Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Chandu the Magician

Watching “Chandu the Magician” (1932) is like watching a 1930s pulp story come to life.

Almost every scene boasts an outstanding piece of production design or a visually arresting directorial choice. Fast paced and filled with exotic locales and serial-like thrills, this is a prime addition to 1930s fantastic cinema. Mega kudos to Fox Home Video for beautifully restoring this rare title. This one is going to enjoy lots of repeat viewings.

OK, technically Chandu was not born of the pulps but from the radio. “Chandu the Magician” was a very popular children’s radio show that answered the Fox Film Studio’s need to enter the burgeoning fantasy film sweepstakes. Universal had struck box office gold with “Dracula” (1930) and “Frankenstein” (1931), and Paramount had “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1931) and Fredric March’s Oscar-winning portrayal.

What could Fox do? They weren’t comfortable with out and out supernatural horror, but a fantastic adventure with a hint of the supernatural would fit the bill just fine.

Add Bela Lugosi, one of the horror genre’s leading lights to the mix, and you have a film that should have been a box office bonanza. It wasn’t, which is too bad. I always felt that 1930s audiences were pretty savvy about what worked and what didn’t. I’m not sure if any decade had a more receptive audience than 1930s moviegoers, and what was popular then remains highly watchable today. But there are exceptions, and I think 1932 audiences missed the boat with Chandu.

Chandu (Edmund Lowe) is a master yogi and hypnotist who, thanks to his powers of suggestion, can make people see things that aren’t there, or make then do things they normally wouldn’t do.

There’s a death ray machine capable of destroying vast cities around the world. Who wants control of said machine? Roxor, played by Bela Lugosi at his most gloriously unhinged (pictured). The death ray is found in a mountain headquarters carved out of an ancient Egyptian tomb. We get an awesome tracking shot of the camera jutting in and out of the tomb’s various byways. It looks like it was done in miniatures, but it’s enormously effective.

“Chandu the Magician” was co-directed by Marcel Varnel and William Cameron Menzies, but all the fantastic imagery in the film is likely the work of Menzies.

Menzies is probably best known as arguably the most influential production designer in Hollywood, giving films such as “Gone with the Wind” (1939) and “King’s Row” (1941) their distinctive look. If you want the look of a town, or a house, to become a character in the film, you hire Menzies. But he also directed some very interesting films that look like no others, such as “Things to Come” (1936) and “Invaders from Mars” (1953).

The year before “Chandu”, Menzies directed for Fox a very interesting thriller called “The Spider” about a magician (Lowe again) who uses his powers of magic to solve a murder. It’s likely Fox noted the similarities between the two films and cast Lowe as Chandu based on his role in “The Spider.” As others have pointed out, he’s not the best choice for the role, but he doesn’t bring the film down. When a film has this much to offer visually, Fox could have cast Billy Barty as Chandu and it wouldn’t have made a difference.

Chandu’s brother-in-law Robert (Henry B.Walthall) is the inventor of said death ray machine, and Roxor kidnaps him and his family in an attempt to show Roxor how to operate the machine. We get a great scene of Roxor imaging the death ray destroying London and Paris and Roxor cackling gleefully about the thousands of deaths he will cause and how all of mankind will grovel before him. It’s nothing less than pure bliss.

Chandu uses his powers of hypnotism to cause all kinds of fantastic illusions to save his family and stop Roxor from using the death ray.

The family members are a pretty dull bunch, save for his niece Betty Lou, played by June Vlasek (later June Lang, from “Bonnie Scotland” (1935) and Howard Hawks’ “The Road to Glory” (1936). She’s a real honey, as her picture shows, and there’s a good scene where Chandu uses his powers of hypnotism to save her from being sold into white slavery. I get a kick out of her character’s name, Betty Lou, which is far too wholesome a name for such an exotic adventure. Betty Lou doesn’t fit into a film filled with a Chandu and a Roxor.

Ah, but we do get Chandu’s love interest, the Princess Nadja (Irene Ware), who helps Chandu track down Roxor. Ware also starred in “The Raven” (1935), which features the other great unhinged Lugosi performance.

While Chandu’s tricks are shown to be pure hypnotism, there are some incidents in the movie that smack of the supernatural. Roxor’s tomb headquarters are guarded by statutes which seem to come to life. At one point Chandu is captured, thrown into a coffin wrapped in chains, and deposited at the bottom of a lake. Chandu escapes with little difficulty, leaving me to suspect Chandu’s powers are more than simple hypnotism.

Unless I missed something. Oh well, I may have to watch it again, an idea that fills me with great pleasure and anticipation.

Rating for “Chandu the Magician”: Three stars.

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