Released in both sound and silent versions, The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu is a good horror genre example that demonstrates the film industry's problems with the new sound medium.
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The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (1929) The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (1929)

Why did they fear the mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu?


(Paramount) 81mins. BW. US.
Credits: Dir: Rowland V. Lee; Prod: Adolph Zukor & Jesse L. Lasky; Sc: Florence Ryerson & Lloyd Corrigan. From the stories by Sax Rohmer.
Cast: Warner Oland, O.P. Heggie, Jean Arthur, Neil Hamilton, Claude King, William Austin, Charles A. Stevenson, Evelyn Selbie, Noble Johnson, Tully Marshall.

Warner Oland as The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (1929)The silent version of this early talkie that was released simultaneously must be a better film. As it is, the struggle with having to come to terms with the innovation of sound placed the advancement of film as an art form back into the dark ages. Although at times the sound here is used adventurously between long bouts of dialogue, its disadvantages are there to be seen.

During the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, a young English girl is placed into the care of the kindly Dr. Fu Manchu, (Warner Oland), but his attitude to the British settlers in China soon changes when his wife and son are killed by a bomb during the violent uprising and he vows to the ancient gods his revenge.
To even the score he plots to use the young white girl in his keeping as a weapon.
Many years later Fu Manchu has relocated to fog enshrouded London where his young charge Lia Ellian, (Jean Arthur), attracts the attentions of Dr. Jack Petrie, (Neil Hamilton), a strapping young chap whose family has become the target for Fu Manchu's festering revenge. Square-jawed hero, Nayland Smith of Scotland Yard, (O.P. Heggie who is more familiar to us as the blind hermit in The Bride of Frankenstein), is the perfect adversary to the evil Fu Manchu who has begun a series of Dragon Murders.
Nayland and Jack infiltrate the Limehouse district of London posing as drink-sodden sea farers and there Jack stumbles upon Fu Manchu's lair where he again encounters Lia who by now is besotted with the dashing young man. Fu emerges and beckons Jack to come into his study where he proudly shows him his blood-soaked dragon, each scale tainted with the blood of his victims.
Neyland Smith promptly arrives and plays a quick game of "verbal chess" with the villain before the lights suddenly go out and Fu makes a hasty retreat.
Later on at Redmoat, Jack's family home perched on the wind swept cliffs, (shown as a rather convincing miniature), Fu Manchu kidnaps Jack, Lia and someone who he believes is Nayland Smith. But, sure enough Nayland Smith arrives in the nick of time and is about to capture Fu Manchu when the fiend slurps the poisoned "guest" tea, his own secret recipe, and evades the law with his own death. Appropriately Fu's dying words are "our story ends in the usual way!" as was evident almost an hour and a half ago.

The film's brief and somewhat unnecessary comic relief is provided by William Austin as a foppish manservant whose presence is more of a hindrance to the plot than anything else. However, most of the acting honours belong to Fu's deranged sidekick Li Po as portrayed by Noble Johnson whose other numerous genre appearances include The Most Dangerous Game, Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mummy and King Kong.
Warner OIandCredit must also be given to Neil Hamilton, a stalwart leading man before his famed role as Commissioner Gordon in the television series BATMAN, and Jean Arthur as the capable, yet somewhat unconvincing heroine.
Even Warner Oland, although a veteran of stage and screen, has some difficulty with the new sound medium, but he soon became associated with his role as the wily Oriental detective Charlie Chan in sixteen Charlie Chan films. After tiring of his detective role, Oland returned to his native Sweden and died in 1938 of bronchial pneumonia.

Adolf Zukor, then head of Paramount Pictures assigned Rowland V. Lee (1891-1975) as director of THE MYSTERIOUS DR. FU MANCHU and the sequel The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu (1930). The third instalment Daughter of the Dragon (1931) again stars Warner Oland, but with Lloyd Corrigan in the director's chair. Rowland V. Lee would later score greater success at Universal Pictures with Son of Frankenstein (1939) and Tower of London (1939) and the lesser known Love From a Stranger (1937) starring Basil Rathbone.

Although THE MYSTERIOUS DR. FU MANCHU may appear somewhat unsteady on its feet, this remains as the earliest existing rendition of Sax Rohmer's villainous creation, a character that took on new heights when Boris Karloff essayed the role in MGM's The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) and again when portrayed by Christopher Lee in the 60's.

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Poster and lobby card stills courtesy of Ronald V. Borst

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