“Chandu the Magician” (1932)
by A.J. Hakari
As Marvel continues expanding its cinematic universe by adapting more offbeat properties for the screen, so has the studio begun encroaching upon a minefield of cultural sensitivity. In bringing to life the impending Doctor Strange film and “Iron Fist” Netflix show, steps were taken to tone down some of the more stereotypical aspects of their source material, only for certain fans to respond with charges of silencing diversity. It’s a classic “damned if you do” scenario, wherein Marvel is stuck choosing between either appearing to whitewash their own characters or feeding into the old “Caucasian hero masters weird foreign customs” motif that informed the original comics, as well as flicks like 1932’s Chandu the Magician. You won’t hear me excuse the wild misconceptions such media would eventually help spread, nor can you truly blame those who find the tropes contained therein in poor taste these days. On the other hand, a fun movie is still a fun movie, and for all about it that modern eyes may find out of touch, Chandu the Magician remains a dazzling vintage fantasy all the same.
The far east holds many strange secrets to which few souls are privy. Outsiders aren’t known to penetrate its world of wizardry and mysticism, but Frank Chandler (Edmund Lowe) is different. Committing himself to righting society’s injustices, Frank’s years of study with the best yogis has at last paid off, achieving unparalleled skills in the arts of mesmerism and being granted the new title of “Chandu.” But as it turns out, he’s completed his training just in time, for the forces of evil have recently targeted those nearest to his heart. A madman named Roxor (Bela Lugosi) has kidnapped Frank’s brother-in-law Robert (Henry B. Walthall), seeking to use his latest invention to destroy the cities of the globe and declare himself emperor. However, the fiend didn’t count on the newly-minted Chandu to jump into action and call upon his powers of illusion to save not only his loved ones from certain doom but the very earth, as well.
Based upon a then-current radio series, Chandu the Magician is an entity that definitely benefits from its promotion to a visual medium. One can imagine our protagonist’s feats only feeling so magical when we’re being told what he’s up to, but when just about every top-notch special effects trick in the book is used to give them life on film, the results are especially snazzy. Throughout the movie, Frank/Chandu summons phantom doppelgangers, makes henchmen see their guns as deadly snakes, and maintains a close watch on danger by gazing into his handy crystal ball. These sights and others like them all look pretty spectacular for their time, adding up to a visual feast so varied and teeming with energy, you almost forget about the plot’s more quirky details altogether. I’m not quite sure how so many characters are aware of Chandu or his reputation when he’s apparently spent years honing his craft in seclusion, and don’t be surprised if you’re thrown for a loop when others casually refer to Robert’s invention as a “death ray” even before Roxor announces his plan to reduce the likes of London and Paris to rubble. The picture does experience the occasional, culturally-dicey patch (as in one scene that has Roxor offering up Frank’s niece in a slave auction), to which all that can be said is that they’re thankfully infrequent, as the production is more concerned with entertaining the eyes than with engaging in harsh generalizations.
There’s such a playful enthusiasm to the way that Chandu the Magician explores its title hero’s abilities and presents them on screen, one wishes that more was done with the characters so as to really tie everything together. Not that flicks centered around crimefighters and various proto-superfolk were big on detailed origins at the time, but Frank’s ascension to mind-bender extraordinaire is virtually nonexistent. He hasn’t time to tidy his burnoose before he’s off to rescue his brother-in-law from Roxor’s clutches, without imparting so much as a hint as to what sent him on his spiritual quest to begin with. Lowe proves such a good sport in his performance, helping Chandu’s hypnotic stares and hand gestures feel more mysterious than silly, so filling in just a few of the mystic’s background blanks would have made him pop even more. Lugosi is essentially in the same boat, what with playing your standard-issue exotic villain with the vaguest motivations for seeking world domination, yet one can’t deny the impassioned show he puts on; long story short, this guy knows how to deliver one dilly of a bad guy monologue. The remaining roles are likewise very basic in nature, though the supporting cast members elevate them nicely with their appeal. Irene Ware (in her first prominent studio part) makes for a suitably alluring love interest opposite Lowe, Herbert Mundin scores some smirks as the resident cowardly comic relief, and Weldon Heyburn glowers up a storm as Roxor’s right-hand thug.
For what’s basically a superhero tale that came out before the notion of superheroes had become so deeply ingrained within the public consciousness, Chandu the Magician exhibits a tremendous deal of confidence. 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.