MGM never made serials, and was proud of that fact -- the Saturday-afternoon-movie serial marketplace was beneath them -- but in most of its characteristics of plotting, pacing, and portrayals, The Mask of Fu Manchu would suffice in place of any serial one cared to name. Apart from a couple of loving embraces and kisses between the hero (Charles Starrett) and his fiancée (Karen Morley), which preteen kids wouldn't have stood for, the action is paced like that of a Saturday-matinee chapterplay, with events unfolding at breakneck speed, beyond all sense of logic, and allowing the viewer no time to reflect on or analyze for a moment the logic (or lack thereof) of what they are seeing. The portrayals, European and Chinese alike, are presented in so stereotyped and perfunctory a manner that one either accepts what is presented as a given or rejects it all out-of-hand; and it is easy to do the latter, modern audiences wincing at the references to "the Yellow Peril" and the evil and perfidiousness of which the latter is capable, but for "enlightened" British (i.e. Western) rule.
Seen today, the movie is shocking for the racism of its plot and script, but even more astonishing in the early 21st century is the realization that, in 1932, reasonably intelligent, discerning filmgoers -- the very high-quality audience that Irving Thalberg, no less (who produced The Mask of Fu Manchu) was cultivating -- was expected to accept as a given the portrayal of the Chinese people, and "Eastern races" in general, as evil and duplicitous. (Then again, this was the period of California's anti-Asian laws, which threatened jail time for Chinese men who married white women and forbade them from owning land in the state.) The nature of the dialogue, filled with slurs against virtually the whole of Asia, runs in stark contrast to the manner of the acting -- the cast, though totally professional, is so obviously not taking any of this seriously, that the movie lightens in tone and effect in ways that are very disturbing to watch in the 21rst century. The direction by Charles J. Brabin (with uncredited help from Charles Vidor) lacks any subtlety or sophistication, except perhaps for the way that Boris Karloff, as Fu, is allowed to chew up the scenery. And anyone who wonders why Chinese audiences of the 1930s, in China and elsewhere, appreciated the Charlie Chan movies with Warner Oland and Sidney Toler, even though they were white actors portraying a Chinese hero conceived by a white American author, need look no farther than The Mask of Fu Manchu. The Charlie Chan films might have been European-descended actors impersonating Chinese characters, but they were virtually beacons of tolerance and pride in a world that could produce an "entertainment" such as The Mask of Fu Manchu. On a topical note, the movie also contains one moment that eerily anticipates the notions of "ethnic cleansing" as encountered and exposed decades later in Bosnia and elsewhere, implying the use of rape as a political/military weapon -- near the end of the movie, Dr. Fu Manchu exhorts his audience to "kill the white man and take his woman." That, and the cavalier use in the denouement of a death ray against thousands of hostile would-be followers of Fu, are all enough to make this a fascinating, dazzling, and bitterly disturbing period piece, offering enough conflicting emotions to fill an evening.