Fates Worse Than Death: Adventures of Captain Africa

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On the docks of a seaport close to a Near Eastern jungle, Ted Arnold watches animal trapper Nat Coleman loading crates of live leopards and other animals onto a ship. Suddenly, a cable snaps, and a heavy load crashes to the dock! Suspecting foul play, Ted spies an Arab workman panic and run away from the scene, and follows him into the city. Tracking the suspicious dockhand to a house and confronted by a beautiful woman, Ted is surprised when Nat Coleman himself, the man’s employer, catches up to them and vouches for his workman. The Arab’s name is Omar, and he has been an employee of Coleman’s since stumbling out of the jungle, haunted by a fear he refuses to name. In this instance, he ran because he thought the men who sought his life had intended for the sabotaged crate to fall on him. Trusting Coleman’s word but eager to discover Omar’s secret, Ted gladly accepts Coleman’s invitation to be a guest at his jungle compound. This is but his first step into a tangled web of international intrigue that involves a dethroned Caliph, a subversive foreign plot to enslave the jungle tribes, and even an alliance with the secretive guardian of the jungle himself, Captain Africa!

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In the age of Black Panther (or really any time in the last fifty years or so), the idea of a white hero calling himself “Captain Africa” sounds comically tone-deaf, but we have already encountered African-set “white savior” heroes in the serials, and this one follows a long tradition. The heroism of Captain Africa, “a strange being whom the natives fear, yet worship” (Chapter One), is an example of the “white man’s burden,” living in the jungle, settling disputes, and (most importantly) protecting the innocent tribes of the area from outsiders who might exploit them, and nobly asking for nothing in return (except the tribes’ absolute deference, of course). As such he is instantly recognizable as a thinly-veiled gloss on the Phantom, the long-running comic strip hero created by Lee Falk, and who had starred in a Columbia serial twelve years earlier. Rather than pay to license the character from King Features again (as one of the very last theatrical serials ever produced, Captain Africa was made long after the era in which studios spent much money on them), Columbia instead created their own version of the jungle guardian, his gaudy honorific an alias for an alias. (Columbia wasn’t the only studio to play this game: Republic had “Don Daredevil” replace Zorro, for example.)

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It had been a while since I watched The Phantom, so I went back through my old notes to compare the two serials. Let’s see: the Phantom is attacked by a lion; Captain Africa is attacked by a lion. The Phantom is almost crushed by a portcullis, only to roll out of the way just in time; Captain Africa is almost crushed by a portcullis, only to roll out of the way just in time. The Phantom fights a gorilla; Captain Africa . . . hmm, I’m starting to see a pattern here. For the most part, Captain Africa’s costume is different enough from the Phantom’s to avoid confusion (or litigation) up close. It sort of looks like the Phantom costume you might throw together at the last minute for a Halloween party: instead of a skin-tight bodysuit, he wears a jersey and breeches. Captain Africa’s headgear resembles one of those old-time leather football helmets, and paired with goggles, well, the original Phantom could probably count on his lookalike to run errands in his place on dark nights. At the same time, when compared side by side, the shots from the two serials are clearly different: it is the plot points that are recycled, not the scenes of the Phantom in action. (See the comments below regarding the conflict over rights, which goes a long way toward explaining why whole scenes might have been filmed, only to be cut into the stingiest flashbacks.)

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The way the title characters are presented in their respective serials is also different: The Phantom is told from the hero’s point of view, beginning with the death of the old Phantom and covering his son’s assumption of the hero’s name and identity (one of the conceits of the Phantom being that it is a persona adopted by generations of fathers and sons, making it seem as if he were a single immortal being). The main protagonist of Captain Africa, however, is Ted Arnold (Rick Vallin), covert operative for a secret, unnamed organization; Captain Africa (John Hart) appears in every chapter, sometimes briefly and sometimes extensively, but he is at first an unknown quantity, a sort of guest star in his own movie, and once Ted wins the confidence of Omar and his displaced Caliph, he must convince Captain Africa to join in the project of restoring the Caliph to his throne. (We eventually learn Captain Africa’s backstory, and it is similar to Ted’s: after a heroic wartime career, under orders from his superiors he assumed the identity of Captain Africa and convinced the natives of his “magical” power in order to keep the peace in the region–there is no hint of a multi-generational tradition.)

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So, playing along, what does happen in Adventures of Captain Africa? Working with Nat Coleman (Bud Osborne), Ted follows Omar (Ben Welden) to a rendezvous with the exiled Caliph (Paul Marion), who relates the story of his overthrow by a usurper only referred to as “the tyrant.” The Caliph, Abdul al-Hamid, and his daughter, Princess Rhoda (June Howard)–exoticism only goes so far, I guess–escaped to live as nomads in the desert with a handful of loyal retainers, avoiding the bands of outlaws and slave traders that rule the desert, as well as patrols by the tyrant’s guards. There they await the opportunity to return to their homeland and return Hamid to his throne. (All of this is conveyed by voiceover accompanied by stock footage from desert swashbuckling epics.)

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Ted is convinced that Hamid, in addition to being the rightful Caliph, would be a force for peace in the region. With the help of Captain Africa (who, in a parallel story, works to prevent subversives from provoking a rebellion among the jungle tribes–the same subversives who are in league with the tyrant who dethroned Hamid), Ted convinces Omar to break his vow of silence since they already know all about Hamid’s position, and presents himself as an ally. From then on, Ted, Omar, and Captain Africa work together on the Caliph’s behalf (Nat Coleman retires from the action to continue running his business once the alliance is cemented), seeking loyalists in the tyrant’s capital city and fighting off the subversive elements who would seek to enslave both the jungle tribes and the Arabs of the desert.

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The resulting adventure is a mélange of Arabian Nights-style swashbuckling and jungle adventure: despite taking place in 1955, Adventures of Captain Africa feels much older. Of course the reliance on stock footage is a big part of that, but the typical avoidance of specific politics is another. My guess is that the unnamed political organization for which Ted Arnold works is meant to be the CIA, and the similarly unnamed subversives who promise freedom to the jungle natives but who, Ted warns, have enslaved every other population they have come in contact with, are meant to represent Soviet communism, and both the tribes and the Caliph’s people are a football tossed between them. But really, all you need to know is that there are good guys and bad guys. The various people of the desert wear traditional caftan and burnous, ride horses, and fight with wicked, curved scimitars; the jungle tribesmen are the kind of loincloth-clad, spear-throwing savages typically depicted in jungle movies. Only the white men use guns. In short, it takes place in serial never-neverland, and a more simplified version of it than most.

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The reliance on stock footage and voiceover has a distancing effect, as well. In the best serials, editing and camera work give the action a thrilling immediacy, a feeling that you are there, watching or participating in the scene. From the first chapter, however, when Nat Coleman describes his first meeting with Omar and several mysterious incidents of sabotage to Ted, the tone is one of rambling digressions and things that happened in the past or to other people, with frequently thin narrative reasons for including one scene or another, except, of course, for the fact that the footage is on hand. (It doesn’t help that Coleman isn’t the most dynamic narrator, and it’s a relief when, after a few chapters, he disappears from the story.) The serial that I was most reminded of was not The Phantom, but The New Adventures of Tarzan, from twenty years before.

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A few of these scenes are interesting from a technical perspective, including the use of rear projection to insert Coleman or other characters into the foreground of the old footage, as in Coleman’s flashback to a lion attack in his own bedroom. Even when the action shifts to the present, the early chapters are full of jungle business inserted so that Ted and Coleman have something to point out and talk about while they walk from one location to another: various animals, the daily routine of a rubber plantation, a police raid on a riverboat carrying contraband rubber. Coleman explains that there has been a campaign of rubber theft by well-organized gangs. “Do you suppose your unknown enemies are involved in it?” Ted asks, to which Coleman replies, “If they are, I wish they’d stay with it and leave me alone,” acknowledging that these scenes are nothing more than padding. As always, there is something magical in the way whole worlds can be stitched together out of unrelated footage, but Captain Africa shows that you can only stretch leftovers so far before they go stale.

What I Watched: Adventures of Captain Africa (Columbia, 1955)

Where I Watched It: Captain Africa was among the bootleg DVDs I bought and went through a few years ago, but for whatever reason I didn’t get around to watching this one until now. However, the transfer was quite poor indeed, full of missing frames and even whole scenes. Luckily for me, the whole serial was on YouTube in better (although still not pristine) quality.

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No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: What Captain Africa lacks in originality, it makes up in exclamation points: every chapter title ends with a bang (as does the serial’s subtitle, “Mighty Jungle Avenger!”)! So whether Ted and company face a “Midnight Attack!” (Chapter Three) or “Slave Traders!” (Chapter Six), writer George H. Plympton and director Spencer G. Bennet are sure to extract as much excitement out of the situation as possible. Several chapter titles refer to the “Mystery Man of the Jungle!” (Chapter One) himself, and of those my favorite is Chapter Nine’s, “Blasted by Captain Africa!” (emphasis in original).

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Best Cliffhanger: Many of the cliffhangers are not set up especially well, so they end their chapters abruptly, and they frequently suffer from the same murkiness that makes much of the serial’s action sequences so hard to follow. In addition, the feeling of going through the motions–hitting familiar perils such as animal attacks, fire, falls, and cave-ins–is readily apparent. However, there are a few sharp, well-executed, and interesting cliffhangers in the last few chapters (they must have saved the best for last). At the end of Chapter Twelve (“Fangs of the Beast!”), Captain Africa, exploring the caverns underneath the Caliph’s city, is trapped in a cell with an angry gorilla–a gorilla who, we later find out, carries a key for safe passage through the city around his neck (the “key” is a narrative repurposing of the last piece of the map to the lost city of Zoloz in the original Phantom serial). The subsequent battle is more of a choreographed fight than we have seen so far, and the chapter ends with the gorilla on top of Captain Africa, strangling the life out of him. (After turning the tables on the gorilla and escaping in the next chapter, Captain Africa modestly explains to Ted and Omar that despite appearances, captivity had made the gorilla fat and lazy: “Otherwise, I never could have beaten him.”)

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Sample Dialogue: In Chapter One, a fight has broken out in a dockside watering hole.
Ted Arnold: What’s it all about?
Nat Coleman: Who knows? Perhaps nothing. Then again, it might be over something that threatens the peace of the world.

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What Others Have Said: “It was over ten years before Columbia considered making a sequel to The Phantom. By this time, [producer] Sam Katzman was in charge of serials, and he was making them cheaper than anybody had ever produced union-made theatrical movies. One story has it that Katzman’s company had actually begun filming the serial before negotiations with King Features, owners of The Phantom comic strip, were completed. In any case, either before or during the production, the King Syndicate wanted too much money, and The Phantom could not be used again on the screen. At least, not exactly.” –Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, The Great Movie Serials

(Interestingly, while Harmon and Glut claim that Captain Africa included numerous reused shots of Tom Tyler’s Phantom, they also note that at the time of writing their book, 1972, the 1943 Phantom serial had not been available to view for many years. With the distance in time, it was surely easy to believe that the shots were identical.)

What’s Next: In two weeks I’ll return with a look at one of several serials with animal heroes: The Adventures of Rex and Rinty!

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Fates Worse Than Death: Drums of Fu Manchu

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A man steps into a taxi; at every step of his journey, he is being followed as he makes his way to his destination. Just as the traveler reaches safety, one of the lurking pursuers attacks, throwing a knife that the would-be victim only barely dodges! The man? Sir Denis Nayland Smith of the British Foreign Office. His attacker? A Dacoit in the service of Smith’s deadly archenemy, Dr. Fu Manchu!

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Just as the first of the popular series of novels by Sax Rohmer (real name: Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward) begins, so begins Drums of Fu Manchu, the 1940 Republic serial loosely adapted from them. As in Rohmer’s books, the only thing standing between the fiendishly brilliant “devil doctor” and “nothing less than the conquest of Asia” is Smith (played by William Royle), a hero who stands midway between Sherlock Holmes and James Bond (temporally as well as in style); and his assistant, Dr. Petrie (it was Dr. Petrie’s doorstep on which Smith was attacked in the first scene). There is usually also a younger man of action who encounters the diabolical conspiracies surrounding Fu Manchu and his secret organization, the Si Fan, as a newcomer, drawn in by some personal connection and allying himself with Smith and Petrie once the stakes are clear to him. In Drums, that young man is Allan Parker (Robert Kellard), son of James Parker, an explorer in possession of knowledge desired by Fu Manchu.

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Fu Manchu’s goal is to recover the sacred scepter of Genghis Khan, an artifact which will allow him to unite all of the peoples of Asia in rebellion against the white occupiers. According to prophecy, a leader will arise to take up the scepter during the “Holy Year”–Sir Nayland has spent months undercover in Burma observing Fu Manchu’s surrogates riling up the local tribes “from the Nihali Mountains through Branapuhr,” in expectation of the leader’s–Fu Manchu’s–arrival. From the point of view of the British authorities, the High Lama is a much better candidate to receive the scepter, as he promises peace (and continuing cooperation with the British, naturally). Both Fu Manchu and Sir Nayland Smith must work through the various clues left behind–scrolls, a plaque, a stone from an altar, and so on–to locate the missing tomb of Genghis Khan, each trying to recover the scepter first. Even once the action moves back to Asia and the scepter is found, the serial isn’t over.

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In order to accomplish his goals, Fu Manchu has (and will again) resorted to murder: the explorer Lionel Barton, whose transcriptions of certain scrolls revealed the existence of the scepter, is already out of the way. Dr. Parker will be next, and things aren’t looking too good for Professor Randolph, an expert on Mongolian languages who accompanied Barton on his expedition. Another victim is Wally Winchester, the radio columnist who is felled by a “gelatinous dart” hidden in his microphone, right before he attempts to reveal on-air the hideout in which Fu Manchu has Parker held captive! Elaborate murders, death-traps, and methods of torture are Fu Manchu’s stock in trade, and they complement the Republic serial style quite smoothly: many of the serial’s cliffhangers consist of traps or torture devices, the question of the hero’s survival left for the following week, and in other cases they are incidents along the way or the basis for action set pieces.

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Most of these killings are accompanied by the drums of the title: a sinister drumbeat that builds ominously, indicating the presence of the villain. It’s not always clear what or where the drums are: sometimes they are part of the diegetic sound of the film, and the characters call attention to them, knowing that they are threatened. At other times they are a spooky, atmospheric effect, ladled onto the soundtrack like gravy. In any case, they are never directly explained, but they are an effective dramatic device, and a symbol of the atmosphere of dread that hangs over the whole serial like opium smoke.

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At the center of this malign web is Fu Manchu himself, played by Henry Brandon. Fu Manchu is one of the great pop culture villains, perhaps the model of the criminal mastermind, and has been portrayed on screen by Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee, among others (even Warner Oland, who would later give the best-known portrayal of Charlie Chan, took a turn as the devil doctor early in his career). Here’s what Sir Nayland has to say to Dr. Petrie in their first adventure together:

Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government–which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.

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The unironic use of the phrase “yellow peril” suggests, of course, that the character has little to do with the actual culture or politics of Asia and everything to do with the West’s anxieties and fears of same. (It should also be clear that, in addition to his vicious, criminal acts, Fu Manchu’s dream of throwing off British imperialism is enough by itself to make him villainous in Sir Nayland Smith’s eyes.) Fu Manchu embodies a host of troublesome, contradictory stereotypes: he is bound by a strong sense of honor, yet is underhanded, secretive, and treacherous; he is described in terms that seem physically inhuman and is completely exotic in his costume, yet his knowledge of white ways and mastery of disguise allow him to blend in undetected in Europe or America; he is coded as effete, even effeminate, but represents a sexual danger to white women (this doesn’t come through as strongly in the Hays Code-approved serial, but it often does in other representations of the character); in short, he can be anywhere and can be anything that inspires fear or disgust in his (presumably white) audience. (His command of all Asians also has the unpleasant side effect of making non-white characters appear suspicious, beyond even their usual portrayal as others: in this serial, just about anybody in a turban or robe could be a member of the Si Fan.)

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This is, of course, why none of the actors famous for playing the character were themselves of Asian descent, and a big reason why the character has made few official appearances in recent decades, even as he remains recognizable as an icon. Fu Manchu is now more likely to be spoofed (his last official appearance was in 1980, played by Peter Sellers) or subverted (consider the twist in Iron Man 3) than taken seriously: even among those who still traffic in “yellow peril” anxiety, the Asian villains have been updated to take advantage of current political and economic tensions. (But who knows? Even as I write this a trade war with China is in the offing, and the white nationalism currently embroiling the country has much in common with the panic over immigration that made Fu Manchu and other yellow peril characters so popular a hundred years ago; as much as I would like to consider these stereotypes as a purely academic matter, they are still very much with us.)

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Brandon’s portrayal hits these notes often and hard: he speaks in a high, querulous voice, drawing out words with exacting precision, and delivers his lines with haughty condescension. He is a “villain you love to hate.” (Although Mike Myers’s Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers movies is largely a riff on James Bond’s nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld, there’s more than a little of Fu Manchu in him as well, particularly the scenes of gathering his varied henchmen around a conference table, so like the Si Fan council meetings.*) Unlike many other serials, Drums of Fu Manchu keeps its villain front and center, confronting the heroes face to face often rather than keeping distance between them. And why not? Fu Manchu is the star, not Sir Nayland Smith (a point made brilliantly in Gahan Wilson’s short story “The Power of the Mandarin,” which I recommend but won’t spoil).

*On the other hand, Dr. Evil is also said to be modeled on Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels, and I’ve never seen Michaels and Fu Manchu in the same room together, have you?

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In Fu Manchu’s service are his Dacoits, mostly interchangeable goons sent on missions of burglary, kidnapping, and assassination, sometimes under the direct leadership of Fu Manchu’s daughter, Fah Lo Suee (Gloria Franklin). The Dacoits’ primary weapon is the throwing knife, but strangling nooses and blowguns–both “exotic weapons”–come into play as well. The word dacoit refers to a Burmese bandit or robber, but in Sax Rohmer’s books they are one of several cult-like organizations, along with the Thuggee, who serve Fu Manchu with undying loyalty. In the serial, the Dacoits have had their brains operated on to make them loyal, and they are recognizable by the grotesque scars left by the surgery. Only a few have names (chief among them Loki, Fu Manchu’s muscle and leader of the other Dacoits), and they are narratively equivalent to the zombies of Haitian voodoo (in fact, in one chapter Nayland Smith is himself threatened with being turned into a Dacoit, a true fate worse than death!).

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It should be evident from this partial description that there are quite a few characters in Drums of Fu Manchu, and that’s not even getting into the one-chapter characters like Ezra Howard, the eccentric collector from whom one of the clues must be finessed. I also haven’t mentioned Mary Randolph (Luana Walters), Professor Randolph’s daughter, first seen bringing the “Dalai Plaque” by train and joining the heroes’ forces after an attempted theft and the sabotage of the train. Mary is naturally paired up with Allan Parker as a romantic lead, and she also counters Fah Lo Suee, the other important female character. Allan Parker and Sir Nayland Smith essentially take turns as leads, one frequently falling into peril (when it isn’t Mary in distress) and the other arriving to save the day. Interestingly, Dr. Petrie (Olaf Hytten), Smith’s nominal sidekick, frequently fades into the background in the serial while other characters take more active roles.

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Drums of Fu Manchu is ultimately more like the popular image of serials than many of the serials I’ve seen: because Fu Manchu makes a personal appearance in every chapter, we are treated to many scenes of him delivering deliciously arch monologues to his intended victims, bound and awaiting death by some slow, gruesome mechanism: “I have a number of Oriental devices for extracting information from stubborn witnesses, but I’m honoring you by the use of an arrangement invented by one of your own countrymen,” he tells Allan Parker in a typical example. “You’re undoubtedly familiar with the admirable writings of Edgar Allan Poe? So you will have no difficulty in recognizing this device, described in his short story, ‘The Pit and the Pendulum.'” The rest of the scene, as they say, writes itself.

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Furthermore, whereas even many serials based on series characters are self-contained, Drums of Fu Manchu never lets us forget that it is but one episode in a never-ending struggle. “From the pages of fiction steps the most sinister figure of all time–FU MANCHU!” reads the opening crawl. “Schooled in the ancient mysteries of the Orient he is as modern as Tomorrow!” Even though this is Republic’s only Fu Manchu serial (a sequel was proposed, but was dropped because of the wartime alliance with China), his familiarity to audiences (in addition to the novels, Fu Manchu was a multimedia sensation, with previous film appearances, radio programs, and comics) provided a sense of continuity. The introduction of the characters in the first chapter implies earlier adventures, and–very unusually–the serial ends with a single scene of Fu Manchu, alone, still alive, and vowing to continue his war upon the West: “But there will dawn another day, a day of reckoning, when the forces of Fu Manchu will sweep on to victory! This I pledge.” To the end, he is far too dignified to shake his fist and cry, “I’ll get you next time, Nayland Smith!”, but the meaning is the same.

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What I Watched: Drums of Fu Manchu (Republic, 1940)

Where I Watched It: a 2-disc DVD set from VCI Entertainment

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No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Death Dials a Number” (Chapter Six) In this chapter, Allan Parker is left tied up next to a telephone whose ringer has been attached to the fuse of an explosive; as soon as either Fu Manchu or Sir Nayland Smith attempt to call, it’s curtains for Allan!

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Best Cliffhanger: As often happens, the title of Chapter Nine, “The Crystal of Death,” foreshadows the cliffhanging peril that will end the chapter. In this chapter, Fu Manchu, having abducted Mary, brings her to the temple of the sun goddess Kardac. Sir Nayland Smith is already there, trying to gain the information from the temple priest that both he and Fu Manchu are seeking (both are in possession of a fragment of the temple’s altar, one the original and the other a replica). Fu Manchu reminds the priest that prophecy says the goddess will speak when the true fragment of the altar is replaced, and speak she does, demanding a sacrifice to atone for the desecration of the temple by outsiders (strange, though, that the goddess’s voice sounds so much like Fah Lo Suee’s!). Mary, placed in a trance by the “incense of obedience,” is laid out on the altar, and sunlight from outside is projected (via a series of mirrors) through the temple’s sacred crystal, which focuses it into a powerfully destructive ray. As the ray moves slowly toward Mary, the small idols on the altar burst into flame, showing just how intensely hot it is. Somewhere, the drums of Fu Manchu begin their relentless tattoo, the pulsing drumbeat that spells doom. . . .

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Sample Dialogue: “May I remind you that among my people, honor is a sacred thing, and those who defile it can expect no mercy!” –Fu Manchu to Mary Randolph, Chapter Three (“Ransom in the Sky”)

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Bonus Sample Dialogue: “Illustrious father, the switch is open; both trains are on the same track; and when they meet, the Sunrise Limited will be but a thing of twisted metal.” –Fah Lo Suee to Fu Manchu on the telephone, Chapter One (“Fu Manchu Strikes”)

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Death by Octopus? Of course.

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Death by Cave-In? You know it.

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Villain Disguises Himself as Hero? Without a doubt.

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Where in the World is Fu Manchu? Note the address on the packing crate: this must be on the same map as Gotham City and Yoknapatawpha County.

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What Others Have Said: “William Witney and John English, mentioned throughout this book as the most professional directors of movie serials, directed Drums of Fu Manchu. Working with photographer William Nobels, the directing team stressed the mystery elements inherent in the Fu Manchu novels, unlike most of their action-oriented photoplays. [There is still quite a bit of action, however. –GV] Most of their serial was photographed in shadows with the eeriest lighting possible falling upon Fu. Before he made his appearance the almost supernatural drums of Fu Manchu began to sound from nowhere. There was no denying the fact that the Witney-English Fu Manchu was more than human and possessed weird powers not even hinted at in the novels.” Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, The Great Movie Serials

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What’s Next: I’ll be back in two weeks with a look at Adventures of Captain Africa, the sequel/rehash of The Phantom. I hope you’ll join me.