Tuesday, September 30, 2014
The Classic Fu Manchu Trilogy (1929, 1930, and 1931)
Why the hell haven't we had a Fu Manchu movie since 1969?! Hell, I can count the amount of Fu Manchu books we've gotten since the 80's on one hand! Marvel ended up getting into a bit of trouble with their Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu character, as they created him as the son of Fu Manchu. Unless they've since gotten the rights back, they're strictly not allowed to even mention Fu Manchu's name. Given there hasn't been a film with the insidious devil doctor in 45 goshfucking years, Marvel really should get the rights back, because it's pretty clear that no-one wants ANYTHING to do with Fu Manchu! What the hell?! In fact, where the hell is Charlie Chan, too? Um, studios and filmmakers, you realize those two characters aren't racist caricatures, right? You ARE allowed to make movies with them once in a while! Or not, I guess. We live in a world where movie budgets are spiraling outta control and films have to literally make back the equivalent to a national budget just to simply break even, and it tends to take three to four years to make one movie! I miss the Golden Age of Film, where a movie took two weeks and a few pennies to make...
The point to all of this is that in the early 20th century, we got a trilogy of films featuring the pulp Yellow Peril supervillain Fu Manchu, and I've finally, finally, managed to watch these hard to find movies!...
The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu
In 1908, during the Boxer Rebellion in China, a doctor named Fu Manchu is living with his family. He's gladly helping the British against the Chinese rebels, giving aid to them, and even takes in Lia, a missionary's daughter, after her father has to go somewhere potentially fatal. Things go horribly wrong when some rebels hide in Fu's house, and the British troops fire upon it, killing Fu's wife and son. Distraught and driven mad, Fu Manchu swears vengeance upon the whole white race, and vows on his dead ancestors to find and kill everyone who was involved in the attack on his house. Twenty years later, Fu Manchu has killed all of his enemies, including their families, and only the Petries remain...
The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu isn't a very good film. It's not bad, or even boring, but it's completely unremarkable. Unlike other Fu Manchu tales, this never globetrots, and instead spends its time in a few English sitting rooms, and a set pretending to be a Limehouse gambling den. The film itself isn't boring, but its locale sure as hell is!
The writing is painfully standard, and the characters are basically cardboard cutouts, with a 'swoon' direction for the actresses. The film's love story between Jack Petrie and Lia is very rushed, but not King Kong rushed. Speaking of rushed, that's what the ending is. This movie couldn't end fast enough! It also climaxes with a confusing and kinda out-of-nowhere plot point
For a film from the time period where calling someone a 'filthy nigger' was entirely culturally acceptable, this film is surprisingly not as racist as you'd think! It's still creaky, but it portrays Fu Manchu near sympathetically, given his backstory and evolution into a villain, rather than just as a one-note Yellow Peril caricature.
Also for a movie from a time where film plots were rushed out in a minimum hour, this one surprisingly takes its time in setting up its villain-A good ten minutes, at least. However, despite all this time for development, Fu Manchu's shift to villainy is still really abrupt, as after he swears vengeance, we cut to twenty years later, and he's suddenly an evil criminal mastermind.
Due to being a neglected and forgotten film from 1929, Mysterious' quality is terrible, as you've surely noticed from these screenshots, but thankfully the dialogue isn't too hard to hear, which is a blessing!
All the Asian characters in this movie are white people in yellowface, but the film's bad quality hides this pretty well, as it reduces everyone to white voids. Due to this, I've no idea if the black Noble Johnson is playing a character called Li Po in yellowface, or is just really poorly named.
The acting here is mostly barely passable. Some performances are worse than others. Warner Oland (famous for playing Charlie Chan) boring for the first hour, but very entertaining in the final twenty minutes, although his delivery is a bit shaky at times. As for Noble Johnson, he's apparently in this movie. I say apparently, because I couldn't see him at all! Maybe he really was in Yellowface!
Surprisingly for a film from the '20's, this has a flamboyant gay stereotype! In 1929? The character in question is the Petrie family butler, and he's annoying at first, but gets more likeable as the movie goes on.
The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu is a pretty crummy movie, and I don't recommend it. It's not terrible, but it's not good either.
The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu
Yes, Fu Manchu returns, despite dying at the end of the last movie! Be prepared to take a lot of that, no matter which Fu Manchu movie you watch! The guy really must have the full support of the gods with his evil plans!
Having survived his fate at the end of the last movie, the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu wastes no time in plotting his continued revenge against Jack Petrie, as well as Lia Eltham, and his arch-nemesis Detective Nayland Smith...
This is an unnecessary sequel, but it's quite entertaining, and certainly better than the previous movie! It's still dull-ish with its choice of locations, but the movie is a lot faster paced than Mysterious.
Warner Oland continues his energetically villainous performance as Fu Manchu from the previous movie's final act rather than the dull Fu of that film's first two acts, thankfully, and he's never boring. He and Nayland Smith even share a neat dynamic!
The explanation for Fu Manchu's survival of the events of last movie is explained pretty well (It's a Romeo and Juliet type of fake death poison, hence he survived whereas Petrie would've woken up in a coffin had things gone to plan) and helps make Fu even more of an evil bastard, given he now has a predilection for insuring dozens of his victims get unintentionally buried alive. However, the first explanation-Nayland Smith's theory-is decidedly weaker, as it just says 'maybe the poison wasn't really poison', which is dumb and makes no sense within the context of the first movie.
Lia is actually pretty proactive here, which is much better than her being a cardboard patsy like in Mysterious. Another returning character from Mysterious is the flaming gay butler, Sylvester, and he's pretty entertaining, thankfully, and even kinda endearing in a way, given his friendship with Jack, and how he wants to help take down Fu Manchu.
The video quality to this movie sucks, but it's a slight improvement over Mysterious, so actors aren't merely white silhouette's.
While still not a great movie, The Return of Fu Manchu is watchable. I don't recommend it, mainly due to its print quality, but it's not as dull as its predecessor.
Daughter of the Dragon
This movie sucks!
Daughter of the Dragon, very much the black sheep of this trilogy, should be retitled Ignominious: The Movie! It's set twenty years after the last two movies, and Jack Petrie and Lia (recast, and both looking a hell of a lot older than as if merely twenty years has passed) are living happily!...And then Jack is brutally murdered by Fu Manchu! (who for some reason waited twenty years before doing this). Yeah, pretty big middle finger to those who enjoyed the last two movies! And guess what-Fu Manchu dies too! Twenty minutes in! From then on, his previously non-existent daughter Ling Moy picks up the slack to go after Jack's son Ronald.
This movie's other problem is that it's a misogynist pile of crap! Whereas Fu Manchu in this universe had complete and total control over his henchmen, Ling Moy is constantly belittled and harangued by her subjects for being a 'weak woman', resulting in some incredibly eye-rolling dialogue! Yeah, these are sexist attitudes from the film's villains, but this is still 1931-I really don't think these views weren't what the writer already thought!
Funnily enough, the only negative thing this film isn't is racist. It's even got an Asian protagonist who's actually played by an Asian guy! And same goes for the villainess, too!
Daughter of the Dragon is also boring! The script is poorly written, has bad pacing, and feels a hell of a lot longer than 70 minutes. Once it's over, it feels like nothing has been accomplished, and we're back to square one again!
Finally, the acting. It sucks! It's largely mediocre, but Sessue Hayakawa is wooden, and poorly emotes, while Bramwell Fletcher (Ronald Petrie) is too emotive, delivering a pretty bad performance. Warner Oland is barely passable in his extended cameo, and Anna May Wong is meh as the film's lead villain, and really annoying when she constantly refers to herself in the third person! Shut up, Anna May Wong!
I apologize in advance to the ghost of Anna May Wong...
You can't do much worse with Fu Manchu films than Daughter of the Dragon! As someone who's seen just about every entry the series has to offer, from the Christopher Lee movies, as well as the entirety of the Adventures tv series, I can safely say that Daughter takes the cake! Its only contender may be the reputedly painfully unfunny Peter Sellers movie The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu!...
Y'know, it's really not a good sign when you watch three Fu Manchu movies in a row, and the only thing they do is leave you with a taste for Fu Manchu, as they contain so few elements of the franchise they leave you feeling like you've just watched three-and-a-half hours of something almost entirely unrelated to the character!
While two out of three of this trilogy are passable, I don't recommend them. The low quality of the seemingly only available prints online on Youtube are dreadful, and the movies themselves are just not all that great. Enter the terrible third entry, and you have a movie series that's not worth your time. The two Jess Franco Fu Manchu movies get a lot of crap, but I've seen them, and they're damn entertaining pulp movies, well worthy of the Fu Manchu name. Watch them, and the previous four entries in the Christopher Lee series, and also try and hunt down the Boris Karloff movie, or even the movie serial if you can find it cheaply, and you'll have a much better viewing experience than you would with this trilogy...