While I’m still trying to decide what I will watch for New Year’s Eve, I spent about an hour and a half having lots of fun with Chandu the Magician, a 1932 film directed by William Cameron Menzies and Marcel Varnel.
Maybe not exactly a Christmas movie, but quite a treat1.
Based on a popular radio adventure series, the movies introduces us to Frank Chandler (Edmund Lowe), a British (?) army officer that has acquired uncanny mentalist powers thanks to three years of yogi training.
Now calling himself Chandu, Chandler is soon saddled with the task of going to Egypt and stop Roxor (Bela Lugosi), an evil mastermind that plans on destroying human civilization with a death ray in order to reign as the only modern man over the savage survivors.
Throw in Chandler’s family (the death ray was designed by his brother in law, and the rest of the family is at hand to be kidnapped and menaced), a love interest (Princess Nadji is an old flame of the hero), a comedy relief character tormented by a miniature double of himself, assorted henchmen and animated Egyptian statues, the hero being chained and locked in a sarcophagus and dumped in a lake, and you get 74 minutes of action-packed adventure and romance.
Yes, 74 minutes – they had no time to waste in 1932.
Now, there are two giants casting their shadow over Chandu the Magician.
One is Bela Lugosi, in top form and clearly having a lot of fun in the role of the evil mastermind hell-bent on destroying the world. He had been Dracula just one year before, and his performance in Chandu is refreshingly different, classy and extremely powerful. Roxor is a first-class pulp villain (hey, he’s got a death ray, right?) and Lugosi is just perfect in his portrayal.
The other giant is William Cameron Menzies, that makes what was basically a low-cost production look like a million dollars. The opening scenes in the yogi temple, the shots in the subterranean temple/bad guy lair are breath-taking in their richness and detail, and considering this is an 80-years-old movie, the special effects are absolutely excellent, even if used sparingly.
On the down side, star Edmund Lowe is not exactly dashing in the role of Chandu – he’s slow and somewhat heavy, and clearly more at ease in the romantic scenes with striking Irene Ware.
Incidentally, the general wisdom is, W. C. Menzies directed the big set-pieces, while Marcel Varnel took care of the close-up scenes carrying the bulk of the dialog and feature most of the romantic action.
The dual-direction was part of the tricks used to keep the expenses to a minimum – the movie cost about 350.000 dollars according to IMDB.
This being a pre-Code feature, we get a little of the risqué stuff too, including a slave market scene (Roxor has a side line in white slavery) in which young June Lang (as Chandu’s niece, Betty Lou) is put up for sale in a very flimsy nightgown.
Plus, Paris and London are destroyed by a death ray – which is always a plus in a movie, even if, in this case, it’s only power-drunk Roxor’s delirium, in a great Lugosi a-solo.
The vision of the movie was complemented by a short but fun featurette about the production, with a nice line-up of critics and specialists (including Kim Newman and Ray Harryhausen) discussing the film.
Chandu the Magician was not a big hit, cashing in less than 500.000 dollars and apparently selling more tickets in small towns and rural areas than in big cities – and this sort of killed the franchise.
But in 1934 Chandu would make a comeback, as a 12-parts serial – called The Return of Chandu and with Lugosi in the titular role.
The serial can be found on the Internet Archive, and it’s pretty fun2.