Thursday, 16 June 2011

Chandu the Magician (1932)

The Chandu the Magician radio serial had been a massive success in 1932 and it was inevitable that a movie version would follow. In fact Fox had the Chandu the Magician movie in theatres before the end of that year.

Chandu (Edmund Lowe) is in fact Frank Chandler, an American who has been training as a yogi in the Mysterious East. Having completed his studies and become a master of the mystic arts he has taken the name of Chandu. Chandu will soon need all of his magical powers as he battles an evil conspiracy by the villainous Roxor (Bela Lugosi).

Roxor has kidnapped Chandu’s old friend Robert Regent. Regent is a scientist and inventor of genius, a kindly family man who seeks only to further the cause of human happiness who has devoted his life to building a death ray of awesome destructive capabilities. Why this paragon of virtue thinks that the best way to serve humanity is by constructing a death ray is never explained!

Roxor of course is determined to get his hands on the death ray. When he cannot persuade Regent to give him the secret he kidnaps his family. He believes he has a sure method of persuading the reluctant scientist - when Regent sees his beautiful teenage daughter Betty Lou (played by the 15-year-old June Lang) being auctioned off as a sex slave he will surely agree to cooperate. But the scientist would prefer to see his daughter shipped off to a life in a harem than betray the human race by revealing the secret of the death ray. Fortunately for Betty Lou’s virtue Chandu is at hand to effect a daring rescue.

Also drawn into the battle against Roxor is the Egyptian Princess Nadji, who happens to be Chandu’s girlfriend. Nadji is both beautiful and a useful ally.

The plot progresses from one cliffhanger to another and packs a tremendous amount of excitement into its brief 71-minute running time.

Edmund Lowe plays Chandu as pure-hearted noble hero but he’s just a little dull. Curiously enough when Chandu returned to the screen in the 1934 serial The Return of Chandu Lugosi played Chandu rather than the villain. It was a rare opportunity for him to play a hero. While Edmund Lowe is quite OK there’s no question that Lugosi was a far batter Chandu.

On the other hand Lugosi as Roxor made a splendid villain. Lugosi always tried his best even when given relatively poor roles in lacklustre movies. Given a great role like this one in an excellent movie he really pulls out all the stops.

Irene Ware as Princess Nadji is pretty good, and June Lang provides some glamour as the good scientist’s blonde bombshell daughter. The only fly in the ointment is the comic relief, in this case provided by English comic Herbert Mundin as Chandu’s servant Miggles.

The big pluses this movie has going for it are ace cinematographer James Wong Howe and director William Cameron Menzies. Howe was one of the greats and does a great job, as always. Menzies was a prioduction designer of genus as well as being a fine director and designed many of the miniatures used in the film. Between them Howe and Menzies make this movie look absolutely superb.

The obvious movie with which to compare Chandu the Magician is MGM’s The Mask of Fu Manchu which appeared in the same year. Both are immensely entertaining and joyously camp entertainments although Chandu was aimed more at what today would be called a family audience (although it certainly had its moments of pre-code lasciviousness such as the slave auction mentioned earlier). The Mask of Fu Manchu was much kinkier, with Myrna Loy’s character being described (very accurately) by one contemporary reviewer as a sadistic sex fiend. The Mask of Fu Manchu is the better movie but Chandu the Magician is enormous fun as well.

Fox’s DVD release (in their Horror Classics volume 2 boxed set) is superb and includes some nice extras. Given that the other two movies in the set (Dr Renault's Secret and Dragonwyck) are also terrific this must rank as one of the best cult movie boxed sets ever.

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