Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Chandu the Magician [dirs. William Menzies - Marcel Varnel]

As fans of vintage radio would very well know, Chandu the Magician (CtM) originated as a radio drama series in 1931. In reference to the show's popularity - apparently at one point almost 60% of households in America tuned in - Walter Winchell cheekily revealed that 'chandu' is Indian slang for opium. Chandu was almost certainly the inspiration for Lee Falk's Mandrake the Magician. The film of Chandu was an attempt by 20th Century Fox to cash in on the show's popularity and compete with Universal's lucrative horror/adventure properties. I have not heard the 30's radio program but thanks to Archive.org I did some time ago enjoy a late 40's radio revival of the character with Tom Collins as Frank Chandler aka Chandu and Luis Van Rooten as his nemesis Roxor.

In the film Chandler / Chandu, who has just completed his training in the various arts of magic with the yogis in India, is given the mission of fighting evil on earth. The fight begins at home with the disappearance of his scientist brother-in-law Robert Regent, captured by the megalomaniac Roxor to commission a death ray machine. Chandler must use his powers to engage with Roxor and protect his loved ones including sister Dorothy Regent and her wide-eyed kids Bob and Betty, and his lady love the Egyptian princess Nadji. Much hocus-pocus and hokum ensue.

CtM was co-directed by William Cameron Menzies and Marcel Varnel. Menzies' contribution is far more notable here. He was a highly respected art director (most famous for his work on Gone with the Wind, he also directed the film of HG Wells' Things to Come) and he does a smashing job of bringing alive the world of the story. Wonderfully detailed miniature work, optical FX and what-have-you help to depict the Indian temple setting where Chandu completes his training, a fabulous (if also rather impractical so far as entrances go) lair for evil Roxor, the sandstorm-hit residence of the Regents, the visualization of Roxor's dream of world domination by the use of the death ray etc Chandu's powers are also well-served by the tricks of the camera, including his ability to astrally project himself and have a doppelganger (or conjure a mini-me for his orderly to chastise his alcoholic tendencies). The camera is helmed by James Wong Howe (Seconds, Sweet Smell of Success), and in combination with the production design serves up several audacious shots that sell the illusion of the setting.

Bela Lugosi as Roxor is a thing to behold. The film calls for no-holds-barred stylized acting and Bela, fresh from his Dracula turn, plays to the gallery with aplomb (IMO Rooten's portrayal of the character in the revived radio series owes a debt to Lugosi), giving his all to a performance that pretty much washes out everybody else in the film. Which brings us to the film's single biggest disappointment - Edmund Lowe as Chandu the Magician. Lowe may be a character actor (he does a fairly decent job with the different disguises that Chandu dons), but he has all the charisma of over-boiled mutton. The battle between Roxor and Chandu should be one of fiercely matched equals, but against Lugosi's striking visage and commanding delivery, Lowe just does not measure up. Even the romance between Chandu and Nadji is cloyingly prim and bland. Little wonder then that the film did not do well enough to inspire any 'real' sequels (there was a serial called The Return of Chandu which interestingly enough, had Bela Lugosi as Chandu).

Kino Lorber's presentation of the on their film is adequate though not stellar. There is a fair deal of damage and contrast can vary sometimes. But for a film of this vintage, which is unlikely to have a big audience, I suppose it would be impractical to expect more. Extras include a 15-min featurette on the legacy of CtM, with famous horror/fantasy historians talking about the radio series and the films, and a nice commentary track by Bela Lugosi biographer Gregory Mank. There are also trailers for other Lugosi films.

If they had only used a more charismatic actor than Lowe in the title role, this could have been an excellent film and the start of a good series, but CtM is still worth a watch for its striking visual qualities and for the magnificent Lugosi performance.

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