The Mask of Fu Manchu


Myrna Loy, Charles Starrett and Boris Karloff.

Los Alamos ranch school where they later made the atom bomb and couldn’t wait to drop it on the yellow peril. The boys are sittin’ on logs and rocks eating some sort of food there’s a stream at the end of a slope. The counsellor was a southerner with a politician’s look about him. He told us stories by the camp fire culled from the racist garbage of the insidious Sax Rohmer. “East is evil, west is good.”

William Burroughs

More pulp, and yes, it’s still racist garbage but Charles Brabin’s 1932 film which stars Boris Karloff as Sax Rohmer’s Oriental super-villain has its pleasures if you look past the severely dated attitudes. Together with The Black Cat (1934), where Boris plays a Satan-worshipping Modernist architect (!), this is one of the best non-Frankenstein Karloff films of the 1930s, as I was reminded this weekend when re-watching it along with several Sherlock Holmes episodes.


Christopher Lee is elegantly diabolical in the later Fu Manchu films but their cheap budgets force him to skulk around in dismal underground lairs. Karloff’s Doctor has a lavish Art Deco pad whose huge rooms are furnished with a noisy Van de Graaff generator and other scientific apparatus, plus a series of torture rooms where his guests may endure death by encroaching spikes (the “Slim Silver Fingers”), being lowered into an alligator pit, or driven mad by the incessant tolling of a giant bell. I happened to notice that the Doctor’s throne is quite possibly the same one (with a fresh coat of paint) as was used a decade earlier by a notoriously unclad Betty Blythe in The Queen of Sheba (1921), a lavish silent epic which is now unfortunately lost.


Betty Blythe as the Queen of Sheba.

The flaunting of Ms. Blythe’s breasts were one of the many occurrences which led to Hollywood’s adoption of the Hays Code in the 1930s, although the Code’s full effects weren’t felt until later in the decade. The notable scene in The Mask of Fu Manchu where hunk Charles Starrett appears strapped to a table dressed in nothing but a skimpy loin cloth (having previously been thrashed by Fu’s lustful daughter) would have been toned down considerably had the film been made a few years later. All the more reason to watch it today, such scenes only add to the fun.


The Doctor prepares to inject his captive with a serum which will turn the man into a compliant slave.

The Mask of Fu Manchu | A page about the original serial, the subsequent novel and its illustrators.

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Wladyslaw Benda

Butterfly women

The Flapper by Frank X Leyendecker, Life magazine (1922).

When I posted this splendid cover last July I said that I ought to make a post of Butterfly Women, so here is one. Don’t expect this to be at all comprehensive, women with butterfly wings are as legion as mermaids, these are merely a couple of favourites.


Loïe Fuller by Koloman Moser (1901).

The ultimate butterfly woman must be Loïe Fuller (1862–1928) whose Serpentine Dance inspired a host of fin de siècle paintings and sculptures and was also filmed by the Lumière brothers in 1896. The Internet Archive has a tinted copy of the latter while Europa Film Treasures has an Italian short from 1907, Farfale (Butterflies) with a troupe of dancers (also hand-tinted) imitating the Fuller style.


Life magazine cover by Wladyslaw Benda (1923).

These two pictures were discovered via the wonderful Golden Age Comic Book Stories who always has the best scans of vintage art. The Life covers are from the humour periodical which expired in 1936, not the later photojournalism magazine. For more Life covers, look here.


Dragonfly by Alberto Vargas (1922).

Okay, so it’s called Dragonfly but those look more like butterfly wings to me. A delicate piece of Vargas cheesecake which echoes the flapper theme of the Leyendecker picture. This Flickr user has a whole set of butterfly girl cigarette cards but we don’t get to see them properly without paying. If anyone has seen them elsewhere, please leave a comment.

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Wladyslaw Benda
Vintage magazine art II
Vintage magazine art

Wladyslaw Benda


The American Magazine, May 1933.

An atypical piece by Wladyslaw Theodor Benda (1873–1948), a Pole who moved to the US to work for the magazines. His illustrations are rarely this splendid but he gained a later reputation as a mask-maker, a talent that would have helped with his cover depicting the Mask of Fu Manchu for Collier’s.


Collier’s, May 7th 1932.

This page has a great succession of images showing how Benda’s original mask design managed to survive reinterpretation by subsequent Rohmer illustrators—what you might call a case of visual Chinese whispers.

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The illustrators archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Vintage magazine art II
Vintage magazine art