The Mysterious Dr Fu Manchu appeared in 1929, followed by The Return of Dr Fu Manchu in 1930 and Daughter of the Dragon in 1931. It is The Return of Dr Fu Manchu with which we are concerned at the moment.
It opens with a recap of the events of the first film. The Mysterious Dr Fu Manchu had offered an explanation for Fu Manchu’s hatred of European civilisation - his wife and child had been killed by white soldiers during the Boxer Rebellion (in which Fu Manchu had been firmly on the side of the European powers) and so his crusade against white civilisation is motivated entirely by personal revenge. This is totally at odds with the character of Fu Manchu as established in Sax Rohmer’s novels and in my view it cheapens and trivialises the character. In the books Fu Manchu is motivated by grander and nobler sentiments. He believes that either western civilisation must dominate the East, or that eastern civilisation must dominate the West and being Chinese he naturally hopes that eastern civilisation will triumph. He genuinely believes that he is fighting in the cause of a superior civilisation. Reducing him to a man bent on personal revenge, like a character in a cheap B-western, makes him far less interesting.
It also makes him less of a larger-than-life character and less of a super-villain, which is unfortunate. Everything about Fu Manchu should be on the grand scale, both his evil deeds and his acts of nobility. This is lost in these early film adaptations.
But I digress. The recap of the earlier film takes place during Fu Manchu’s funeral, attended by his old foe Inspector Nayland Smith. Since the movie is just beginning and Fu Manchu is the central character I don’t think any viewer is going to be the least bit surprised that with the funeral services over Dr Fu Manchu is revealed to the audience as being very much alive.
Nayland Smith’s close friend and comrade-in-arms Dr Jack Petrie is about to marry Lia Eltham, both these young people believing they are now free from the menace of Fu Manchu. But Fu Manchu is determined the wedding will not take place. Instead there will be a funeral, Jack Petrie’s funeral. Fu Manchu has set himself the goal of murdering all the British officers responsible for the deaths of his wife and son, and he intends to murder the son of those British officers as well. Dr Jack Petrie is the last name on his list.
The movie takes on some of the attributes of the Old Dark House genre, with the wedding party more or less under siege while Fu Manchu is lurking nearby preparing to strike.
Unfortunately it takes a long time before he does strike. This movie is much too slow. Nothing really happens at all in the first half hour.
Early talkies have a reputation for being static with too much dialogue and not enough action, mainly because of technical difficulties with the early sound technology. This film definitely has that dreaded static feel to it. Rowland V. Lee was usually a competent B-movie director so I would assume that the problems here were mostly due to those technological issues.
It does improve and the second half of the film features some interesting battles of will between Smith and Fu Manchu and between Petrie and Fu Manchu. It doesn’t matter who is stronger or braver or cleverer, what really matters is who has the greater will. There is a bit of action and at least some suspense.
Warner Oland was a fine actor and he makes Fu Manchu a living breathing character but he doesn’t quite the grandeur and the arrogance and the aura of genius to really capture the essence of the character. Of the many actors who have played the rôle the only one who really nailed it was Christopher Lee. Warner Oland isn’t terrible by any means but he just isn’t Fu Manchu.
O.P. Heggie is a very dull Nayland Smith. Neil Hamilton (best remembered as the Commissioner in Batman) is not bad as the young Dr Petrie. Jean Arthur doesn’t make much impact as Lia. William Austin provides some excruciatingly feeble and unfunny comic relief as Petrie’s best man.
A major weakness is that we don’t see enough of Fu Manchu himself, especially in the early stages. While I have reservations about Oland’s performance there’s no question that he’s the one actor here really worth watching.
When we finally see Fu Manchu in his lair things pick up a bit. It’s quite a good set, in fact very good, and does convey a kind of oriental mad scientist vibe.
The Return of Dr Fu Manchu is at best a partial success. After a very dull start it provides some entertainment value but it fails to capture the essential spirit of Sax Rohmer’s novels. Hardcore Fu Manchu fans will probably want to see it anyway out of curiosity.