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June 07, 2022

The Paramount Fu Manchu Double Feature

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The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu
Rowland V. Lee - 1929

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The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu
Rowland V. Lee - 1930
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Normally, I would pass on a film that starred a caucasian actor in yellow face. What caught my eye was that Jean Arthur was in the cast of these two films. This was about five years before Jean Arthur became a major star associated with films by John Ford, Howard Hawks, and especially George Stevens and Frank Capra. What really surprised me was that real stardom was attained when Arthur was 35 years old. Maybe it is age or maybe it is make-up, but the actress does not look fully formed in the earlier films. As for her acting, this was when filmmakers were still figuring out how to use sound technology and the studios were plucking stars from the Broadway stage. Arthur and her romantic partner, Neil Hamilton, get melodramatic, more so in the first film than the sequel.

My previous encounters with Fu Manchu were in a couple of the 1960s films starring Christopher Lee. The two Paramount films give the title character some nuance. The opening scene shows Dr. Fu as having dedicated himself to revenge following the accidental death of his wife and son during the Boxer Rebellion around 1900. Without going to deeply into the context, the nationalistic young men of China who fought against the influence of western culture practiced martial arts which was referred to by westerners as Chinese boxing. That they were responsible for the death of Christian missionaries was part of the reason why several western countries sent armed forces to China. Dr. Fu's victims are the western military officers. He has trained his ward, Lia, to be a trained assassin under hypnosis. The two are in London in pursuit of General Petrie and Petrie's son, Jack.

Taken on their own terms, both films are entertaining. Rowland Lee and his writers seem to acknowledge the pulp origins with some dialogue that borders on self-parody in the first film. The sequel shows how much the technology had improved over the year with the varied placement of the actors and shots that show greater depth of field. Visually, my favorite scene involves Lia locked in a cell with cross hatched bars on the ceiling. There are some nice alternating shots with the camera looking down at Jean Arthur or tilted up at Warner Oland, making use of light and shadow. In both films, Lee has scenes that take place in momentary darkness that would certainly have had a visceral effect on movie theater audiences at the time of release.

Much of Tim Lucas' commentary is devoted to author Sax Rohmer and how the films differ from Rohmer's novels. In addition to discussing the cast and crew, Lucas includes some notes on some of the otherwise uncredited contributions, as well as reviews of the films from 1929 and '30. Both films are sourced from new 2K masters. Both films are in their original aspect ratio of 1.20:1. The first film does show some signs of wear while the second appears to be in perfect condition. Some of the orientalism is certain to raise a few eyebrows, especially for those more familiar with Asian culture. As for a cast of white actors plus the black Noble Johnson in yellow face, I find that less offensive as a film of its time. On the other hand, when Peter Ustinov played Charlie Chan fifty years later, one would have assumed Hollywood would have known better.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at June 7, 2022 07:27 AM