PRE-CODE HEAVEN: MASK OF FU MANCHU (1932) AND MURDERS IN THE ZOO (1933)

The Mask Of Fu Manchu (1932) is a pre-Code pulp serial dressed up as a feature. It is grounded in its period, which includes a considerable amount of racist baggage. If you can get past that aspect, The Mask Of Fu Manchu is a pleasantly dumb, super-sized bag of heavily salted, heavily buttered theater popcorn.

At the movie’s center is ‘s crisply malicious performance as Manchu, which should go down as one of the most memorable examples of ham acting, on a level with Ricardo Montalbaln in The Wrath Of Kahn. The Caucasian-as-Oriental was a 30s and 40s casting fad (Peter Lorre, , Myrna Loy, and Karloff were frequent favorites in this department). revived the trend in the 60s when cast as Fu Manchu in a series of films. In contrast to Lee’s laconic portrayal of the Asian super villain, Karloff plays it to the hilt; his body language—from his condescending, sadistic grin to his prickly use of his hands—is electric. Manchu is clearly bisexual, and Karloff invests the character with a debauchery that rivals his Hjalmar Poelzig. He introduces Fah Lo See (Loy) to his subjects with these lines: “I am the most unfortunate of men. I have no son to follow me. Therefore, in shame I ask you to receive a message from my ugly and insignificant daughter.” Fu Manchu backs up his disdain for his offspring with an offer to pimp her out, which fails to earn much compassion from us for the poor girl, since Loy goes the distance in portraying Asian women unsympathetically. Loy’s performance is wildly uneven: bouts of lethargy are followed by orgasmic fiendishness (at its most fully-baked when she plays voyeur to a white man being horse whipped by two Africans). Half of her performance admirably competes with Karloff.

Still from The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)Although an atypical MGM production, Mask of Fu Manchu was lined with typical top studio talent. Co-written by Edgar Allen Wolf (The Wizard Of Oz) and John Willard (The Cat And The Canary), co-directed by Charles Brabin (1925’s Ben-Hur) and Charles Vidor (1946), gowns by the famous Adrian (Grand Hotel), and art direction by Cedric Gibbons (Singin’ in the Rain).

The Mask Of Fu Manchu is filled to the brim with mockery of Christian platitudes. Fu Manchu and Fah Lo See take every opportunity to sadistically ridicule WASP hypocrisy and, as bland as the heroes are, it’s easy to root for the villains—particularly when the opium addled antagonists are gleefully preparing to sacrifice the dull, virginal Karen Morley as she screams: “You hideous yellow monsters!” The plot is ho-hum, and the film manages to be alternately animated and static. It’s the trashy dialogue, villainous leads, erotic art direction, and sumptuous photography that sell it as an excuse for torture scenes, alligators, and genocidal death rays, oh my!

Still from Murders in the Zoo (1933)The opening scene of Murders In the Zoo (1933), in which sews a man’s mouth shut, was considered so gruesome that the film was long banned in England. The film shares certain themes with both Island of Lost Souls (1932) and The Most Dangerous Game (1933), but its uniqueness lies in Atwill’s manic, savory performance and its zoological themes. (Not coincidentally, apart from Atwill, the only performance of note is Kathleen Burke, AKA “the Panther Woman” from Island of Lost Souls). It is unfortunate that Atwill was wasted in Hollywood. He should have gone down as a horror star ranking near Karloff. Apart from playing the Burgermeister to inspectors and politicos, he only was permitted to shine in half a dozen or so features, one of which is the grand-guignol Murders In The Zoo. 

Here, Atwill plays the malevolent Dr. Eric Gorman, a distant cousin to both Dangerous Games‘ hunter of humans Zaroff and Island‘s self-styled God Dr. Moreau. Among Gorman’s victims is his much put upon wife Evelyn (Burke), whom he eventually feeds to crocodiles. After committing crimes against humanity in the jungles, Gorman acclimates himself into American society with relative ease. His vast wealth buys and influences friends. True to Depression-era morality, the elitist super rich are cold, calculating villains, the dregs of society, and (here) the true beasts. Quite a bit of time is spent on this social commentary, in between some rather nasty bookended homicides and brutal pre-Code misogyny.

The film’s primary flaw lies in the comedy relief supplied by Charles Ruggles. Most of that is forgiven in an elaborately staged banquet hall finale, with the self-appointed deity meeting his comeuppance, courtesy of unlocked cages and Mother Nature.

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