Friday, February 19, 2016

Chandu the Magician -- Bela Lugosi plays the bad guy

By Doug Gibson

Several days ago, the astute, knowledgeable Steve D. Stones reviewed the 1934 serial "The Return of Chandu," in which Bela Lugosi is the stout-hearted, good magician. We promised a follow-up review of the bigger-budgeted 1932 "Chandu the Magician," in which the now-forgotten "big star" Edmund Lowe played the magician hero, and Lugosi the foil, the evil Roxor, who plans to destroy the world with a powerful ray machine.

Now Chandu was a popular radio show of that long-ago era, and plots generally need to stay close to the scripts. Chandu is Frank Chandler, he has a sort of chaste romance with the Princess Nadji, played by Irene Ware, and he's protecting the same family, in the film called "The Regents," dad, mom and two teenage kids named Bobby and Betty Lou. What's happened is that Roxor has kidnapped the Regent patriarch so he can get the information on his death ray (why would anyone invent a death ray that can destroy the world, or turn it into a mindless, brute era??)

But he does, and he wants Nadji as well and Roxor also is not above selling the kids into slavery, anything to get dad to cough up the formula. The relatively short film, 70-plus minutes, has Chandu doing his best to foil Roxor's plans.

"Chandu the Magician" is a better film than the serial, which drags and drags, and it has some cool special effects of that era. A couple involve escapes from stone-enclosed prison rooms and from the ocean. Lowe is not too great as Chandu but he's OK. (Why didn't anyone conceive of having Lugosi play two roles: Chandu and Roxor?!)

A key problem with "Chandu the Magician" is that it doesn't know whether it wants to be a comic spoof of the fantasy genre or a dark fantasy. It tries to be both. That indecision makes a secondary character played for laughs, Miggles, sort of misfire. It's a little jarring to laugh at Chandu having sport with the constantly whimpering Miggles and then cut to a scene where kidnapped, very nubile teenager Betty Lou, played by June Lang, is being sold at auction, in a revealing costume, as a sex slave. The pre-code clashes with the kid code.

Yet "Chandu" is a lot of fun, with scene after scene after scene of good people being rescued by Chandu and his allies. Despite the occasional dark detour it can be enjoyed by kids. Watch it before "The Return of Chandu" if you can. It's easy to buy. The ending is a bit of a letdown. I'm not giving away any surprise that Chandu wins but I kind of wish he had vanquished Lugosi's Roxor in a more exciting manner. Lugosi is, by the way, excellent in his bad guy role.

"Chandu the Magician" was released by the Fox Film Corporation and it had a relatively large budget for that time, $349,000. Director William Cameron Menzies would later direct two science fiction classics, "Things to Come," and "Invaders From Mars." Watch a clip below.

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