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Chandu The Magician

Chandu The Magician (Marcel Varnel and William Cameron Menzies, 1932)

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This was released last year on DVD in the “Fox Horror Classics vol 2” box. Fox knows that slapping “Horror” on the cover sells pretty well, which must be why they think they can get away with two out of three titles in that box having no particular horror elements at all. Dragonwyck, with Gene Tierney, is also in the box and no sort of horror movie. Yes, Vincent Price is in it, but that doesn’t make it a horror movie – he was in Song of Bernadette ferchrissakes, and that’s no horror movie unless the entire idea of organized religion gives you the shakes.

In the same manner, Chandu The Magician is not a horror movie, it just has Bela Lugosi as a villain. I guess for some folks that’s close enough. What we actually have here is an adventure movie, a proto-superhero movie. This is a link in the chain that leads to Spider-Man and Iron Man and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Chandu is Frank Chandler, an American trained as a yogi, whose skills are mostly (but evidently not entirely) based on powerful and immediate hypnotism. There is a long line of these swami-like mystic/magician characters emerging from the pulps, mostly taking up pages in the comics – Mandrake the Magician, Sargon the Sorcerer, Ibis, The Green Lama, culminating for practical purposes with Marvel’s Doctor Strange. I can’t quite figure out who Chandu’s antecedents are, however – he predates all of these. He arrives on radio a couple years after The Shadow appears in print, but The Shadow’s “power to cloud men’s minds” didn’t become part of the character until several years later – in ’32, he was an unpowered do-gooder using bad guy techniques. Thirties and forties adventure fiction all seems like a ripoff of one thing or another – I’d be curious to know who Chandu’s creator was ripping from.

The film is a triumph for co-director/art director William Cameron Menzies, who employs every special effect technique of the time, one after the other – mattes to suggest space, double exposures, cunning miniatures, opticals – everything. He frequently makes a relatively cheap film look like it cost a fortune. Menzies is one of the great figures of pre-war film technique, and his genius gets a nice showcase in these snappy 72 minutes.

Bela Lugosi, also, is on top of his game. Bela’s time as a true movie star was short, but this is right in his glory days – he’s still physically fit, he sells his megalomania character Roxor unashamedly, he preens and spins and oils and rages and gasps and gives the whole thing a great thrust that Edmund Lowe as Chandu simply can’t.

Lowe’s not at all a bad actor of the time, he’s just clearly better suited to drawing room theater or character parts – adventure heroics are not for him or his paunch.

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A mysterious eastern monastery, a.k.a. a Menzies miniature.

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Within these walls a ceremony is held, conferring upon Frank Chandler the rank of Yogi. He is now to be known as Chandu.

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Edmund Lowe.

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The hypnotic eyes of Chandu!

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Chandu celebrates his graduation with a few parlor tricks. First up, the ol’ rising rope gimmick…

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Followed by some astral projection…

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And finishing up with some good solid firewalking.

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Following this, Chandu’s master fires up the crystal ball and shows Chandu a great evil brewing, and gives him an assignment. Think the scene near the top of most Bond films where M briefs Bond on the villain du jour and sends him off with license to kill.

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The ball clears to reveal Roxor, Egyptian madman! With Hungarian accept app installed!

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The crystal continues, showing Chandu’s brother in law, Robert Regent, at work in a laboratory. It’s mad scientist stuff, filled with inserts of flashing, whirring equipment pretty clearly of the Frankenstein art direction school.

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And what is Regent inventing? Why it’s a Death Ray! Capable of obliterating cities at a stroke around the globe.

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Success! I have to confess I was not understanding the film as I was meant to at this point. Regent is totally vibing evil mad scientist, what with the secret Egyptian lab, the gleeful exultatation at inventing a Death Ray, and then having the idea to actually call it a Death Ray. Bad dude, right? Nope. Turns out he had no idea that investing years in researching and perfecting a Death Ray (Death Ray!) might be a good news/bad news thing.

These science nerds. I tell ya what.

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No sooner is the Death Ray (Death Ray! Jeez!) successfully tested than Roxor’s minions bust in and make off with Regent and his invention. Roxor, you see wants to visit devastation to all and sundry who do not kneel down before him and worship him as their God. He’s not real flexible on this.

So, this is all awful and must be stopped, and kharma has picked Chandu to be the agent to deal with it, because his family is both partly responsible and also threatened. He must get to Egypt before the rest of his sister’s family is endangered by Roxor.

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Too late.

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“Hi Uncle Frank! What are you doing here in Egypt? Golly, are you really a full-fledged Yogi now? Can we go to Baskin Robbins to celebrate?”

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Enter Princess Nadji. She’s come to parley with Roxor for him to, y’know, not visit a holocaust upon them. She’s Chandu’s love interest in this thing. I had assumed it was just for this story, since it takes place in her principality, but the most casual of research shows she’s in pretty much the entire run of radio adventures as well, no matter where they’re set.

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Just your everyday humdrum Egyptian den of iniquity. Naturally Roxor operates out of here. Think Tony Soprano in the back room at the Bing

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Lugosi works his charm. Nadji is played by Irene Ware in her first screen credit. She’d also experience Bela’s charm playing opposite him in The Raven a couple years later.

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Herbert Mundin plays a drunk named Miggles, Frank Chandler’s orderly in the military, and who just wonder of wonders is kicking around the desert with nothing much to do. Chandu hires him to handle the light comedy, on the condition that he not drink. Chandu hypnotizes him so that every time he drinks, he will see this mini-version of himself who will take him to task for it. Mundin did plenty of character work but I recognize him as Much the (middleaged) Miller’s Son in the Errol Flynn Adventures of Robin Hood.

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There are a bunch of these scenes where Chandu plights his eternal troth to the Princess. He gets all gooey and swoony and his accent threatens to go all mid-atlantic on us. I don’t buy it any more than I would buy his protestation of love for the wicker chair over his shoulder. These scenes are timekilling drama suckers. They make the Baby Jesus cry.

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This may not look like much of anything as a still, but I wanted to call attention to this sequence all the same. This is the interior of Roxor’s mountain lair (one thing’s for sure, Roxor’s got lairs coming out his ears – city lairs, desert lairs, timeshare by the lake lairs, etc). This begins a shot, that I assume is miniature, of the camera careening down the hall at breakneck speed, nearly crashing into dead ends before taking a series of violent 90 degree turns. It’s sort of like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, culminating with a tip-down overhead of Roxor’s lab where the Death Ray has been set up. Kudos to Menzies.

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Chandu n’ pals scale the mountain and try and find their way in. Nothing happens in the scenes that immediately follow that I don’t totally love.

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Chandu finds the trick entrance, swinging Miggles out over certain death. “Put…The Candle…Back!”

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Miggles’ POV of what lies beneath – the bones of those who have fallen or been tossed overboard before. Y’know, when we think of Precodes, we mostly think of all the banned moments of naughtiness, like Warner Brothers contriving to get Joan Blondell and Barbara Stanwyck into their underwear at every turn, or characters talking about reefer. Sure the code knocked out those things, but it also did a number on a lot of offhand violence in adventure films. This makes me think of things like King Kong eating the native, or Tarzan And His Mate, with the gorillas throwing boulders down the mountain onto a line of coolies.

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Having gained entrance, Miggles takes a break in the passageway while Chandu and Nadji go on ahead. He rests his hat on the staff of one of a line of statues. If you can’t guess exactly what’s coming, you haven’t seen many movies, or at least hate Abbott and Costello. And if you hate Abbott and Costello, I can only conclude that you hate America.

Why do you hate America?

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“Zoiks!!”

There now, wasn’t that predictable? But the predictability is part of why it works.

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Reunited, the trio get tricked into a locked room with three sarcophagi. They open to reveal…
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…three armed Amway salesmen. Chandu breaks out the gestures and piercing stare:

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Rifles turn to snakes. Much like Indiana Jones, they hate snakes.

Okay, remember back at the beginning, how Roxor stole the Death Ray and kidnapped Regent, Chandu’s brother in law? The thing that made Chandu go to Egypt in the first place? All this time since, Roxor has been torturing Regent trying to get the secret to make the ray work, because it’s just not happening. Despite torture, Regent hasn’t told. Roxor may have all the dialog and slavering stares of an evil mastermind, but as a torturer he’s world class fail.

Not for lack of trying though, and now he’s on to another tactic – he’s not even in the mountain fortress Chandu is searching, he’s moved on to another town. He has kidnapped Regent’s teenage daughter and has her put up for sale to attempt to force him to talk.

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Remember a minute ago, when I was talking about Precodes and Joan Blondell in her bloomers and whatnot? Yeah, sort of like this.

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Dear old dad, forced to watch the auction.

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This guy is representative of series of crowd shots showing the sort of dirty, horrible street Arab bidding on her blonde virginal goodness. Or else it’s Eddie Constantine, I’m not sure.

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Chandu arrives just in time to win the bidding, disguised as a bearded old Arab.

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As he escapes with his niece, Roxor uncovers the deception and sets the crowd on them.

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Chandu creates a double image of himself to hold off the crowd while they escape. One man sneaks up behind the illusion…

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The empty burnoose hangs in the air. Priceless.

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Safe at Nadji’s boat, the reliably alcoholic Miggles goes in search of the liquor cabinet, only to find his imaginary friend and personal Jiminy Cricket waiting to hector him.

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Finally Roxor hits on a winning plan! Wisely surmising that Chandu’s strength is in his eyes, he has him attacked from all sides with teargas. Teargas is to Chandu as Kryptonite is to Superman

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All these screengrabs, and I haven’t done remotely enough demonstration of Lugosi’s totally in-character mugging. Here’s one.

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Because Roxor is an ultimate villain, he of course cannot simply kill Chandu, no no. The captured magician is shackled, sealed in a sarcophagus, and tossed into the Nile. If this sounds like the setup for a Houdini trick, you would probably be right.

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Meanwhile, Chandu cuts to the chase with Regent. Unless he fixes the Death Ray right now, his entire family will die. Trapped in a cell, the floor slowly drops open beneath them to expose a gaping pit. Regent finally gives in.

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Oh look. The magician escaped. What a…surprise. Chandu “swims” back to the surface, in one of the worst dry-for-wet, fakey paper seaweed shots of all time.

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“Me? You want me to possess the Death Ray and rule the world with nothing but the worst of intentions? You like me! You really like me!”

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Roxor has orgiastic visions of the violence he’s about to perpetrate. First Paris will be incinerated! Ooh la la!
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Next, London. How dare you Brits take over the Suez Canal! Oh, yeah, after this, I’m blowing up Suez!

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Down the barrel of a Death Ray.

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Just as Roxor is about to fire the weapon, Chandu returns, and is finally able to turn his hypnotic gaze on the villain directly. “My will is greater than your will.”

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Roxor stands motionless, aware but unable to act as the machine begins to tear itself apart. Our heroes run as sparks and flames pop all around Roxor.

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The handy explosion that neatly wraps up your standard adventure narrative.

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So that’s it. No doubt Fox expected to get a series out of this, but although not unpopular, it just didn’t go over big enough to try again. It’s hard not to blame the casting of Edmund Lowe. A few years later Chandu was done as a serial, this time with Lugosi moving over to take the lead role. Yes, that’s Bela Lugosi as American Frank Chandler. No problems there!

A Gallery of Chandu’s Fellow Travelers — Mandrake, Sargon, Ibis, The Green Lama, The Shadow, and Doctor Strange:

Mandrake

Sargon

Ibis

greenlama

Shadow

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Chanduadvert

Search For Beauty

Search For Beauty (Erle Kenton, 1934)

Search For Beauty is available on DVD in the newish “Pre-Code Hollywood Collection” from Universal. It teaches us that somewhere between Busby Berkeley and Leni Riefenstahl, there lives Erle C. Kenton.

Erle directed one certifiable classic before this, Island of Lost Souls, which come to think of it isn’t a million miles away from eugenics in it’s own right. He went on to herd some of the last classic Universal horror dogs and cats (like Ghost of Frankenstein). Here, in Search For Beauty, he’s got a comedy about con man Robert Armstrong trying to make a dishonest buck in the health and beauty game. To that end, he tricks 1932 Olympic swimmers Buster Crabbe and Ida Lupino into fronting the magazine he’s just acquired. With the magazine comes a hotel/health retreat that Buster makes his mission – he recruits the most physically fit young people from around the world to staff the Health Retreat.

When I say “around the world”, I mean white, english-speaking countries naturally. No one with color, a degree of swarthiness, or even a terribly deep tan need apply. Having gathered his Aryan nation, he gives the hotel a Grand Opening, featuring a fitness exhibition of his ever-so-fit, ever-so-white exercising shock troops. The film turns semi-musical, for this show, with music provided by the USC marching band. And so, the spirits of both Berkeley and Riefenstahl (and ol’ Joe Goebbels) are served:

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Yeah, look at all those nations represented in this “International” casting – man, not even the French get a look, and they’re allies.

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The top hat n’ tails, old caucasian rich folk getting catered to in this establishment.

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Natty Buster Crabbe, the one-time Tarzan and future Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, introduces his parade of international purebloods. The women, being athletes, naturally don’t wear bras. The men wear shorts that appear to have been designed by someone who was dreaming on the future invention of lycra. Actually, I suspect the men were cast for their genuine athletic appearance and the women for their ability to not wear a bra.

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Dig the anatomically correct, au naturel statuary in the back. Lily-white of course, no gray plaster/marble for these folks. Those would be mongrel statues (I know, I’m pushing it. Can’t be helped, sorry).

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Words fail. So I’ll not add any.

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The girls get hollow circles and the boys get long sticks. I for one can’t fathom what this might symbolize!

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Stab those circles with your sticks, men! Stab them!

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The Buster Crabbe Youth conclude by kneeling before their masters, placing their Health and Beauty at the audiences’ disposal.

I just wish Jesse Owens would show up and challenge these guys to a race.

And to finish where I started, I don’t really mean to hang this Aryan wet dream around poor Erle Kenton’s neck – he’s a hired gun, he gets the script, he shoots the thing. So y’know, apologies to his heirs and all, but someone’s gotta take the fall for all this.

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Let’s see, what else can we take away from Search For Beauty? Well, this is my second time seeing Ida Lupino as a young blonde ingenue (the other being Anything Goes). She’s pretty ineffectual at this sort of thing, and you would never in a million years guess at the hard-as-nails brunette she was to turn into in just a few years, such as in Moontide below. A startling transformation, not just of look but of Star Quality – from boring to fantastic, with a change of hair color?

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gertrude michaels
Gertrude Michaels is another high point – she takes the acting honors, playing the wisegal tough broad helping Robert Armstrong scam Crabbe and Lupino. Wise is the word, too – she’s got the same script everyone else has, but she’s the only one making a play for anything like subtlety or multi-dimensional characterization. Ahead of her time, at least on this production. The disc I viewed the film on shares space with Murder at the Vanities, a precode Mitch Leisen musical comedy in which Gertrude once again plays the bad girl. She should have gone on to bigger and better.

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Lastly, there’s this: Towelsnapping! I bet you didn’t know that in the locker rooms of the Olympic Games, competitors from around the world went around snapping towels at their naked pals and chasing each other through the showers in the altogether.

Well now you do.

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