Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on January 7, 2016
In recent weeks, you might have heard about the upcoming Doctor Strange film currently scheduled for release in November of 2016. The news caught my attention because I’ve always liked the comic book character and the cast, which includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor, is impressive. I mention all this because tonight TCM is launching their month-long spotlight on legendary production designer and director, William Cameron Menzies. Some classic film fans might balk at the idea of mentioning the upcoming Doctor Strange movie and William Cameron Menzies in the same paragraph but there are slender threads that connect the two thanks to Menzies’s creative contributions to Chandu the Magician (1932) airing this evening at 9:45 PM EST/6:45 PST.
Chandu the Magician was based on a popular radio serial that debuted in 1931 and was principally aimed at younger listeners. Both the radio program and film center around an unusual hero named Frank Chandler aka Chandu. Chandu is an American citizen who mastered the occult arts while he was in India with help from some wise Yogis. In true comic book fashion, he uses his magic abilities to “conquer the evil that threatens mankind” and do battle with his archenemy, Roxor.
In the 71-minute film adaptation directed by William Cameron Menzies along with Marcel Varnel, Chandu is played by silent film actor Edmund Lowe who had made a smooth transition to talkies, but as middle age approached his star began to fade. Bela Lugosi, fresh off the set of Dracula, plays the evil Roxor. Lowe and Lugosi are supported by plenty of other talent, including costar Irene Ware as Chandu’s love interest Princess Nadji, Weldon Heyburn as Roxor’s cohort Abdulah, Herbert Mundin as Chandu’s hard-drinking assistant Miggles and Henry B. Walthall as Chandu’s brother-in-law and inventor of an ominous death ray that threatens mankind, but Lugosi manages to run away with the film. It’s almost impossible to take your eyes off the tall Hungarian actor when he’s on screen and Lugosi delivers his dialogue with such glee and gusto that you might find yourself applauding his villainy. It’s not surprising that when it came time to cast the film serial a few years later, Lugosi took over the role of Chandu and played the charismatic magician in a dozen episodic short films that were eventually compiled into full-length features titled The Return of Chandu (1934) and Chandu on the Magic Island (1935).
According to biographer James Curtis who is hosting TCM’s spotlight tonight, Menzies also acted as art director on Chandu the Magician and collaborated with cinematographer James Wong Howe and special effects guru Fred Sersen to create the film’s abundant visual tricks, overall look and imaginative design. Menzies was reportedly excited about working on the project, despite the minuscule budget, and took every opportunity available to bring the exotic fantasy world of Chandu to life. In William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Things to Come (reviewed earlier here), James Curtis describes the production of the film in great detail recounting many of the techniques the director used to achieve his pioneering vision including “split screens and double exposures, miniatures, rear projections, and Tesla coils.”
When Chandu the Magician was released in September of 1932 the film received mixed reviews but many critics praised its innovative look. Chapin Hall of the New York Times was particularly impressed writing, “The piece has been skillfully handled and, with the story and the setting, used the camera tricks [to] appear to be genuine magic.” Despite the praise, the film had a hard time finding an adult audience but many young people were thrilled by Chandu’s adventures.
So how does Doctor Strange tie into all of this? It starts with the character of Chandu, who was the invention of radio producers Harry A. Earnshaw and R.R. Morgan. Chandu was created to compete with other popular radio serials and comic strips of the day such as The Shadow, Tarzan and Buck Rogers. In an interesting twist, Chandu’s adventures were written by Vera Oldham, a young office girl who reportedly worked for Earnshaw and Morgan. Her scripts were so integral to the popularity of the radio show that Oldham was rewarded with a substantial salary increase as well as some sizable bonuses including a new car and vacations to Asia where she undoubtedly enjoyed visiting exotic locations frequented by Chandu himself. Thanks to the talents of Vera Oldham and voice actors such as Gayne Whitman who brought her stories to life, Chandu the Magician became one of the longest running adventure serials on radio.
As for his link to Dr. Strange, Chandu was one of the first “superhero magicians” who captured the imagination of the public with his powers of persuasion and illusion. Chandu would soon be followed by other mystics who used their occult powers to help mankind on radio, in comics and on film such as Mandrake the Magician, Doctor Occult, Zatara the Magician, Kardak the Mystic Magician, Yarko the Great, Zambini the Miracle Man and Mystico the Wonder Man. Doctor Strange, who was originally created by artist and writer Steve Ditko for Marvel in 1963, was just one of many sorcerer superheroes but he’s become an acclaimed and beloved character thanks to his inventive creator and the enduring appeal of Marvel Comics.
Chandu the Magician is a fun, entertaining and rollicking adventure with impressive special effects for its time that should appeal to comic book fans of all ages. However, much like the Batman serial that aired on TCM last year (you can find my article about the Batman serial here) it suffers from the same racism and ethnic bigotry often typical of the era it was made. If you have children you might want to watch with them so you can explain the negative Arab stereotypes in the film but it does buck some conventions. As I briefly mentioned above, Chandu’s love interest is an Egyptian princess as played by the alluring American actress Irene Ware who would later appear with Lugosi in the Universal horror film, The Raven (1935).
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