Directors – William C. Menzies & Marcel Varnel, Screenplay – Barry Conners & Phillip Klein, Based on the Radio Serial Created by Harry A. Earnshaw, R.R. Morgan & Vera Oldham, Photography (b&w) – James Howe, Music Director – Louis De Francesco, Art Direction – Max Parker. Production Company – Fox Film Corporation.
Edmund Lowe (Chandu/Frank Chandler), Bela Lugosi (Roxor), Irene Ware (Princess Nadji), Herbert Mundin (Miggles), Henry B. Walthall (Professor Robert Regent), Weldon Heyburn (Abdullah), Virginia Hammond (Dorothy Regent), Nestor Aber (Bobby Regent), June Vlasek (Betty Lou Regent)
Frank Chandler attains the final level of mystical training and is appointed a yogi by Indian spiritual masters. He is named Chandu and told to go out into the world and use his mystical training, which includes the ability to create illusions and a double of himself, to fight evil. His first battle is in Egypt against the would-be world conqueror Roxor. Roxor has abducted Frank’s brother-in-law and is forcing him to divulge the secrets of the death ray he has created. As Chandu fights against Roxor and his minions, he also meets up with the woman of his dreams, his old friend, Princess Nadji.
Chandu the Magician was a popular radio serial that ran between 1932 and 1936 (and was later revived in 1948-9). The character was one of a number of mystical superheroes that were popular in the 1930s – others including the likes of The Shadow and Mandrake the Magician. This film quite closely adapts the first radio serial.
Today Chandu the Magician comes out somewhat dated. It is like a stage magician’s version of Indian mysticism – the Yogi is just a White Man dressed in an Indian turban doing the rope trick, walking on hot coals and looking into crystal balls. It is undeniably jingoistic – the version of Arabia, with an entirely Caucasian Arabian princess, is one that seems to have been created by people that have never been to the Middle East in their lives. The film also betrays an inherent underlying racism – in one scene, a blonde-haired white woman is about to be sold in the market place to a horde of slavering Arabian men where it seems the film is less horrified and outraged at her being sold into slavery than the fact that that it is a white girl being lusted over by Arabic men.
Where the film works with intermittent entertainment is in the production of thrills. It is like a serial with a better-budget and comes filled with all sorts of wonderful villainous deathtraps such as the hero being dumped in a sarcophagus at the bottom of the river, or a cell with a trapdoor floor that opens up to dump prisoners down a well into the river. There is the inevitable death ray and some variable effects scenes of it being unleashed on international cities. The hero of the piece has some nifty tricks up his sleeve, including being able to project a ghostly doppelganger to distract a guard away, or of leaving his robes standing holding a gun.
Bela Lugosi is on fine form as the villain of the show. Unfortunately as Chandu, Edmund Lowe is utterly bland and fails to invest the character with any mystery or majesty. The banality of the romance between he and Irene Ware gives the film a marshmallow centre. The comic relief with the Miggles character is occasionally amusing.
The show was later made into a twelve-chapter serial The Return of Chandu (1934), which in a casting oddity featured this film’s villain Bela Lugosi in the heroic role of Chandu.
Co-director Marcel Varnel went on to make a number of routine studio comedies, wartime films and thrillers. Co-director William Cameron Menzies had been an art director and production designer from the silent era. As director, he made a number of classic genre films including Things to Come (1936), The Whip Hand (1951), Invaders from Mars (1953) and The Maze (1953).