|...but Fu Manchu.|
|Little Dougie read this copy of this silly book way back in 1966.|
Not to put too fine a point on it, the stories are outrageously racist. It's not just that Fu is portrayed as the personification of "The Yellow Peril," it's that smug, pompous, we're-British-and-we-save-the-world attitude that infests all the "heroes" in the stories. These are books that think The British Empire was a GOOD thing!
|Sax Rohmer. "Sax" ain't nothing but "sex" misspelled. Don't expect him to receive posthumous honors from China any time soon.|
As "literature," Sax Rohmer inhabits a middle ground between Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ian Fleming. Tarzan was also created in 1912, and if you think the Tarzan stories are less racist than the Fu Manchu stories, then you haven't read Burroughs. I read Tarzan of the Apes, published as a magazine serial in 1912 and as a novel in 1914, and it's hard to pick out the worst racism in it: the attitude towards the black natives of Africa, all of whom are inferior to the white guy in the loin cloth, or the incredibly bad dialogue given to Jane's black maid ("Fo' de good Lawd's sake, ain' ah daid?")? Well, for my money, the nadir of its racial attitudes comes in this passage. Tarzan has just killed the black man who killed his ape mother, and then he ponders whether or not to eat his kill:
|"Hmmm. That guy sure look tasty. Too bad Tarzan actually English lord who has been bred only to eat lower classes."|
"Did men eat men? Alas, he did not know. Why, then, this hesitancy? ... He did not understand. All he knew was that he could not eat the flesh of this black man, and thus hereditary instinct, ages old, usurped the functions of his untaught mind and saved him from transgressing a worldwide law of whose very existence he was ignorant."
- Tarzan of the Apes, Chapter IX, "Man And Man," by Edgar Rice Burroughs.
|"Me Tarzan. Me no eat guys. Only Jane. Also, me give myself this swell jungle haircut."|
Yes, though no one has ever told Tarzan that cannibalism is frowned on civilized society, and though the only other humans he has ever seen he watched eat their enemies, nonetheless, as the son of "civilized," WHITE English folk, he had an instinctual revulsion against cannibalism, lacking in his black neighbors.
Bullshit! THAT, my darlings, is really invidious racism. Here's a much more realistic, sensible passage on man's "instincts" regarding cannibalism from Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. In this passage, "Duke" has expressed to Jubal Harshaw his disgust at Valentine Michael Smith's oft-expressed belief that one should eat one's loved ones after they die, to make them part of you always.
"This is instinct!"
"But it is. I didn't get any 'trainng at my mother's knee' not to be a cannibal. Hell, I didn't need it; I've always known it was a sin - a nasty one. Why the mere thought of it makes my stomach do a flip-flop. It's a basic instinct."
Jubal groaned. "Duke, how could you learn so much about machinery and never learn anything about how you yourself tick? That nausea you feel - that's not an instinct; that's a conditioned reflex. Your mother didn't have to say to you, 'Mustn't eat your playmates, dear; that's not nice,' because you soaked it up from our whole culture - and so did I. Jokes about cannibals and missionaries, cartoons, fairy tales, horror stories, endless little things. But it has nothing to do with instinct. Shucks, son, it couldn't possibly be instinct ... because cannibalism is historically one of the most widespread of human customs, extending through every branch of the human race. Your ancestors, my ancestors, everybody."
"Your ancestors maybe. Don't bring mine into it."
"Um, Duke, didn't you tell me you had some Indian blood?"
"Huh? Yeah. An eighth. In the army they used to call me 'Chief.' What of it? I'm not ashamed of it, I'm proud of it."
"No reason to be ashamed - nor proud, either, for that matter. But, while both of us certainly have cannibals in our family trees, chances are that you are a good many generations closer to cannibals than I am because..."
"Why, you bald-headed old .."
"Simmer down. You were going to listen, remember? Ritual cannibalism was a widespread custom among aboriginal American cultures. But don't take my word for it; look it up. ... Even if both of us were Simon-pure North European stock, certified by the American Kennel Club (a silly notion, since the amount of casual bastardy among humans is far in excess of that ever admitted) - but even if we were, such ancestry would merely tell us which cannibals we are descended from... because every branch of the human race, without any exception, has practiced cannibalism in the course of its history. Duke, it's silly to talk about a practice being 'against instinct' when hundreds of millions of human beings have followed that practice."
- Stranger in a Strange Land, Chapter xiii, by Robert Heinlein.
|This book, a paperback with this cover, changed Little Dougie's life, altering what he thought about most everything, way back in 1965.|
Take that, Edgar Rice Burroughs! ("Casual bastardy among humans"? Heinlein really could have cut "among humans". We're the only species that has the concept of "bastardy." There's no such thing as a bastard animal. "I don't want those puppies! That bitch isn't married! Those puppies are BASTARDS! Bad dogs, BAD!")
Burroughs, and a little later Robert E. Howard , author of the Conan the Barbarian books, and Lester Dent's Doc Savage: The Man of Shredded Shirts, also came from the pulps, where good writing took a back seat to selling action-filled fantasy adventures to teenage boys. I have to give Sax Rohmer this: his prose holds up even if his plots don't. I find Edgar Rice Burroughs almost unreadable. Rohmer's plain straight-forward prose is clear and highly readable. And unlike Tarzan, Conan and Doc Savage, Fu Manchu managed to keep his shirt on, or rather his gorgeously brocaded robes.
|"I'm Doc Savage, and I also used to be Tarzan on TV. This is as much of a shirt as I've ever worn."|
|Carry On, Doctor No.|
The first three Fu Manchu novels are really just short magazine serials strung together, and are too episodic and disjointed to work well as novels, plus Fu himself comes "onstage" too seldom. With the fourth book, Daughter of Fu Manchu, Rohmer began writing actual novels, with one, book-length plot, and the books got better. Also in that book, he introduced the character of Fah Lo Suee, Fu's kinky, ambitious, equally-evil daughter. In the books, she begins as her father's assistant/sidekick, and becomes his rival for head of Fu's organization, the Si-Fan, so Fu finally kills his own daughter, then, still later in the series, resurrects her as a zombie. Unlike Fu, though Fah has been played by white women, Luana Walters in Drums of Fu Manchu (Luana also played Lara, Superman's Kryptonian mother in the Kirk Alyn serial Superman, making Fu Manchu Superman's grandfather. There's a thought to give one pause.) and Myrna Loy in Mask of Fu Manchu, she has been played by Chinese actresses also, Anna May Wong in the Warner Oland series, and Tsai Chin in the Christopher Lee films. In her memoirs, Tsai is less-than-proud of her Fu Manchu films, but a paycheck for a working actress is a paycheck.
|Fah Lo Suee shares my appreciation of a well-set-up young hunk. Here Myrna Loy as Fah lusts openly for the iron-jawed hero, having gotten wildly turned on by his flogging. Fah is heavily into Sadistic kinky rough sex.|
Fu has been a radio show, comic books, everything but a Broadway musical, but I'm a movie type of movie star, and I want to discuss Fu on film.
|This comic book adaptation of the fifth, and most-famous, Fu novel appears in this excerpt to follow the novel a lot closer than the movie did.|
|"Noel Coward? Nonsense, old bean, I'm a sinister Chinese mastermind. Cor blimey, I'm dashedly Asian. Pip, pip and all that Chinese rot."|
I've not seen this film, in fact, it may not even still exit, but who could resist this? Oh. You too?
|"Dash it all, I was about to conquer the Empire, I mean the world, but it's tea time."|
However, I have seen the trilogy of Fu films starring Swedish actor Warner Oland, who later achieved greater fame as Charlie Chan: 1929's The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu, 1930's The Return of Fu Manchu and 1931's Daughter of the Dragon. Here is the physical description of Fu Manchu found in the first novel: "Imagine a person, tall, lean, and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect. . . . Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man." Ah yes. That's Warner Oland, except for the parts of him between his hair and his toes.
|The Fiendish Fjords of Fu Manchu|
The films run rather far afield from Rohmer's books. Fu begins the Paramount movie series as a wise and noble doctor in China whose wife and children (Except for an unacknowledged grown daughter who doesn't show up until the third movie) are killed in the Boxer Rebellion. Fu inaccurately blames a Colonel Petrie and vows vengeance on the Petrie family, vowing to wipe them all out. In the books, Fu is always out for world conquest. In these films, his sights are set only on private vengeance against one particular family, and he's blundered, for they are not the ones who killed his family in the first place. The Fu of the novels was a genius who would have gotten to the truth about who killed his kids, and also would not have wasted time and energy on "vengeance" anyway. (He never kills enemies for vengeance in the books, only to further his plans of conquest. And his word is his bond. Fu NEVER breaks a promise or a vow. Oddly enough for a master-criminal, he can be trusted.)
The three Oland films form a true trilogy, telling one long story with a genuine conclusion in film three. Fu dies halfway through the third picture, and his now-acknowledged daughter, played by Anna May Wong, ineptly tries to finish Daddy's work but fails, of course. The most interesting aspect of these three pictures are the talent. The first two are directed and co-written by Rowland V. Lee, who went on to direct Son Of Frankenstein. Nayland Smith is played by O.P. Higgie who is best remembered as the blind man who teaches the the monster to talk and smoke in Bride of Frankenstein. Dr. Petrie is played by Neil Hamilton, whom we all remember as Commissioner Gordon on the 1960s Batman TV show. The heroine who is mentally enslaved by Fu is the great actress Jean Arthur. (Jean later faced another Fu. In 1950 she played Peter Pan on Broadway opposite Boris Karloff as Captain Hook.) In the third film, we find Bramwell Fletcher, who two years later went mad and died laughing when he saw Boris Karloff revive from 3000 years of being dead in The Mummy. The imperiled heroine is Francis Dade just weeks before she played Lucy, Count Dracula's first major victim in the Lugosi Dracula. And the stalwart hero is played by an actual Asian. And not just any Asian; it's the great Japanese actor Sussue Hayakawa, very young and way too talented for the dreck he's required to say in this film.
|Warner Oland as the elderly Fu Manchu tries to prevent Sessue Hayakawa from ever meeting Akira Kurasawa.|
Less than a year after the last Warner Oland Fu Manchu movie came out of Paramount Studios, MGM released the craziest and best Fu Manchu movie ever, The Mask of Fu Manchu, with Boris Karloff.
|In his first shot in the movie, Boris Karloff enjoys a refreshing beverage. Probably his "Elixer Vitae."|
This is one deranged movie. MGM lavished their usual big budget on the picture, so instead of skulking about caves and Limehouse opium dens (Though the picture does depict a Chinese opium den in one sequence. But here's the MGM touch, it's the only opium den on earth with a floor show! Like I said: one seriously deranged movie), here Fu Manchu is in residence in a lavish Chinese/art deco palace somewhere in Manchuria. Or is that Fu Manchuria? That shot above is Boris's first shot in the picture, and believe me, you're intended to laugh.
|No wonder Myrna Loy hated making this movie. Boris Karloff got all the best gowns.|
Although the second Oland film has the same title as the second Fu novel, the storylines are wholly different. The novel The Mask of Fu Manchu came out at the beginning of 1932 and MGM snapped up the rights. Their movie actually bears some SLIGHT resemblance to the book's plot. (MGM's ads emphasized that this was a very different Fu Manchu than Paramount's. They weren't kidding.) They exchange an Islamic prophet, El Mokenna in the novel, with the more-widely known Genghis Kahn. Oddly enough, they take two characters from the book, Sir Lionel Barton (who is an insufferable blowhard in the novel) and another archaeologist named Von Berg and reverse their fates. In the book, Von Berg is killed in chapter one. In the movie, as played by tubby Jean Hersholt, Von Berg is still alive and well when the film concludes (after a close call in "The Room of the Slender Fingers"). Sir Lionel Barton in the movie gets tortured, maimed and killed. Not only is he not killed in the book, but in fact, he's in several of the novels. Had MGM decided to do a longer series, that could have been a problem, but after their less-remembered sequel, Fu Manchu's Blessed Event in which I play Fu's white mistress who gives him a son, MGM was through with Fu.
|My Fu Manchu movie. AS recorded in My Lush Life, it was during the making of this movie that Boris Karloff became my 5th husband.|
Omitted from the movie was Fu's youth serum. Although Fu's age is never nailed down in the books, apparently he was just over 70 in the first one, which sets his birth around 1840. So by the time of Mask in 1932, the character was in his early 90s, which is a pretty advanced age at which to conquer the world. Realizing that he'd written himself into a corner, Rohmer in Mask had Fu inventing what he called his "Elixir Vitae," a serum that restored his youth. Handy, and later books could then revolve around his need for the drug.
|Fu offers his daughter sexually to Sir Lionel Barton in exchange for information. I'm not joking.|
Sir Lionel however, is too pompous and British to take the offer.
Mask of Fu Manchu is hilariously over-the-top silly, intentionally hilarious. Boris, in his first speaking role since becoming a star in Frankenstein, is clearly enjoying the hell out of the role. His Fu is gleefully Sadistic. He plays practical jokes on his victims WHILE he's torturing them! Myrna Loy's Fah Lo Suee (A role she loathed. She begged to be taken off the movie. Nope.) is a raving sadist and nymphomaniac who works herself up into a literal frenzy watching muscle boy get whipped, screaming "FASTER! FASTER!" at the floggers!
|Who is Fu's decorator? I WANT this chair!|
And the sex! This is MGM just months before Production Code enforcement set in. A year later they could not have made this movie. Fu offers to let Lionel Barton screw his daughter for information. Fah Lo Suee paws over the hunky hero (Cowboy star and ex-football star Charles Starret), drooling with lust, and Boris has many lines of dialogue indicating that his daughter's "usual" sexual tastes eventually leave her men not merely spent, but dead. At a banquet we see Fu's associates literally drooling over Myrna, and Fu makes it explicitly clear that one of his aims is to encourage his followers to rape all the white women they want.
|The poster boy for anti-Asian stereotypes.|
I read a letter of complaint sent to MGM over the movie by an organization of Asian-Americans complaining that Boris's Fu, along with being a racist stereotype, was also an "ugly homosexual." Ugly? Hey. I married him a year later, no matter what the Karloff Family says. But "homosexual" had me puzzled. Fu is never gay in the novels. But then I took another look at the movie. Boris's personal staff consists almost entirely of beefy, muscular black men who stand around dressed for Sumo wrestling, and he spends as much time gratuitously pawing the hero's muscles as his daughter does, keeping him dressed only in what looks like a large diaper.
|Boris Karloff and Charles Starrett "Fu" around, while a very large naked black guy watches.|
But being gay doesn't make you a bad person, let alone a criminal mastermind; repeatedly trying to conquer the world, murdering and torturing folks to do so, does. The writers of that letter, in complaining of the bigotry in Mask of Fu Manchu accidentally revealed their OWN bigotry, only this time against gay men, at least, "ugly" Chinese gay men.
|The serum in the hypodermic needle will make naked boy Fu's willing slave. Yup, gay.|
If Starrett had worn this outfit in his westerns, I might have seen them.
But it's the racism that runs riot. When MGM released the movie on VHS a few years back, they tried "fixing" it by cutting out some of Karloff's climactic speeches, such as his exhorting his army of minions to "Kill the white man and take his women!" but ignored the xenophobic, paternalistic white superiority, like at the end of the movie when, for "comic" relief, Lewis Stone as Nayland Smith asks a Chinese ship's cook who is seemingly retarded (He's played by the same actor who played the ship's cook in King Kong, only with snaggle teeth) if he, like Fu Manchu, is a doctor of medicine or philosophy and the deeply mentally challenged man replies, while GIGGLING :"I no tink so." "I congratulate you," replies Smith, who likes his Chinese men mentally retarded. It's grossly offensive, the more so because it's the movie's hero, and we're supposed to laugh with him. For a movie villain to spout racist hate is one thing, but for the hero to spout equally appallingly bigoted racist blather and we're supposed to find it cute, well THAT is disgusting.
|This isn't Boris, it's a Fu Manchu "action figure". The perfect toy for the xenophobic child. |
"Be the first kid on your block to kill the white man and take his women!"
|"Look into my ridiculously made-up eyes. I am not German; I am Chinese."|
The slogan at the top, "The masterpiece of suspense," rather abuses the term "masterpiece."
Now there is a novel titled Drums of Fu Manchu, but all Republic took from the novel was the title. Just as well. The novel has Fu trying to prevent World War II by replacing world leaders (Fictionalized versions of Hitler and Mussolini) with doubles who are his slaves. 1940 was the wrong year to have a Chinese supervillain "saving" us from Hitler. So the serial simply re-adapted the plot of Mask, even down to changing El Mokenna to Genghis Kahn once again. He and Nayland Smith spend 15 chapters (Over 4 hours) chasing each other around, with over half of it taking place in California. (The novel is set in "Persia" and Egypt.) And when they finally get to "China," it looks suspiciously like Chatsworth. It is generally held by fans of serials to be one of the absolute best serials Republic ever made. As movie serials go, it is pretty good, but that's a very low bar. Most serials were crap. Ever seen either of the two Batman serials from the 1940s? I've seen both. They are beyond Godawful.
|"Hi! Aren't I scary?"|
This time Fu is played by German-born Henry Brandon, a gay actor (The DVD says he was "a confirmed bachelor." Yes he was.) who played Acacius, the guy who ran the nudist prep school in Auntie Mame, and who played Barnaby in Laurel & Hardy's Babes in Toyland. And Dwight Frye is in it. You get to see Renfield in a fist fight with Fu's dacoits!
|This is the cover of the excellent DVD you can buy of this serial. Fu began in magazine serials, and was always well-suited to the serialized form.|
Here is Henry's Fu with Luana Walters as his daughter:
|Once again, Fu gets the prettiest frocks to wear.|
|Here an unusually hunky Fu Manchu takes a snake bath in one of his comic book incarnations. How like Fu to bathe with serpents. And what does a supervillain need with nipples anyway?|
|"You see, Western Fools? This is a Kardac Segment. Feel pretty stupid now, don't you? Next I will kill you, and take your women, and their Kardac Segments!"|
Although a huge success as movie serials of the 30s and 40s went, Pearl Harbor scotched any plans for a sequel. Suddenly the "Yellow Peril" was Japan and China was our ally. The state department literally asked Republic not to do any more Fu Manchus.
|Why not just get Oliver Hardy to play the role? This is Glen Gordon in the 1950s TV series.|
|"Glen may be terrible casting, but I stoutly maintain that I am the worst Fu Manchu!"|
|The New Fu! (Well, new for 1965.)|
|Somehow, The 13 Fiancees of Fu Manchu seems a very funny title to me.|
The second was Brides of Fu Manchu. Now there was a novel titled The Bride of Fu Manchu. This was NOT a movie of that book.
|This DVD was just released last month.|
I rather liked the third, Vengeance of Fu Manchu. It borrowed some of the plot of the novel Drums of Fu Manchu, with Fu preparing human duplicates, only not of world leaders, but rather of high-level policemen, starting of course with Nayland Smith, and his goal was not world domination, just revenge, a motive beneath the Fu of the books. Of particular ludicrousness in this picture was the casting of a German actor as a gangster from Texas. He wears a ten-gallon cowboy hat, and even speaks with a Texas accent for a few words in a couple early scenes, but mostly his German accent dominates his ridiculous performance.
|Now this is a scary-looking Fu Manchu.|
Of the remaining two Christopher Lee Fu Manchu movies, there is little to say. They were directed by Jess Franco, and are unwatchably boring. I mean it, really, really boring. Really, really, really boring.
By the end of the series, they were getting protests, and when CBS broadcast Brides of Fu Manchu in the early 1970s, they were met with Asian-American protests. Fu was dead, or almost dead. And given how he ended up in movies, it might have been better if he were dead.
|Peter Sellers disgraces himself, and even manages somehow to disgrace Fu Manchu, in this cinematic turd of a movie.|
Sellers indulged his usual penchant for playing multiple characters by playing both Fu and Nayland Smith (When shooting Dr. Strangelove with Sellers, Stanley Kubrick said of him: "He's three actors for the price of four."), only his talent was so eroded by then that you mostly differentiated the characters based on the make-up and costumes. The plot dealt with a now-very ancient Fu running dry of his Elixir Vitae and in danger of dying of incredibly old age, but the movie was abominable on every level, Believe me, this movie is so bad, it makes the final two Christopher Lee Fu movies look like Citizen Kane and Gone With the Wind. This movie is atrocious. A number of fine talents, including Sid Cesar and Dame Helen Mirrin, embarrass themselves by appearing in this Godforsaken turkey.
There's no Fu like an old Fu, but there will be no new Fus, unless of course, there are.
|"The world shall hear from me again."|
Ah no, Fu, it won't.
[PS. By Halloween, you will be able to purchase my new book, Tallyho, Tallulah! Keep checking back here for ordering information. Happy Halloween indeed!]