It's apparently the best of the early Fu Manchu movies. It also stars Boris Karloff in the lead role, which means it has to be worth a look and makes it a significant rival to the Christopher Lee series in the 1960s. On the upside, it looks great and manages to avoid being offensive in the ways I'd been expecting. On the downside, its plot is beyond ludicrous and it's offensive in unexpected ways instead.
I'd better start with the racism. Fu Manchu is a lurid pulp creation from a time when the white man was widely and sincerely believed to be superior and racism was a structural basis of various countries' legal systems. Today, just the fact that the character exists is going to offend people. I can understand these feelings, but personally I disagree. The negative argument is that it's not inherently racist to have a non-white villain, unless you think only rich white Englishmen should be shown to be evil. We all know that one. However the positive one is that Fu Manchu is also one of pulp's great iconic villains, who's furthermore both non-Caucasian and all-powerful. There's no smug assumption of white superiority in a Fu Manchu movie, except perhaps from morons with a life expectancy of about twenty minutes. On the contrary, up against Fu Manchu the white guys are screwed and you'd better accord him the highest possible respect if you want you and your loved ones to keep breathing.
In other words, these movies are about making non-Caucasians look powerful. I like that.
That said, the potential for racism in a film like this is scary. The obvious one would be Charlie Chan stereotypes, silly accents and white actors in yellowface. The latter we certainly have. Forget about looking for anyone of the correct ethnicity in this movie. However I was pleasantly surprised by how they handle the voices, with Karloff delivering his lines in an immaculate British accent and no attempt at all to give him a comedy Chinese henchman. It's certainly not that they were afraid of camping it up with the voices elsewhere, as you'll see with the outrageous Irish and German accents on a couple of supporting characters, but I don't remember hearing any "velly solly" at all.
However on the downside, the Asian characters are shown as characters of loose and dangerous morals. We visit an opium den. Singers in night clubs drape themselves over the patrons. Fu Manchu offers his daughter, Myrna Loy, to Lawrence Grant, but she doesn't seem to mind and indeed is a monster who enslaves handsome white men for her sexual pleasure. (Fu Manchu also describes her to an audience as his "ugly and insignificant daughter". What a dad.) In fact they're making a great deal out of the sexual side of things, being a pre-Code film, most notoriously in Fu Manchu's idea of a motivational speech. Having captured Karen Morley and chained her up to become a sacrifice for "our gods" (ahem), he then shows her off to his audience and says the following. "Would you all have maidens like this for your wives? Then conquer and breed! Kill the white man and take his women!"
What the hell? Now of course one has to bear in mind that this is a movie from America, a country which at the time still had anti-miscegenation laws and was about to ban it even from movies via the Hays Code. The legacy of slavery made it one of the country's hottest potatoes. This film's deliberately pushing buttons... but even so, ye gods.
Note also the way Fu Manchu's ethnicity appears to have blurred to give him dominion over pretty much all non-whites. Black characters are more prominent than Chinese ones in the movie, for instance. Four of them beat a half-naked white man with whips.
So the film's got, um, character. What it doesn't have is brains. The whole premise of the story involves the lost tomb of Genghis Khan, who it seems thought he was an Egyptian Pharoah and had himself buried with more gold than Las Vegas. (This film was of course made during Howard Carter's age of Egypt-o-mania.) Needless to say, in contrast the real Genghis Khan was a barbarian warlord who asked to be buried anonymously, according to the customs of his tribe, and we don't even know where this unmarked grave is. There's a Genghis Khan Mausoleum in Inner Mongolia, but it was built in the 1950s and it's really just a museum to him. Anyway, the Genghis Khan of this film left golden treasures which are so famous that if Fu Manchu gets his hands on them, the entire Eastern world will take him to be the modern Khan and rise up behind him to crush the white man. These include a golden scimitar, since of course gold is the perfect metal for making weapons.
In other words, the entire foundation of the movie is bollocks. They don't even hide it, but instead make huge play out of this arrant flapdoodle. However in addition they also have continuity and plot holes. Nayland Smith loses his gun when going to confront Fu Manchu, only to have it in his pocket after all. Was he carrying two? Fu Manchu can't make Lawrence Grant tell him the location of Genghis Khan's tomb, even under torture, but then turns out to have a magic serum that destroys the victim's will and turns him into Fu Manchu's eager evil slave. Why didn't he use this on Grant earlier?
It's gibberish. I seriously think they must have been writing the script as they went along. However apart from all that, the film's great.
It looks amazing. The costume and make-up departments have gone berserk, especially on Myrna Loy. Mmmmm, Myrna. The funniest and most insane costume decision is the one that turns Karloff into Carmen Miranda. Meanwhile there are huge crowds of Fu Manchu's followers, not to mention snakes, salamanders, tarantulas and a chamber full of crocodiles. (The latter have been dubbed with the sound of roaring lions.) Fu Manchu also has a room of terrifying Dr Frankenstein electrical equipment, just to test the authenticity of archeological relics. If you've deactivated your higher brain functions, this is delicious pulp lunacy.
The acting's also reasonable. Karloff's disappointingly half-hearted in his rants against the white man, but he's quite fun when just being urbane and evil. Lewis Stone is businesslike and direct as Nayland Smith, Myrna Loy is hot and the young romantic leads aren't really worth your attention, except when Charles Starrett gets injected with Karloff's serum and gets to do Evil Acting. That was fun.
Would I recommend this film? Sort of, yes. It's entertaining, I'll give it that. It's going all the way with its pre-Code sexuality and offensiveness, while it has to be admitted that in certain important ways the film's far less racist than I'd expected. If you like camp pulp nonsense, you'll love this. Admittedly my expectations ended up low enough that at one point I thought Myrna Loy was going to fall in love with Starrett and I'd have to have to fly to America just to piss on someone's grave, but fortunately she turns out to be more twisted than that. This is a film of Oriental torture, Boris Karloff and rabble-rousing speeches that judging by the extras in the crowd is calling on the peoples of the Middle East to kill all Americans. I liked it. Not for anyone with delicate sensibilities.