Bathtub Zyklon, And Other Oriental Delights
Charles Brabin, Charles Vidor (uncredited)
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my in-depth study of ethnography through the racist films of early Hollywood, it’s that along with varying value systems and religions, different cultures often have radically different goals. Also, the Ku Klux Klan saved America from whatever the hell ‘carpetbaggers’ are. Each culture has a different view of their ultimate destiny, and each works towards it in its own specific way. The Romans sought to civilize the world, through the dissemination of knowledge and transportation networks. The Americans are currently attempting to teach everyone to read the Bible and mock the English language with simplified country grammar and a thick post-drunk drawl, and the Chinese are all about pimping out their daughters and trying to take over the world, usually while perched upon a death ray or some variety of subterranean drilling machine. Or so early 20th century pulp fiction would have me believe, and I see no reason why it would lie to me. Pulp fiction is not like the internet. The internet is always leading me on, promising me baseball bat insertions, but providing only price quotes from Kelly’s Ultimate Sports. It tells me that Dimmu Borgir is Norwegian, but it’s really Icelandic. The herbal Viagra it sells me doesn’t work, and trying to refinance the mortgage I don’t have has just resulted in a clogged Hotmail junk folder. The internet, I’m afraid, is a tease. It wears thong underwear and a baby tee with “Good Girls Go To Heaven, Bad Girls Go To Montreal” written over the tits, but won’t put out even though I spent all that money on an expensive high speed connection. Pulp fiction of the 30s and 40s wouldn’t do that to me. Pulp fiction tells me all about moon men, zombie flying aces, and how the Holocaust never happened. Wait, that last one’s the internet again. Sorry.
My love affair with the pulps is not without flaw, however. They are, of course, very stupid stories. All the best ones, like The Spider and Operator #5’s Purple Invasion series, are founded on bad pop science precepts, and are written much like Hardy Boys novels for kids with ADD, but there’s a certain infectious energy to them that’s hard to resist. The Mask of Fu Manchu, based on Sax Rohmer’s novels, moves with the speed of lightening and the intelligence of a concussed Labrador, but it has far more excitement than most of the movies released today. Which is weird, because if there’s one thing Hollywood does well, it’s dumb. Films nowadays are made for people who wear baseball caps well into their twenties and spend significant portions of their day text messaging and downloading ring-tones. But theirs is a sort of grinding stupidity, not the adventurous stupidity of the pulp magazines, and the films they inspired. That specific form of idiocy had migrated to comic books by the early 70s before moving to Japan and buying a palace with the proceeds from giant robot anime. Still, every once in a while, a film shows a spark of the fun of the pulps. Sometimes, like in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, that spark can be fanned into a gloriously stupid flame. Or, it can produce an excess of carbon monoxide and suffocate you into a miserable hell of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen on an endless loop.
The Mask of Fu Manchu is one of several films, and countless stories, about the nefarious Oriental doctor, who appears to spend much of his down time dreaming up needlessly complicated and increasingly outlandish schemes to conquer the world, like a jaundice Bond villain. I find that sort of dedication laudable, since I spent four hours today reading about building beer bongs despite the fact that I don’t drink, and trying to figure out how to make poison gas out of pesticides. In this particular instalment, Dr. Manchu becomes convinced that uncovering the lost sword of Genghis Khan will allow him to mobilize China into a Yellow Horde and overtake the weak and decadent Western world. I am not surprised that his plan fails about 53 minutes in, because my World War 2 Hitler Youth knife hasn’t allowed me to conquer my apartment, let alone the world. I’ve had it for years, and I’m still not allowed to put any of my framed Evil Dead posters up, and my comic books have to stay in boxes under the bed lest they get in the way of anyone’s shoe collection. Manchu is thwarted, as usual, by the resourceful Nayland Smith, but not before his creepy daughter tortures and beds a few noble British souls, usually in that order. The best part of the movie is that Fu is played by Boris Karloff, who is not only not Oriental, but not even as Eastern European as his name would suggest. I still remember the day I discovered that Karloff’s real name was William Pratt, and instead of being born in a fog-shrouded castle deep in the Pomerania, he’s just some lispy British fop. Why would you even want to pretend to be from Eastern Europe, anyway? Is there a particular mystique in smelling like stale beer and breaded pork? Or do some enjoy the plethora of Slavic languages that sound like two bad throat infections arguing? In any case, don’t let Karloff’s little deception ruin your childhood as it did mine. Or else, you’ll soon find yourself trolling the hardware store for some good weed killer.