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Now that Hollywood has settled into a regular routine of converting comic books and graphic novels into big screen blockbusters, it seems the time is right to revisit some of the earlier superheroes of American pop culture. Take, for example, Chandu the Magician. Based on the popular radio serial by Harry A. Earnshaw and Raymond R. Morgan and broadcast in fifteen minute episodes, the program ran from 1932 to 1936 and then was revived with new talent in 1948 and broadcast until 1950. What makes Chandu unique is the protagonist. Once known as Frank Chandler, he has spent three years among the yogis as a disciple, mastering the art of hypnosis and the occult arts, before being sent out into the world by his mentor to battle the forces of evil under his new identity, Chandu. His nemesis is Roxor, an evil madman intent on dominating the world after hijacking a death ray weapon created by Chandu's brother-in-law Robert Regent, who is imprisoned by Roxor. When Regent refuses to divulge the secret of activating the death ray, his wife, daughter and son are also captured and threatened with death. Chandu is the only one who can save them.
The 1932 film version of Chandu the Magician establishes Chandu's fantastic powers in the opening sequence where he telepathically levitates a rope into the air that a fellow swami climbs before vanishing at the top. Chandu then astral projects himself out of his own body and walks across burning coals without harm. But the real adventure begins after he gazes into a crystal ball and sees the kidnapping of his brother-in-law and Regent's invention by Roxor's minions. Unfolding in episodic segments like the radio serial, Chandu the Magician has a Perils of Pauline structure with a new danger and rescue occurring at regular intervals throughout its 71 minute running time.
If the storyline has a predictable familiarity, it is only because it follows the template of so many other action serials of its day such as Tarzan and The Shadow. What distinguishes Chandu the Magician from other genre efforts of the early thirties is the movie's stunning art direction, atmospheric set designs and impressive special effects.
Although co-directed by Marcel Varnel and William C. Menzies, the overall look of Chandu the Magician suggests that Menzies was the one responsible for shaping the movie's fantastical visual aesthetic. Menzies was, after all, the Oscar®-winning production designer of Gone with the Wind (1939) as well as The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and Kings Row (1942). In addition, his own films as a director demonstrate his talent for creating surreal, otherworldly environments such as Things to Come (1936), Invaders from Mars (1953) and The Maze (1953), which was originally shot and distributed in 3-D. Marcel Varnel, on the other hand, is better known for a string of popular British comedies from the late thirties and early forties for Gainsborough Pictures, particularly Oh, Mr. Porter! (1937), The Frozen Limits (1939) and To Hell with Hitler (1940). Varnel's main contribution to Chandu the Magician is most likely the comic relief which is interjected at regular intervals via the presence of Herbert Mundin as Albert Miggles, Chandu's alcoholic assistant whose drinking results in some very funny hallucinations.
In the title role of Chandu, Edmund Lowe underplays the part, projecting a Zen-like calm and steely intelligence that stands out against Bela Lugosi's more flamboyant and volatile persona as Roxor, a villain as diabolical and power hungry as Ming the Merciless (from Flash Gordon) or Fu Manchu from other popular series in the thirties. The film does traffic in negative Arab stereotypes in its depiction of Roxor and his cohort Abdulah (Weldon Heyburn) and their terrorist tactics. And the dialogue is as absurd and as cartoonish as the farfetched proceedings with Roxor making such pronouncements as "At last I'm king of all...London, New York, Imperial Rome. I can blast them all into a heap of smoking ruins...Cities of the world shall perish...All that lives shall know me as master and tremble at my work." Yet taken on its own terms, Chandu the Magician is fast paced escapism and worth seeing for several memorable set pieces such as Chandu's underwater escape from an Egyptian sarcophagus at the bottom of the Nile or Roxor's imagined destruction of key cities in his master plan or Regent testing his death ray device in his elaborate Art Deco laboratory.
While many critics at the time dismissed Chandu the Magician as lowbrow entertainment, the movie never had any pretentions toward high art and The New York Times reviewer noted its simple appeal: "On the radio the nightly recital of Chandu's adventures contrived, in the well-remembered manner of Pauline and Elmo the Mighty, to open with an escape from an impossible dilemma and to close with a plunge into a more impossible one.Not unexpectedly, this screen version has the same clutter of climaxes from which the great Chandu emerges every five minutes with the same facility.The result is whooping entertainment for the children and a series of navely juvenile escapades for the grown-ups."
Chandu the Magician was successful enough to spawn two sequels, The Return of Chandu (1934) and Chandu on the Magic Island (1935), both of which starred Bela Lugosi as Chandu, taking over the role from Edmund Lowe. The character of Chandu may also have inspired the comic strip Mandrake the Magician, created by Lee Falk (The Phantom) in 1934; Like Chandu, Mandrake's power resided in his ability to use hypnosis as a potent hallucinatory force against his enemies. Hollywood could do worse than attempt a revival of Chandu or Mandrake with all of the attendant special effects wizardry at their fingertips today.
Director: William Cameron Menzies, Marcel Varnel
Screenplay: Barry Conners, Philip Klein (based on the radio serial by Harry A. Earnshaw, Vera M. Oldham and R.R. Morgan.
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Art Direction: Max Parker
Film Editing: Harold D. Schuster
Cast: Edmund Lowe (Chandu/Frank Chandler), Irene Ware (Princess Nadji), Bela Lugosi (Roxor), Herbert Mundin (Albert Miggles), Henry B. Walthall (Robert Regent), Weldon Heyburn (Abdulah).
by Jeff Stafford