In many ways, I'm sure contemporary culture would like to just leave Fu Manchu where he is - in the past. Forget about the Sax Rohmer novels, forget about the film adaptations, keep looking forward and don't bring up the racial issues surrounding the character. I'd be willing to oblige, except that I keep finding nuggets of real value in Rohmer's fiction. Which brings me to the Fu Manchu films.
Of the Devil Doctor's many entries into cinema, he's probably best known for MGM's 1932 picture the Mask of Fu Manchu starring Boris Karloff, which still has a following because Karloff still has a following; the Harry Alan Towers series of pictures starring Christopher Lee still have a following, as does the still-living Lee; even the Republic serial Drums of Fu Manchu is considered one of the better serials.
But what of Fu Manchu's first foray into the talkies? He figured in three Paramount movies from 1929-1931 (one per year), each starring Warner Oland and with a surprising amount of continuity for the time in which they were made. To the best of my knowledge, Paramount hasn't rereleased these pictures for modern audiences. Perhaps it's their old shame.
And it is a shame - because these movies aren't too bad and not quite in the same tone as the later Fu Manchu pictures. Thanks to the wonders of Youtube I've finally seen all three movies; follow along as I guide you through the saga...
The series begins with the Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu. It's interesting to note how the first two films include "Dr.," just as the titles for the first two US editions of the Fu Manchu novels were the Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu and the Return of Dr. Fu-Manchu, while later novels omitted his title (ie, Hand of Fu Manchu, Island of Fu Manchu, President Fu Manchu, Wrath of Fu Manchu, etc.). Our director is Rowland V. Lee and the part of Fu Manchu is played by Warner Oland, who would later come to fame as Charlie Chan. Although Oland claimed to be part-Asian, it seems he would wear a mustache to help him appear "oriental." Thus, by adding a mustache in these films, he permanently branded the character with one, even though he was clean-shaven in the novels.
We open in China during the Boxer Rebellion. Dr. Fu Manchu is a practicing physician and friend to the Caucasians, using his skill with hypnosis to help treat patients. However, in the midst of the fighting, the British/Russian/French/German forces wind up shelling Fu Manchu's home while trying to strike down enemy forces. Fu Manchu's wife and son are slain by the blast and he vows revenge upon the white race - but specifically, he vows revenge on the officers who ordered the attack, determining to one day claim their lives and lives of their male heirs, to balance the scales for the loss of his family.
In the novels, Fu Manchu had no particular origin; it wasn't even clear how many years he'd been active as his life-prolonging Elixir Vitae could have kept him alive for hundreds of years. Fu Manchu of the novels was out to conquer the world, not simply obtain revenge. I think it's interesting to note how the filmmakers believed it was important to give Fu Manchu a motivation for being the figure of evil he was. Up to a point, Fu could have been the hero of his story - exacting revenge on the officers who killed his family is a very sympathetic motivation. It's only when he decides to kill the officers' offspring too that he loses the audience's sympathy.
Even as Fu is vowing his vengeance, his servant Fai Lu presents him with Lia, a tiny white child whose family have just died but wanted Fu raise their daughter. Fu Manchu honours the request, using her to supplant his lost family. And so, nearly 30 years pass in which Fu Manchu evidently spent a lot of time pooling together his servants, perfecting his chemical weapons, raising his foster daughter and obtaining the identities of the men who ordered the attack on his house. I say "evidently" because after nearly 30 years, he's only just finished off his second-last target; as we rejoin the story, Fu is after the last officer, General Petrie, plus his son Sir John Petrie and grandson Dr. Jack Petrie. However, Fu hasn't counted on Scotland Yard's Nayland Smith, who comes to the Petrie family's defense, nor could he have expected Lia would fall in love with young Dr. Petrie.
Here are some more departures from the canon: in the novels, Fu Manchu admired Dr. Petrie and would always try to spare him from death, believing Petrie was an honoured colleague who would be fascinated by his experiments; as for Smith, Fu had nothing but contempt for him as an unintelligent lout. In these movies, Fu expresses regard for Smith's intelligence but has an unreasoning hatred for Petrie due to his vow of vengeance.
For fans of the novels, this depiction of Fu Manchu falls a little short; his instruments of death aren't the terrifically visual sort famously described in the novels such as his wailing Dacoit assassins or horrific insects like the "Zayat Kiss." Instead, Oland's Fu Manchu uses potions, hypnosis and a quicklime pit (the latter off-camera); his servants have nothing more interesting than throwing daggers. This interpretation of Fu lacks the exotic flair of the novels, reducing him to just another "mad scientist" or "man-out-for-revenge" the type of which movies like Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum were based upon.
Fu works his way through the Petrie family, killing General Petrie and his son. Finally, by hypnotizing, he captures Dr. Petrie and prepares to throw him into his quicklime pit. Petrie is certain Smith will come to rescue, prompting a rather dry response from the Devil Doctor, dripping with sarcasm:
"I humbly apologize. I'm afraid my somewhat weird and Oriental methods may have misled your Occidental mind into believing that, uh, this is nothing but a gigantic melodrama in which the detective's arrival at the last moment produces the happy ending. Don't deny it! I can see by your face it is so."
Having said this, Fu reveals he's already captured Smith! Fu Manchu comes within a hair's breadth of winning the day, but Fai Lu betrays him for love of her charge and Fu is seemingly poisoned to death.
Also of note: Smith cooperates with the Chinese government in this picture, reporting to a Chinese official in one scene; it may seem like an obvious gesture to you and I, but the early Sax Rohmer novels had a raging paranoia where any Asian characters were concerned; if this were a Rohmer book, the official would have either been killed or revealed as one of Fu's servants. Further, the paranoia about Asians was often expressed by Smith himself - it's hard to imagine the Nayland Smith of the early novels cooperating with the Chinese government (although eventually Rohmer introduced benevolent and heroic Asians and took some pains to make it clear Fu Manchu was as much an enemy of China as he was the "white race").
Let's move along to the second film, the Return of Dr. Fu Manchu, again directed by Rowland V. Lee and with virtually every actor from the previous film reprising their parts.
We open at Fu Manchu's funeral as the survivors from the previous film hope to carry on with their lives and Lia and Dr. Petrie begin planning their wedding. However, Fu Manchu's poison simply placed him into suspended animation. Rising from his coffin, he kills Fai Lu for betraying him, then prepares for revenge on Petrie, the last of his designated targets.
In a cute moment, Fu explains how the formula which only "temporarily" killed him was inspired by Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet! At one point Fu pilots an airplane which would seems weirdly out-of-character for the novel's version (who would surely have a servant take the controls), yet fits this economy-size Fu well:
Again Fu menaces Petrie, Smith and, again he's halted at the last moment. This time he falls into a river with a bomb which explodes, seemingly killing him... but who'd believe that? We actually saw his dead body last film and it sure didn't stop him!
Sure enough, 1931 saw the grand finale to Paramount's Fu Manchu saga with Daughter of the Dragon, directed by Lloyd Corrigan, who had helped write the screen treatment for the previous two pictures. Oland reprises Fu Manchu again, but only for the first few scenes of the picture. The real star is Anna May Wong, the best-known Asian actress of the 1930s.
Startlingly, the movie opens twenty years after the previous picture! So this is, what, 1950? Dr. Petrie has grown old and raised a son, Ronald Petrie; said son is in love with Ling Moy, a Chinese woman who's been trying to locate her long-lost father.
As misfortune would have it, Ling Moy's father is the nefarious Fu Manchu, back from the dead and still intent on killing Dr. Petrie. And after twenty years, he finally makes his mark, killing Dr. Petrie. Now only Ronald remains, but Scotland Yard officer Sir Basil Courtney renders a fatal wound to Fu Manchu. Slowly dying, Fu is reunited with Ling Moy and tells her the story of how his wife and child died, causing him to vow revenge; Fu laments how without a son to be his heir, his vendetta will never be completed. Ling Moy offers to be like a son to her father, claiming she'll finish his work; Fu accepts this and as the authorities close in on him, he pretends to attack Ling Moy, knowing the police will kill him to save her - and thus she'll remain above suspicion as his heir.
So it is we take our leave of Dr. Fu Manchu... yet his legacy lives on. It soon becomes clear Ling Moy only promised to be his heir so she could bond with the father she never knew in his last moments; she truly loves Ronald and doesn't want to kill him, but her late father's servants keep demanding she fulfill her promise. It's interesting to note how Ling Moy & Ronald's romance keeps from breaking Hollywood's miscegenation rules as their attempted kisses are interrupted.
However, Ronald is also being pursued by white woman Joan Marshall; to complete our romantic rhombus, inspector Ah Kee loves Ling Moy... and boy, is he made to suffer for it! Ah Kee is the one man convinced Fu Manchu has cheated death yet again, but for not realizing Ling Moy is the real criminal mastermind he winds up walking right into her hands and bound up in an attic. When he tries to get the attention of the police on the ground below, he tumbles out of the window and nearly dies! In the chaotic finale, it's Ah Kee who delivers the fatal gunshot which kills our reluctant villain Ling Moy; Ah Kee then succumbs to the wounds from his fall and dies at her side.
Despite having very little Fu Manchu, Daughter of the Dragon is probably the best of the trio - Warner Oland stepped up his game for Fu's final scenes and Anna May Wong was simply a terrific actress; it's also interesting to see an Asian leading man (Sessue Hayakawa as Ah Kee) in 30s cinema. Corrigan had some fine touches as a director, notably in an above shot when Ronald Petrie is trapped in a tiny room, fumbling to find his way out:
If you're a Fu Manchu enthusiast, I definitely recommend seeking out the three films; if you're an Anna May Wong aficionado then the third film is required viewing!