Chandu the Magician (1932) dir. William Cameron Menzies, Marcel Varnel
Starring: Edmund Lowe, Irene Ware, Bela Lugosi
“Chandu the Magician” is a rare and underappreciated adventure film from the great period of early horror/adventure classics. The 30s was the era of "King Kong", "Dracula", "Frankenstein", "The Mummy", and more. “Chandu the Magician” stands up well against all of these films for its production value, cinematic energy and exuberance and innovations in cinema that inspired the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.
Edward Lowe plays Frank Chandler a British secret agent trained in the eastern mystics of “Yogi”, which has given him powers of hypnosis and mind control. After completing his training he’s told to “go forth with his youth and strength to conquer the evil that threatens mankind.” He's assigned to combat the nefarious Egyptian megalomaniac Ruxor (Bela Lugosi) from seeking world domination. Ruxor has kidnapped Chandler’s brother-in-law and scientist Robert Regent who has developed a dangerous death ray with the ability to kill lots of people half way around the world. Chandu encounters a series of spine-tingling adventures and daring escapes in order to save the world from destruction.
Chandu appears to be one of the main influences on Stephen Somers to make his version of "The Mummy". In fact, I'd argue "Chandu" was more influential than even the original 1932 "The Mummy". The film's three main protags, Chandler, his sister and the drunken comic relief Biggles form the same bumbling trio played by Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz and John Hannah.
Chandu is credited with two directors, Marcel Varnel, a stage director who directed the actors and William Cameron Menzies who was in charge of the technical design of the picture. Varnel must have phoned this one in because the acting is simply atrocious. But with today’s eyes, Edmond Lowe’s mixture of British superiority and uber-seriousness is just too silly to criticize. It’s so much fun.
Menzies is the real star of the show and one of cinema’s most ambitious filmmakers. He was a director or co-director in the 1930’s on pulpy films such as “Chandu”. Perhaps his crowning achievement is the British science-fiction masterpiece “Things to Come” – a cautionary tale of war which spans 2000 years of history. In “Chandu” he sets to the tone of adventure, mysticism and intrigue with a number of inspired sequences, which, unlike the acting, stands up against any of the films of it’s era, including “King Kong”. You just need to watch the opening sequence for evidence - a wonderful shot which introduces us to to Chandler’s Yogi training fortress. The shot starts with a miniature of the Yogi castle high atop a mountain (dramatically lit with noir-like texture by the great James Wong Howe), then seamlessly transitions to a tracking shot through the hallways of the lair. The sequence is capped with a wonderful showcase of Menzies’ fine superimposition photography demonstrating Chandler’s new mystical powers.
“Chandu the Magician” is a pulp classic, and wonderful time capsule of the ambitiousness of early Hollywood to entertain it’s audiences and amaze them with new worlds, mad scientists, death rays, charming heroes and exotic villains. Enjoy.
“Chandu the Magician” is available a new “Horror Classic” box set from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Other relevent postings:
THE MUMMY (1932)
THINGS TO COME