*. Despite the fact that a number of early filmmakers used the new medium as a way of (re)creating their own kind of magic tricks or illusions, turning “movie magic” into a term of art, magicians have never been that popular on screen. Even superhero-magician hybrids, from Chandu the Magician to Doctor Strange, while being adapted from their sources into decent flicks, didn’t enjoy great success.
*. Chandu should have been a hit. The character had been introduced to American audiences only a year earlier by way of an incredibly popular radio serial. Gregory Mank, on the DVD commentary, says that 60% of American households tuned in five nights a week to listen to Chandu, “an amazing statistic.” The show was targeted at kids, and the movie delivered with a crazy story of exotic adventure, served up with great special effects. And yet.
*. I had a hard time telling from Mank’s commentary, and the accompanying featurette Masters of Magic: The World of Chandu, just how well the movie did at the box office. Mank doesn’t say much aside from mentioning it was “profitable.” From what I was able to dig up this is correct, but only just. It certainly didn’t provide anything like the return on investment of Frankenstein. Other voices on the documentary say that the box office was disappointing due to Edmund Lowe not having the requisite star power to carry the lead. We’re also told that it didn’t do well in cities but played well in small towns, better in matinees than evening shows (as would be expected given the target audience).
*. I don’t think anyone could have been happy, as the franchise was allowed to lapse. There was a serial a couple of years later (The Return of Chandu) made up of a dozen short films that cast Lugosi as Chandu, but that would be it. Before long the mage had gone the way of the Shadow or Mandrake, radio stars killed by video. There were various rumours of remakes and re-sets all the way into the 1970s, but nothing materialized.
*. Why has this been the fate of so many magicians? Chandu the Magician (along with The Mask of Fu Manchu, starring Boris Karloff) was Fox’s response to the success of Universal’s monster hits of the previous year, and it checks all the right boxes. I don’t think we can blame it all on Lowe, as I don’t think he’s that bad, and the villain of such a piece (Bela Lugosi as Roxor) is always likely to steal the show anyway. Who remembers the handsome leads in Dracula or Frankenstein?
*. Even the credits are fun, with a waving hand making them appear on screen. And they are interesting credits too. Co-director William Cameron Menzies was an accomplished production designer, and gives this film a great look with some really impressive sets. James Wong Howe was behind the camera. Henry B. Walthall had been the star of The Birth of a Nation. Ken Strickfaden apparently designed the lab, as he had done in Frankenstein. Bela Lugosi turns in one of his best performances.
*. It’s a good story too, with all sorts of great adventure elements. There are multiple kidnappings, a plot involving a giant death ray that’s capable of wiping out cities halfway around the world, our hero being bound in chains and locked into a sarcophagus that’s then tossed into a river, a prison cell with a collapsing floor, and all sorts of other pulp goodies. For a children’s film it also pushed the envelope. Censors objected to a scene where a man has his eyes burned out with a branding iron and another where sexy June Lang is put on the auction block. Mank directs us to look at her bosom to see why the censors were so upset, as it’s clear she isn’t wearing anything under her light dress and it rather looks like a cool wind is blowing in from somewhere. Princess Leia’s turn as a slave girl had nothing on this.
*. About the only part that doesn’t work is Herbert Mundin’s turn as Miggles. It’s just a one-note part and gets tiring quickly, especially given how it’s overworked. Not to mention how he seems to be entirely shoehorned into the plot.
*. So it was a hot property and it still disappointed. The Chandu franchise was stillborn. And again I wonder why. Mank finishes up his commentary by saying that we have always been fascinated with the world of magic, which is true, but not in the movies. Why? Perhaps movies raised the bar too high. The movies are magic on steroids, making us less appreciative of the real illusion.