Wednesday, June 25, 2014
THE RETURN OF DOCTOR FU MANCHU (1930)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
This film, created by essentially the same team of actors, director and writers as the previous year's THE MYSTERIOUS DOCTOR FU MANCHU, marks a slight improvement over the earlier film. The writing and direction are still on the stagey side, and it still follows a revised origin for Fu Manchu that emphasizes dramatic intensity over adventurous thrills. But whereas the first film's script confined most of its borrowings from Fu-creator Sax Rohmer to the use of familiar names, this time Lloyd Corrigan and the other scripters infuse the story with more Rohmeresque touches.
While stout Warner Oland still remains remarkably unthreatening as the devil-doctor, this time he has more tricks in his bag than the hypnotism he displays in the first film. His skill with exotic drugs is immediately in the forefront, for the film's opening reveals that in the first film his apparent suicide through poison was in truth an escape-ploy, for he drank a potion that allowed him to simulate death. All of his foes from that film attend his funeral-- the dogged Nayland Smith, who alone recognizes Fu's evil genius, Jack Petrie, the last man Fu wanted to slay for his father's sins, and Lia, the daughter of another of Fu's enemies, to whom Fu was something of an adoptive father. Later in the film, Fu will also employ a drug that can reduce human beings to a mindless madness. Fu's hypnotic abilities are used more cleverly this time, as he programs a captured cop to betray Nayland Smith at a pre-appointed time. Lastly, while the doctor in MYSTERIOUS is only served by a small collection of Chinatown hoods, there's an early scene when he sends turbaned assassins after Petrie-- assassins who use poison darts and announce their presence with the howling "Call of Siva."
Still, spectacle is still in short supply. We see nothing that could not be depicted on a theatrical stage, and the script is even structured to lead from one actor-pairing to another. Even the scenes in which Nayland Smith and Fu Manchu spar verbally-- which are enjoyable in the novels-- drag somewhat here. On occasion direcrtor Rowland V. Lee comes up with a novel way of treating these encounters. One such scene shows Lia, a captive of the devil-doctor, imprisoned in a chamber with a grate over the top; Lee then Lee shows Fu mocking his quasi-daughter from above the grating. Another scene, possibly influenced by similar episodes in the Rohmer novels, causes Fu to be wounded by a bullet in such a way that he must blackmail Doctor Petrie into operating on him. This sort of scenario is more effective in Rohmer, where Petrie, like Nayland Smith, has become semi-fascinated with the genius of his mortal enemy. But it's an interesting twist, nonetheless.
The climax is certainly more "explosive" than the one from the first film, though overall the film still lacks the elements that would make it a combative film like the much later-- and more financially successful-- FACE OF FU MANCHU. RETURN could have provided a decent ending to the mixed virtues of the series, and one might have fancied that Fu survived the climactic blast. Unfortunately, when Lee and Corrigan did DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON the next year, they chose to assert that Fu finally met his maker, part of a strategy to promote his insidious daughter. But she didn't take Hollywood audiences by storm either, and it would be left to MGM's MASK OF FU MANCHU to show everyone how fiendish Orientals should be done.