Thursday 23 February 2017

Fu Manchu - the early years

Watching the early Warner Oland Fu Manchus with Anna May Wong as Fah Lo Suee, in sound but still early enough to be rooted in the silent era. Fresh from A Study In Scarlet with Reginald Owen as some blandly English bloke in a fedora called Sherlock Holmes who doesn't really act like Sherlock Holmes, Wong is rather theatrical and goes from bland glamourpuss to angry proto-Rita Repulsa from Power Rangers. Oland's Fu surely the inspiration for Hnup Wan in One Of Our Dinosaurs is Missing, coming across as a headmaster in a school pantomime, less sinister than Karloff's freakish Carmen Miranda-hatted mutant and Christopher Lee's sinister mastermind. Some of the Chinese characters resemble Irish priests more than actual Asian people, such is the film's strange depiction of the Orient. The films, though pre-code feel less grand than Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) with Karloff and lack that film's weird sexual undertones and excitement in torture (and the ending that fifty years later was stolen by a certain Spielberg and Lucas for their own pulp adventure, Raiders of the Lost Ark). Being backlot-bound and grainy,  rather pedestrian productions, they even lack the perilous setpieces (with cameos by my grandad) of the Harry Alan Towers-Lee series (in such exotic locales as Hong Kong, Turkey, Spain and the Powerscourt Arms, Enniskerry) and the psychotronic travelogue tat-glamour of Jess Franco's sequels. The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (1929), directed by Son of Frankenstein's Rowland V. Lee has more adventure and excitement (well more exciting than say, the Bulldog Drummond films of the same era and the aforementioned bloody Reginald Owen Sherlock), looks quite exotic and expensive and feels at times like some weird propaganda film from Shang-Ri-La. They are quite ropey,  with characters at one point I swear saying things like a "great big chink" and camp chatter about bloodhounds. The Lee helmed-Return Of Fu Manchu I haven't found, and is apparently more of the same again helmed by Lee, but less.  Petrie is played in the first two of the films by Neil Hamilton after his work with D.W. Griffith and before his roles in the Tarzan movies as Jane's other bloke, and long before he played Comm. Gordon in Batman, his voice unchanged forty years later, and my Wold Newton-ish tendency to connect pulp heroes makes me wonder what if Gordon is actually an old Petrie, who moved to the US, changed his name to get shat of the Si-Fan and then found himself tackling weirder baddies. The last of the trilogy,Daughter of the Dragon (1931) is more like  a parlour room drama with odd moments of pulpish peril than pure pulp adventure, ie there's just Petrie (now Bramwell Fletcher), no Nayland Smith (played by O.P. "the blind hermit" Heggie in the first two) and Sessue Hayakawa appears as some sort of vague love interest.

The films are ropey and not very good, to be honest, unlike Mask and the Lee films, even the beguiling messes of Franco's duo. I haven't seen Paramount on Parade, the 1933 revue/proto-Comic Relief with Oland's Fu facing off among a cabal of 'tecs, including Clive Brook's fedora-hatted Third Doctor-ish gadget man Sherlock (this time, not sided by his regular sidekick, Watson, in the 1933 Brook Sherlock Holmes, incarnated in the form of Reginald Owen).

But these three Paramount-Oland ones are interesting for showing the debt Hollywood paid to British genre/pulp fiction in its early years, with this and the various HG Wells adaptations and British-based horrors. Though even in the UK, they were making the gloriously visual but rather staid likes of Things to Come, the lost-up-its-own-whimsy The Man Who Could Work Miracles and the Tunnel and myriad identical quickies based on Wallace or Sexton Blake, Hollywood were churning out rival productions, i.e. see the two Gaslights, the competing runs of Sherlock Holmes and Bulldog Drummond mysteries. After all, technically King Kong is an Edgar Wallace mystery...

Clive Brook's Sherlock Holmes (1932) is actually much more interesting. It has a creepy carnival setting, feels quite modern in style, has Holmes disguised as an old dear who smokes a pipe, and a Cockernew-Yorker Billy the Pageboy.

No comments:

Post a Comment