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The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) - The Yellow Peril

Updated on February 9, 2017

Considered to be one of the more blatantly racist films produced in Pre-Code Hollywood, MGM began shooting The Mask of Fu Manchu on August 6 1932, borrowing new horror star Boris Karloff from Universal studios to play the “yellow peril” Dr. Fu Manchu. MGM’s own Myrna Loy was cast as Fu’s nymphomaniac daughter, Fah Lo See. The film was directed by Charles Brabin and based on the story by Sax Rohmer.

The diabolical Fu Manchu is searching for the tomb of Genghis Khan, he intends to use the sword and mask buried in the tomb to conquer the world. Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone) of the British Secret Service sets out to stop him. Meanwhile Fu Manchu kidnaps Egyptologist Sir Lionel Barton (Lawrence Grant) and tortures him into revealing the location of the tomb by having him tied underneath a giant constantly ringing bell…

The Japanese-Americans Citizen League requested MGM remove The Mask of Fu Manchu from its catalogue. “Fu Manchu is an ugly, evil homosexual with five inch fingernails, while his daughter is a sadistic sex fiend,” they argued.

Myrna Loy and Karloff took it all far less seriously, the actress wrote in her memoir, “Boris and I brought some feeling and humour to those comic book characters. Boris was a fine actor, a professional who never condescended to his often unworthy material.”

It took two hours each morning to turn Karloff into a maniacal, smiling archfiend, sporting false eyelashes, specially designed gowns, dragon lady fingernails and evil-looking moustache. He played the part with a mad, bravura humour, presiding over a bevy of impressive torture devices, including a seesaw that dips veteran character actor Lewis Stone into a pool of grinning alligators.

“It was a shambles—it really was!” laughs Karloff, “I shall never forget, about a week before we started I asked for a script and was met with roars of laughter at the idea that there would be a script.” After a false start, MGM fired original director Charles Vidor, replacing him with Charles Brabin (who had been fired from Rasputin and the Empress) and they hired “a shock troop of writers” to try to save the film.

As the Mask of Fu Manchu shooting dragged on for over two months, Karloff ended up working on both Fu Manchu and The Mummy over at Universal. The Mask of Fu Manchu finally wrapped at a cost of $327,627.26.

Producer Hunt Stromberg’s memo from October 18, 1932, involving a scene in which a minion of Fu Manchu’s tosses a dismembered hand into the headquarters yard, is worth noting: “Retake the shot where the hand drops in— getting a real hand from the morgue and avoiding any bounce.”

“Conquer and breed! Kill the white man, and take his women!” The Mask of Fu Manchu premiered at MGM’s flagship Broadway movie palace the Capitol Theatre on December 2, 1932.

“Boris ‘Frankenstein’ Karloff,” headlined the posters, along with the blurb: “This Oriental Monster almost wrecked civilization with his love-drug.”

The Mask of Fu Manchu reaped a $46,075 week at the Capitol, it shocked and appalled critics and earned MGM a very tidy $62,000 profit.

MGM released The Mask of Fu Manchu on VHS in the 1990s, and cut out one minute and five seconds of sadism and xenophobic zingers—including “Kill the white man and take his women!” (The print of The Mask of Fu Manchu that TCM plays now is uncut—and a fully restored DVD was released in 2006.)

Christopher Lee would play Fu Manchu in a series of films in the 1960’s starting with The Face of Fu Manchu in 1965, it was directed by Don Sharp and also starred Karin Dor and Nigel Green as Nayland Smith.

The success of this film resulted in four sequels – The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967), The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968) and The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969).

Peter Sellers appeared as both Fu Manchu and Nayland Smith in the comedy The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980). Directed by Piers Haggard and co-starring Helen Mirren. It was to be Sellers final film, he died of a heart attack a month before the film was released.

“And still the cinema goes busily about its task of terrorizing the children. The latest of the bugaboo symposiums arrived at the Capitol yesterday under the fairly reticent title of "The Mask of Fu Manchu." Its properties include Boris Karloff, one well-equipped dungeon, several hundred Chinamen, and the proper machinery for persuading a large cast to divulge the location of the mask and sword of the late Genghis Kahn.

It is Fu's whimsical notion to present himself to the yellow races as a reincarnation of the great Khan, and thereafter to set about conquering the world and stamping out the hated palefaces. To accomplish all this, he must acquire the Khan's sacred paraphernalia which English archaeologists have unearthed on the edge of the Gobi desert. It is Scotland Yard's intention to frustrate Fu if it takes all Winter—and at the Capitol the new film does manage to convey the unhappy impression that it is taking at least that long.” (New York Times)

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    • Steve Lensman profile image
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      Steve Lensman 7 years ago from London, England

      Thank you Marlin 55.

    • Marlin 55 profile image

      Marlin 55 7 years ago from USA

      Great article! I love the old stuff.

    • Steve Lensman profile image
      Author

      Steve Lensman 7 years ago from London, England

      Thanks Zavala, appreciate the comment.

    • A.A. Zavala profile image

      Augustine A Zavala 7 years ago from Texas

      Very cool. I'm not sure if Turner Classics has shown this yet or not. Love the posters and the research. Thank you for sharing.

    • Steve Lensman profile image
      Author

      Steve Lensman 7 years ago from London, England

      Good work. It's fascinating to see how much these ancient films cost and how much they make. A film earning $1m in rentals at the box office 70-80 years ago was considered a hit.

      Now some movies gross $30m in just one day, talk about inflation!!

    • Cogerson profile image

      UltimateMovieRankings 7 years ago from Virginia

      Thanks for the information...the formula that I have takes the theater % into account....so using your numbers I come with a box office of $857,179 in 1932 dollars....thanks that knocks one more Loy off my list...I greatly appreciate it.....voted up.

    • Steve Lensman profile image
      Author

      Steve Lensman 7 years ago from London, England

      Thanks Cogerson. The film cost $327,627.26 but I don't know the total rental figures, according to the info I posted the film earned MGM a profit of $62,000 so can you work out the box office from that? Don't forget the theaters get a large percentage of the total. Must be less than $1m.

    • Cogerson profile image

      UltimateMovieRankings 7 years ago from Virginia

      Very nicely done Steve, I think when I was much younger my dad made me watch this movie.....I will have to rewatch it now that I am an older and wiser person.....I am going to forward this Robwrite....he is a huge Loy fan.....I see you have how much it made...do you perhaps now the budget of the film?...you know me...always trying to figure box office numbers from the 1930s.....lol.....voted up and useful

    • Steve Lensman profile image
      Author

      Steve Lensman 7 years ago from London, England

      Thanks Russ. I seemed to have segued from old sci-fi to old horror. I can't help it I love some of these old horror flicks. You can't go wrong with Boris or Bela. :)

    • RussBGrant profile image

      RussBGrant 7 years ago from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

      Nice hub! I know I got pack of these films, but haven't watched them yet. that Karloff one sounds amazing!

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