by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I started us on the first two episodes of the 12-episode 1934 serial, The Return of Chandu. This one started out as a comic strip and radio program called Chandu the Magician — the title character’s name was actually Frank Chandler but the Easterners he visited on his world travels called him “Chandu” because that was the closest they could come to saying “Chandler.” It was filmed under the title Chandu the Magician by Fox in 1933, with Edmund Lowe as Chandler/Chandu and Bela Lugosi in a supporting role as a villain named Roxor — and then in 1934 the rights were picked up by producer Sol Lesser and his Principal Productions company, and Lesser made a serial called The Return of Chandu with Lugosi in the lead — the only time in his entire American film career Lugosi actually got to play a hero.
It’s my understanding that the original comics and radio show had disclaimed any supernatural powers for Chandler/Chandu — he was depicted as a Houdini-like stage magician showing up psychic mediums and others who did claim supernatural powers by demonstrating he could do the same things with his skills as a stage magician — but in this serial, written by Barry Barringer and directed by Ray Taylor, the first thing Lugosi does when we see him is escape a trap from two killers at the airport (he’s just flown in from his latest Oriental trip) by turning himself invisible. The next thing he does is, still unseen, knock a glass of poisoned wine out of the hand of Egyptian princess Nadji just as she’s about to drink it, following which he emerges, suddenly visible, at the high-class party his sister, Dorothy Regent (silent-screen veteran Clara Kimball Young), was throwing for Nadji — who, it turns out, is the target of an attempted kidnapping by members of the cult of Ubasti, an Egyptian god that is represented by a cat (virtually all the Egyptian gods had animal avatars) and is supposedly a link to the sunken continent of — no, not Atlantis this time, but Lemuria.
Apparently an Egyptian princess of Pharaonic royal blood must be sacrificed to bring back to life Ossana, founding high priestess of the cult of Ubasti, and when Ossana does her second coming Lemuria will rise from the sea and take its place on the surface as a legitimate continent again — and presumably all the Lemurians who were drowned when it sank will also come back to life. The gangsters, led by Vindhyan (Lucien Prival), are targeting Nadji because she’s the last Pharaonic princess of Egypt left, and therefore the only one they can bring Ossana back to life by killing. Perhaps someone could explain to me who I would have to kill to bring Barry Barringer back to life long enough to tell me why he gave all his “Egyptian” characters (East) Indian names, but aside from that — judging from its first two episodes — The Return of Chandu is a pretty good serial, lacking the intense action highlights of its brethren from Republic and Universal but quite creatively directed by Ray Taylor, who actually seems to have a clue about what to do to make a good-looking film on a limited budget.
Taylor’s work is full of moving-camera shots, heavy-duty closeups and other effects the independent studios usually skimped on because they took too long to set up, and there’s a marvelous opening in each episode in which we see a Ubasti cultist strike a large gong, and the circular shape of the gong dissolves into the first setting in each episode. I know what you’re thinking, but this serial was made at least a decade before J. Arthur Rank adopted the arm (whose owner was unseen) striking a gong as the trademark of his releasing company! — 6/7/10
I ran Charles the third and fourth episodes of the 1934 serial The Return of Chandu — which came to a surprisingly satisfying ending because producer Sol Lesser was experimenting with various formats to blur the distinction between serial and feature. In some of his movies during this period he released them as what he called “feature-serials” — a programmer-length (about 60 to 70 minutes) first episode that would give exposition needed to follow the rest of the plot and could also be shown as a stand-alone movie with a real ending instead of a cliff-hanger, followed by eight or so serial episodes. For The Return of Chandu he released the first four episodes, relatively complete, in a feature edit, then tacked on a serial-style “teaser” on the end of episode four to set up a transition in the plot whereby the central characters leave the U.S. and sail (most of the third and fourth episodes take place on ocean-going yachts) to the island of Lemuria, or what’s left of the once continental-sized piece of land of that name that sank into the ocean (or so says the legend screenwriter Barry Barringer was tapping into for his plot), where the remaining eight episodes of the serial take place — and Lesser also re-edited the final eight episodes into a second feature called Chandu on the Magic Island.
What’s most interesting about The Return of Chandu — aside from its highly unusual casting of Bela Lugosi as a good guy (at which he’s actually quite effective: producers and casting directors should have given him more roles like this!) — is that for a serial it’s surprisingly laid-back, creating its thrills more from suspense than from action. Director Ray Taylor handles it quite differently from the whip-crackers at the Republic thrill factory, aided by a script that mostly avoids fisticuffs and the sorts of elaborate, hard-to-believe cliff-hangers the Republic writers specialized in (indeed, the ending of episode two literally is a cliff-hanger — thanks, apparently, to a curse the villains put on Chandu’s car, he almost literally drives it off the side of a cliff, recovering just in time and getting into psychic contact with his mentor, “The Yogi,” who takes over and drives Chandu’s car by remote control the rest of the way).
The Return of Chandu is actually a pretty compelling movie. Taylor is much more interested in mood than most serial directors, his camera is surprisingly mobile for a serial, and he seems to have requisitioned every “exotic” piece of music in Abe Meyer’s stock library and actually uses these cheesy “Oriental” themes in a creative way that adds to the atmosphere (and Taylor, unlike a lot of other people who made serials — and program and “B” features, for that matter — in those days knows when to make the music shut up). The Return of Chandu is a pretty quirky movie that isn’t what you expect from a serial, yet it’s also quite effective in creating a quite different sort of “thrill ride” from the serial norm. — 6/9/10
For the last two nights Charles and I had screened episodes five through eight of The Return of Chandu, the quite interesting and unusual 1934 serial production by Sol Lesser’s Principal Pictures (I joked that it later merged with a company called Interest Pictures to form Principal and Interest Pictures). These episodes take place at a key juncture in the script by Barry Barringer at which the action shifts decisively from southern California (the home base of magician Frank Chandler, known in the East as “Chandu,” the heroic character played by Bela Lugosi — though contrary to the poster on imdb.com this is not the only film Lugosi made in the U.S. in which he played a heroic character; in 1935, a year after The Return of Chandu, Lugosi made Murder by Television, in which he played a detective who’s the twin brother of a murder victim; after Lugosi I is dispatched Lugosi II comes on the scene and solves the crime, though Lugosi II appeared on screen so briefly — only in the last 10 minutes — he didn't get much of a chance to be a hero) to the island of Lemuria, fragment of an otherwise lost and sunken continent whose surviving inhabitants worship the Egyptian cat-god Ubasti.
They’re seeking Chandu’s light-o’-love, Nadji (Maria Alba, who in the earlier episodes was playing a genuinely conflicted character along the lines of Zita Johann’s marvelous performance in the 1932 version of The Mummy but in the scenes on the island turns into the usual hapless damsel in distress, whose only plot function is repeatedly to get kidnapped and then rescued), the last surviving princess of the ancient Egyptian royal blood. They need an ancient Egyptian princess to use as a human sacrifice to revivify the mummy of the last high priestess of Lemuria, Ossana, which according to the Ubasti religion will cause Lemuria to rise from the sea and resume its former continental glory. The juncture in the story is significant because Sol Lesser’s release strategy for this one was to put out the first four episodes as a self-contained feature, also called The Return of Chandu, and then cut down episodes five through 12 into a second feature, Chandu on the Magic Island, released in 1935 (a year after the release of the serial and the first feature).
What makes this serial unusual is that it has virtually no action; Barringer and director Ray Taylor decided to make it more about suspense than thrills — it’s a compelling melodrama but it doesn’t have the sheer dynamism of most serials, which is a good thing in a way because this makes it a more thoughtful film in which the heroes solve their problems more with brains than brawn. There are also some hauntingly beautiful closeups of Lugosi — especially in the sequence just after he’s trapped in a small cell by a trap door — that make it surprisingly believable that he played romantic leads in Hungary and Germany before he came to the U.S. and got “typed” first as a character actor and then, after his great success in Dracula both on stage (1927) and film (1931), as a horror star. The down side of the action-free approach (so far we’re two-thirds of the way through this serial and there’s been only one big fight scene!) is that the cliffhangers have a perfunctory feel to them and most of them aren’t particularly hazardous — it seems as if Lesser, Taylor and Barringer were thinking more in feature than in serial terms and the cliffhangers they shot have a by-the-numbers quality that reflects their disinterest in the whole gimmick — but The Return of Chandu is surprisingly well produced for an independent serial (Lesser rented space on the Pathé lot, and some key sequences in the film use the great gate constructed for King Kong, filmed by RKO before they spun off the Pathé studio to save money), with elaborate sets and lots of extras — though it’s disappointing that the script tells us that Lugosi’s yacht sinks at the end of episode six but all we get is a stationary shot of a white something-or-other floating in the ocean; there was no attempt, even with models, to stage the actual sinking.
Also, it helps that the overall restraint of the serial gets carried over into the acting: Chandu is one of Lugosi’s most underacted performances — unlike a lot of other actors who tried to cross over from villains to heroes, he realized that he couldn’t snarl and chew the scenery when he was playing a character the audience was actually supposed to like — and the other actors (including silent-screen veteran Clara Kimball Young as Chandler’s sister and the surprisingly hot-looking Deane Benton as her son) also play in a relatively calm, unmelodramatic fashion. One of the few down sides to these episodes was their reliance on some pretty cornball music cues — early on in the serial director Taylor deployed Abe Meyer’s rent-a-score with commendable restraint but midway through he started trying to punctuate the action with some pretty cheesy “suspense” themes from Meyer’s library. But overall The Return of Chandu is an engaging serial with a refreshing performance from Lugosi that indicates he should have played fewer villains and more good guys — just as, on the basis of his marvelous psycho role in The Invisible Man’s Revenge, Jon Hall should have played fewer heroes and more villains! — 6/16/10
I showed the last four episodes of The Return of Chandu, the very interesting 1934 “feature-serial” produced by Sol Lesser for his Principal Productions company and released both as a 12-episode serial (the form in which we watched it) and two feature films, one consisting of the first four chapters and also called The Return of Chandu, while the second feature version was edited down from the remaining eight chapters and called Chandu on the Magic Island. Interestingly, after the first eight episodes had avoided most of the tricks of the serial trade — the cliffhangers were pretty perfunctory and director Ray Taylor and screenwriter Barry Barringer were more interested in creating thrills via suspense than action — the last four were much more “serial-like,” starting with the lulu of a cliff-hanger Barringer supplied between episodes eight and nine: Chandu (Bela Lugosi) and his new-found friend on the island of Lemuria, white-haired “white magician” Tyba (Josef Swickard, 13 years after he had played Rudolph Valentino’s father in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse), have to swing on a chain to get themselves over a chasm; not only is the chain slowly detaching itself from the rock into which its mounting bracket has been screwed, but there’s a tiger at the bottom of the chasm, alive, well, and just waiting for one or both of the humans to fall and supply the beast that night’s dinner (and of course director Taylor doesn’t resist the obvious shots of human-looking bones around the tiger’s lair just so we get the message how the beast survives).
There’s also an engaging one between nine and 10: Chandu is worried about how he can get his girlfriend, Princess Nadji (Maria Alba), away from the sinister cultists of Ubasti who are about to sacrifice her to their cat-like god in order to revive the mummy of the long-dead priestess Ossana (who’s depicted on screen, even though she never does get revived, and whom I suspect was also played by Alba, with a special effect used to make it look like they’re laying next to each other on the sacrificial table; they look almost identical), when the cultists vastly outnumber him. Chandu gets a message from “The Yogi,” the unseen guru who provides him with aid at critical moments, that he can do it by using the “High Incantations,” but these are booby-trapped: if they’re used for a selfish purpose they mean instant death to the magician or sorcerer who tries to use them. “There is another way,” Tyba informs him, mentioning that he has a spell that will make Chandu invisible — but only for a limited period of time, until the sands in Tyba’s hourglass run out (had Barry Barringer seen the 1924 film Waxworks, which as far as I know is the first movie to use this gimmick far more famous today from The Wizard of Oz?) — which Chandu uses in a series of surprisingly slapstick scenes that essentially turns the Ubasti congregants, especially their security people, into the Keystone Kult.
He also, not surprisingly, wastes a good deal of his invisibility time that way and reappears inopportunely right in the middle of Ubasti Central — and Nadji agrees with the cultists to renounce Chandu’s love and accept being sacrificed if the cultists will send Chandu and his sister (Clara Kimball Young), nephew (Deane Benton) and niece-in-law (Phyllis Ludwig) away unharmed. Of course the cultists double-cross them, and in the climactic sequence just as the Ubastians are about to sacrifice Nadji, Chandu renounces her love and uses the High Incantations to blow the cultists away (when the cat statue that has dominated their altar falls into the fire pit through which the Ubastians showed Chandu — and us — a recap of some of the previous episodes in episode 10, something like the water-fountain TV with which Boris Karloff showed Zita Johann the images of their past life together in the 1932 The Mummy — Charles joked, “They’re burning the giant Garfield!”), and then in a final tag scene back in L.A. (home base of Chandu the Magician in his previous incarnations as a comic strip and radio show) Chandu and Nadji are happily canoodling on a love seat in the garden of their home and they both make themselves invisible to foil the paparazzi that have crashed the grounds to take their pictures.
Just how they were able to renounce their previous renunciations of love for each other (a gimmick I suspect Barringer borrowed from Wagner’s Ring) remains a mystery locked in Barry Barringer’s spirit (I’d probably have to sacrifice a modern-day screenwriter to revive him so I could ask him to explain that, as well as the plot hole in episode 9 — where Chandu is shown needing Tyba’s help becoming invisible, a feat he managed all by himself in episode 1 and does again in episode 12 — and the oddity I pointed out when we started watching the serial, which is why the members of a cult that supposedly originated in Pharaonic Egypt all have names like “Nadji,” “Vindhyan” and “Vitras” that make them sound like people from India), but it’s really refreshing for us (and no doubt it was for Bela Lugosi as well) to see him in a movie in which he not only played the hero but even got the girl at the end! — 6/21/10