Chandu the Magician: The Original Master of the Mystic Arts (Review)

Modern viewers may wince a bit at the more problematic aspects of this classic fantasy adventure from pre-Code Hollywood.
Chandu the Magician - William Cameron Menzies, Marcel Varnel

I’ve long been fascinated by the various movies, TV shows, and radio plays from the 1930s and ’40s that tried to depict the “exotic” for American audiences. Titles like Ace Drummond, The Adventures of Smilin’ Jack, Arabian Nights, and The Mask of Fu Manchu — which were usually in the sci-fi, fantasy, and/or adventure genres — no doubt thrilled and enchanted their original audiences with tales that employed distant locales, foreign cultures, and bizarre rituals as their backdrops.

But seeing them nowadays, it’s impossible to deny their problematic aspects: white saviors and (not so) subtle white supremacy (i.e., white characters saving, educating, improving upon, and otherwise tolerating superstitious, backwards non-white cultures); white-washing, blackface, and brownface (i.e., non-white characters played by obviously white actors); and idealized, stereotypical, and even fetishized views of non-white cultures, particularly “Oriental” and “Eastern” cultures.

Chandu the Magician contains instances of all of these, and then some.

The movie’s titular hero (played by Edmund Lowe) is a rather smarmy white man who studied under Indian yogis and in just three short years, learned all there is to know about their mystical arts of astral projection, clairvoyance, mesmerism, and illusion. Such arts come in handy when Chandu’s family is threatened in Egypt, and our mystical hero must confront the evil Roxor, an Egyptian madman intent on conquering the world with a death ray invented by Chandu’s hapless brother-in-law.

Played with wonderfully malicious glee by the great Bela Lugosi, Roxor is the kind of villain that only exists in this sort of movie, i.e., a villain prone to such melodramatic pronouncements as “I shall be greater than any pharaoh! Civilization and all its works shall be destroyed! Men shall return to savagery following only one supreme intelligence… me!” Today’s movie villains just don’t have this kind of panache anymore. And as for why Chandu’s brother-in-law would even invent a death ray capable of destroying cities on the other side of the world, that’s even more mysterious than Chandu’s powers.

Modern viewers will likely find themselves rolling their eyes whenever an obviously white dude in a turban calls Chandu “effendi,” or when Chandu’s yogi teacher speaks perfect King James English (e.g., “Go forth in thy youth and strength and conquer the evil that threatens Mankind”), or when Chandu’s virginal niece, clad only in a flimsy negligee, is put on the auction block and pawed at by lustful Egyptian men. (Don’t worry, though: Chandu’s arcane powers ensure that her virtue remains intact.)

That being said, it’s hard to find Chandu the Magician offensive per se. Part of that’s due to the film’s contrivances and inherent silliness — this was a pre-Code Hollywood “B” movie, after all. Whatever offensiveness it possesses is probably best left to the crew of the Satellite of Love and their sardonic wit.

But even with the aforementioned problematic aspects, Chandu the Magician is a decently enjoyable “classic” fantasy/adventure film with a sense of whimsy and uncomplicated derring-do that’s a nice change of pace from today’s genre movies. (Sidenote: It doesn’t surprise me at all that the character of Chandu inspired Marvel Comics’ Doctor Strange, and if you told me that Chandu the Magician was an influence on the Indiana Jones franchise, that would make total sense to me.)

Although Chandu the Magician is a “B” movie, it’s definitely elevated by the cinematography of James Wong Howe (a well-known and influential Chinese-American cinematographer), which is frequently beautiful, especially when it comes to capturing the face of Chandu’s paramour, the Egyptian princess Nadji (Irene Ware). Howe’s cinematography, combined with the film’s special effects, creates an appropriately otherworldly mood whenever Chandu employs his mystical arts, be it astral projection or casting illusions. One special effect, that of Chandu walking through flames as part of his final test, still holds up pretty well today due to its cleverness and subtlety.

Chandu the Magician was successful enough to get a sequel, the aptly titled The Return of Chandu, which was released in 1934. But whereas Chandu the Magician was a proper feature, The Return of Chandu was originally produced as a 12-part serial. And though it lacked its predecessor’s production values, The Return of Chandu delved into even greater bizarreness, with Chandu and his cohorts traveling to the lost continent of Lemuria to battle an evil cult. Edmund Lowe did not reprise the role of Chandu for the sequel, however. Instead, it went to Roxor himself, Bela Lugosi, in one of his few non-villainous roles.