It seems that back in 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion, young Dr. Fu Manchu was one of the few Chinese in Peking to sympathize with the besieged westerners amid the anti-foreign rioting. Just before dying a British official entrusts his small daughter to one of Fu's servants and to Fu's own shelter. The humanitarian Fu resorts to hypnosis to calm the panicked little girl while an international expeditionary force enters the city to suppress the Boxers. In retreat, some of the Harmonious Fists take positions behind the walls of the Fu estate and open fire on the foreigners. Artillery is called down upon the Boxers, and in the chaos of war Fu Manchu's wife and child are killed. Bereaved and enraged, the doctor decides that the Boxers were right all along and that the foreigners are barbarians against who he vows revenge. Conveniently, he now has a white girl as his ward and eventual instrument of his vengeance.
As I understand it, none of this has anything to do with Rohmer's stories, which portray Fu Manchu as a visionary mad scientist bent on dominating the world for no better reason than that he believes he can. The doctor's antagonists over time develop a very grudging admiration for him, and some stories pit him against still worse villains -- he confronts a version of Hitler in Drums of Fu Manchu -- that make Fu look enlightened if not benevolent by comparison. But even though the doctor often exhibits a sort of chivalry, in the novels he remains an implacable menace never above torture to further his agenda. While Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu humanizes the doctor's origins, it also narrows his ambitions. Fu Manchu has no other plan, it seems, than to avenge the House of Fu by killing all the survivors of the Peking diplomatic compound, keeping score by painting the scales of a dragon tapestry that adorned his Peking home. His latest targets are Sir John Petrie and by his extension his son, the Dr. Petrie of the books (Neil "Commissioner Gordon" Hamilton). To the rescue comes the devil doctor's great nemesis, Nayland Smith (O.P. Heggie), but complicating matters, as long planned, is Lia (Jean Arthur), Fu Manchu's white ward and, when required, his hypnotized puppet. She still believes the doctor to be a benevolent physician until Smith sets her straight, but even when she repudiates her virtual father and takes shelter with young Petrie, Fu Manchu's reasserts his mental power over her across long distances, albeit with increasing difficulty as her feelings for Petrie grow stronger.
It is just about completely impossible to see Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu as its original audiences did. That's because the people of 1929 didn't know that Warner Oland, here playing the devil doctor, would soon become best known for playing Fu's diametric opposite, Hollywood's ultimate benign Oriental, Charlie Chan. In the first place Oland doesn't match Rohmer's famous physical description of Fu Manchu as tall, bald and clean-shaven, and in the second he can't help looking like Charlie Chan in Fu Manchu's clothes, at which point any sense of menace from him dissipates. He unwittingly adds an element of camp to a screenplay that may already have seemed camp to audiences, in the intentional sense. There's a very meta moment late in the picture when Fu Manchu condemns Petrie and Lia to death. He feels a need to dash Petrie's last hope:
I'm afraid my weird and Oriental methods may have misled your occidental mind into believing that this is nothing but a gigantic melodrama in which the detective's arrival at the last moment produces the happy ending. Don't deny it; I can see by your face that it is so....Permit me to settle that item once and for all.
The devil doctor than produces Nayland Smith bound and gagged. However, at the last moment Fu Manchu's elderly maid poisons him to rescue the white child she loved like a mother. Apparently dying -- Rohmer fans would know better -- Fu Manchu concedes that despite his earlier comments, the drama ends after all "in the usual way."
I wonder now whether the origin story of the benevolent Fu Manchu turned bad by tragedy is part of that camp element in the picture -- whether it reflects Hollywood's failure to take Rohmer's yellow peril entirely seriously. The writers seem more interested in Fu Manchu as a mesmerist, in keeping with a contemporary fascination with mesmerism that shaped Hollywood's image of Dracula soon afterward and inevitably brought Svengali to the screen. Overall Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu is a less outrageous exercise in cinematic orientalism than M-G-M's Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), an adaptation that does little more than borrow a title from Rohmer. Mysterious is also a less entertaining movie, probably because of its reluctance to go big with the devil doctor. As I said, Oland doesn't really fit the title role, while Jean Arthur is still very green as an actress, and Neil Hamilton is always pretty stiff as an actor. The best performance comes from O.P. Heggie, best known as the blind hermit from Bride of Frankenstein, who puts across the brusque, blunt manner of Nayland Smith from the Rohmer novels I've read. The most distracting perfomance comes from Noble Johnson, best known as the chief of Skull Island from King Kong, who proves himself the most diverse actor of his time by adding a yellowface performance to a repertoire that eventually included white and Indian roles. Asians would seem to have had it hard in Hollywood if Paramount would rather hire a black man to play a Chinese, but the studio would make up for any perceived neglect by casting Anna May Wong as a villain and Sessue Hayakawa as a hero in the concluding film of their Fu Manchu trilogy. Warner Oland would himself return for the sequels, to no real Fu fan's surprise, and I hope to have something to say about them in the near future.