My notes on the silent British serial The Mystery of Dr Fu-Manchu, originally published in Shivers.This 1923 British serial features Sax Rohmer’s insidious villain, back in the days when he had a hyphen. Like the originals, published as mostly self-contained magazine stories then collected as a fix-up novel, the format is of brief instalments that make up a longer (nearly six hours) epic.
Thirteen and a half of the fifteen episodes survive – but only two of the eight Further Mysteries of Dr Fu-Manchu from a year later. It’s sod’s law that the wholly missing episode is the first (‘The Scented Envelopes’), which presumably introduces the characters and explains their relationships. As it is, it’s hard to tell what official position the Holmes-and-Watson team of Sir Denis Nayland Smith (Fred Paul) and Dr Petrie (Humbertson Wright) have as they aid Inspector Weymouth (Frank Wilson) of Scotland Yard in the fight against the insidious Dr Fu-Manchu (Harry Agar Lyons). We also come in late on the on-off romance between the somewhat mature Petrie and the slave girl Karamaneh (Joan Clarkson), who shuttles back and forth between both camps throughout.
Early episodes find the villain after something or someone (the inventor of an aerial torpedo in ‘The West Case’, the death of a colonial dignitary who opposes his schemes in far-off Bhutan in ‘The Call of Siva’) but when things get settled, the serial concentrates on a simple feud between the villain and the heroes, with both attacking in turn. Fu-Manchu is blown to pieces half-way through but turns up alive without even a cursory explanation; then again, a particular blackfaced stuntman Dacoit gets shot dead and/or falls from a height at least four times over the course of the serial. Rather more inconveniencing than being exploded is a shot to the head from the treacherous Karamaneh that leaves Fu-Manchu apparently dead again. He spends the next episode as ‘The Man With the Limp’ (a transparent mystery guise), and is then cured by a kidnapped surgeon (and Petrie) in ‘The Queen of Hearts’; the operation leaves a scar seen in the next episode but healed thereafter.
Watched in a lump, the individual shorts are inevitably repetitive. They are self-contained stories like TV episodes rather than the cliffhangers that later dominated serials, though Weymouth gets amnesia in one episode (‘The Fungi Cellars’) only for the next (‘The Knocking on the Door’) to revolve around his wanderings and eventual cure. Like many flagging Republic serials, an episode at the two-thirds mark relies on recycled footage to get the plot going again and bring late-comers up to speed. Lyons has Chinese-look eyebrows but otherwise doesn’t seem very oriental: his beaky nose and stiff movements suggest either Nosferatu (which the filmmakers could have seen) or a clean-shaven Fagin. He alternates mandarin robes (with a Rohmer-approved shoulder-squatting marmoset) and a stage villain outfit (Dracula cloak, wide-brimmed clerical hat, floppy cravat, natty spats), but is notably bereft of moustache. More excitable than inscrutable, this Fu-Manchu is given to throttling his enemies in fits of frothing, gurning rage or even imagining that he’s doing so. His evil influence extends to the occasional superimposed image and even shots of him standing on the banks of the Thames yelling ‘I’ll get you yet’ in inter-titles with a Chinese typeface.
The episodes all feel like anecdotes, built around a gimmick apiece: a cat with poisoned claws, the Fungi Cellars, a fake haunted house, a torture involving a cage contraption of rats (the oft-evoked ‘wire jackets’ must have featured in the first episode), a snake-headed walking stick that conceals a real deadly snake (‘Aaron’s Rod’). A recurring thread involves disguises which fool no one (even the Watson-like Petrie usually sees through them) – with the heroes occasionally getting up as waterfront roughs to patronise opium dens, Karamaneh dressing as a male hunchback and Fu-Manchu donning a long beard to appear as Professor Jenner Monde (and his statue at Mme Tussaud’s). The most interesting aspect of the series is its frequent on-location filming in and around London, with glimpses of authentic street-life; the most spectacular moments come in a waterfront episode as Petrie dangles from a crane to make an escape, trading shots with the Dacoits. Given that later Fu Manchu movies (cf: The Mask of Fu Manchu) let rip with the ‘yellow peril’ racism, it’s interesting that the interracial affair between Petrie and Karamaneh isn’t seen as a problem (the character disappeared from subsequent films, though she’s in the 1950s TV series The Adventures of Dr Fu Manchu), only one token mild racial insult is uttered in a dialogue title and it’s made clear in the final episode – after Nayland Smith has rather unheroically shot the unarmed and fleeing masterfiend several times in the back – that the Chinese people are glad to be rid of the villain.
Other elements of the Rohmer books are found here, rarely to be seen again: notably the Si-Fan (the organisation which employs Fu-Manchu) and the beguiling (underused) Eurasian villainness Zarmi (Julie Suedo). Billed as ‘sole producer’, A.E. Coleby is the presumed director: on this evidence, he was workmanlike (the camera only moves once, mounted on a car) and busy without being especially inspired – the ‘haunted house’ episode (‘The Fiery Hand’) isn’t notably more atmospheric or imaginative than the rest of the shows – though there are some nice tableaux and theatrical trick effects. For the record, the episodes, in order, are: ‘The Scented Envelopes’ (lost), ‘The West Case’, ‘The Clue of the Pigtail’, ‘The Call of Siva’, ‘The Miracle’, ‘The Fungi Cellars’, ‘The Knocking on the Door’, ‘The Cry of the Night Hawk’, ‘Aaron’s Rod’ (first reel missing), ‘The Fiery Hand’, ‘The Man With the Limp’, ‘The Queen of Hearts’, ‘The Sacred Order’, ‘The Silver Buddha’ and ‘The Shrine of Seven Lamps’.