(6/10) This 1932 sci-fi/adventure film has been called the first superhero movie. Bela Lugosi shines as the villain, William Cameron Menzies directs with style and the sets and special effects are very impressive. The inane plot is secondary in the breezy, fun juvenile adventure set in Egypt.
Chandu the Magician. 1931, USA. Directed by William Cameron Menzies & Marcel Varnel. Written by Barry Conners & Philip Klein. Based on radio play by Vera Oldham. Starring: Edmund Lowe, Irene Ware, Bela Lugosi, Herbert Mundin. IMDb score: 6.3. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A.
The 1932 film Chandu the Magician is a prime example of the MacGuffin science fiction subgenre that would become increasingly popular in the forties, and which had permeated the Hollywood film and radio serials since the ‘teens. More than at straight-out SF movie, it is a sort of smörgåsbord of several trends that were popular in the early thirties: mad scientist SF, villainous would-be-dictators of international spy yarns, supernatural horror, “mystical” orientalism, African adventures, British colonialism, damsel-in-distress cliffhangers, serial-inspired action, slapstick humour, historical epics with lavish, exotic designs, visual effects and Bela Lugosi. All neatly bundled up in a single film.
The film follows the former British army officer Frank Chandler (Edmund Lowe) who’s been spending his last years studying with the mystics of the East in order to learn the tricks of the trade, such as hypnotism, astral projection, far-sight and the creation of illusions. Just as he finishes his training and becomes a certified “yogi”, his master sends him on a task to bring down the evil madman Roxor (Bela Lugosi), who has kidnapped scientist Robert Regent (Henry B. Walthall), the creator of a death ray capable of levelling who cities with the ground. It just so happens that Robert is also the brother-in-law of Frank, who has moved with his family to Cairo, so that “he can be close to his friend Roxor”. Now, his master tells Frank, Roxor will use his sister Dorothy (Virginia Hammond) and her children Betty Lou (June Lang) and Bobby (Michael Stuart) to get Herbert to reveal the secret of the death ray, in his bid to become the master of zee vorld. Frank receives his new name — Chandu — and sets forth to protect his family and rescue Robert. On his quest in Egypt he also hooks up with his former flame, Princess Nadji (Irene Ware) and his army batman, drunken comic relief character Miggles (Herbert Mundin).
The story that follows is of relatively little importance. Our little team of heroes sally forth through Egypt, chasing Roxor to his mountain lair, thwarted along the way by Roxor’s henchman Abdulah (Weldon Heyburn) and his swarthy minions. Damsels are distressed and Chandu uses his otherwordly powers to rescue them, all while romancing the oddly Caucasian Egyptian princess. The film goes full throttle all the way in a episodic, almost serial-like fashion, leading up to the final showdown between Roxor and Chandu in the former’s cavernous lair. Will the evil madman destroy the great cities of the West with his newly acquired death ray, or will the intrepid yogi and his hypnotic eyes prevail?
Before we go any further, I just want to put it out there that this is a splendidly entertaining film — more exotic swashbuckling adventure with comedy interludes than horror, despite the presence of Bela Lugosi and the occasional darkness of the movie. The direction is solid, the sets amazing and the visual effects frequent and marvellous for their time. It’s creaky in places and the plot makes little sense, but that’s really beside the point. The feeling you get is that this was the sort of film that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg watched as kids on Saturday TV matinées.
The episodic feel of the film comes from its origins as a radio show. In 1932 all American households had a radio, and families gathered around the box in the same way as they did around the TV 25 years later. One of the most popular shows on air in 1932 was called Chandu the Magician, which first aired in 1931. This was a time when stage magic was still incredibly popular, and was also spilling over to fiction. This was aided by a surge in the twenties in the popularity of an interest in the supernatural, such as mediumship, fortune telling and the kind of Eastern pseudo-religious mumbo-jumbo that we today call new age shit. And just like today, Hollywood celebrities were gullible to hocus pocus gurus. But at the time there was also a genuine openness toward cultures and beliefs from other parts of the world, especially Eastern philosophy and tradition, and a feeling that these had something to offer that the growing materialism of the West couldn’t offer.
Another inspiration for the radio show was the rivalling ditto, The Shadow, which started in 1926 and followed the exploits of a masked crime fighter with mystical powers of hypnotism. Plus, the early thirties also saw the continuation of a huge popularity in mystery shows. So in 1931 the Los Angeles radio producers Raymond Morgan and Harry Earnshaw decided to tap into the popularity of these amalgamated themes: horror, mystery, Eastern mysticism, magicians and vigilante crime fighters. In the film the duo is given story credit, but they did, in fact, not write the scripts for the radio show. The 15-minute segments were written by one of the company’s office clerks, a 39-year old woman by the name of Vera Oldham, whose talents had hitherto gone unnoticed. After the first season had aired, Oldham was pulled in all directions by other channels, and wrote scripts for a number of very successful shows over the years. However, she was so integral for Chandu, that Morgan and Earnshaw at one point gave her an Oriental vacation and a new Studebaker car as gifts if she returned to write the show, which she did.
Movie studio Fox, never especially know for genre films, saw the kind of waves that Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931, review) were making at Universal, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931, review) over at Paramount. Even Warner had entered the horror film market with Doctor X (1932, review). Clearly there was a market to be tapped. At a time when good screenwriters were still few and far between, and the idea of what constituted a good talkie script was still up for grabs, studios primarily sourced stage plays and radio shows for inspiration, especially if a film was going to be made fast and cheap. Chandu the Magician was a safe bet. Not only had Vera Oldham already written the basis for a script, it had also proved highly successful with audiences. Plus, Chandu was a known and beloved character who didn’t need introduction to the audience — it was basically a film that sold itself.
For adapting the story to the screen, Fox chose studio hacks Barry Conners and Philip Klein, best known at the time for their screenplay for Fox’ 1931 movie The Spider, a mystery drama in which a stage magician solves a murder case. Not only did the studio bring the same writers and director from that successful movie, but the magician as well. Edmund Lowe, having been both dashing and effective as the magic crime fighter in the former film was immediately cast as Chandu the Magician. And as icing on the cake, Fox was able to snatch up Bela Lugosi, who had failed to secure a contract with Universal, despite the success of Dracula. The story, as it is, follows the first season of the radio show rather closely. The only major addition is the comic relief character Miggles, whom Chandu hypnotises so that he sees a miniature version of himself every time he drinks alcohol, a miniature version that scalds him for drinking alcohol, no less.
This latter addition was probably the idea of French co-director Marcel Varnel, whose only previous entry was (according to IMDb) the Lionel Atwill mystery thriller Silent Witness (1932). As the film was created in the same vein as the Hollywood film serials, Fox also appointed two directors, as was usually the case with serials. Varnel was brought on to handle dialogue and comedy, whereas action, special effects and big set pieces were handled by William Cameron Menzies.
There are three names that are central to the success of the film. The first is Bela Lugosi, the second William Cameron Menzies and the third that of cinematographer James Wong Howe.
The circumstances of the production were such that Fox realised that if they wanted to follow up on the successes of previous horror films, they had to do it fast and cheap. Still, they wanted a film that looked as if it had been made on a substantial budget and with a lot of work. In essence, the studio wanted a film that looked like a lavish historical epic with costly special effects without putting out the time and money needed to make a lavish historical epic with costly special effects. Thus: William Cameron Menzies.
Menzies was perhaps the greatest American production designer of the twenties and thirties, and indeed the person for whom the term “production designer” was originally coined. Art directors at the time were often concerned primarily with designing the sets of a movie. Menzies was one of the first to take control of the entire visual look of the film, from sets and matte paintings to costumes, makeup, props, lighting schemes and even camera positions and movements, and he would often provide the director and crew with sketches of the sets, complete with camera framing, lighting suggestions and setups — if he didn’t actually storyboard the film. With such a level of involvement, it was no surprise that he easily made the transition to directing his own movies. The Spider was his second film as a director, and Chandu the Magician his third. Menzies went on to win two Academy Awards for his set design, and actually filmed a number of science fiction films as a director.
Menzies had started his sci-fi career as early as 1920, when he was one of the art directors for the the John Barrymore version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (review). His most ambitious project as a director by far was the British production of Things to Come (1936), which was actually co-written by author H.G. Wells himself. The result was gargantuan, both in its visual scale and regarding its production cost, which all but bankrupted the production company London Films. Its biggest stumbling block was the wooden and preachy screenplay by the great Mr. Wells, but the film also proved that Menzies’ talent was in the visuals and not in directing actors. He had a short burst of sci-fi films in the fifties, beginning with the competently filmed red-scare action yarn The Whip Hand (1951) where actual Communist Nazis(!) are preparing bacteriological warfare on the US. Menzies’ most beloved sci-fi entry is the 1953 cult classic Invaders from Mars, a beautifully filmed, hallucinogenic body-snatcher movie about aliens infiltrating the minds of the residents in an American small town. His last entry is the less known, flawed, but highly atmospheric and very warmly recommended pseudo-SF thriller The Maze (1953), starring sci-fi legend Richard Carlson. However, Menzies is probably best known for overseeing the production design for films such as The Thief of Baghdad (1924) and Gone with the Wind (1939).
For Chandu the Magician Menzies was able to design sets that looked like they belonged in an A-picture, but were cheap and easy to make: often he would make cavernous, walled-in sets that were rather plain and uninteresting, with just enough suggestion of a culture or period to make them work for a movie, often giving them added depths and scale by filming through a grill of a window, or by placing something in the foreground of the shot. By carefully blocking the shots, he knew just how much of a set needed to be made, and what could be covered by a wall or an object in front of it. Many times the “huge” sets were actually accomplished with the help of forced perspective shots and miniature work, seamlessly integrated with live-action footage. All of this was done in the highly stylistic way that was his trademark, which lent films a feeling of heightened reality. He was aided in his work by studio regular Max Parker, who was officially credited as art director on the film.
One of the most impressive shots of the film is a miniature shot in which the camera swiftly takes us through the tunnels of Roxor’s labyrinth lair. Even today filmmakers are stumped to explain exactly how it was done, as it shouldn’t have been possible to do such a mobile camera dive withe the technology available at the time.
And here we get to the third name: cinematographer James Wong Howe. Howe was a Chinese American cinematographer who worked on over 130 films in his long career. During the 1930s and 1940s, he was one of the most sought after cinematographers in Hollywood due to his innovative filming techniques. Howe was known as a master of the use of shadow and one of the first to use deep-focus cinematography, in which both foreground and distant planes remain in focus. He also pioneered the use of the crab dolly, which is probably what we are seeing an example of in the afore-mentioned amazing sequence. Howe’s family emigrated to the US when he was five, he worked as a professional boxer and cut his teeth in the film industry in the silent era as an assistant to the great Cecil B. DeMille. During his career he was nominated for an Oscar an astounding ten times, and won twice, for The Rose Tattoo (1955) and Hud (1963). He also filmed the very interesting science fiction movie Seconds (1977) starring Rock Hudson.
With the combined talent of Howe and Menzies, Chandu the Magician conjures up some of the best visual effects seen at the time in the movies. While it doesn’t quite pioneer any new innovative techniques, it does what it does in spectacular fashion, especially considering the short time-frame in which the film was made. Not only is there the numerous shots of Miggles and his imaginary mini-me, but also scenes of characters multiplying themselves on screen in single shots, henchmen’s rifles turning into snakes before our very eyes and other very clever double exposure shots. The practical effects are also rather impressive, especially when combined with visual effects, such as one shot in which Chandu gradually fades out of a robe, which is left standing rigid and empty by itself. Remember, this was the year before James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933) came out, and so barring the neat transformation scene in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, audiences wouldn’t have seen visual trickery quite on this scale before.
While I’ve stated that the movie was made fast and cheap, Chandu the Magician was no ultra-cheapo, but did have what might have been considered an average run-of-the-mill big studio budget at the time, approximately 350,000 dollars, at a time when the most expensive US film ever made was the 1925 movie Ben-Hur, which had a budget of around 4 million dollars. Putting a budget of 350,000 dollars in 1932 into any sort of modern-day perspective is fiendishly difficult, as you kind of have to choose which parameters you are going to use or ignore for the conversion, seeing as such things as material costs, labour costs and other costs have fluctuated, and the whole process of filmmaking, marketing and distribution has changed significantly. A straight-off inflation adjustment would put the movie’s cost at 7 million dollars today, but converting it according to labour costs gives us a current-day estimation of between 20 and 25 million dollars. This is probably closer to what this movie would have cost if made today, and indeed this is not a lot of money for making something that looks like an epic, and would be considered a low-budget film by current Hollywood standards. On the other hand, successful Hollywood movies are still made today on budgets lower than one million dollars. The 2004 horror film Saw, for example, was made for the measly cost of 1,2 million dollars.
Bela Lugosi was probably the highest paid actor on Chandu the Magician, even if he didn’t play the title character. He received 2,500 dollars for his role, or around 45,000 dollars in today’s money, which was a pretty good salary for what probably amounted to a few weeks’ work. One must remember that actors at this time didn’t rake in nearly the ridiculous salaries that today’s star actors can demand (looking at you, Robert Downey, Jr.), and during the heyday of the studio system a salary of 2,000 dollars was considered standard fare for a reasonably successful movie star. At this time, Lugosi still had some clout in the business thanks to his new-found fame, and he hadn’t yet been able to squander the money he made from successful films like The Black Camel (1931), Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and White Zombie (1932). Just a couple of years later he would be broke and desperate, and studios would bounce him back and forth for pocket change, taking advantage of his dire straits. That Lugosi was now a Dracula with most of the American people becomes clear from The New York Times review of the film, which describes the character of Roxor as “a baleful character whose behavior may be described with the simple information that Bela Lugosi plays the part”.
His good fortunes are there on the screen to see. Lugosi, at 50, is in the prime of his career, somehow managing to look at least ten years younger than his actual age. He seems even leaner and fitter than he did in Dracula, oozing energy and dark sex appeal. He is sharp and controlled, marvellously charismatic, completely stealing the movie from Edmund Lowe.
Lowe, on the other hand, doesn’t do a bad job — he just doesn’t have the oomph to carry a role like Chandu. Lowe was a Fox contract player who was rather dashing and quite charming in the gentlemanly pin-stripe mustachioed way that leading men were supposed to be in the thirties, and had to charisma to pull off the lead in the urban setting of The Spider. But set against a scene-stealing Lugosi in high form, he is outplayed in every single category and simply comes off as a bit bland, especially as the film presents him as the great and mysterious Chandu who sends bad guys shivering in their pants. Lowe was a successful and reliable actor, who had 15 years of experience behind him and another 30 years of acting in front of him. All in all he appeared in over 100 films and has stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for both TV and film work. But perhaps it’s the lack of that elusive it-factor that makes Chandu his best remembered role to date, a role in which he is best remembered for not being Bela Lugosi.
Chandu the Magician got mixed reviews in the press, and wasn’t quite the smash hit that Fox had hoped for — at least not in the big cities. However, it fared very well in the countryside, where it appealed especially to a juvenile audience — which had also been the primary target for the original radio show. It did well enough for Fox to revive it in 1934 and 1935 as two film serials, but with a twist: Chandu was now played by Lugosi himself.
Irene Ware inhabits well and naturally the role of the mysterious, but ultimately wholesome Princess Nadji, despite the fact that she is a Caucasian woman playing an Egyptian princess — not the first and certainly not the last (I’m looking at you Liz Taylor!). Ware was a New Yorker with Swedish-Austrian ancestry, born Irene Ahlberg, who got training as a stenographer before trying her luck in the entertainment business. Ahlberg got noticed when she was crowned Miss United States at an international beauty contest in Texas, and the prize money of 1,000 dollars helped on her way in the business, as she became a minor star on Broadway. Chandu was her first starring role in a film, now with a new stage name, and the one she is perhaps best remembered for, apart from another Bela Lugosi feature, 1935’s The Raven, alongside Boris Karloff. However, her career was mostly confined to playing “the other woman” in low-budget big studio films or leads in Poverty Row features, and she left the movie business in 1940, presumably falling back on her stenographer training. Still, during her eight years in the business she had a decent run and appeared in 27 films, although never quite achieving the level of stardom she might have hoped for.
Comedic actor Herbert Mundin is enjoyable as the comic relief Miggles — if you like that sort of thing: many find his character annoying. I think his run-ins with his mini-me add some needed burlesque to the film. Mundin was a fairly popular comedy player, and is perhaps best remembered for playing Much in Michael Curtiz’ blockbuster Robin Hood (1938) starring Errol Flynn. He also appeared in the sci-fi musical comedy It’s Great to be Alive (1933), which exists only as a seldom aired print at MoMa.
Henry B. Walthall is solid as the scientist Robert Regent. Walthall was a hugely prolific character actor and bit-part player, appearing in over 300 films in his long career, rewarded with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His only other science fiction feature was Tod Browning’s The Devil-Doll (1936).
Hal Erickson in his book From Radio to Big Screen praises the film’s “special effects, process shots, double exposures, conjuring tricks, explosions, screaming natives, spectacular death traps, mass destruction panoramas and sparkling lab equipment”. However, Erickson laments the acting of the film, stating that the worst scenery-chewing comes from Bela Lugosi, although he concedes that this is appropriate to the role and script, however: “only a Lugosi can pull off this kind of barnstorming without embarrassment; when the rest of the cast indulges in Lugosi-like histrionics, the results are horrendous, especially the downright amateurish performances by Nestor Aber and June Vlasek as Bob and Betty Regent. (The two young actors later changed their names to Michael Stuart and June Lang, but that didn’t matter: They still couldn’t act worth beans.)”
Today critics tend to be somewhat divided on the merits of Chandu the Magician. Two of the grumpier old reviewers of the net, Dave Sindelar and Dennis Schwartz, don’t have much time for your juvenile antics. Sindelar writes that he found himself bored with the movie, “just waiting for Bela to show up and add some life to the proceedings”. Schwartz, not even trying to hide his elitist sentiment, states that the film “dutifully serves as lowbrow entertainment for the masses and for children”.
And while most modern critics agree that the script and acting aren’t quite Oscar material, many also manage to tap into their inner child, enjoying the “lowbrow entertainment” for what it is — a silly adventure story of the kind that inspired the Indiana Jones franchise and the later Mummy reboot (not the Tom Cruise one). Most also note the film’s impressive visuals and competent direction. “Dave” at 2,500 Movies Challenge writes: “Lugosi’s flamboyant portrayal, coupled with Menzies’ eye for detail and Howe’s fluid camera movements, make Chandu the Magician a very entertaining watch”. A.J. Hakari at Cineslice concludes: “Bolstered by its wonderful visual effects and spirited acting, the film hasn’t a doubt in its mind that viewers will fall briskly under its spell. Dated though some of its finer details might be, Chandu the Magician makes up for it by being an exhilarating joy to watch.”
And well, if one were to sum up the the biggest shortcomings of the movie, “dated” would probably be the operational word. This goes for the plot as well as for the characterisations. While I give the film kudos for actually bringing along the women on the adventure, they’re still in it mainly to be damsels in distress. The image painted of Egypt and “the East” is taken straightly from Arabian Nights, rather than any sort of reality, but in a fairy-tale story for juveniles such as Chandu the Magician, this may perhaps be excused. Despite some half of the characters being either (presumably) Indian or Egyptian, there’s not a single person of colour on the cast sheet. In the case of Lugosi, this can be explained away by the fact that Roxor is never explicitly described as Egyptian. But even at the time it must have seemed strange to viewers that an Egyptian Princess is — clearly — Caucasian. Caucasian as well are Abdulah, Chandu’s yogi teacher, and most of the henchmen and other people living in Egypt.
One thing that struck me while watching the film — and this is not necessarily a critique, but rather something I found peculiar — is how fast and loose the movie plays with the concept of religion. While this was still a Pre-Code movie, Hollywood films rarely did anything that might get the religious circles in the US riled up. Resistance from the strong Christian organisations could easily kill a film dead in its tracks back in these days. Remember, for example, that James Whale was forced to cut Henry Frankenstein’s line “Now I know what it feels like to BE God” after he brings the Creature to life. And if a film wasn’t set entirely in a strange culture, say like The Thief of Baghdad, it was unheard of to have a hero in a film who belonged to another faith than Christianity. Of course, today the term “yogi” can refer to any practitioner of yoga as a form of exercise, but in the thirties a yogi was strictly understood as devotee of some of the Indian religions, such as Buddhism or Hinduism. So in order to become a yogi, Chandu would have had to reject Christianity and devote himself to an Eastern religion. This, naturally, would have been a no-no in Hollywood. The movie gets away with it by carefully avoiding to mention religion in any shape or size, and instead merely states that Chandu “has been studying the mystical arts of the East”, as if there existed some kind of secular yogi university. Furthermore, “yogi” in the context of the film seems to mean some kind of superhero. When Chandu has completed his training, his teacher tells him to “Go forth […] and conquer the evil that threatens Mankind”, and Betty later asks him, with awe in her voice, if he’s really “a real yogi now”.
While this works in the context if the film, it does raise a few red flags for a modern viewer when it comes to questions of cultural appropriation and misrepresentation of non-Western cultures. One the one hand it portrays most Egyptians as barbaric brutes running around in loincloths and turbans, and buying white women at slave markets. On the other hand we have the Orientalism of depicting the people of the “East” as romantic “mystics”. And of course, when a white man takes upon himself to learn the “mystical arts of the East”, he infallibly becomes the greatest “yogi” the world has ever seen. However, when all is said and done, I do think that Chandu the Magician the issue of culture fairly well: When considering the possibilities presented in the context this movie for blatant racism, it manages to avoid many pitfalls and ultimately treads rather lightly over cultural issues — something which unfortunately can’t be said for its imitator, MGM’s The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) starring Boris Karloff.
Chandu the Magician has a daft script, but because of its well-executed direction and atmosphere of fun and adventure, it’s highly enjoyable. Yes, Lowe is bland as Chandu, but on the other hand Lugosi gives one of the best performances of his career. Yes, the comic relief character is arbitrary, but I thought Herbert Mundin was rather fun. Louis de Francesco adds to the proceedings with a good selection of stock music. As long as you don’t take this film too seriously, it’s perfect for a Saturday afternoon viewing.
Chandu the Magician. 1931, USA. Directed by William Cameron Menzies & Marcel Varnel. Written by Barry Conners & Philip Klein. Based on radio play by Vera Oldham. Starring: Edmund Lowe, Irene Ware, Bela Lugosi, Herbert Mundin, Henry B. Walthall, Weldon Heyburn, June Lang, Michael Stuart, Virginia Hammond. Cinematography: James Wong Howe. Editing: Harold D. Schuster. Art direction: William Cameron Menzies, Max Parker. Sound recorder: Joseph Aiken. Wardrobe: Earl Luick. Produced for Fox Film Corporation.