Chandu the Magician, who originated in a popular radio serial, was one of many pulp heroes with magic acts. He made his debut in 1932, two years before his successful rival, the newspaper strip Mandrake the Magician: though Chandu is more a swami-type than a stage conjurerer, he has the Mandrake-like power to control men’s minds, plus the Shadow’s knack of temporary invisibility (always a good radio gimmick). Chandu came to the screen instantly in the feature Chandu the Magician, with Edwin Lowe as the dapper hero and Bela Lugosi typecast as a death-ray-wielding baddie. This much cheaper 1934 serial switches Lugosi inappropriately to the good guy role, which the actor (always given to complaining that he never got romantic leads) must have enjoyed (he gets an unconvincing cuddle or two with exotic heroine Maria Alba) even if he couldn’t cope with regular guy benevolence or the mandatory serial fistfights.
Frank Chandler, known as Chandu, is supposed to be an American who has studied in oriental mysteries, with a stuffy dowager sister (Clara Kimball Young) and bland juvenile nephew (Deane Benton) as dependents – and no explanation of how he picked up that Hungarian accent. In moments of crisis, he rubs his large ring and stares into space while in telepathic communication with his teacher (‘Great Yogi’, voiced by Murdoch MacQuarrie) in a distant land. Some have suggested a parallel with that ‘use the Force’ blather from the Star Wars films, but the relationship of magical adept to tutor also prefigures the set-up between Marvel Comics’ Dr Strange and the Ancient One. The first four chapters were swiftly edited together as a feature also called The Return of Chandu (though he hasn’t been away anywhere in particular), and the rest of it got abridged as an apparent sequel, Chandu on the Magic Island; there’s a false ending four episodes in, to provide a finish for the feature version. In California, Chandu comes up against the hooded cultists of Ubasti, who want to sacrifice Egyptian Princess Nadji (Alba – lovely, but with an accent more strangled than Lugosi’s) in order to resurrect their Ayesha-like High Priestess Ossana (the inspiration here is probably The Mummy). After thwarting this bunch of cultists, with their temple burned to the ground, the happy gang set sail for the lost island of Lemuria, home to cannibal savages and the rest of the cult of Ubasti, not to mention the huge, identifiable gates from King Kong.
With Lugosi as hero, the serial has a problem coming up with a suitable villain: Chandu’s initial adversary is the turbanned, twitchy Vindhyan (Lucian Prival), who is killed early and replaced by a couple of standard high priests (Cyril Armbrister, Jack Clark). Prival is an acceptable minion, but no one’s idea of a main menace and one of the reasons this is such a suspenseless, undramatic effort is that Lugosi never gets into a staring contest with a heavy who can properly threaten him. Another reason, frankly, is that director Ray Taylor just keeps things ticking over – it’s fast, but has a minimal feel. It sets some sort of a record in that each chapter begins by repeating four or five minutes from the end of the preceding episode, usually leading to an insultingly limp escape (no, Chandu didn’t fall into the tiger pit), so it only needs to provide seven minutes or so of middling waffle before getting to the footage that’ll be repeated next week.
One late episode has folks peering into a fire and seeing flashbacks which recycle scenes from the story so far, as much a budget-saving measure as a service for those who joined the serial half-way. It also has scripted-on-the-hoof inconsistencies: in the first and last chapters, Chandu can become invisible by force of will, but on Lemuria, he needs a spell cast by ‘white magician’ Tyba (Josef Swickard) which is tied to an hourglass that runs out of sands and restores the hero to vulnerable visibility just in time for him to be captured and imperilled. In theory, Chandu’s openness to Eastern ideas and crush on an Egyptian suggests fewer racist attitudes than usual, though the savage islanders are as ridiculous a bunch of gibbering, swarthy loons as in any jungle quickie of the period and the South Seas/Ancient Egyptian culture of Lemuria (they worship a giant cat idol) makes no sense at all.