The Master Magician


I rushed off to see Marvel Comic‘s newest film fantasy, Doctor Strange, the other day. After working so hard during the presidential election and suffering such a devastatingly disappointing result, I felt the need to enjoy a movie where the bad guys get the defeat they deserve. I love comic book superheroes and have since I was a young kid buying a neighbor boy’s used comics for three for a quarter (yes, I know, that really shows my age). I started out a DC Comics girl with my favorites being the teen teams of The Legion of Super-Heroes and Teen Titans. But the X-Men caught my attention and I quickly became a Marvel girl. I read a wide variety of Marvel comics (Sid, that neighbor boy, read just about everything) but generally favored the super powered teams especially X-Men and The New Mutants. Marvel’s Doctor Strange comic was not one that I read regularly. I just was not that interested in “magic” at the time. But I definitely was interested in this new Doctor Strange film. I have thoroughly enjoyed the Marvel Cinematic Universe and I am a fan of both Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor plus, as I said earlier, I was definitely in the mood to see some bad guy bashing. And the film did not disappoint. Benedict is great, Chiwetel is sympathetic, and the eye-popping special effects are very reminiscent of the art of Doctor Strange‘s comic creator Steve Ditko.



After enjoying Doctor Strange, I was still in the mood for some magical movie mayhem, so what could be better than to return to an earlier master of magic, Chandu the Magician. Author supreme Stan Lee has acknowledged that his “take on the character was inspired by the Chandu the Magician radio program”. I reviewed that radio show in my earlier post, The Amazing Radio Adventures of Chandu the Magician. But besides being one of the longest running early radio shows, the magically talented Chandu had also morphed onto the silver screen. The popular radio show first made the leap to feature film in 1932. Chandu the Magician  starred Edmund Lowe as Frank Chandler aka Chandu and everyone’s favorite master of horror, Bela Lugosi, as the villainous Roxor. Just two years later, independent producer Sol Lesser obtained the rights to the Chandu character but was not able to get the original film’s star. So he simply moved the original film’s villain, my man Bela Lugosi, into the hero’s role. Sol Lesser made The Return of Chandu, a 12 episode fantasy film serial, but gave the theaters that booked his creation a wide variety of choices for how they ran it. Theaters could book a conventional 12 episode serial or they could book The Return of Chandu 60 minute feature film made up of the first four episodes then follow up with the remaining eight serial episodes or they could choose to book just the 60 minute feature film. A year later the last eight serial episodes were edited into their own 65 minute feature film titled Chandu on the Magic Island. The Internet Archive has available for FREE online viewing or download that last film, Chandu on the Magic Island, as well as all 12 The Return of Chandu serial episodes.

The Return of Chandu and Chandu on the Magic Island stars Bela Lugosi in the first and only time during his Hollywood career that he got to play the romantic leading man. Bela plays Frank Chandler, a man “who has spent most of his life in the Orient, where he is renowned under the name of “Chandu the Magician” for his tremendous skill with White Magic”. Chandu is in love with Egyptian princess Nadji (played by Maria Alba) but she has been targeted for sacrifice by a Black Magic cult known as the Sect of Ubasti. Chandu, with the help of his sister Dorothy (Clara Kimball Young) and her children Bob (Dean Benton) and Betty (Phyllis Ludwig), must use all means magical and not-so-magical to save Princess Nadji from a gruesome fate.


Bela Lugosi makes a great Chandu. Bela gives Chandu a slightly menacing air (maybe because he actually played the villain Roxor in the 1932 Chandu film) and he is relatively at ease doing “magic”. But, unfortunately, he and Princess Nadji just do not have any believable romantic chemistry. They are both just too stiff together. And Maria Alba as Princess Nadji never really shows any convincing distress in her role as damsel in distress; she is basically just blah. Chandu’s family also ends up in a lot of “distress”. Dean Benton as nephew Bob is fun as he gets to be both “boy in distress” as well as fighting sidekick for Chandu. The villains, the Sect of Ubasti, are rather featureless, stereotypical “foreigners”. Speaking of “foreigners”, Bela Lugosi never lost his thick accent and it was one of the things that contributed to the decline of his Hollywood career. The studios never managed to figure out what to do with him and continually stuck him in “foreign” villain roles. Bela’s accent is on display in The Return of Chandu and it makes for a fun bit of nonsense: how did a man who spent most of his life in the Orient end up with an Eastern European accent?


The Return of Chandu and Chandu on the Magic Island are both in the Public Domain and available FREE on the Internet Archive. The Return of Chandu is a black and white 12 episode serial. The video is a bit pale and blurry and there is some film damage but the audio quality is very good. The same is true of Chandu on the Magic Island, the feature film edited from the serial. Narrative-wise, I am hard pressed to decide which one I preferred more. The Return of Chandu serial has a rather slow pace and lots of padding while the film Chandu on the Magic Island is much faster paced. Sol Lesser even re-shot some of the cliff-hanger chapter endings that were re-used in Magic Island so that the film avoids being “jerky” as it rushes from one peril to the next. On the other hand, Chandu on the Magic Island looses a lot of the “magic” of The Return of Chandu. The serial has time to show more “magic” being used by both Chandu and the villains. Magic Island basically limits Chandu to waving his hand over his magic ring and starring into space as he calls on “Oh yogi, my teacher, far across the sea”. There are some magic circles that go “poof” and a scene where Chandu is briefly invisible but the serial has far more “magic” going on than the feature film. Also, while the special effects are pretty good for the times, they are nothing compared to the trippy effects of Doctor Strange. Chandu on the Magic Island is available FREE on the Internet Archive, just click the link. IA also has The Return of Chandu serial. It is available, with an added Russian soundtrack, with all 12 chapter in one link. And The Return of Chandu is also available, in English, but with all 12 chapters separate (although I have to admit the chapter titles are not very imaginative), just click the links below:
Chapter 1 The Chosen Victim
Chapter 2 The House on the Hills
Chapter 3 On the High Seas
Chapter 4 The Evil Eye
Chapter 5 The Invisible Circle
Chapter 6 Chandu’s False Step
Chapter 7 Mysterious Magician
Chapter 8 The Edge of the Pit
Chapter 9 The Terror Invisible
Chapter 10 The Crushing Rock
Chapter 11 The Uplifted Knife
Chapter 12 The Knife Descends


If you enjoyed Bela Lugosi as Chandu the Magician, please check out my review of the original Chandu radio show:
The Amazing Radio Adventures of Chandu the Magician

For more “magic” adventures check out these posts by Cheryl M-M:
The Dragon Tamers by Edith Nesbit
The Magic Fishbone by Charles Dickens
The Book of Wonder by Lord Dunsany
And by Dileas:
The Magic Shop by H.G. Wells

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