Paramount’s 1929 The Mysterious Dr Fu Manchu did not mark the film debut of the great super-villain. He had been featured in a series of shorts during the early 1920s but The Mysterious Dr Fu Manchu was the first feature film based on Sax Rohmer’s immensely successful thrillers.
The title role is played by Warner Oland who would go on to much greater fame in the Charlie Chan movies.
This particular movie is interesting because it attempts to give us a backstory to explain Fu Manchu’s motivations. The movie opens with a sort of prologue. It is China in 1900 and the Boxer Rebellion has broken out. Europeans in Peking are under siege in the foreign legations. A small child, a girl named Lia, is sent by her British father to the house of Dr Fu Manchu. The famous scientist and physician is loved and respected by both the Europeans and the Chinese so she will be safe there. Or so her father assumes. Tragedy is however about to strike. Snipers have taken shelter in the courtyard and Fu Manchu’s house comes under artillery fire from British troops. Fu Manchu’s wife and child are killed. Fu Manchu vows to exact vengeance upon the senior officers of all the European troops involved.
Dr Fu Manchu is in fact a kindly and gentle man who has been driven to violence and hatred by his personal tragedy. It’s an intriguing idea and if it doesn’t quite make Fu Manchu a sympathetic character it at least gives us some understanding of him as a man.
On the other hand it also has the effect of making him the kind of relatively straightforward revenge murderer one might encounter in a murder mystery rather than the diabolical criminal mastermind of Rohmer’s novel’s. It also downplays the single most interesting thing about Rohmer’s villain - the fact that Fu Manchu is not actually evil but rather sees himself as fighting on behalf of civilisation. It is of course oriental civilisation on whose behalf he is fighting and he is the deadly enemy of western civilisation but he is nonetheless an idealist rather than a mere evil madman.
The movie also downplays a very important aspect of Fu Manchu’s character that Rohmer always stresses. Fu Manchu is a man of honour, a man whose word is his bond. He is as much a gentleman as his nemesis, Sir Nayland Smith. So what we get is a less complex Fu Manchu.
After the prologue in China we jump forward to London in the 1920s. Several distinguished senior military officers have been murdered in various countries, all in mysterious circumstances. What they all have in common is that they were present at the siege of the foreign legations in Peking in 1900. Now Inspector Nayland Smith of Scotland Yard has reason to believe that the elderly General Petrie will be the next victim. He also suspects that the general’s son, Sir John Petrie, and grandson, Dr Jack Petrie, may be in danger. But he has no way of knowing how and when the murderer may strike nor does he, at this stage, have any certain knowledge of the identity of the man behind these murders (although he has his suspicions).
The audience already knows that Dr Fu Manchu is behind the killings and we also know that the instrument he has chosen to carry out his revenge is the little English girl (now an attractive young woman) who had been entrusted to his care in 1900.
It goes without saying that Fu Manchu’s plans to wipe out the Petrie clan are fiendishly ingenious and imbued with a certain ironic cruelty.
The plot is pure melodrama but it’s spirited and entertaining melodrama.
Rowland V. Lee was a somewhat underrated director and he handle the material pretty well. This is of course a very early talkie and very early talkies have a reputation (only partly deserved), due to the technical problems initially posed by sound, of being terribly static and creaky. Some of the camera setups here are a little static but Lee makes sure there’s plenty going on within the frame. The slight creakiness isn’t a great problem - if anything it enhances the melodramatic nature of the tale. The sets are impressive with a hint of German Expressionism and there are some nice visual moments. The slightly static camera setups make the movie at times slightly reminiscent of the Old Dark House movies of that era.
One might have expected Warner Oland to be a bit too warm and likeable to be an effective super-villain. This is in fact a slight problem but Oland does the best he can and his performance does work - his natural warmth makes him a smooth and deceptively harmless-seeming villain. For the character of Fu Manchu to work really well he has to have both menace and dignity, the qualities which Christopher Lee the greatest of all screen Fu Manchus in movies like The Face of Fu Manchu. Warner Oland isn’t as effective as Lee and he’s not as outlandishly megalomaniacal as Boris Karloff in The Mask of Fu Manchu but he is an intriguingly different Fu Manchu.
Nayland Smith is played with the right degree of noble heroism by O.P. Heggie while a very youthful Neil Hamilton (Commissioner Gordon from the Batman TV series) gets to do the romantic lead stuff as the young Dr Jack Petrie. Jean Arthur does a good job as the unfortunate Lia, the girl used as an unwitting tool by Fu Manchu.
All three of Paramount’s Warner Oland Fu Manchu movies survive but they’re not easy to find, and it’s an even bigger challenge to find a decent print of The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (although you can watch an atrocious print on youtube). On the whole this is an enjoyable slice of melodramatic villainy. It’s a slightly unusual take on Fu Manchu and it’s worth a look.
If you haven't read them I also highly recommend Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu books such as Daughter of Fu Manchu which I've reviewed at Vintage Pop Fictions.