The Racist Escapism of Fu Manchu

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A rare color still of Karloff as Dr. Fu Manchu

While visiting the post office this week, I had an interesting conversation with the clerk, who also spent her weekend watching 1930s horror films. We both noted that pre-Code films have a lot in common with post-9/11 “torture porn” films. This nice lady who assisted me with shipping my numerous packages went so far as to say that 1930s horror films are almost like “snuff films, but more elegant.” Of course, 1930s films are nowhere near as graphically violent as torture films, let alone snuff films, but there are many thematic similarities to post-9/11 horror films, including sexual sadism, human captivity narratives, torture, and rampant xenophobia. It’s as though American horror cinema has come full circle.

Since I’m on already covering Boris Karloff’s villainous characters, and with covering genre entries that seem to relate to the rhetoric of this election, today I’m covering The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), a film under fire for decades for its racist portrayal of Asians. Today, the anti-Asian and specifically anti-Chinese stereotypes won’t resonate with most viewers…even though one of our candidates proclaimed that climate change is a hoax created by the Chinese.

In the opening scene, two English men discuss the need to locate the sword of Genghis Khan. The older gentleman advises our hero that in his hands, the sword will merely be a harmless artifact in the British museum, but if the sword falls into the hands of the evil Dr. Fu Manchu, the entire Asian race will believe Fu Manchu to be Genghis Khan reborn, and will attempt to exterminate the entire white race. In summary, the treasures of other cultures must be plundered in order to protect an “inferior” races from their own ignorance and superstition.

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The opening dialogue alone gives us a taste of the racist and colonialist twaddle to come, but the rest of the film becomes so much worse than that. Soon after, we are introduced to our villains, Dr. Fu Manchu and his daughter, respectively portrayed by Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy in dragon-like “yellow face,” complete with “exotic” robes and talon-like fingernails. Dr. Fu Manchu, possibly a coded homosexual, who relentlessly mocks the values of white Christian society, advises his Asian acolytes to “conquer and breed. Kill the white man and take his women!” He even attempts to pimp out his own daughter in exchange for the sword’s location. We subsequently discover that she can’t be pimped out against her will, because she is a “sadistic nymphomaniac” (Myrna Loy’s term, per the DVD commentary) who tortures, sleeps with, and eventually murders numerous white men with her father’s approval. The scene in which she has the white hero flogged by half-naked African slaves no doubt exploited racists fears of the era. Fu Manchu and his daughter embody the “Yellow Peril,” a perception that an influx of Asian immigrants would rob Western whites of their jobs and moral values. Sound familiar?

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Myrna Loy as Fu Manchu’s nymphomaniac daughter

Despite the censorship and numerous cuts imposed upon The Mask of Fu Manchu, it was only one entry in an extremely successful decades-long franchise based on a series of books by Sax Rohmer (which somehow manage to be more racist and sexist than the film adaptations), followed by numerous film entries, comic books, and radio dramas.

Yet, for all of the awfulness, of the film, I admit I enjoy The Mask of Fu Manchu and other entries in the series, mainly for the absurd campiness and the fun performances by Karloff and Loy, and because I have a soft spot for fictional villains. Karloff’s Fu Manchu is even a bit lovable for all his awfulness. The film is also noteworthy in Karloff’s career as his first true speaking role. I’m quite glad that an uncensored version still exists, if only to serve as a time capsule of the era’s values.

I wonder if the average 1930’s viewer took the film’s racism seriously. Boris Karloff did not, according to Greg Mank’s commentary track, but rather dismissed the film as harmless escapism. According the biography I’m currently reading, Karloff  (whose birth name was William Henry Pratt) kept his East Indian heritage a secret during those bigoted times, declaring his heritage as partially Russian instead, and stating that his stage name “Karloff” was taken from a maternal relative. The author also states that Karloff was a liberal who advocated for civil rights. It’s an interesting factor to contemplate when looking at the racist content of the film itself.

The only uncut version I’ve found is part of Hollywood’s Legends of Horror Collection (Doctor X / The Return of Doctor X / Mad Love / The Devil Doll / Mark of the Vampire / The Mask of Fu Manchu), which includes other films essential for horror enthusiasts, along with excellent commentary tracks by film historians.

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