Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu, The (1923)

Courtesy of Really Useful Group

Main image of Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu, The (1923)
15 episodes, 35mm, black and white, silent
DirectorA.E. Coleby
Production CompanyStoll Film Company
ScriptA.E. Coleby
 Frank Wilson
Original storiesSax Rohmer

Cast: Harry Agar Lyons (Dr. Fu Manchu); Fred Paul (Nayland Smith); Joan Clarkson, Dorinea Shirley (Karamaneh); Humberstone Wright (Dr. Petrie)

Show full cast and credits

The adventures of Dr Nayland Smith and his attempts to capture his elusive arch-enemy, the villainous Dr Fu Manchu.

Show full synopsis

A killer kitty with poison-tipped claws, giant noxious mushrooms and aphonia-inducing flowers are just some of the challenges faced by Sir Denis Nayland Smith and Dr Petrie in their battles against arch-villain Fu Manchu. Adapted from the 'yellow peril' stories by Sax Rohmer, The Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu and its follow-up series, The Further Mysteries of Dr Fu Manchu, ran for a total of 23 episodes and charted the Chinese crime lord's attempts to overthrow Western civilisation through a mixture of cold-blooded murder, Eastern mysticism and outlandish science.

Having scored a hit with three Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series between 1921 and 1923, Stoll Picture Productions was keen to promote another literary-based series of short films. The studio had already filmed Rohmer's novel The Yellow Claw (d. Rene Plaisetty, 1920), another tale of Oriental villainy, and the Fu Manchu adventures, which had originally been published as monthly magazine stories, seemed well suited for translation into the serial format.

Harry Agar Lyons was the first actor to portray Fu Manchu (although the lead character in the 1914 American four-parter The Mysterious Wu Chang Foo bore a suspicious resemblance to Rohmer's creation). Although clearly not Chinese, Lyons makes a suitably gaunt-faced and hammy villain, cackling maniacally and waggling his long claw-like fingers whenever a devilish plot is afoot. In contrast, Fred Paul gives a rather pedestrian performance as Nayland Smith, supported by the craggy yet oddly compelling Humberston Wright as sidekick Petrie. The recurring female characters have more to get their teeth into. Julie Suedo's Zarmi is a spirited and seductive villainess, while Fu Manchu's reluctant slave, Karamenah (played by Joan Clarkson, later replaced by Dorinea Shirley), is forced into drug addiction and endures a number of sado-masochistic beatings. She rebels against Fu Manchu by repeatedly rescuing Smith and Petrie from perilous situations, with the result that Petrie falls hopelessly in love with her.

Directors A.E. Coleby and Fred Paul supplement the rather basic interior sets with generous and varied location scenes (Chinatown, the Docklands, and the Tower of London all feature), which further add to the appeal of the films. The two series of Fu Manchu proved popular with audiences and, facing financial difficulties, Stoll continued to make film series, including The Old Man in the Corner (1924) and Thrilling Stories From the Strand Magazine (1924-25), finding shorter programme-fillers to be a safer commercial bet than feature film production.

Nathalie Morris

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. 'I shall not fail you' (4:55)
2. The dragon in his lair (2:10)
3. 'Got him at last!' (2:13)
4. The deadly spores (2:17)
Complete episode: 'The Fungi Cellars' (26:36)
Face of Fu Manchu, The (1965)
British-Chinese Cinema