The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (1929) poster

The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (1929)


USA. 1929.


Director – [uncredited] Rowland V. Lee, Screenplay – Lloyd Corrigan & Florence Ryerson, Based on the Novel by Sax Rohmer, Producer – Rowland V. Lee. Production Company – Paramount.


Warner Oland (Dr. Fu Manchu), Neil Hamilton (Dr. Jack Petrie), Jean Arthur (Lia Eltham), O.P. Heggie (Inspector Nayland Smith), Claude King (Sir John Petrie), William Austin (Sylvester Wadsworth), Charles A. Stevenson (General Petrie), Evelyn Selbie (Fai Lau), Noble Johnson (Li Po)


China, 1900, during the Boxer Uprising. As Chinese rebels surround the British Legation, the ambassador’s daughter is sent to safety with Dr Fu Manchu, a local friendly to the British. However, the soldiers driving back the rebels inadvertently kill Fu Manchu’s wife and daughter. Fu Manchu swears vengeance against all white men. London, the present day. Inspector Nayland Smith of Scotland Yard arrives at the Petrie house to warn that someone is killing all those who were present at the British Legation. Just as Nayland Smith issues his warning, General Petrie is killed after inhaling a poison sent in an envelope. Nayland Smith and the general’s grandson Dr Jack Petrie pursue a suspect into Limehouse, the Chinese area of the city. There they meet Fu Manchu before discovering he is the evil mastermind behind the killings.

Fu Manchu is one of the great cinematic Super-Villains. Fu Manchu first appeared in a series of novels by Sax Rohmer, the pseudonym of British journalist Arthur Henry ‘Sarsfield’ Ward (1883-1959). The first of these was The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu/The Insidious Dr Fu Manchu (1913), which was collated from several earlier short stories. The book forms the basis of the film here. Rohmer went on to write thirteen Fu Manchu novels, four short stories and a play. These enjoyed great success and were adapted to film and radio and even saw entire magazines featuring copycat Chinese villains with the likes of Dr Yen Sin and The Mysterious Wu Fang. (See bottom of the page for the other Fu Manchu films).

There had been an earlier series of 23 silent short films made between 1923 and 1924 starring H. Agar Lyons. but these seem to be lost today. The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu was the very first full-length Fu Manchu film. As such, it operates as a Fu Manchu origin story where we learn that he was a kindly doctor who swore vengeance against all white men after the death of his wife and child during the Boxer Rebellion. Seeing this after watching various other Fu Manchu films, the effect is not dissimilar to the origin story of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith (2005) where it seems hard to square a decent person swearing vengeance for a loved one with the later incarnation of cold, calculating evil that is familiar to us. This is also an origin story for Dr Petrie, the Dr Watson to Scotland Yard inspector Nayland Smith, who we learn is the son of one of the murder victims. It is a Dr Petrie played as younger and more dashing than the middle-aged man modelled on Dr Watson of Sherlock Holmes fame that we see in the later films.

The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu was made very early into the sound era – the first sound film The Jazz Singer (1927) had appeared only 21 months earlier. The sound has been fixed up in the dvd restoration here so I am unable to tell what the quality is like. On the other hand, you can also note that there are times that the film is still reliant on intertitle cards, which audiences of the day would have been very familiar with, mainly when it comes to scene transitions.

Warner Oland as Fu Manchu in The Mysterious Dr Fu Manchu (1929) 1
Warner Oland as Fu Manchu

I don’t think The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu is a particularly good Fu Manchu film. In its defence, it was the first and so there was no precedent to draw on. A large part of the failing is the casting of Warner Oland as Fu Manchu. The very Caucasian Oland, who was born in Sweden, came to specialise in playing roles as Asian characters during this period – his most famous role was as the Chinese detective Charlie Chan beginning a couple of years later in Charlie Chan Carries On (1931) followed by a run of sixteen films up until 1937 after which he quit, dying not long after. Oland played a number of other Asian roles during this period, including Dr Yagami in WereWolf of London (1935).

These days it is almost expected to be condemnatory of the type of casting where a white actor plays a character of different race, although this is a relatively recent criticism that only came about in the 2010s whereas back in the 1930s/40s was something that was commonplace and was never questioned. These Fu Manchu films don’t exactly stand up to modern historical enquiry. The stories tap into the so-called Yellow Peril fears of the threat posed by the Chinese. However, I do think a more nuanced reading of these is required in terms of viewing them with contemporary eyes rather than applying blanket modern historical judgements and dismissing them for not meeting contemporary values. Even aside from that, some of the later films are perfectly enjoyable in their own terms.

On the other hand, Warner Oland does not stand up against the other better screen Fu Manchus – Boris Karloff’s viciously scheming incarnation in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) and in particular the ice-cold calculating intelligence of Christopher Lee in the 1960s films. By contrast, Oland is far too roly-poly and cuddly and simply not enough of a calculatingly evil intelligence. This is also a far less fantastical film than the subsequent entries with Fu Manchu lacking any super-science schemes – at most, Oland demonstrates a very mundane ability to hypnotise an infant.

Fu Manchu (Warner Oland) and Inspector Nayland Smith (O.P. Heggie) in The Mysterious Dr, Fu Manchu (1929)
(l to r) Fu Manchu (Warner Oland) and Inspector Nayland Smith (O.P. Heggie)

The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu is fairly routine. It does nothing much with its central character. It does feature a mystery/adventure plot and wields a few tropes of the pulp genre – sliding panels, hidden trapdoors etc. The climax of the film takes place in a large mansion. Certainly, the sets here and throughout are lavish and there are some fantastic interiors. These latter sections turn into more of a stage murder mystery – or even something of an Old Dark House film – with the lights going out and Fu Manchu stalking various people through the house.

The film was directed by Rowland V. Lee, who oddly is credited as the producer but not as the director. Lee made a number of films throughout his career, including versions of The Count of Monte Cristo (1934) and The Three Musketeers (1935). He made a bare handful of other forays into genre territory with the subsequent The Return of Fu Manchu (1930) where he was credited; the psycho-thriller Love from a Stranger (1937); the third of Universal’s Frankenstein films Son of Frankenstein (1939); and the Boris Karloff-Basil Rathbone historical starring film Tower of London (1939), which has horror overtones.

The other Fu Manchu films include:– a series of 23 short silent British films made between 1923 and 1924 starring H. Agar Lyons as Fu Manchu, all of which appear to be lost today; the other two Warner Oland films The Return of Dr Fu Manchu (1930) and Daughter of the Dragon (1931); the excellent The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) with Boris Karloff; a fifteen chapter serial The Drums of Fu Manchu (1940) from Republic starring Henry Brandon; the tv series The Adventures of Fu Manchu (1956), which only lasted for eleven episodes, starring Glen Gordon; the film series starring Christopher Lee produced by Harry Alan Towers, which consisted of The Face of Fu Manchu (1965), The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967), The Blood of Fu Manchu/Kiss and Kill (1968) and The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969); and The Fiendish Plot of Dr Fu Manchu (1980), a parody that featured Peter Sellers in his last performance playing both Fu Manchu and Nayland Smith.

Full film available here

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