WHAT WAS THE YELLOW PERIL?
It was an expression frequently used in the Hearst newspapers in the early 1900s, referring to the immigration of Chinese and Japanese laborers to the West, especially the USA. (Mask was a coproduction of MGM and Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Pictures, which produced movies for Hearst’s inamorata Marion Davies as well as one of the films in this course—for extra credit, which one?) Kaiser Wilhelm reportedly coined the phrase in 1895, circulating the expression with a cartoon of a Buddha in the air, riding a dragon across Asia toward Europe in a wake of clouds and devastation. The U.S. had already enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which succeeded in reducing Chinese immigrants from 30,000 a year to only 105. Samuel Gompers, the legendary labor leader, said “The superior whites had to exclude the inferior Asiatics by law or, if necessary, by force of arms.”
So the Yellow Peril came to suggest a paranoia that mass immigration of Asians would rob the Caucasians of their jobs, wages, and standards of living, and civilization itself. Naturally when this paranoia went a bit farther it became sexual in nature.
An 1899 cartoon, “The Yellow Peril in All His Glory,” shows an Asian with a smoking gun in one hand, a flaming torch in the other, and a knife in his teeth, trampling a virginal-looking white woman. Indeed, Karloff’s most notorious line in The Mask of Fu Manchu, which we’ll hear in the climax, is: “Conquer and breed! Kill the white man and take his women!”
As we’ve seen, pre-Code movies have a sort of “Id without a lid” quality—ideas and desires that would not be tolerated in the movies when the Code was strictly enforced, or in the more respectable quarters of middle-class life in America, found their way into films that very purposefully sought to outdo one another for thrills, titillation, and horror. And in The Mask of Fu Manchu MGM created what Greg Mank, in his commentary on the DVD, calls “the most gleefully sadistic, sexually delirious, high-camp horror movie of pre-Code Hollywood.”
The Bitter Tea of General Yen, on the other hand, was intended to be and succeeded as a first-class motion picture—extraordinarily beautiful visually, with a strong script that dealt with interesting questions about race, religion, and colonialism, and fine performances all around but especially from Nils Asther, Barbara Stanwyck, and Walter Connolly. At $1,000,000 it was Columbia’s most expensive picture to date, and Capra was aiming for an Oscar. The Academy, unfortunately, did not agree. But before you feel too bad for Capra remember that he hit the Oscar jackpot the very next year with It Happened One Night.
So today’s films are an apt pair for purposes of comparison. Both exist in the realm of fantasy about Asians, Chinese actually, with a focus on sex. In Mask all is feverish and crazed, coming from the wildly popular series of Fu Manchu stories and books by the English writer Sax Rohmer, which were published between 1913 and 1959, when the author died. Rohmer’s Fu Manchu is a supervillain, and Rohmer’s casual racism was influential enough to find its way into other writings, notably those of Ian Fleming. Fu Manchu is a magnetic, Satanic figure, brilliant (he has advanced degrees from three universities, he reminds one captive), sadistic, bent on world domination. Sax Rohmer described his villain as having “a brow like Shakespeare, a face like Satan, and eyes of pure cat green.”
General Yen is a few steps closer to reality. He also is brilliant and ruthless but his cruelty is expedient rather than pleasurable. Yen is a complex character, cruel but capable of fine sentiments, including, eventually, selfless love.
Neither Fu Manchu or General Yen were played by Asian actors (actually, there is only one Asian actor in Mask—the steward on the boat in the last scene). British Boris Karloff plays Fu with a fine, saucy wit, relishing the absurdities and excesses of the movie and his character. Swedish actor Nils Asther plays General Yen with enormous delicacy, intelligence, and sensitivity.
GOING ALL OUT FOR SEX
Per Mank’s commentary: In 1932 MGM was a lightning rod for censorship storms. vying with Paramount and Warners for which studio could produce more sexy, sensational entertainment. That summer, Howard Strickling, MGM’s PR chief, had announced that the studio “would go all out for sex,” and part of Metro’s showmanship was to create images that haunted or titillated audiences, sometimes both, often causing them to scream, gasp, or cry, or maybe all of the above. Some of the 1932 MGM flourishes: Tarzan the Ape Man, in which pygmies toss Maureen O’Sullivan’s Jane into a pit with a monster gorilla; Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan rescues Jane by throwing a knife in the gorilla monster’s eye.
There’s Red Dust, in which Harlow bobs naked in a rain barrel; Rasputin and the Empress, starring John, Ethel, and Lionel Barrymore, in which John’s prince, while climactically killing Lionel’s Rasputin, goes shrieking mad with blood lust and pauses a moment to spit out a ball of vomit.
In 1931, the previous year, Dracula and Frankenstein had kept Universal from going under, and MGM’s Thalberg wanted in on the horror trend. Thalberg’s directive: “Give me something more horrifying than Frankenstein.”
MGM’s first attempt was Tod Browning’s Freaks, a movie greatly respected today but at that time a disaster. For their second outing they went with Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, time-tested, already successful for decades, and they really bet the farm by casting Karloff himself, billed by Universal as “the sensation of the film world.” As Karloff said, “I owe it all to Dr. Frankenstein’s jolly old monster.” Fu Manchu was Karloff’s first speaking horror role, since in Frankenstein he makes noises but does not actually talk.
The Chinese-American community was very much displeased with the Fu Manchu, but Karloff waved off their objections, not understanding how anyone could be upset about something so obviously unserious. But protests continued for decades.
In 1972, 40 years after the film’s original release, the Japanese-American Citizens League filed the following complaint: “Fu Manchu is an ugly, evil homosexual with five-inch fingernails, while his daughter is a sadistic sex fiend.” They wanted MGM to withdraw the film from its catalog, and MGM ended up compromising: They actually cut the negative, and that cut version was the original video release (unlike the print we’re watching from a recently discovered original camera negative, which is the version MGM released in 1932 without any of the censor’s cuts).
Specific censorship issues in Mask of Fu Manchu
Some censors rejected the film outright: Quebec, giving the reason “cruelty, opium, etc.” It was reconstructed there, then approved.
Finland refused it.
Australia approved it only under the special condition that “all publicity in relation to this film can be prominently endorsed as suitable only for adults.”
Switzerland rejected it, and France passed a revised dubbed version that cut out any mention of the Chinese.
On the second day of shooting, Col. Jason Joy wrote on behalf of the Hays Office that things seemed okay with the script but it was hard to tell, because they had only received seven pages of it. (This was a common ploy before strict enforcement—they couldn’t cut what they didn’t see). The only thing they could find to object to in the seven pages was the phrase “Good lord.”
The first torture episode: Fu’s monologue: Censors were particularly disturbed by Fu’s line, “You will be unspeakably foul.” Local censors in New York, British Columbia, and Alberta cut it, and Pennsylvania cut most of the speech.
Japan cut the entire bell episode in the first release.
The next murder (guy who swings on a line with knife in his teeth): “The knife in the back didn’t sit so well with censors: Chicago cut the knife, so did Pennsylvania, and so did Japan.”
Next torture episode: Terry stripped half naked, Loy: “Faster! Faster!”
Some of the “Faster! Faster!”s were cut in 1972.
During original release, Pennsylvania and NewYork cut the entire whipping scene, so did England, Japan, and Australia, Alberta shortened it, and New Zealand cut the sound of the whip.
Scene of the supposedly Asian woman (Myrna Loy as Fu’s sadistic nymphoniac daughter, Fah Lo See) making her move on the white man, very provocative. We don’t see the kiss (it’s offscreen).
Next Torture Scene: Terry in loincloth, surrounded by minions played by black actors (sociological note). And they look like Oscars, which is funny because the designer is Cedric Gibbons, who designed the Oscar statuette.
Censor issues in this episode: Ohio cut the snakebite, Pennsylvania kept the creatures but cut the climactic hypodermic needle injection, New York cut almost the entire episode, as did Japan and Karloff’s native England, and best of all… Massachusetts cut the entire scene, but only for Sunday showings.
From the TCM article: The film started shooting at MGM on Saturday, August 6, 1932.
Rohmer’s novel The Mask of Fu Manchu was serialized in Collier’s magazine from May to July of 1932 and published in book form in October of that year.
The production was chaotic; Karloff said that he every time he asked for a script he was greeted with laughter; around town the production was referred to as The Mess of Fu Manchu.
The film was not cheap—and its design has all of MGM’s weight thrown into it. Director Charles Brabin said that they copied all sorts of things from the British Museum—”We took the mysteries of the Orient and blended them with modern science…” they used artificial lighting, Tesla coils, death-rays and other modern design elements and combined them with mummies and pterodactyls… “The picture is literally a course in archaeology, Oriental religion, history, and modern engineering rolled into one.” The film’s electrical equipment was designed by Kenneth Strickfaden, who also designed the laboratory equipment for Universal’s Frankenstein movies.
Karloff’s makeup took three hours to apply each morning and involved filling in the area around his eyes, reshaping his nose, caps to his teeth and long fingernails, as well as the wig, mustache, and painted eyebrows.
Sources: Greg Mank’s commentary on the DVD of The Mask of Fu Manchu.
Doherty, Thomas. Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality and Insurrection in American cinema 1930-1934