Y …is for

The Yellow Menace


The Yellow Menace (1916), produced by William Steiner and directed by Aubrey N. Kennedy, was a sixteen-part “preparedness” serial explicitly designed to make Americans feel the urgency of military readiness. Based on a story by British novelist Louis Tracy, with a scenario written by Kennedy, it focused on Ali Singh, “The Higher One” (played by veteran stage actor Edwin Stevens), a fanatical Mongolian scientist and brutal race zealot who is intent on destroying the United States, and on the efforts of an international banker who supports a bill to exclude all non-whites from American shores. With the help of the Secret Service, the Mongolian is ultimately defeated and killed and the U.S. is saved from his domination.


As the ads indicated, The Yellow Menace was “Produced to Arouse Sleeping America.”



As the villainous Ali Singh, Edwin Stevens appeared in full “yellow-face.”

Like most preparedness films, The Yellow Menace was created with a dual purpose: not only to entertain movie audiences by drawing them into theaters on a weekly basis but also to instill in the American public the deep obligation of preparing the country against invasion. The latter was an especially timely concern, since U.S. policies of neutrality and attitudes of peaceful idealism had begun shifting to a more violent war passion, and some level of engagement in the conflict that had been raging in Europe since 1914 seemed inevitable. As film scholar Lewis Jacobs observed, that transition was revealed most patently in the newly-found language of the movies, with pro-war propaganda “subtly and astutely” being injected even into satires, comedies, dramas, and romances. It was especially pronounced in serial films, which sought to brace Americans for the possibility of entry into war by sensationalizing the threat to American national security.

Among the greatest of those threats, many believed, was the “Yellow Peril” or “Yellow Terror”—that is, the “sinister Oriental,” an evil mastermind who was determined to destroy the West and who had at his disposal “limitless hordes” ready to overrun America and other “white” countries.


That threat was closely linked to the fear of miscegenation or race pollution promoted by white supremacists. Such a fear—that whether by force or by intermarriage, the “Orientals” would corrupt the race from within—was largely a racialist fantasy. Nevertheless, the stereotype of the rapacious Asian “Other” who wanted only to conquer and to subjugate whites took root in the fevered popular imagination.


The publicity for the serial underscored xenophobic fears.


An unfortunate form of xenophobia and racism, the distrust of Asians had increased after the rise of Chinese immigration in the late nineteenth century. It was reinforced by racist pogroms in California and elsewhere, and strengthened by legislation such as the Immigration Act of 1917 that created an “Asian Barred Zone” and instigated other nativist efforts. The anti-Asian sentiment was further inflamed by such prominent and influential people as pro-German William Randolph Hearst, who was opposed to involvement in the war in Europe (and to President Woodrow Wilson, whom he regularly excoriated in his newspapers and publications). Embracing the conspiracy theory that Japan was interested in subjugating America to further its domination of the Pacific by secretly working with revolution-plagued Mexico to invade the United States from the south, Hearst regularly took slaps at the Japanese in his newspapers and journals and peppered the serial films (such as Patria [1917]) that he underwrote with his inherently racist beliefs.
The Yellow Menace was hardly the first picture to demonize Asians or depict them as threats to American sovereignty and the American way of life. Many other films of that period had emphasized the fear of Asians and minorities in order to stoke hatred. Serials such as the Whartons’ The Exploits of Elaine and Beatrice Fairfax (produced with financial support from Hearst), for example, had featured sinister Asian characters desperate to expose American secrets and undermine national interests. Other serials released in the same year as The Yellow Menace had a similar theme. For example, in The Secret of the Submarine, a fifteen-episode thriller released by Mutual, Cleo Burke, together with Lt. Jarvis Hope, foils the efforts by agents of the Japanese and Russian governments to steal plans for a new submarine that can remain underwater indefinitely by means of an apparatus that operates like the gills of a fish and thereby establish military superiority.


A poster for The Yellow Menace.

According to The Motion Picture World, The Yellow Menace was a costly and elaborate production, with scenes “ranging from China to New York, employing thousands of people.” No more timely subject could be imagined, the trade journal concluded, since The Yellow Menace deals with the “helplessness of America under present circumstances to combat the Oriental foe . . . and brings home in striking fashion the weak nature of the US defenses and her inability to defend herself against an invader from across the Atlantic.” The serial incorporated numerous sensational devices, among them hypnotism, a killer tarantula, a magic crystal, an explosive formula, and a blinding ray.

Today, apart from its overt racism, the serial is most remembered as the chapter-play debut of Frank Lackteen, a Lebanese-born actor who would go on to portray villainous ethnics, from “Orientals” and Arabs to Native Americans and “half-breeds” in hundreds of serial episodes and action melodramas until his retirement in 1965.


The anti-Asian prejudice would continue to be fanned and exploited in films over the next two decades, especially with the Fu Manchu pictures; and the racial stereotypes would persist and be resurrected in numerous later films.




Survival Status: Presumed lost.

Director: Aubrey M. Kennedy (according to Progressive Silent Movie List)—although Lahue, in Continued New Week, lists William Steiner as director.

Release Date: September 4, 1916

Release Company: Serial Film Company, Inc., likely distributed, on a State Right basis, by Unity Sales Corporation

Cast: Edwin Stevens (Ali Singh), Florence Malone (Princess Nadice), Marguerite Gale (Margaret Brown), Armand Cortes (“Hong Kong” Harry), David Wall (J.D. Bronson), Tina Marshall (Mary Manning), Eric Mayne (Errol Manning), J. Albert Hall (Captain Kent), William McKey (Porcupine Patterson), Roy Gahris (Foo Jong), Mary T. Rose (Miss Mirell), Frank Lackteen (Chinese Heavy), Marie Treador, Emile La Croix, Gerald Griffin.

Episodes: (two reels each) 1. Hidden Power. 2. The Mutilated Hand. 3. The Poisonous Tarantula. 4. Plot of a Demon. 5. The Haunted House. 6. The Torture Chamber. 7. Drops of Blood. 8. The Time-Clock Bomb. 9. The Crystal Globe. 10. A Message from the Sky. 11. The Half-Breed’s Hatred. 12. Aeroplane Accident. 13. The Spy and the Submarine. 14. Interrupted Nuptials. 15. The Pay of Death. 16. The Final Strand.