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China, 1900: During the Boxer Rebellion, the wife and child of Dr Fu
Manchu (Warner Oland), a benign man sympathetic to the cause of the
colonialists, are killed by a colonialist bomb - which leads to Fu
Manchu's hatred of all white men, and his vow to kill all those who have
had a part in killing his wife and child and their families. Fu Manchu has
a white ward though ...
Roughly 30 years later, London: Young Dr Petrie
(Neil Hamilton) meets lovely Lia (Jean Arthur), a woman with a peculiar
condition that makes her occasionally lose her mind, in the fog. He
promises to help her, and falls in love with her, hook line and sinker.
Lia disappears soon afterwards though, and it turns out she's the ward of
Back home at the Petrie's the young doctor's grandpa (Charles
A.Stevenson) receives a visit from Scotland Yard inspector Nayland Smith
(O.P. Heggie), who warns him that someone is out there killing officers of
the Boxer Rebellion and their offspring. Gramps Petrie thinks little of it
- but he doesn't survive the night, is killed by a gas bomb. Smith and
young Dr Petrie pursue the perpetrator to Limehouse and the home of Dr Fu
Manchu, who proves to be a charming host at first ... until Smith accuses
him. Fu Manchu admits to everything, gloats and makes a getaway, leaving
behind his ward Lia. Petrie, who has of course long taken a liking to Lia,
decides to take her in, believing that she has no evil bone in her body
... and he's of course right - to a degree, because Fu Manchu has some
hypnotic power over the girl.
It soon turns out that doctor Petrie's dad
(Claude King) is the next on Fu Manchu's to-kill-list, with the young
doctor following close behind - so Smith urges the Petries to leave their
home for the countryside to hide away from Fu Manchu ... but that's to
little avail, because Fu Manchu soon has the Petries' driver substituted
by one of his own men, manages to sneak into the Petrie country estate
through a hidden passageway, and controls Lia's mind from afar. So despite
all of Nayland Smith's precautions, pops Petrie is soon killed, son Petrie
made Fu Manchu's captive, and Nayland Smith is kept tied up in the next
room. Fu Manchu now figures he'll just hypnotize Lia to kill doctor
Petrie, but faced with killing the man she loves, Lia breaks Fu Manchu's
hypnotic spell - so Fu Manchu tries to convince her many another way to
convince her to kill Petrie to spare him a fate worse than death. But Lia
is helped by Fu Manchu's maid who's also her nanny (Evelyn Selbie) who
frees Nayland Smith, who subsequently has little problems taking control
of the situation ... and eventually, Fu Manchu takes poison to escape
The first Fu Manchu-talky is ...
well, nothing great. It has its high points, like a very economic and slim
screenplay, like not only telling Fu Manchu's origin story but also
weaving it into the film's plot (an art that has gone totally lost in the
more than 80 years since then), plus Warner Oland makes a rather good Fu
Manchu, constantly changing between mild-mannered eccentric and ruthless
villain. But then the film also shares its problems with many other
talkies: It's very static in direction (a technical problem due to the
cumbersome sound equipment), is a bit low on action and lacks any real
spectacle a Fu Manchu story would suggest rather by definition.
nothing great, but watchable - and back in the day it was apparently
successful enough to spawn two sequels, the first one being The
Return of Dr. Fu Manchu.