Wednesday, December 31, 2014


Two fascinating pre-code horrors from the Warner Archives;  Karloff is great, and Myrna Loy nearly matches him for sheer creepiness…

By Don Stradley

Boris Karloff was only a year past his career-making performance in Frankenstein when he starred in The Mask of Fu Manchu.  He was at a crossroads, still appearing in enough character parts that he was not yet typed as a full-fledged bogeyman. Yet, the fact that Karloff was willing to endure a grueling two hour makeup session with the dutiful Cecil Holland suggests he was more than willing to play bad guys, the more monstrous the better.   Karloff often said that  anyone could've played his roles, but there's a scene in The Mask of Fu Manchu where he messes around with a Tesla coil, sending jolts of electricity flying through the air like a mad conductor playing a Theremin; the man may have been humble, but he had scariness in his DNA.

Director Charles Brabin was a 50-year-old journeyman who'd been writing and directing movies since making The Awakening of John Bond for the Edison Company in 1911. He’d adapted to the new era of sound films, and had been working exclusively for MGM since 1928. When he got the call that Charles Vidor had been fired from the Fu Manchu set after only a few days of filming, he walked onto a beautifully designed set, with art direction by veteran Cedric Gibbons, and costumes by Adrian Adolph Greenburg, known as 'Adrian.'   The movie received much advanced publicity from the MGM propaganda team, heralding how the designers actually spent several days scouring Chinatown for ideas. The result is a handsome movie that, if possible, could be described as kitsch pushed to almost majestic levels.

The story pits the evil Dr. Fu Manchu, a diabolical Chinese maniac who is plotting the demise of the white race, against his rival, Nayland Smith of the British Secret Service, in a hunt for relics belonging to Genghis Kahn. Apparently, Smith’s big fear is that the doctor will wear the burial mask of Kahn and convince his followers, who must be incredibly stupid, that he's the reincarnation of the great Mongol emperor. The film moves along like a typical early 1930s potboiler, and there are plenty of snakes, crocodiles, spiders, sadistic torture devices, and one nasty looking sword. There's also a smattering of homoerotic imagery, and enough race baiting to send any modern liberal to the showers for a quick cleansing. Karloff stomps around in platform shoes, makes dramatic proclamations in pigeon Chinese, and is valiant in his effort to lift this feature above its station. He almost succeeds.

 Reviews were inconsistent. One Kansas critic dismissed the film as "hokum of the old, careless variety," while a Maryland reviewer called it "the super thriller of the season." A Madison Wisconsin headline roared, "Karloff is awesome!" while a writer for the Los Angeles Record made a point of noting, "the audience did nothing but laugh."  More than eighty years later, all of these observations still hold, for you are likely to laugh, and yes, Karloff is awesome.  Karloff would finish out the decade playing various monsters, including two more turns as the Frankenstein beast. Brabin would retire soon, living out of the limelight with his wife, Theda Bara. As for Dr. Fu Manchu, he'd linger on. It's hard to get rid of an arch villain.

 Incidentally, when The Mask of Fu Manchu first played at New York's Capitol theater in Dec. 1932, there was an accompanying stage show featuring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, a quartet called 'The Radio Rubes', and several dance teams working to the sounds of the Abe Lymon orchestra. The NY Times described the stage show as "satisfying variety entertainment," but lamented that the movie, at 67 minutes, felt long. Dracula and Frankenstein had hit screens only a year earlier, but some were already weary of the spooky genre, such as the Times writer who noted, "And still, the cinema goes busily about its task of terrorizing the children." 

But is a movie where Fu Manchu says, "Kill the white men and take their women!" really made for kiddies?

A 27-year-old Myrna Loy was strangely cast as Fu Manchu's hot-blooded daughter, gyrating oddly as she watched her daddy torture one of his victims.  It’s weird stuff, but more people saw Loy slinking around in ersatz Oriental finery than in her previous movie of 1932, a solid little thriller from RKO called Thirteen Women. She played the mysterious Ursula Georgi, a bitter half Hindu hatching a revenge plot against the snotty sorority girls who had once kept her out of their club.  Using their love of astrology against them, Ursula joins Swami Yogadachi (C. Henry Gordon), a fake astrologer, and writes twelve letters predicting tragedy for each of her old school friends.  Mere mental suggestion does the trick with some of them, but Ursula is willing to get physical when the task calls for it. 

 Loy is perfect as Ursula, walking through her scenes with a kind of sultry menace, glowering at her victims through heavily made up eyes.  Irene Dunn is cast as Laura, the one former schoolmate who doesn’t buy into the astrological forecasts, but this movie is all Loy’s. She’s out to destroy these women, especially now that they’ve all grown up and found happiness.  I loved how the most grisly murders would end with a five pointed star appearing at the center of the screen, expanding until the entire image was blocked out. Nice touch by RKO workhorse director George Archainbaud  (The Lost Squadron) and a coy nod to the zodiac.  

Thirteen Women  was a David O. Selznick production, but it had the quiet, murky feel of a Val Lewton picture. Unfortunately,  it didn’t connect with audiences in 1932 and soon vanished. Not even the real life suicide of Peg Entwistle, cast as one of the girls, could draw customers in out of morbid curiosity. Entwistle, a stage actress who came  West hoping to find some success, grew despondent one night  after a Hollywood party, climbed to the top of the famous Hollywoodland sign on Mount Lee, and jumped to her death. She left behind a note apologizing.  

Perhaps the grim nature of the movie (and Entwistle’s sad end) was simply too bleak for ticket buyers. After all, here’s a film depicting a bunch of bigoted college girls who find that their wealthy backgrounds can’t protect them from a rampaging half-Hindu woman. It was, as The Times described, “horror without laughter, horror that is too awful to be modish and too stark to save itself from a headlong plunge into hokum.” 

Well, I think it was better than that, if only to see Myna Loy’s thousand mile stare.  She turns in a nice horror performance that should be mentioned along with others of the era, including Gloria Holden in Dracula’s Daughter (1936).  If she hadn’t turned her career around to become a star of light comedies, Loy might have made it as a female counterpart to Karloff.

 The Mask of Fu Manchu and Thirteen Women are available on the Warner Archives streaming service.

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