Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

THE ADVENTURES OF DR. FU MANCHU -- TV


THE ADVENTURES OF DR. FU MANCHU (1956). Television series.

Only 13 episodes of this series. produced by the TV division of Republic Pictures, aired in 1956, which is too bad because the show is a lot of fun. William Witney, who also directed Republic's serial Drums of Fu Manchu, directed about half of the episodes, which probably have more action in them than usual. Glen Gordon is quite good as the evil doctor, a rather handsome Fu Manchu, even if he doesn't look especially Oriental. Lester Matthews is an effective Sir Denis Nayland Smith, Fu's greatest adversary, but Clark Howat, who plays John Petrie (of the Surgeon General's office) is bland and forgettable. Carla Balenda is better as his assistant, Betty Leonard, and Laurette Luez adds a little spice as Fu's sexy mistress and helpmate Karamaneh. John George rounds out the weekly cast as Kolb, an evil midget who works for Fu.

As with the serial and films, Fu Manchu is not presented as the more dimensional and fascinating character of Sax Rohmer's novels, but simply as a comic book villain. Four of the series' episodes are available on DVD. In "The Prisoner of Dr. Fu Manchu" (the first episode) a peace delegate (Leonard Strong) from the Far East in town for a conference is replaced by a double, and Betty is mesmerized into trying to kill the original. Morris Ankrum plays an inventor who is to demonstrate his new device at the conference. In episode 2, "The Golden God of Dr. Fu Manchu," Fu steals gold bullion from a wrecked train, and orders a court-martialed soldier who's working with him (Rick Vallin) to murder a woman who turns out to be the wife he abandoned. Vallin and Jean Willes as the wife give solid performances. At one point Fu tortures another man with a red hot bar of gold. Keye Luke appears in this episode.

In episode 9, "The Death Ships of Dr. Fu Manchu," the doctor injects deadly germ cultures into melons in the hopes of having the U.S. accused of bacteriological warfare. In episode 11, "The Master Plan of Dr. Fu Manchu," Fu kidnaps a plastic surgeon and forces him to change the features of a man who turns out to be Adolph Hitler. Much of the action takes place on Der Fuhrer's island hideout and has to do with a cyclotron that will made America's atomic weapons ineffective. Steven Geray, who appeared in episode 1 as another character, is excellent as Hitler-with-a-New-Face. Fu kills one guy with a nasty "Tarantula Magda" spider. It's hard to believe, however, that Fu Manchu would be especially interested in an alliance with Hitler.

The show is decidedly atmospheric, basically well-written and well-acted, and has an excellent (uncredited) musical score as well. Hopefully the remaining episodes will be available on DVD one day. In the meantime, Rohmer's novels, generally creepier and more chilling than the series, are worth looking for on ebay and elsewhere.

Verdict: Lots of fun. ***.

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