So inherently theatrical were Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels that it was only natural that his vivid and pruriently imagined central character would be re-interpreted on celluloid. The evil doctor made his screen debut in 1923 in a 15 episode serial entitled Mystery Of Dr. Fu Manchu followed a year later with the 8 episode The Further Mysteries Of Dr. Fu Manchu. The eponymous Chinese criminal mastermind was portrayed by Irish actor Harry Agar Lyons-
There’s nothing from these serials online and indeed only a couple of episodes survive from the second series, but Jeffrey Richards, professor of cultural history at Lancaster University, describes Harry’s performance as “extraordinarily hammy, even for a silent film villain. Sneering, cackling, gloating and screwing up his eyes with excessive relish, he doesn’t look remotely Chinese and comes across more as a pantomime villain than a sinister criminal mastermind”. Photographs from the production would appear to lend weight to this appraisal. Professor Richards goes on to say that the series appears to suffer from a severe lack of East Asian “extras” with only three appearing in one episode, with the rest of Fu Manchu’s followers portrayed by occidentals in “yellowface” make up. This is possibly owing to a campaign at the time by Chinese students in Britain to persuade Chinese people not to appear in productions that were “anti-Chinese”. One is forced to wonder what kind of success such a campaign would have in this day and age?
Hollywood began to mine the Fu Manchu character not long after the advent of “talkies”. Paramount Pictures produced a trilogy of Fu Manchu movies beginning with The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu in 1929 followed by The Return Of Fu Manchu a year later and, in 1931, The Daughter Of Fu Manchu. The films used elements from Sax Rohmer’s novels but turned the character of Fu Manchu into a grief-stricken figure of vengeance after his wife and son are killed by the colonial powers during the Boxer Rebellion, with a particular emphasis on retribution directed at the Petrie family as it was a Colonel Petrie who was in command of the troops responsible for his families’ deaths. The films are flat, dull and rather prosaic, starring yellowface “specialist” Warner Oland as Fu Manchu in a performance which seems to consist mainly of him intoning his rather repetitive lines sonorously and portentously in what one assumes is an attempt to appear exotically obsessive and it’s an interesting insight into the nature of showbusiness to bear in mind that this performance made Warner a star. In fairness the preponderance of obviously middle-class actors doing “cockney-voice” is possibly almost as offensive.
Warner Oland was, along with fellow “yellowface” actors Myrna Loy and Nils Asther, of Swedish descent proving that exotic Scandinavians were often Hollywood’s first choice to portray onscreen “Orientals”. Although he acted in other films (including becoming the first ever actor to play a werewolf in a Hollywood movie) it’s fair to say that his impersonations of East Asians were his main line of work enabled by facial features that needed little or no make-up, according to his Chinese-American colleague Keye Luke, save “a little goatee on his chin”. Goatee in place, Oland went on to portray the detective Charlie Chan on screen in some 16 films commanding a fee of £40,000 per picture. His Charlie Chan is no negative stereotype though, clever, urbane and generally one step ahead of his Caucasian allies/foes it’s fair to say Charlie was a relatively positive role model, albeit one portrayed by a white man. Warner took his yellowface responsibilities extremely seriously, studying Chinese language and calligraphy.
The third film in the Oland Fu Manchu “trilogy” is notable in that, following the eponymous doctor’s early on-screen death, the main antagonist of the picture becomes his daughter, Ling Moy, who inherits her father’s quest for revenge though she seems to have to battle her own feelings for the heroic Petrie along the way. She is eventually shot dead by the Chinese detective Ah Kee who is played by the Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa so the series does at least conclude with genuine East Asian actors in central roles though the “dominant” and “powerful” male figure, Fu Manchu himself, has never been portrayed by an actor of East Asian descent. May Wong and Hayakawa are important figures in terms of Asian representation in early Hollywood, both possessing on-screen glamour and sex appeal by the bucket-load, both continually passed over for strong leading roles as Western media displayed its omnipresent antipathy towards powerful East Asian performers playing characters that would capture the Western public’s imagination. What’s interesting about both May Wong and Hayakawa is both also attempted to assert themselves and refuse to play characters they considered demeaning to their talents and their race, a position of integrity rare in a profession so fraught with insecurity and dependence on the approval of decision-makers.
However it was a “return to yellowface” for MGM’s The Mask Of Fu Manchu in 1932 which starred the iconic Boris Karloff (best known for playing Frankenstein) in the title role and Swedish actress Myrna Loy as his daughter (here called Fah Lo See).
The film is now regarded as something of a cult camp classic, featuring as it does exotic and melodramatic sets as well as performances and scenes of slalacious torture and sadism. Karloff and Loy (despite some truly hilarious make-up in the case of the former) largely eschew any overt “Orientalism” but instead play up the lurid aspects of their characters with some relish (sinister villainy in Boris’s case and sadistic nymphomania in Myrna’s) in an archetypal “yellow peril” plot involving Fu Manchu attempting to appropriate the sword (and thereby the identity) of Ghengis Khan in order to inflame the peoples of Asia to rise up against the white race.
Possibly the most memorable scene is one featuring the square-jawed Caucasian hero being stripped and flogged by two black men in their underpants whilst Loy as Fah Lo See quivers in orgiastic pleasure whilst screaming “Faster! Faster!” She is later prevented from seducing him in his sleep by the interruption of her father who, whilst agreeing with his daughter’s assertion that “he is not entirely unhandsome…for a white man” suggests a “slight delay” in her “customary procedure”.
MGM actually deemed the film so sadistic it was cut and partially reshot before release but still incurred the ire of the Chinese government particularly for the scene where Fu Manchu urges his followers to “Kill all the white men and mate with their women!” As recently as 1972 the Japanese-American Citizens League considered the film “offensive and demeaning to Asian-Americans” and it had to be edited for its 1990’s DVD release.
Both Karloff and Loy can be regarded as “yellowface regulars”, she in particular, a stereotyping she had to struggle to overcome as she was cast again and again as vamps and femme-fatales of Asian or Eurasian background in films such as Across the Pacific, A Girl in Every Port, The Crimson City, The Black Watch, and The Desert Song, the irony of a Caucasian actress being type-cast in “Oriental” roles inescapable. Karloff, on the other hand, went on to portray far more sympathetic East Asian characters in West Of Shanghai and the Mr. Wong, Detective series, almost as if to atone for the gratuitous oriental villainy of his turn as Sax Rohmer’s evil doctor. In real life Boris was a kind and considerate person from humble beginnings who gave generously to children’s charities and risked his entire career as a charter member of the Screen Actors Guild speaking out against the appalling conditions suffered by actors at the time.
Perennial silent movie “yellowface veteran” E. Alyn Warren (The Forbidden City, Outside The Law, The Hatchet Man) also pops up in The Mask Of Fu Manchu as an uncredited messenger. EA (irony!) also has a role in Daughter Of Fu Manchu.
Fu Manchu’s next screen outing was in a 15 part serial produced by Republic Pictures entitled The Drums Of Fu Manchu with the action relocated to California. The series is notable for its hilarious opening credits featuring the regular characters rising from a flaming urn, the leering yellowface figures of Henry Brandon as Fu Manchu and Gloria Franklyn as his daughter Fah Lo Suee in marked contrast to the genial and heroic smiles of the occidental protagonists.
The statuesque Brandon, of German descent (proving once again Hollywood’s predilection for casting Northern Europeans as Asians), portrays Fu Manchu bald of head with heavy make-up including thickly arched brows and even fangs as teeth, resembling an “Oriental” Nosferatu vampire figure with the production deliberately lighting him in as much sinister shadow as possible.
He affects a strange and high-pitched accent which, whilst definitely “foreign” sounding, doesn’t resemble anything recognisably “Chinese” and indulges in lurid torture methods including The Seven Gates To Paradise involving hungry rats. Hans J. Wollstein, writing at Allmovie, describes Henry as a “compelling and strangely ageless fiend” whilst another critic called it “a performance that stands alone” (which could be taken in many ways and is therefore difficult to disagree with).
Gloria Franklin as Fah Lo Suee, on the other hand, seems to have been cast for her obvious glamour as opposed to any obvious ability to impersonate an “Oriental”. She plays her character competently but entirely blandly with a regular American accent.
It was 1956 when Fu Manchu’s next on-screen incarnation appeared, this time in a rather stolid TV production by Republic Pictures of which only 13 of a planned 78 episodes were made due to protracted court battle with Sax Rohmer over the rights. Again, set in America, each episode would begin with a chess board-at the start with Nayland Smith (here a law enforcement official) and Fu Manchu playing together as a doomy voice-over intoned “It is said the Devil plays for men’s souls. So does Dr. Fu Manchu, Satan himself, evil incarnate” and conclude at the end with the sinister doctor knocking over a black chess piece as his evil plans are foiled once again. On this occasion Fu Manchu was portrayed by Glen Gordon, once more bald headed and moustached, with a penchant for squinting his eyes when smiling slyly but stiltedly whilst attempting a staccato hodgepodge Sino-Japanese mish-mash of an accent which only succeeds in making him sound like a very bad actor – a quality which many casting directors to this day seem to find “authentic”.
He is assisted by a mute yellowface midget in chinoiserie played by John George, who appears at all times suitably unimpressed to be there, and the slave girl based on Rohmer’s own creation, Karamaneh portrayed by Hawaiian-Portuguese actress/model Laurette Luez who seems to have specialised in exotic sexpot roles, here, her chief dramatic function seems to be to stand behind Fu Manchu when he is sitting on his “throne” and gently massage his bald pate.
Following the successful re-release of the Fu Manchu novels in the 60’s producer Harry Alan Towers decided to make a series of films based on the character of Fu Manchu but not on the actual novels themselves. Thus it was then that five Fu Manchu films appeared between 1965 and 1969 with the usual law of diminishing returns, the first being easily the best of the series and the last two being all but unwatchable. All five starred Christopher Lee as the evil doctor with Tsai Chin as his daughter, here called Lin Tang.
Lee, a veteran screen villain still going strong today, like Karloff before him, has way too much class to attempt any kind of racial impersonation and plays the role surprisingly straight, indeed where it not for his rather fantastic chinoise wardrobe one would be forgiven for at times for not noticing the character is actually intended to be Chinese.
Alongside him, iconic Chinese actress Tsai Chin, already a well-known stage performer and singer, is likewise understated and here we see the standard Western entertainment “template” of dominant East Asian male character portrayed by a Caucasian and “Oriental” glamour girl portrayed by a genuine East Asian.
One or two pastiche send-ups aside, The Castle Of Fu Manchu (Lee’s final outing in the role) was the last time the character has been seen onscreen, though there have been several unsuccessful attempts to revive the character, the last as recently as 2007. Someone who sometimes posts replies to these blogs insists there’s a movie revival due in in 2014. We shall see. The Christopher Lee Fu Manchu films would conclude with Lee intoning doomily over the closing credits that “The world will hear from me again”.
Next we’ll be posting reviews of (in)famous “yellowface” films for your kind perusal. Do follow and enjoy. And, of course, feel free to contribute whenever the whim takes you. Whatever your predeliction do not forget that The Fu Manchu Complex opens at Ovalhouse on October 1st. Tickets here http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/the-fu-manchu-complex and more details (including trailer) here http://www.thefumanchucomplex.com/