Tales From the Mystic East!

on April 22, 2009 by Steve Simels
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drums of fu manchu poster.jpg

Mostly apropos of nothing -- and pardon me if this sounds a little flip -- but in the weeks and months in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I often had the uncomfortable feeling that the descriptions I was hearing of Osama Bin Laden (from certain opportunistic politicians and a credulous media) sounded awfully familiar. Specifically, they sounded like those of a certain wily Oriental (I'm using that word deliberately) bad guy familiar from countless books and movies.

I refer, of course, to the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu.

Fu's creator, pulp writer Sax Rohmer, limned him this way in one of his (admittedly borderline racist) novels:

"Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government--which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man."

Well, you get the idea, and in any case, like Bin Laden, nobody could bring Fu to justice either. Of course, he had the distinct advantage of being fictional, but that's another story.

That said, at this juncture I'd like to venture the perhaps heretical opinion that the finest cinematic version of Fu-ian villainy isn't the famous Boris Karloff Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), splendid as that is, or any of the fun Hammer Fu flicks of the 60s starring the great Christopher Lee. Instead, may I bang a gong for the fabulous 1940 Republic serial Drums of Fu Manchu? Starring the criminally underrated character actor Henry Brandon as Fu?

 

drums of fu manchu.jpg

 

Brandon (he died in 1990) had one of the longest careers in film history. He's perhaps most famous as the comic villain in the 1934 Laurel and Hardy classic Babes in Toyland, but he was active for decades aftertwards; he can be seen as a Gestapo agent in the 1983 Mel Brooks remake of To Be Or Not To Be , and after that he showed up on E.R and Murder She Wrote.

As for the serial itself, it's a corker. Directed by Republic's great William Witney and John English team, then at the height of their powers, and featuring a terrific cast besides Brandon (let's hear it for that great neurotic presence Dwight Frye), it's on most critic's short list for the Top Five All-Time Cliffhangers, and with good reason; slick even by Republic's standards, it's perhaps the only chapter play out of Hollywood that feels feature film quality.

Here's a clip from chapter 5 (with the aforementioned Dwight Frye as a museum curator) to give you an idea.

Of course, the quality of the clip isn't as great as one could hope. Technically, in fact, Drums was long considered a lost film, which is to say that no negative or first generation print seems to have survived (I believe a fire at a Republic storage facility may have been the culprit, but I need to research that to be sure). In any case, the definitive home video version -- from VCI -- derives from an eminently watchable source, certainly far better than any of the bootlegs that have floated around for years, and the DVD from 2004 is more than incrementally better than VCI's earlier VHS edition.

You can, and I would say should, order it here; for more information on all things Fu, be sure to check out this invaluable and authoritative Rohmer fan page.

 

Tags: Dr. Fu Manchu, Sax Rohmer, Boris Karloff, Mask of Fu Manchu, Christopher Lee, Drums of Fu Manchu, Babes in Toyland, William Witney, John English
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