Friday, August 15, 2008

The Mask of Fu Manchu directed by Charles Brabin (starring Boris Karloff, Myrna Loy)

The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932). Screenplay by Irene Kuhn, Edgar Allan Woolf, and John Willard from the novel The Mask of Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer (pseudonym of Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward).

Author Sax Rohmer's creation, the evil Dr. Fu Manchu ("I am a doctor of philosophy from Edinburgh, I am a doctor of law from Christ College, I am a doctor of medicine from Harvard. My friends, out of courtesy, call me Doctor") was a very popular film distraction in the 1930s. It's interesting to critique The Mask of Fu Manchu now, a film that was never intended to be watched almost 80 years after its release.

The Mask of Fu Manchu — available on DVD only in the Hollywood's Legends of Horror collection — is a diversion, little more, but an entertaining one. Boris Karloff, who reportedly spent over two hours a day in the make-up chair, dives into the role and gives the doctor the right amount of dignity and intelligence without crossing too far into parody.

The story, such as it is, concerns an ancient sword and an archeologist's daughter. The sword will allow its owner to rule the world (what else?), but the daughter ... well, she kind of lets the men do her fighting for her — even though Fu Manchu killer her father in pursuit of the sword.

Aside from Karloff, the only real reason for watching The Mask of Fu Manchu is actress Myrna Loy. As Fu Manchu's daughter, Fah Lo See, Loy offers the ideal level of danger blended with sexiness — and a touch of insanity to spice things up and make it difficult to decide whether being her prisoner would be worth the ultimate price.

This was Loy's last in a series of Asian roles. She was mostly wasted in those roles, and she chose to expand her career after making this film. She felt she was getting typecast due to her Asian-sounding surname (which was just a stage name in any case), and she began getting better roles almost immediately. The Thin Man would come only two years later and almost singlehandedly help her on the road to the icon status she holds today.

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