Sunday, October 04, 2009

The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu: Episode 10: The Fiery Hand

GB 1923. PC: Stoll Film Company. D: A.E. Coleby; SC: Frank Wilson and A.E. Coleby, based on the novel The Devil Doctor [GB] / The Return of Dr. Fu-Manchu [US] by Sax Rohmer (1916); DP: Phil Ross; ED: H. Leslie Brittain; AD: Walter W. Murton; CAST: Harry Agar Lyons (Fu-Manchu), Joan Clarkson (Karamaneh), Pat Royale (Aziz), Frank Wilson (Inspector Weymouth), Humberston Wright (Dr. Petrie), Fred Paul (Nayland Smith); 2223 ft, 29' (20 fps); print: BFINA. E-subtitles in Italian, grand piano: John Sweeney. Viewed at Teatro Verdi, Pordenone, 4 Oct 2009.

From the GCM Catalogue: "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."
So begins Sax Rohmer’s first description of Fu-Manchu, published in 1912 in the pages of The Story-Teller and subsequently collected in book form in 1913 under the title The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu (GB) / The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu (US). Rohmer, born Arthur Ward (1883-1959), hit upon his most lasting creation with the figure of the malevolent Chinese doctor, tapping into a line of “Yellow Peril” novels explicitly formulated by two Chinese invasion scenarios, Kenneth Mackay’s The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia (1895) and M.P. Shiel’s The Yellow Danger (1898). It’s believed that Kaiser Wilhelm II, in a speech in 1895, first coined the expression “Yellow Peril” – “die gelbe Gefahr” – but these fears had earlier counterparts in numerous articles in the English press, ostensibly factual accounts whipping up anti-Chinese sentiment through lurid tales of heathen practices, opium smoking, and miscegenation.
Despite these dire warnings of a nation overrun by pigtail-sporting Chinamen, Anne Witchard points out that the actual numbers were very small: 94 “China born aliens” were listed in the London census of 1871, and by 1921 the number was still modest at 711. Though the figures were unprepossessing, the power on the public imagination was potent. The Chinese in London generally arrived as transient, low-paid ship workers speaking little or no English, and what’s more, they were an almost exclusively male group, thus becoming a locus for fears of British racial purity at the mercy of Oriental reproductive expansionism.
The Opium Wars of the mid-19th century served to stoke Sinophobia and mistakenly associate the drug, in the public mind, with China. By the 1860s the popular British press revelled in accounts of visitors to the smoke-filled opium dens of the slums of Bluegate Fields, where Charles Dickens journeyed before writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870). Such stories pushed the idea of a secret, unknown world just at everyone’s doorstep, elaborating on Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor with its shocking view into the flip-side of Victorian prosperity. Soon it became common to set tales in London’s opium dens, moved from Bluegate Fields to Limehouse, where decrepit entrances lead to hidden rooms full of luxurious fabrics: “The soft light of shaded lamps hanging from the ceiling discloses a spacious hall. The feet sink in the rich, heavy carpet as the visitor passes on to the next floor, where there is an excellent restaurant with weird Chinese decorations and a menu that offers a variety of seductive Chinese dishes. Its patrons sometimes include Society women seeking a new sensation.” The quote comes from an article, c.1910, in the South London Advertiser, but J. Platt, writing in The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1895, was probably correct in stating that most of the novelists never really bothered to inspect the places themselves. Even Conan Doyle succumbed to the fashion, opening his Holmes tale “The Man with the Twisted Lip” (1891) in an opium den. By at least the early 1920s Thomas Cook was offering tours of London’s working-class neighbourhoods, including a stop in Limehouse where they stage-managed a mêlée between cleaver-wielding, pigtail-sporting Chinamen for the tourists.
At that point Yellow Peril fears were probably old hat, having reached an early peak in the years immediately following the Boxer Rebellion (1900) – not coincidentally this was precisely the moment when the cinema began addressing such concerns, as seen in the 2008 Pordenone Festival’s screening of two staged films, Attack on a China Mission Station – Bluejackets to the Rescue, and Attack on a Mission Station (both 1900). By 1912, the same year Fu-Manchu first appeared in print, there were already parodies of the type, such as Hepworth’s Lieutenant Lilly and the Splodge of Opium. Still, Sax Rohmer’s tales were wildly successful – even President Calvin Coolidge admitted to being addicted to the serializations appearing in Collier’s – so it was only natural that the Stoll Film Company would turn to Fu-Manchu after finishing the last of their acclaimed Sherlock Holmes series.
Though the character appeared in a thinly disguised, unauthorised form in 1914, with Feature Photoplay’s The Mysterious Mr. Wu Chung Foo, the Stoll series was the first of many subsequent Fu-Manchu adaptations. Stoll had achieved success with Rohmer before, thanks to The Yellow Claw (dir. René Plaissetty, 1920) – “a picture of Chinese cunning and crime” – one of their “Eminent British Authors” films in which in-house art director Walter W. Murton outdid himself by designing a vast, multi-chambered opium den kitted out in the richest of furnishings. Though the production expenses of The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu were slightly scaled down from the Holmes series, Stoll spent a significant amount of money on promotion (Kinematograph Weekly estimated the figure at many thousands of pounds), launching an all-out media campaign that included large-scale advertising in the London Underground.
Like the three Holmes series, The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu consisted of 15 episodes, each containing a complete story with casual links to what came before and after. In general the critics were not impressed: for the Bioscope reviewer, “the new series is very much cruder, both in subject-matter and in treatment, than the Doyle stories. Whereas the latter had a skilfully worked out logical interest, the former are merely stereotyped melodramas, which make no attempt to be plausible, but depend entirely upon the appeal of lurid sensationalism.” Which of course is most likely why the stories as well as the films became so popular. Rohmer undoubtedly based his characters on Conan Doyle’s already iconic figures – Nayland Smith’s method of deductive reasoning comes straight from Holmes, while his sidekick, Dr. Petrie, even shares Watson’s profession.
“The Fiery Hand” first appeared in story form in the 25 September 1915 issue of Collier’s before being incorporated into the 1916 novel The Devil Doctor (GB) / The Return of Dr. Fu-Manchu (US). Both story and film handily illustrate Rohmer’s use of locations outside of Limehouse, driving home the sense that the Yellow Peril extended beyond areas normally associated with Chinese control: the menace has infiltrated even Windsor, thanks to the Thames, “a stream more heavily burdened with secrets than ever was Tiber or Tigris”. Like the cautionary newspaper articles revealing London’s hidden regions to a public unaware that hell lay just a short bus ride away, so too the Fu-Manchu series propagated the notion that no territory was as foreign as one’s own backyard.
The series was directed by A.E. Coleby (1876-1930), just finished with his monumental, nearly 5-hour-long epic The Prodigal Son (1923). Coleby began as an actor and moved to both sides of the camera in 1907, directing the first British film of “feature rank”, 1911’s Pirates of 1920. His work on Fu-Manchu fits with his reputation as a showman, using the stories’ sensationalist elements to full effect while incorporating handsome location work. It’s tempting to surmise that George Orwell, with his known fondness for detective fiction, might have found inspiration for the rat cage in 1984 from “The Six Gates of Joyful Wisdom” seen here, though the idea, if springing from this source, could also have come from the novel.
While Harry Agar Lyons (1878-?) appears an unlikely candidate to play the evil Chinese genius, the Irish-born actor found lasting fame in Asian roles, continuing with Stoll’s follow-up series The Further Mysteries of Fu-Manchu, and later appearing as the nefarious Dr. Sin Fang in Pioneer Films’ series The Mysterious Dr. Sin Fang (1928). Both of these later series were directed by Fred Paul (1880-1967), a figure of some fascination, more as a champion of melodrama and Grand Guignol than as a rather stolid actor. Though the Nayland Smith character is based on Holmes, he has little of Holmes’ humour, and Paul bears no resemblance to Rohmer’s conception of Smith, “lean, agile, bronzed with the suns of Burma”. – Jay Weissberg. -

A pretty good print. "They just died of fear". Nayland Smith and partner in disguise rent the "haunted house". The ghosts waste no time. The mice with bells in their necks. The luminous hand. - "The six gates of joyful wisdom": a horizontal torture device to be activated with "Cantonese rats - the most ravenous of all". - Horror aspects in this episode.

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