Chandu the Magician (1932)

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Our next classic film on the agenda is 1932’s Chandu the Magician (sometimes called simply Chandu). It is an early entry in what has become a love affair between cinema and the world of science fiction and adventure. Although predating them by 30 or so years, this is only a step removed from the fabled James Bond series of films and the following Indiana Jones series. Actually perhaps it is best described as a blending of both, of course half a century too early.

We have Chandu, a Westerner who has learned the secrets of the East. In this case this means that he can hypnotize almost anyone, which is a pretty nifty feat. In the course of the film he makes others imagine their guns turn to snakes and also see multiple images of Chandu. Neatly done.

He’s tasked to save his family, who have been absconded with by the evil Roxor and hidden away in Roxor’s secret underground lair. Oh, for giggles Roxor also has a really nifty death ray with which to take over the world. Edmund Lowe comes to us as Chandu and Bela Lugosi takes on Roxor.

Chandu, as you can imagine is a bit of a cross between James Bond and Indiana Jones which actually works insanely well. This is a really tautly put together short film, running a mere 71 minutes. Between the ribald amounts of action – almost constant- and the comic relief provided by Herbert Mundin, there really is quite little time for any characterization. This one starts at a hectic pace and never ends.

Also, as mentioned above joining for comic relief is character actor Herbert Mundin as Albert Miggles, a drunk. Chandu has put a spell on him whereby as a deterrent to drinking, Miggles sees a small hallucinatory version of himself each time he takes a drink. We see both sizes of Miggles quite a bit during the film at spaced moments. Herbert Mundin is best known, at least by me, as Much the Miller’s son in 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. Sadly, Mundin’s career came to a close with his death in 1939 following a tragic car accident in California.  While some would say the repeated appearances of Miggles are mindless, I would say, so what?  They add to the film in my opinion.

Edmund Lowe is average and middling here, being easily overshadowed by the completely over the top performance given by Bela Lugosi. Bela Lugosi is campy and outspoken in the way of all classic villains. And yes, it is too much, but it is completely enjoyable. Irene Ware, a literal beauty queen, joins as the romantic lead and actually doing quite a nice job. Mundin as well outperforms Lowe, at least in my opinion.

Bela Lugosi does such a good job that, not to give anything away, but he takes over the role of Chandu himself for the resulting sequel.

Directorially, we have a tag team of William Cameron Menzies and Marcel Varnel. Who did what is up for debate but you’d imagine that Menzies touch is shown perhaps more in the special effects and more atmospheric aspects of the picture.

For the most part, the special effects are outstanding, and even not overly bad with today’s standards. There are a few slips which are really fairly awful. There is an underwater scene which is alternatively painful and hysterical to watch. There is also quite a bit of awkward rear projection which perhaps could be done better. That’s just me being too critical again.

Lowe’s career spanned five decades but he never really gained the level of fame such a career would suggest. Irene Ware made thirty or so films in a fairly short career, her last film being 1940’s Outside the Three Mile Limit. And Bela Lugosi? William Cameron Menzies? Both vanished and were not heard from again professionally.

Or perhaps they had illustrious careers. I could be wrong.

Chandu the Magician isn’t high art, but it is a pretty enjoyable fun film. It’s action packed with some fairly decent special effects (great for the day). Often labeled a horror film, Chandu is probably more effectively labeled as a fantasy or science fiction film.

It is definitely not horror though Fox has released it as part of a horror DVD series. The print looks pretty good, much better than other films of this vintage. It also has a pretty decent variety of supplementary materials included as well. Also in the set are Dr. Renault’s Secret and Dragonwyck, which we just discussed as well.

No review copy provided.

One thought on “Chandu the Magician (1932)

  1. Just watched this nifty little thriller and I agree with everything you say. The most surprising thing for me was that the film is almost continuously under-scored (and rather well too) which gives the lie to the oft repeated view that music in films was non-existent until Max Steiner’s KING KONG a year later.

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