dr. Fu Manchu -- but Brabin has the camera so far away that we can't see the man's face, probably a mercy since there is no evidence that he can act at all. Once everyone has escaped from their respective torture chambers, the allied forces of the White men can seize control of the Death Ray. In a basement amphitheater, a sort of rec-room from Hell, Fu Manchu is choreographing the slaughter of the hero's fiancée, clad in a diaphanous and semi-transparent night-gown, and exhorting the "Men of the East" to seize all White women and beget children upon them so that the White race will be bred out of existence. Unfortunately for Dr. Manchu, there is a trapdoor right below the Death Ray and, opening this conveniently located hatch, our heroes pour lightning down onto the heads of the assembled multitude, massacring them all in a series of supremely uncommunicative and dull long shots. This is the kind of movie in which a series of small niche-like rooms, decorated with stalactites and stalagmites, are full of listless, limp-looking snakes, the same critters appearing in each chamber -- one can imagine the hapless set-decorators lugging the torpid constrictor form room to room. When the archaeologist removes the mask of Genghis Khan, the film's symbol for the hegemony of the East over our Western civilization, a big tarantula is prowling around the inside of the Great Khan's skeletal eye-socket. The tarantula appears later when Fu Manchu cunningly milks the poor spider for its venom so as to manufacture the elixir of zombification (and, also, an aphrodisiac) that misleads the dimwitted muscle-man hero into dragging his fiancée and future father-in-law and the Trotsky look-alike into the den of the Asiatic fiend. All obstacles surmounted in the end, the muscle-man is reunited with his pale-faced fiancée and, when a ship's porter appears with a gong to announce that dinner is served, everyone has a good laugh at the expense of the servile Oriental man announcing that the buffet on this all-inclusive cruise ship is open -- "Are you a doctor? Or a physicist? Or an archaeologist? Or a student of strange poisons and tortures?" Nayland Smith asks the chubby servant. The man looks like he's a Filipino and he grins, showing a mouthful of rotten teeth, saying "Not me, boss!" I forgot to mention that a guy is tortured to death by being forced to listen to a great bell sounding interminably over the rack where he is chained. When the poor fellow pants that he is dying of thirst, Fu Manchu pours a mouthful of saltwater down his throat and, then, has him branded on the forehead with the mark of a rampant dragon. And so it goes.