Thursday 15 January 2015

Adventures of Dr Fu Manchu (1956 TV series)

The Adventures of Dr Fu Manchu was a short-lived 1956 US TV series based on Sax Rohmer’s famous diabolical criminal mastermind. 

I picked up a bargain DVD from Payless Video containing three episodes of this series for a couple of bucks, and it’s actually not bad and the transfers are acceptable if not great. Yes, it’s very politically incorrect (which is really a feature rather than a bug) and it’s very campy, but it’s kind of fun. Being quite a fan of both the Fu Manchu books and the various movie adaptations made over the years I ended up buying the Volume 2 disc from Alpha Video which has another four episodes. Sadly this one is standard Alpha Video quality - in other words the transfers are stupendously atrocious.

Although this is an American series it retains the character of Sir Denis Nayland Smith as Dr Fu Manchu’s staunchest opponent and even has him played by an English actor. The highlight is Laurette Luez’s performance as Fu Manchu’s beautiful but deadly female assistant. She really should have been given a lot more to do.

Glen Gordon is very cartoonish as Fu Manchu, although that’s hardly a problem given the source material. He’s definitely not in the same league as Christopher Lee (who played the role in four films beginning with The Face of Fu Manchu and was the definitive screen Fu Manchu) or Henry Brandon (who played the role exceptionally well in the 1940 Republic serial The Drums of Fu Manchu), or even Boris Karloff (who gave a deliciously over-ripe interpretation of the part in MGM’s 1932 The Mask of Fu Manchu). Gordon’s performance is the show’s weak point, being more suited to an out-and-out spoof and lacking the necessary malevolence. This particular incarnation of Fu Manchu also lacks the sense of honour that is such a crucial part of the makeup of Rohmer’s creation. That sense of honour, and the fact that Fu Manchu really does have a vision of a world which to his way of thinking would be a better world, is what makes Rohmer’s character more than just a stock villain. Unfortunately those nuances (which Christopher Lee was able to bring out) are completely lost here.

Lester Matthews is adequate but they really needed a much more colourful actor to play Sir Denis Nayland Smith. For a Fu Manchu story to work properly Nayland Smith should be as much of a larger-than-life character as Fu Manchu himself. Dr Petrie is transformed into a rather dull American scientist.

The series apparently came to a premature end after only 13 episodes due to legal wrangles. This is a pity since it did have at least some potential. The series had the considerable advantage of having William Witney directing six of the thirteen episodes. Witney had been one of the best (some would say the absolute best) directors of movie serials and had helmed the excellent The Drums of Fu Manchu mentioned earlier. It’s impossible to imagine anyone better qualified to direct a Fu Manchu television series.

The series kicks off with The Prisoner of Dr Fu Manchu and this episode really does capture the spirit of Rohmer’s stories surprisingly well. 

The Master Plan of Dr Fu Manchu is great goofy fun, with Fu Manchu joining forces with Hitler! The Death Ships of Fu Manchu sees Fu Manchu dabbling in germ warfare.

Not surprisingly the series has a definite 1950s Cold War feel to it, especially in episodes like Dr. Fu Manchu's Raid (in which the evil Doctor threatens the air defence system of the United States) and The Satellites of Dr Fu Manchu (in which Fu Manchu plans to establish a space station which will allow him to threaten the free world with nuclear annihilation).

The Assassins of Dr Fu Manchu is not so good. The idea of Fu Manchu having an adopted son who is both a clean-cut all-American boy and a deadly killing machine stretches credibility a little too far.

In general the Cold War angle does not really detract from the fun and most importantly the plots have Fu Manchu doing the sorts of things you’d expect him to be getting up to in the 1950s. There’s still enough of an authentically Fu Manchu flavour to the stories.

The idea of Fu Manchu (a descendent of Chinese emperors) working hand-in-glove with the Chinese Communists might perhaps stretch credibility a little. I’d have thought that he would regard them with contempt but I guess if you’re aiming at world domination you sometimes have to work with unlikely allies.

The series was made by the television arm of Republic Pictures. The budgets were obviously minimal and production values are low. The series was made cheaply and unfortunately it looks cheap.

On the whole The Adventures of Dr Fu Manchu can be enjoyed to a certain extent for its silliness. This is probably one for Fu Manchu completists only, although The Master Plan of Dr Fu Manchu is definitely worth a look. If you can pick up one of the discs for a dollar or so in a bargain bin then by all means grab it but I’d hesitate to pay any more. I certainly would not pay more than a dollar for the Alpha Video disc. Even at that price it's a dubious buy.

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