The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)

The Wrath of Genghis Kahn

Talk about a trashy film, just how trashy? Boris Karloff plays a sort of Asian Hitler hell-bent on exterminating the white race, or how about the scene which involves Myrna Loy having a sexual fetish from seeing a man being whipped. Man, pre-code Hollywood was not right in the head. The film’s plot is like an Indiana Jones film which never got made (or more importantly could never be made), like Indiana Jones getting an artifact before the Nazis to avoid them harnessing its power to take over the world except here its Asian Nazis. This is the kind of film which is so off the wall that its fun describing it in one of the purest pieces of pulp escapism to come out of the 1930’s.

In today’s politically correct world where everything offends everyone and people are obsessed with racism (like seriously, what well-known movie doesn’t have a “This movie is racist” topic on IMDB) I find there’s a certain joy that comes from watching something as shocking and politically incorrect as The Mask of Fu Manchu; like a kid watching R rated movies behind their parent’s back. Even as late as the 90’s scenes from The Mask of Fu Manchu had to be cut for a VHS release (thankfully now in it’s fully restored original version on DVD) – notice for example how picture quality degrades for the line “A China man beat me? He couldn’t do it”.

Old Hollywood had an odd fascination with East Asia and Eastern Asian mysticism as Lewis Stone’s characters states, “Will we ever understand these eastern races, will he ever learn anything?”. Is it right to simply dismiss The Mask of Fu Manchu as a “racist” film? Is there a malicious intent with the film to demonize a race and culture with Dr. Fu Manchu being the anthesis to Judeo Christian values, or is it merely the representation of the perversion of a foreign culture and race.

No expense is spared on Fu Manchu’s layer. This is the bad guy layer that would make James Bond villains jealous. Complete with torture devices, crocodile pits, an assortment of mad scientist gizmos of topped with all-round luscious deco making The Mask of Fu Manchu one of the most visually sumptuous films of the pre-code era. Like any Bond villain Fu Manchu could kill his opponents with a simple gunshot but instead puts them on devices which will kill them at a slow pace, and yes, they’re able to escape and halt the bad guy’s evil plans.

Boris Karloff prevents the character of Fu Manchu coming off a total caricature, showing he is a man of taste and culture and one who puts the genius in evil genius, boasting that he is a doctor three times over having graduating from three different universities. Likewise, it amazes me how Myrna Loy transformed her image from an exotic to something as far from that as possible within such a short period of time; thankfully she didn’t do these kinds of roles for too long a period of time. I delight at that stoic dialogue she delivers and her ever menacing presence.

Advertisements

Dinner at Eight (1933)

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Ah, the 1930’s. No decade in cinema has since captured such an aurora of class and sophistication from the clothes worn to the way people talk; a world so removed from our own. It feels like there is no other time period in which it was as easy to make a movie about rich people and their rich people problems without it coming off as a metaphorical dick waving display of wealth. There are few better representations of this than Dinner at Eight. With the heavenly, dream-like music from the film’s opening titles; the viewer is transported to a world long, long gone. All of the stories in Dinner at Eight have tragic, to say the least, but Billie Burke as the socialite holding the impending dinner helps bring comic relief to the proceedings with her histrionics as well simply the sound of her voice. Aside from the largely carefree Burke, the rest of the characters don’t have much to look forward to with their impending affairs, bankruptcy, failing careers and illnesses.

John Barrymore’s story is my favourite; the quietly tragic demise of washed-up film star Larry Renault. His tender love scenes with Madge Evans are largely the opposite of the grandiose interaction with Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel; this is far more down to Earth. It’s not apparent when Renault first appears just what a bad state his career is in. As his segment progresses he becomes more and more pathetic as he becomes increasingly drunk and we learn more about his current state that he is only being offered a bit part in a play, he only has seven cents on him and the ultimate blow when his manager tells him he’s been a joke for years and never taken seriously as an actor; he had his good looks but he doesn’t even have that anymore. The subplot is prophetic of Barrymore’s own future as he spent his last few years as a washed-up actor and succumb to alcohol. There are hints in his performance to the egomaniac he would play the following year in Twentieth Century with his hotel room being littered with photographs of his own profile. With its haunting cinematography, Renault’s final outcome had me holding my breath with part of me wishing this could be its own film; a sort of predecessor to the story of Norman Maine in A Star Is Born.

The other storyline which particularly strikes me is Edmund Lowe’s. Once his wife confronts him about his ongoing affair with Jean Harlow, the two have a long serious chat in which she is completely understanding and forgives him. A stark contrast to any modern romantic comedy in which two characters would break up after a lengthy argument of one has betrayed the other, then get back together 20 minutes later. Are modern romantic comedies just so contrived and unreflective of real life, was adultery less frowned on back then or is it just a pre-code thing?

The early 30’s seems to be the one brief period in cinema history in which there was a number of older aged movie stars who box office draws; Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore. There has never been another decade like it.