I found Chandu the Magician (1932) while sorting my collection this morning and, since I never say no to any movie that jumps out and yells “watch me,” into the player it went. I love a good magician-hero, and here Edmund Lowe plays one of the most gifted, Chandu. He’s an Army veteran turned black belt Yogi (I might be getting my certification levels mixed up). We meet Chandu as he demonstrates the success of his training at the Yogi monastery, after which he’s sent on a mission to fight a new and catastrophic evil picked up by their magic crystal/evildoer radar.
Chandu’s brother-in-law Robert Regent (Henry B. Walthall) has developed a death ray strong enough to destroy whole cities, and now the villainous Roxor (Bela Lugosi) and his mob have snatched both gadget and inventor. Chandu must stop Roxor, save the Regents and the world, and fate will have it that he’ll also cross paths with an old flame from Paris, the Nile Princess Nadji (Irene Ware).
I wish there was more of an action hero “type” cast as Chandu but Lowe does well enough. He has the required ease, charm and intensity and since all the power is in his eyes, his icy ones are believably piercing and hypnotic. He makes quite the dramatic entrance (and wouldn’t you if you were such a magic ninja), but arrivals, rope tricks and walking through fire are nothing compared to the stuff he conjures when the action gets hot. He controls people with stares and gestures, pulls info out of their brains, turns guns into snakes, gold coins to insects and toads, and projects images of himself to use as decoys. He can vanish and leave his empty clothes standing for a bit before they collapse in a heap, and he even summons up some cloud cover so he can kiss Nadji in the dark. Superpowers of the mental and illusory variety have always been my favourite kinds (and I’d guess some of the more screen- and budget-friendly powers) so I love to see them used with such creativity and relish. As accessories go, there’s an astral bell tells you when a Yogi is near (or gets his wings). There’s a pool where you can see anyone who’s thinking of you, and that crystal ball also enables communications and location over great distances.
This movie just flies, grabbing you from the first minutes and keeping you glued with colourful characters, death defying action, and the exotic and unreal details you’d expect from a spirited pulp serial adventure. There’s poison, there’s disappearing potion that beats anything liquid paper ever achieved, a veiled princesses of incomparable beauty carried through fire, and her shifty gentleman caller who’s also Roxor’s right hand man. Regent’s experiments with the death ray look very steampunk, with leather safety suit and a creepy eyes-only mask. Mixed with the Egyptian setting it all looks wild and spooky, especially on a dark and sand-stormy night.
There’s a great dolly shot through the innards of an obviously miniature but very impressive rock temple which winds endlessly through the crypt passageways and then into the lower levels and Roxor’s lair. A giant revolving stone door is the secret entrance to this temple, accessible only by a thin ledge on a high wall, and piles of skeletons litter the ground far below. Moving statutes lock the heroes up in subterranean crypts, pits and trapdoors open beneath their feet, and Chandu is sealed in a coffin and toss in the Nile. One of the best parts has the dungeon cell floor sliding open as the Regent family cling to bars and cracks and watch the furniture slide off and tumble a long way down into the river.
I loved the putdown suffered by Bobby Regent (Michael Stuart, billed as Nestor Aber) when he says a MAN should go rescue his father, to which his mother (Virginia Hammond) replies, “there’s no man here!” More comedy (sometimes a bit too much) comes from a camel who gets a reaction shot, and from Chandu’s hammy old buddy Miggles (Herbert Mundin). Miggles is a good orderly, but not at all comfortable with Chandu’s powers, especially when he creates a nagging mini-Miggles who gets after him for taking a drink after every nerve-rattling event.
Lugosi looked great here, suave and sharp and stealing the show as a confident and self-important wanna-be pharaoh who’ll unleash biblical flooding if opposed. He’s amused by his own villainy, forcing Regent to watch his daughter Betty Lou (June Lang) sold into slavery. He’s smart, deducing that Chandu’s power, rooted in nothing more than hypnotism, can be countered by blocking his eyes. We get vivid and chilling images of Roxor’s plans as he gleefully imagines how the death ray will scrub away London and Paris (for starters), and blast the Nile dams.
Chandu the Magician was based on the popular radio play. Directed by Marcel Varnel and William Cameron Menzies and shot by James Wong Howe, it’s no wonder it all looks so captivating, and with eight writers credited, no wonder it felt like everything and the kitchen sink was included. Truly, this picture’s voltmeter goes to 250,000; no hypnotism needed to draw your eyes.