by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I ran the 1932 Fox film Chandu the Magician, which I’d been curious enough about while we were watching the 1934 serial The Return of Chandu to order from amazon.com along with the rest of the films released in the two Fox Horror Classics boxed sets. The film is billed as being based on the radio serial by Harry A. Earnshaw, Vera M. Oldham and Raymond R. Morgan — though the movie was actually released on or about September 30, 1932, 10 days before the radio show started broadcasting locally on Los Angeles radio station KHJ (it spread nationwide on the Mutual network in the mid-1930’s). Like The Return of Chandu, Chandu the Magician centers around not only Chandu himself — his true name is Frank Chandler and he’s a nice white boy who in the opening sequence is being initiated into a cult of white magicians from India by a leader called “The Yogi” in a scene one could easily imagine Dan Brown writing today — but his immediate family as well.
Chandu is played by Edmund Lowe, who’d co-starred as Victor McLaglen’s sidekick in the 1926 blockbuster hit What Price Glory? (which had spun off an entire series, one of which, Women of All Nations, co-starred the young Humphrey Bogart) and had managed to build a career on his own even though he was at best a mediocre actor, good-looking and personable but not especially charismatic. As William K. Everson noted about Lowe in The Detective in Film, aside from his star-making role in What Price Glory? “Lowe never seemed to attempt an in-depth characterization. Whether he was playing Chandu the Magician or Philo Vance, he was always exactly the same: the veneer was polished but there was no subtlety or differentiation between roles beneath it.” It’s ironic that in a competition between another actor and Bela Lugosi in the same role, Lugosi would come off as the subtler and more multidimensional performer, but there it is: as both the mystic Chandu and the romantic desperately fighting to protect his love interest, Egyptian Princess Nadji, Lugosi’s acting is rich and powerful while Lowe’s is empty, superficially “right” for the part but emotionally disconnected from it.
The ironies multiply with the supporting cast members and the overall plotting: whereas The Return of Chandu was a serial that was plotted like a feature — relying less on baroque action scenes for its thrills and more on suspense and (relatively) careful plot construction — Chandu the Magician was a feature that was plotted like a serial. Five people worked on the Chandu the Magician screenplay — Barry Conners and Philip Klein, credited; and Guy Bolton, Harry Segall and Bradley King, uncredited — and that’s usually a bad sign: the final script offers little or no character development and is just a mechanical device to set up thrilling action scenes. Upon his initiation, Chandu is told by “the Yogi” that his first assignment is going to be to defeat the evil Roxor (Bela Lugosi), who has stolen a death ray invented by Chandu’s presumably sympathetic brother-in-law Robert Regent (Henry B. Walthall) and intends to use it to conquer the world. (As I’ve pointed out in these pages several times before, in 1932 Mussolini and Stalin were both in full power and Hitler was about to take over Germany, so the idea of maniacal dictators seeking to conquer the world was a real danger and not just the stuff of pulp fiction.) Roxor is based in Egypt, where the Regents — Robert, his wife (Chandu’s sister) Dorothy (Virginia Hammond) and their children, son Bobby (Nestor Aber) and daughter Betty Lou (June Vlasek) — the American Film Institute Catalog synopsis is clearer than the movie itself that Bobby and Betty Lou are brother and sister and not boyfriend and girlfriend, as I’d thought the characters were in The Return of Chandu — had been living.
That’s about all the plot there is to it: most of the film is action sequences and hair’s-breadth escapes — notably one in which Roxor locks Chandu into a sarcophagus and dumps him down a long shaft into the sea, as well as a finale in which Roxor, having finally tortured Robert Regent enough to get him to reveal the secret of how to work the death ray, imagines using it to blow up Paris, London and other major metropolises — as well as Chandu falling for Nadji and saving her from Abdullah (Weldon Heyburn), a member of Roxor’s entourage with the hots for her. There’s also a bizarre comic-relief character, Albert Miggles (Herbert Mundin), who eats up all too much screen time having odd conversations with his conscience (represented by a half-size image of Mundin talking to the real one in a way that had already been used by Lawrence Tibbett in Cuban Love Song and would become one of moviedom’s more annoying clichés) and doing the usual unfunny schtick associated with “comic relief” actors in these productions.
Where Chandu the Magician scores is in the astonishing physical look of the film: William Cameron Menzies is credited as co-director (with Marcel Varnel), and though Max Parker is the art director of record the Menzies “look” is readily apparent in those cavernous sets and effects like the utterly convincing grotto into which Roxor keeps threatening to drop the various other characters. But the plot is little more than a pretext for action-porn and the cast (aside from Lugosi, and even he has little to do but overact relentlessly and snarl at the camera in a part that, unlike Dracula, Murder Legendre in White Zombie or Dr. Mirakle in Murders in the Rue Morgue, isn’t even a particularly interesting or complicated villain) is surprisingly weak: every member of the Regent family is cast with a less competent actor than the ones who played them in the Principal serial, and Irene Ware as Nadji utterly misses the haunting quality Maria Alba brought to the same part in The Return of Chandu.
Through much of Chandu the Magician I couldn’t help but wish that Lugosi had been hired to play both Chandu and Roxor — the dual casting wouldn’t have been that difficult to set up since the two characters meet only in the final scene (and even then they have very little screen time together, and in most of what they do have together only one is facing the camera — which would have made it relatively easy to double them), and with Lugosi in both parts we would have had the best of both worlds: his utterly convincing portrayal of the romantic mystic (even his love scenes with Maria Alba in The Return of Chandu are far more convincing than those between Edmund Lowe and Irene Ware here!) and his over-the-top ravings as the villain. As it stands, though, a lot of Lugosi’s parts are surprisingly short — probably because he only learned the simplest, lowest-level English and had to learn his lines phonetically, and it’s likely his producers didn’t want to wait for the sheer length of time it would have taken him to learn a lot of lines that way — and Chandu the Magician is one of those movies in which he has very little screen time, though he dominates every scene he’s in. Chandu the Magician is the sort of movie that’s fun the way it stands but could have been a lot better if the quality of the acting and writing had matched the stunning visuals of the direction and James Wong Howe’s cinematography — who, here as in so many of his other credits in the early 1930’s, was shooting noir before noir was cool.