The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
CHANDU THE MAGICIAN
Three decades before Dr. Stephen Strange journeyed to the Himalayas to learn magic at the feet of the Ancient One, Frank Chandler learned the mystic arts of the equally bare feet of a Hindu yogi in India. Ridding the world of evil is obviously the only reason to learn magic, so that's what they both did. Taking a secret identity of Chandu the Magician, (Chandu having the semi-secret double meaning of "opium" in the slang of the day) Chandler lands in Egypt searching for his brother-in-law, who is apparently using the superior electronics industry there to invent a death ray. Not an evil death ray, one "for the good of mankind." (Oh please: If you don't know a few people it would help the world to use a death ray on, stop reading here.) The only possible way this could go wrong would be if the death ray were to fall into the hands of a megalomaniacal cackling villain who wants to make himself the new Pharaoh. (If you don't know what happens next, also stop reading now.) Our villain is single-named Roxor. (Roxxon happens to be the name of the evil oil company in 60s-era Marvel. Could a young Stan Lee have been influenced by such low-brow culture?)
As the resemblances to comic literature foretell, this simple-minded tale of good vs. evil was a set-up intended for kid-level thrills and chills, debuting in August 1931 as a radio show in Los Angeles. Surprisingly, it was a huge success among adults, going from local to regional to national distribution in a year. A hit radio show based in Los Angeles was bound to come to the attention of Hollywood and Fox snapped it up in 1932. Journeyman Marcel Varnel was lead director, but William Cameron Menzies, the man who invented the profession of Production Design, did the sets, the effects, and the crowds shot as co-director using legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe. Edmund Lowe was stiff enough to play a goody-goody magician with hypnotic powers, so he got cast as Chandu. To his misfortune, Roxon was the hot new villain in movies, Dracula himself, Bela Lugosi. Lugosi chewed through scenery faster than any death ray could destroy it, so dominating the hapless Lowe that when it came time to make a sequel in 1934, Fox tossed Lowe and turned Lugosi into the lead in a 12-episode serial The Return of Chandu. It's a measure of the day that the original's profit of $52,441 was enough to warrant the sequel. Obviously critic-proof, Chandu made money despite reviews like the one in The New Yorker, which, perhaps predictably, snarked that though Chandu was "about yogis and death rays and the Nile, none of the atrocities described seem as fearful as the acting."
Though how could anyone blame Lugosi for overacting when given this climactic monologue of evil?
At last, I am king of all. That lever is my sceptre. London, New York, Imperial Rome! I can blast them all into a heap of smoking ruins. Cities of the world shall perish.
All that lives shall know me as master. They'll tremble at my words. Paris. City of Fools. Proud of their Napoleon. What will they think when they feel the power of Roxor?
Even England. The sacred tradition. Its king, its triumph, its navy will be helpless. They shall bow before me in worship. Me, Roxor!
I will destroy the dams of the Nile and its roaring floods shall speed down upon hundreds of thousands, drowning them like rats. Roxor the God whose hand deals death!
Watch Lugosi ham that up in the clip below, with Menzies' fine images of the death ray wiping out the cities and dams.