Friday, January 20, 2012

The Shadow of Fu Manchu

“The chimes of old Big Ben, London’s historic clock, ring out.  A sharp rap on a door is heard.  The door creaks and warns of a stealthy entrance.  A girl gasps and piercingly screams.  A shot is fired.  The Yellow Peril Incarnate laughs terrifyingly and sends shivers through millions of listeners from coast to coast.  Dr. Fu Manchu, Mastermind of Crime, is on the air!” 

Boris Karloff in The Mask of Fu Manchu (a great movie, I might add)

Fu Manchu was created by Sax Rohmer in the novel The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu (1913). This was the first of a series of extreme racial stereotype of “Yellow Peril” sub-genre and Fu-Manchu was the most popular character to come from it. Often imitated, this series of adventures never made it to the top of the popularity charts, but today, fans of Fu Manchu can never get enough of him. Like The Saint novels, they are enjoyable reads and offer escapism in the blood 'n' thunder mold. Fu Manchu's exploits were many, but documentation about the radio series has been cursory at best. Fu Manchu has been brought to radio in a number of incarnations.

Version #1
The first was The Collier Hour, broadcast over the NBC Blue Network starting in 1927. Designed to boost magazine circulations, this hour-long program was divided into segments, each dramatizing a story or serial installment from the current issue of Collier’s. The segments were introduced by a host called The Editor, portrayed through the years by John B. Kennedy, Phil Barrison, and Jack Arthur. Malcolm LaPrade created and produced the series; his brother Ernest LaPrade supplied the music scores. Directed by Colonel Davis, this series was a mere amateur performance, with music and sound effects improvised during rehearsals. Three separate serials were dramatized, based on those that appeared in Collier’s:
 
“The Day the World Ended” (12 installments, May 1, 1929 to July 17, 1929)
“Daughter of Fu Manchu” (12 installments, March 9, 1930 to May 25, 1930)
“Yu’an Hee See Laughs” (12 installments, March 1, 1931 to May 17, 1931)
 
Arthur Hughes played the role of Fu Manchu (and also doubled as host “The Editor” for a majority of these broadcasts). For the first year, The Collier Hour was broadcast on Wednesday evenings preceding publication of the magazine. Beginning in 1928, the program was broadcast on Sunday evenings following publication. According to the files at NBC, Sax Rohmer appeared in person on the broadcast of March 1, 1931, for the premiere broadcast of “Yu’an Hee See Laughs.” It’s been suggested that “The Emperor of America” was another 12-chapter serial, broadcast circa 1927-28, but no information has been found to confirm it. The Collier Hour originated from New York radio stations and was heard only on the East Coast. Luckless listeners on the West Coast never had a chance to hear the first radio adventures of Fu Manchu.
 
It should also be noted that the first three Fu Manchu novels written by Sax Rohmer, were actually compilations of twenty-nine short stories that Rohmer wrote for Collier’s magazine.
 
Version #2
By far the most ambitious Rohmer adaptation was the second of the four series, this time recorded in the WBBM studios, and broadcast over the CBS Chicago affiliate, WGN. On Thursday, September 15, 1932, Sax Rohmer and his wife Elizabeth sailed from Southampton, bound for the Big Apple. On Wednesday, September 21, the White Star line Majestic arrived in New York port. Mr. and Mrs. Rohmer stayed at the Ritz for a few days, and went sightseeing till Sunday the 25th, when Rohmer made one of his rare radio appearances for a fifteen-minute interview with CBS writer Steve Trumbull. The purpose of the interview was to publicize the new radio series, again heard only on the East Coast. Within weeks, the program brought hundreds of positive letters to CBS, and a nationwide hookup was established so that certain stations on the West Coast could carry the program.
 
“I am deeply interested in radio and the dramatic technique,” Rohmer commented, “which has been enormously developed on your [the American] side.” Rohmer claimed crime was on the increase in England and attributed it largely to the influence of American crime (courtesy of newspapers and motion pictures) and the fact that some American criminals had transferred their activity to London. He believed that Scotland Yard was capable enough when dealing with ordinary crimes, but frequently ineffective when faced with organized gangs.
 
On Monday, September 26, Fu Manchu Mysteries premiered on CBS radio, nationwide. Instead of a serial, the show presented a single 30-minute adventure. The opening episode, an adaptation of Rohmer’s "The Zyatt Kiss," varied slightly from the rest of the series, the drama lasting only 20 minutes instead of the customary 25. Introductory remarks and commercial credits usually took up the remaining five minutes, but the premiere instead featured a talk by Sax Rohmer.(Sadly, both this series with John C. Daly and The Collier Hour are not known to exist in recorded form.)
 
Unlike the other Fu Manchu series, this one went all out for preparation and performances. The actors had to dress in full costume, and instead of the performance being acted out in a small sound studio, it was performed on stage before a live audience, recorded, and later broadcast via transcription disc. "Sound effects were as authentic as possible," according to a press release. The solemn note of Big Ben and the background traffic noises of the Thames embankment were as true as could be, since they were actual recordings specially made and imported from England. G. Fred Ibbett, director of radio for the McCann-Erickson Company, and in charge of the production, would have nothing but exact sound effects. He knew his native London, having been an engineer for the BBC previous to his service with NBC and CBS. When Nate Caldwell, with an option on the radio rights to Rohmer’s mystery in his pocket, convinced Mr. Ibbett that Fu Manchu was a natural, the radio director readily agreed. Ibbett convinced the Campana Company to sponsor the dramas, and began a diligent search for the right actors and actresses to make Rohmer’s characters spring realistically to life.

Movie poster from 1932
Most of the characters were British, with a wide variety of types required, and the problem of finding them in Chicago was a hard one to solve. “From all corners of the world (if you can believe a 1932 CBS press release), even far off china itself, the cast was drawn.” John C. Daly (as Dr. Fu Manchu) spoke French, Chinese, Arabian, and Hindustani. (Note: This was fairly common for many radio actors, as Virginia Gregg, during the forties and fifties, doubled as old English ladies and young Chinese women in many radio westerns.) Charles Warburton, one of the first to bring Shakespeare to radio (as Shylock), would play the role of Nayland Smith, the Devil Doctor’s nemesis. A few years later, Warburton returned to the New York radio studios to star in 35 big dramatic programs, among them Eno Crime Club, Sherlock Holmes and K-7: Secret Service Spy Story.* 
 
* (footnote) Oddly enough, although Warburton was signed to play roles in these shows, one Sherlock Holmes radio expert insists that Warburton did not act in any Holmes radio plays, but with so many radio incarnations of the Holmes character, and so little recordings existing in recorded form (compared to the thousands broadcast), it still remains a possibility that Warburton did play the role.
 
Bob White, who played Smith’s “Watson,” Dr. Petrie, was born in England and experienced on the stage. Betty, his wife, was an experienced radio actress specializing in juvenile parts, and took an un-billed role in a couple of the Fu Manchu episodes. When not excelling as Petrie, White headed his own successful radio-producing company.
 
Many hours were spent daily during the week preceding the Monday night broadcast, which took but 30 minutes air time. There was no music for the production. Ibbett explained that “The chance of irritating the listener, instead of creating a mood fitting the play, is too great. I prefer to omit music which might distract from the setting.” The actors performed their roles in costume, so that fans could attend the stage performances and be thrilled by the spectacle of the Oriental settings. During the early productions, Ibbett drafted plans for the scenery and lighting effects, for the purpose of allowing the audience attending the “horror chambers” of the criminal mastermind.
 
Part way through the series, John C. Daly, (not, by the way, the John Charles Daly of television’s What's My Line? fame) was replaced by Harold Huber, and Sundra Love were replaced by Charles Manson. In the thirties, Huber became a popular character player for Warner Bros., as well as a radio actor. He is known to Charlie Chan fans for playing police inspectors of various nationalities in the 20th Century Fox Chan film series. Huber also wrote radio scripts for Suspense in 1943 and 1944. Sponsored by Campana Balm. Helen Earle and Urban Johnson supplied the sound effects.
 
Fu Manchu Mysteries ran for a total of 31 half-hour programs, heard Monday evenings at 8:45 p.m.  It lasted until April 24, 1933.
 
Version #3
During the thirties, the pirate commercial radio programs transmitted from the European continent had vast English audiences. By law, the British Broadcasting Corporation had a complete monopoly on radio transmission within Britain, and was charged by its license holders, and by the British Parliament, with the task of providing radio entertainment for all tastes. Commercial radio, banned in Britain and able to operate only from transmitters on the Continent, capitalized on this situation. With the financial backing of sponsors such as Ponds, Colgate-Palmolive, and other large firms, the pirate stations attracted quality writers and performers to provide showcases for their talents, which the BBC could not match. From the inception of their transmissions until they were closed down in the late thirties, the pirate IBC stations in Luxembourg, Normandy, Lyons and Toulouse offered a continuous flow of high-quality entertainment. In 1936, Radio Luxembourg decided to feature a series of mystery adventures built around a single character. This series would originally be written and supervised by Sax Rohmer himself.
 
“Sax himself wrote the scripts during the first half of the series,” Rohmer biographer Cay Van Ash recalled. “When the series continued beyond his original expectations, he found it too great an imposition on his time. He continued to write some of the scripts, but others were written either by Elizabeth or myself. I came in on only the last six months or so of the project. I had first met Sax in November 1935, and he had had my education in hand for just over a year. Whether the draft scripts were written by Elizabeth or by me, they were carefully edited afterwards by Sax, for which reason I described the series in Master of Villainy as the most faithful version broadcast. The adaptation was not a very difficult job.  I don’t recall that any particular selection of episodes was made. As I remember it, we just went straight through the books in their natural sequence. The dialogue did not require changing very much. On the other hand, we did our utmost to avoid narration and to translate action directly into dialogue or sound. This often required additional material, and I think we also used a great many more sound effects than there were in the American Shadow of Fu Manchu radio series.”
 
Frank Cochrane, who played the Luxembourg-broadcast Fu Manchu, was a distinguished stage actor and eminently suited to play the part. He had lived for many years in China, studying the native habits and mental makeup. He had also played numerous Chinese roles on the stage. (Cochrane had won acclaim for the part of The Cobbler in the long-running show, Chu-Chin-Chow.)
 
“Fu Manchu,” Cochrane said in a 1937 interview, “has a definite personality and a definite purpose. He is a keen wit and possesses a quick Oriental brain. He is a demon for power and wants to mold the world to his way of direction and thinking. The adventures of Dr. Fu Manchu are full of unlikely happenings, which have been so well treated that they convince the listener as being highly probable. Before settling down to listen, I suggest you turn out the lights in the room the moment you hear the gong, and take your mind into serious channels. This will help you enormously to catch the illusion.”
 
All of the IBC recordings were produced in London. There were no live broadcasts. It’s believed that Rohmer and the crew recorded the shows at a disused theater. The leading light in the operation was producer Eddie Pola, who also took part as an actor in some episodes. There was actually a plan to follow up the 52 Fu Manchu broadcasts with a series adapted from Rohmer’s The Quest of the Sacred Slipper (1919), Cay Van Ash distinctly remembering having written the first two episodes. However, the BBC exerted legal pressure to close down the rival operation, and thus ended the Fu Manchu broadcasts.
 
D.A. Clarke-Smith, a well-known stage actor who had appeared in Rohmer’s stage plays The Eye of Siva and Secret Egypt, played the role of Nayland Smith. “I’m getting hardened to it now, but the nerve strain is still almost unbelievable,” commented Clarke-Smith, as the atmosphere in the studio grew more intense with each passing moment. “I have to talk so fast, six or seven prop men are grouped round another mike, to provide the dramatic effects. And, when I’m supposed to be swimming for my life in a swirling river, I have to try to forget that at the other mike a man is vigorously shaking a half-filled hot-water bottle.”
 
The program’s producer, swift-thinking Eddie Pola, rehearsed three radio installments in the space of two hours. “Funniest thing, rehearsing one dramatic scene,” recalled Eddie, “was when we came to the line, ‘Shoot the man at the window.’ The effects man fired the gun, but it just didn’t go off. Again we repeated, ‘Shoot the man at the window.’ Again the gun refused to function. We tried again. ‘Shoot the man at the window!’ But still the gun was silent. ‘Oh, cut his throat,’ I said. And at that moment, the gun went off and nearly blew me out of my skin!”
 
“There is only one female role in Dr. Fu Manchu,” Frank Cochrane said. “This is the part of the heroine. The girl who takes this character, Karameneh, is Rani Walker. She’s brilliant! There is a good cast in these programs, all exceptionally good actors, and with Rani in the only female role – who, as I have said, is excellent. It is a well-balanced cast.”
 
The supporting cast who performed the incidental character parts included Arthur Young, Mervyn Johns (father of actress Glynis Johns), and Vernon Kelso. As was common in radio drama, the actors often took several parts in the same episode and program, and sometimes switched roles whenever necessary. For example, in episode 43, Arthur Young portrayed Dr. Fu Manchu, Inspector Weymouth, and Sir Frank Narcombe, while Vernon Kelso took on three other parts.
 
With the completion of the Fu Manchu series, Cochrane and Clarke-Smith were rated such a successful team that they were featured in another long-running series of radio plays, this time concerning Inspector Brooks of Scotland Yard. Clarke-Smith played the Inspector, while Cochrane played the – perhaps inevitably – Chinese villain, La Sante.
 
Version #4
In 1939, a lengthier Fu Manchu program was produced, probably the most popular of them all because so many episodes exist in collector circles. This was a series of 156, fifteen-minute episodes, under the overall title of The Shadow of Fu Manchu. The series was recorded, transcribed, and released through Fields Brothers in Hollywood. After the recordings were completed, all 156 episodes were pressed and copied onto transcription discs, and distributed to radio stations across the country. This allowed the stations to play the episodes in any time slot they wanted. Some presented the series on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, while others broadcast on all five weekdays.
 
Ted Osborne played Dr. Fu Manchu, with Hanley Stafford as Nayland Smith, Gale Gordon as Dr. James Petrie, Paula Winslowe as Karameneh, and Edmund O’Brien as Inspector Rymer. It has not been confirmed whether O’Brien or Gerald Mohr was the announcer. (It was common for radio announcers to double in an acting role, which would give credence to the claim that it was O’Brien, but until someone turns up a recorded interview with either actor providing that information, or can find the original scripts with cast credits included, neither name should be taken as the gospel.) It should also be added that a lot of people would swear O'Brien was the announcer, others swear it is Mohr. Without archival documents to prove who it is, the announcer still remains a mystery. Frank Nelson and Norman Fields played supporting roles.
 
Sample of Archival Documents as described above.
40 episodes from The Shadow of Fu Manchu have definitely been floating about in circulation among collectors for decades, 39 of them were from the first serial. The single out-of-sequence episode that has been in circulation was not (as many people have assumed), episode number forty.  In fact, from observation, and narrowing down possibilities (and applying a little common sense), I suspect that the out-of-sequence episode many people label as episode #40 is either episode #136, 137, 138, 139, 140 or 141.
 
The adaptations was quite faithful to the original books, though in the middle of the series the episodes occur in somewhat jumbled order.  From what is known so far:
Episodes #1 to #21, for example, is an adaptation from The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu (1913)
Episodes #22 to #27 from The Hand of Fu Manchu (1917)
Episodes #28 to #39 from The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu (1916)
Episodes #40 to #78 from Trail of Fu Manchu (1934) and President of Fu Manchu (1936)
Episodes #79 to #94 from Daughter of Fu Manchu (1931)
Episodes #99 to #117 from Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)
Episodes #118 to #135 from Drums of Fu Manchu (1939)
Episodes #142 to 156 from Bride of Fu Manchu (1933)
 

Many sources wrongly list the 1939-40 Fu Manchu series as a 77 or 78 episode broadcast run. Truth is that 156 were actually recorded and aired. Four separate serials were recorded, each 39 episodes in length, each composed of more than one Sax Rohmer story. Each serial ran 39 consecutive installments. It’s been rumored for the past decade that selected discs from the other three serials, episodes #40 to #156, are in existence, but not yet released in circulation, being held on to by a profiteering collector in Niles, Ohio. In 2001, I personally tracked down and made contact with the collector, who verified over the phone that he had come across a huge stack of 16-inch transcription discs and, among them, were many of the episodes from the third and fourth serials of The Shadow of Fu Manchu. Neither serial is complete. Sixteen of the thirty-nine episodes are missing from the third serial, and fifteen of the thirty-nine episodes from the fourth and last serial, which means there are still more to be discovered elsewhere.


There were a number of collector items produced to promote this series. The photo above is a 1.25" button featuring the character of Fu Manchu, created by Sax Rohmer. The button was a premium designed to promote the 1939 thrice-weekly broadcast based on Rohmer’s novels. Gale Gordon was Dr. James Petrie and Bruno Lang was Fu Manchu. Three years earlier they were, respectively, radio’s Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless. According to one price guide, the price varies from $75 to $200, depending on the condition.
For more information about this particular series, check out Ray Stanich's write-up of "Radio Fu Manchu" in  The Rohmer Review, issue 12. This out-of-print fanzine is available through major book outlets and collectors.
 
Version #5
The fourth and final Fu Manchu broadcast was a one-time presentation. The Molle Mystery Theatre was an anthology series, aired over a decade under different titles. The program featured the best in mystery and detective stories, all adaptations of short stories, stage plays and novels by such stalwarts as Raymond Chandler, Jack London, W.W. Jacobs, Rufus King, and Craig Rice. On the evening of Tuesday, October 3, 1944, from 9 to 9:30 p.m., EST, the 1913 novel, The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, was dramatized and originated from NBC studios in New York. The program was narrated by Roc Rogers and selected by Geoffrey Barnes (the on-the-air pseudonym of Bernard Lenrow, who had recently played Doc Savage, Man of Bronze, in a series that ended in June of 1943). Jack Miller supplied the music.  
 
Newspapers of the times reported The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu planned for broadcast on August 22, 1944, but it's a known fact that newspapers only listed what was "planned" and not verified as broadcast. No true researcher uses newspapers as a means of compiling broadcast logs (I have yet to meet a college professor or university scholar or published author who claims they uses newspapers as a source for logs), and verifying both the NBC files and the actual scripts as they were registered for copyrighted at the Library of Congress proves that "The Case of the Talking Pills" was broadcast on August 22, and the Fu Manchu story was truly broadcast on October 3.
 
Version #??
According to Gordon Payton (a.k.a. “The Sci-Fi Guy”), in 1945, Sax Rohmer wrote a series of eight radio plays for the BBC. Fu Manchu was a bit too politically incorrect for the BBC, in light of England’s large Asian population, and they liked to avoid criticism from any quarter, so Sax created for them a character named Sumuru, who, in effect, was a female Fu Manchu. Described as “a glamorous witch of totally untraceable nationality, heading an international crime organization which employed strange and bizarre devices.” This series aired from December 30, 1945 to February 17, 1946. No copies survive, but Rohmer later wrote a series of five books based on his BBC plays.
 
Closing notes: Most of this article originally appeared in the thirty-ninth issue of Scarlet Street Magazine, © 2000. Reprinted with permission and courtesy of the editors of Scarlet Street, and the author. Since the article’s initial printing, the discs described above, held by a collector in Ohio, had been purchased and released on audio cassette and CD by Ted Davenport, who paid the collector his very large ransom. Thanks to Ted, these shows are currently available through RADIO MEMORIES (and your support in purchasing these from RADIO MEMORIES will help reimburse Ted for his generosity). After all, if you spent $1,000 out of your pocket for the discs, then paid additional expense to have them transferred to CD, wouldn't you want people to buy your CD sets rather than download them for free?

No comments:

Post a Comment