Friday, November 18, 2016

Review: CHANDU THE MAGICIAN (1932)

Edmund Lowe as Chandu the Magician.
Robert Regent (Henry B. Walthall) is like many other middle-aged men: he's happily married to a beautiful wife, Dorothy (Virginia Hammond); he has a comely teenage daughter, Betty Lou (June Lang), and a go-getting pre-teen son, Bobby (Nestor Aber); and he applies himself daily to his great purpose in life - the building of an all-powerful death ray device! Said invention is naturally coveted by the villainous (black turbanned) Roxor, who commandeers the abduction of Robert and his pet project. Fortunately, Robert is the brother-in-law of Frank Chandler, better known as Chandu the Magician, crime-solving (white turbanned) yogi and sworn enemy of evil!

Henry B. Walthall with his death ray machine.
This concise outline of the Fox Film Corporation's CHANDU THE MAGICIAN (1932), based on a popular radio drama then in its second year, suggests a thick slice of rather dated pulp melodrama. However, the vast resources available to Fox, creative and monetary, invested it with the goods to become one of the enduringly impressive works of 1930s horror and fantasy. Matinee idol Edmund Lowe, whom Fox had most recently cast as the heroic Chatrand the Magician in THE SPIDER (1931), was something of a no-brainer choice to portray Chandu, but the production leaped leagues ahead of its bland predecessor by casting Bela Lugosi as Roxor. One year after his triumph in Universal's DRACULA, Lugosi was primed to give some of his most incandescent performances - in Universal's MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, Paramount's ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, United Artists' WHITE ZOMBIE, and in Fox's Charlie Chan opus THE BLACK CAMEL - and here he portrays Roxor's destructive megalomania with a wattage he didn't dare duplicate until 1935's THE RAVEN. His lissome co-star in that later horror fest, Irene Ware, is also on hand, quite wonderful as Chandu's beloved, the "so very, very young" Princess Nadji. But the aces in this already attractive spread are two of Lowe's compatriots from THE SPIDER: the young but already gifted director of photography James Wong Howe, and master art director/special effects designer William Cameron Menzies, a specialist in Eastern exotica since 1924's THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD at least, who had previously co-directed THE SPIDER and co-directed this film with Marcel Varnel. Leaving the mostly feeble dramatic scenes to Varnel, Menzies applied his genius to a parade of trick shots that even now look vastly ahead of their time, as awesome to behold as they are a pleasure to pause and deconstruct. Among the film's many visual pleasures:
Establishing shots with two- and three-dimensional components,
astral projections,
walks across blazing coals,
exotic artificial exteriors,
perilous visits to ancient temples,
(a dizzying shot worthy of BLACK NARCISSUS!),
rifles that are turned into snakes,
alcoholic hallucinations,
deathly chasms below dungeon floors,
a spectacular underwater scene filmed without water,
and Bela Lugosi wielding a death ray
that destroys great cities
and dismantles dams.

The film also contains one particularly baffling effects shot executed by Menzies and Howe, a startling subjective camera move through the labyrinthine interior of an ancient temple. The cobwebby corridors we see are clearly those of a scale model or miniature, but the various camera devices that made such shots like this possible in the 1980s (like the snorkel) didn't exist in 1932. It boggles the mind how these movie magicians could have conceived such imagery, much less got it in the can, so many decades before the technology should have existed to film it. It's hard to convey the sequence without movement, but it begins with a slow approach toward this maquette:

Once inside, we go to the end of this corridor and turn left,
revealing this corridor, and we advance, turning again at the sarcophagus,
which takes us here
and so forth.
In the midst of the sequence, we turn one corner that leads to a patch of darkness, which would have provided opportunity for a cut. Once we reach the two sarcophaghi, the camera tips down to provide us with an optically inserted high angle view into Roxar's headquarters. This brief transitional shot is worth the price of admission in itself.

CHANDU was previously released on DVD by 20th Century Fox Entertainment back in 2008. Kino Lorber's new Blu-ray upgrade ports over the supplementary materials from that release - an audio commentary by biographer Gregory William Mank, a brief but all-star documentary featurette about the Chandu character, and a now-pointless "2008 restoration demonstration" - but in every other way bests it. Granted, there is only so much that can be done with the visual restoration of a film this old, but there must be significant enhancement over the best that was available eight years ago. To wit: when Mank's commentary describes the subject of one establishing shot as a miniature, it's now more obviously a miniature only up to a point, completed with large, two-dimensional piece of artwork done in what appears to be ink-wash. Also, whenever Mank pauses in his talk to let us listen to something being said, the 2008 soundtrack is, more often than not, abuzz with distortion and brittleness, which makes the listener all the more appreciative of the great strides apparent in the silent running of Kino's latest restoration. I'm not sure how much of this is attributable to the restoration, to the makeup department, or to Howe's cinematography but the film's two ingenues, Irene Ware and June Lang (as Betty Lou), are strikingly contemporary in their allure - not at all like the mannered wraiths seen in so many Hollywood features of the early 1930s. (Mank notes that Lang's frankly pre-code apparel in the scene where the abducted Betty Lou is placed on the auction block at a slave market - more transparent than ever in 1080p! - was a target for censorship in Ontario, Canada.) You will see the occasional banjo string scratches but, otherwise, this is a notable HD preservation of some consummate filmmaking.

A selection of shots of June Lang and Irene Ware.

Mank's commentary is brisk, lively and mostly favors the cast members with its attention, appreciating their work onscreen while tracing the fuller details of their overall careers as well as the occasionally tragic details of their private lives. As the author of a book diagramming the careers of Lugosi and Karloff in parallel, he can't resist bringing in some not-entirely-relevant details concerning MGM's THE MASK OF FU MANCHU, because it was Boris Karloff's "death ray" picture of the same year. Actually, there is an even greater relationship between the two pictures: CHANDU was very much inspired by the occult fictions of British author Sax Rohmer, the creator of Fu Manchu. Mank cites another, later source (which I did not jot down) in tracing the origin of Chandu's name, but it goes back still further to Rohmer's popular 1919 novel DOPE - in which the word chandu figures as a synonym for opiates. Meanwhile, an important antecedent of Chandu himself (not to mention King Features' Mandrake the Magician, who debuted in 1934, and Marvel's Doctor Strange, who debuted in 1963) is Moris Klaw, the astral investigator and crime solver of the occult short stories collected in Rohmer's 1920 book THE DREAM DETECTIVE.

Bela Lugosi at his best as Roxor.

Especially given the recent release of DOCTOR STRANGE, the featurette "Masters of Magic: The World of Chandu" now feels dated as its impressive roster of commentators (Ray Harryhausen, Bob Burns, Greg Mank, Paul M. Jensen, Steve Haberman, Stephen Jones, Christopher Wicking, Mark Viera) reach to Indiana Jones and Harry Potter as high profile points of reference.

If you're at all interested in the origins of DOCTOR STRANGE, or mysticism in cinema, or the history of special effects, or the scenery chewing of Bela Lugosi, consider CHANDU THE MAGICIAN an essential chapter in your education. You can find Kino Lorber's region-free Blu-ray here.

(c) 2016 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

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