It all started very well: Boris Karloff, Myrna Loy and Lewis Stone on the same movie! We could start dreaming.
Boris Karloff is Fu Manchu: doctor in philosophy, Right and Mathematics. Rather an intellectual. Rightful heir of Lon Chaney, he has a magnificent head for a villain. Because Fu Manchu is the villain. He spent most of his life seeking a golden mask (the one in the title) and a great sword which belonged to Genghis Khan. Therefore, he'll be able to raise an army and throw out of his country all invaders (mostly English people).
Myrna Loy is Fah Lo See, Fu Manchu's daughter. She is a beautiful Asian with light eyes (???). Like her father, she is as cruel as she is beautiful.
Fu Manchu is the prototype of the Asian villain as we could imagine it in those days: slanted eyes, peaked eyebrows, with a long thin drooping moustache, long sharp nails, and wearing a magnificent shiny outfit. Last of those stereotypes: Fu Manchu has a sharp sadistic brain which aims to a certain refinement in cruelty. A distinguished villain: in his manners as in his cruelty.
Opposite Fu Manchu, stands Lewis Stone as Naylan Smith of the British Secret Services. He is brave, dynamic and very strong. With him, we can see Sheila Barton (Karen Morley) and her fiancé Terry Granville (Charles Starrett), two other strong characters with strong minds (especially Sheila).
It all starts with an exceptional expedition, just as in Lost World (Harry O. Hoyt, 1925), in which we could also see Lewis Stone. Here ends the comparison.
The MGM had to produce horror and monster movies. But after Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932) which was a great flop, they asked Charles Brabin to try something else.
Unfortunately, it did not work very well. Even if Boris Karloff is a great Fu Manchu, we expected something else, something better. There is something missing in this film which made Frankenstein and Dracula smashing hits. Maybe a certain unity in the story.
There is one and only Tod Browning, or James Whale.
So Charles Brabin sinks in the story like in a swamp, mixing elements with no great success: Fu Manchu, a great distinguished mind, is surrounded by a bunch of fanatics which seem to have escaped from Arabian Nights! Therefore, it is difficult for us to believe in this story. The settings too, reinforce the fact that it is not likely: we can see very classicist Oriental furniture and very modern rooms (as they thought them in 1932), with no teal link (Fu Manchu is not Dr No!).
Moreover, the actors - especially Charles Starrett and Karen Morlay - do not always act very well.
What a pity: the original idea of this story was good. And we can see great Chinese torture worth the shot : the bell, the crocodile scale, and the silver fingers are quite amazing. Spectators in 1932 have certainly been pleased with such scenes! But such tortures will not last when the Hays Code arrives.
And these tortures cannot help with the story. Fu Manchu is a fantastic character, very well achieved (and his daughter too). But a good villain only does not make a great film. This villain needs a strong hero against him. Here, the heroes are too weak to stand a chance.
Another reason why the movie is not as great as it should be: it "only" lasts sixty-eight minutes. It is too short for such a story.