Mandrake the Magician

Mandrake the Magician--titles
Columbia, 12 Chapters, 1939. Starring Warren Hull, Doris Weston, Al Kikume, Forbes Murray, Kenneth MacDonald, Edward Earle, Don Beddoe, Rex Downing, John Tyrell, and ? as the Wasp.

The world-famous Mandrake the Magician (Warren Hull) is returning from a trip to the Orient with his faithful assistant Lothar (Al Kikume) and his engineer friend James Webster (Kenneth MacDonald). Mandrake has been researching metals that can assist Professor Houston (Forbes Murray) in the development of his “radium energy machine,” a device that can be of great medical value to humanity; the magician’s involvement with Houston brings unwelcome repercussions when two thugs try to murder him during a shipboard magic performance. Meanwhile, Houston, working in his lab, is threatened by the thugs’ employer, a mysterious criminal known as the Wasp–who shortly afterwards kidnaps Houston and steals the radium machine, intending to utilize its tremendous energy for destructive purposes. Mandrake quickly gets on the track of the Wasp, and, with the help of Lothar and Houston’s daughter Betty (Doris Weston), tries to rescue Professor Houston and stop the Wasp from wreaking havoc on power sources (dams, telephone companies, radio stations) throughout the country. Webster also lends Mandrake a hand, along with the magician’s other friends, Dr. Andre Bennett (Edward Earle) and theatrical manager Frank Raymond (Don Beddoe). However, one of these three helpful gentlemen is secretly the Wasp, and Mandrake will need all his considerable cleverness to discover and unmask the guilty party.

Mandrake the Magician is perhaps the most underrated of all Columbia’s cliffhangers. One of Columbia’s in-house serial productions, it’s never received the acclaim given other members of that group (Overland with Kit Carson, The Spider’s Web), and has even made a few fan lists of the studio’s worst chapterplays. This neglect of Mandrake is truly puzzling, since the serial, like its Columbia-produced contemporaries, features above-average production values, a strong cast, energetic action scenes, and a very fast pace–and actually surpasses some of the other in-house Columbia outings in several departments.

Mandrake’s script also surpasses most other sound serials–regardless of studio–in the way it handles its cast of mystery-villain suspects. Unlike the suspects in Mascot serials (colorfully and outrageously sinister, save the invariable culprit) or the suspects in Republic serials (much less irrationally villainous than the Mascot red herrings, but dully interchangeable), Mandrake’s potential heavies are individualized, believable, and likable characters who take turns helping the hero and are given more to do than merely behave suspiciously. As a result, picking the guilty party is more difficult and more interesting than in other chapterplays; writers Joseph Poland, Basil Dickey, and Ned Dandy deserve extra credit for taking such a novel but intelligent approach to the old mystery-villain plot.

Mandrake the Magician--suspects
Above: The cast of suspects, plus Mandrake and Lothar. From left to right are Al Kikume, Kenneth MacDonald, Warren Hull, Edward Earle, and Don Beddoe.

Poland, Dickey, and Dandy aren’t as skillful in other scripting areas: though the narrator tells us that the Wasp hopes to gain control of the nation’s utilities, the villain himself never announces his master plan and never explains how his actions will further this goal, making it seem as if his only goal is to randomly destroy selected power-producing targets. The radium machine’s capabilities are also rather vaguely explained, and we’re never given a reason for Mandrake’s initial involvement with the machine’s development; scientific research seems like an odd hobby for a stage magician. Still, despite the haziness surrounding their initial motivations, both hero and villain move quickly, smoothly, and logically from one duel to the next, giving Mandrake a much less disjointed narrative than most of its immediate predecessors, particularly Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok and Flying G-Men.

The writers are quite unfaithful to their comic-strip source, which might be one reason for Mandrake’s undeserved unpopularity; the serial Mandrake, unlike Lee Falk’s comics version, does not use mind-boggling hypnosis on the villains, restricting his “magic” to sleights-of-hand, rope escapes, and occasional flash-powder explosions. In fairness, the comics Mandrake’s hypnotic illusions would have been difficult to reproduce on a cliffhanger’s budget; for the same reason, one can understand why the serial’s magician usually wears a suit and fedora and only occasionally dons the comics Mandrake’s tux, top hat, and cape; such formal wear would not be suited to serial fisticuffs. As with Republic’s Captain America, it’s necessary to forgive the severe alterations of the source character in order to appreciate Mandrake’s good points.

Mandrake’s directors (Sam Nelson and Norman Deming) manage to avoid the ridiculously bloodless gunfights that marred the other 1939 Columbia chapterplays, Overland with Kit Carson and Flying G-Men (a result of the censors’ reaction to the violent Hickok and Spider’s Web). They do so by simply eschewing shootouts altogether in hero-villain confrontations, centering the action scenes squarely around chases and fisticuffs instead;  although the characters’ abstention from gunplay seems a little odd at times, it’s vastly preferable to having them fire innumerable rounds of ammunition at each other with scoring a hit, as in Carson and G-Men.

The aforementioned fights and chases are energetic and exciting, although the brawls  are not slickly choreographed and feature a good deal of wild arm-swinging. However, the presence of George DeNormand–Ralph Byrd’s double in the Dick Tracy serials over at Republic–lends an added boost to the proceedings; he doubles star Warren Hull here, and works some impressive leaps and falls into the fights; his jump from a car roof into a pack of henchmen, and his leap over another car to escape them, is particularly memorable. The Chapter Seven fight at the telephone-company base, which leads into a battle between a thug and Mandrake in a cable car above a canyon, is another of the serial’s action highlights; other standouts include the Chapter Ten chase (and several accompanying fights) in the halls of the Wasp’s sanitarium hideout, the climactic fistfight between Mandrake and the Wasp, and the car chase that follows it.

Mandrake the Magician--George DeNormand
Above: DeNormand makes a typical drop after escaping a cable-car crash via an overhead wire. Below: DeNormand gives the henchmen a hard time.
Mandrake the Magician--leaping still

Mandrake also features some excellent chapter endings–particularly the Chapter Eleven one, in which the Wasp uses the radium machine to bring Mandrake’s living room crashing down on the magician and his assembled guests. The sequence is very well-shot and genuinely eerie, with the lights darkening and sparks flying up as various characters react in panicked-looking closeups. The first-chapter cliffhanger, in which a henchman corners Mandrake in Houston’s lab and apparently zaps him with a fatal ray, is also effectively and ominously handled. The cable-car crash that follows the fight mentioned above in Chapter Seven also makes a strong cliffhanger, as does the Chapter Eight ending, in which Mandrake and Lothar are trapped in the path of raging flood water.

Mandrake the Magician--Chapter Eleven cliffhanger 2 Mandrake the Magician--Chapter Eleven cliffhanger
Above: Shots from the Chapter Eleven cliffhanger.

The serial, in common with the other Columbia in-house chapterplays, features some superior location work. While part of the action takes place in the city streets on Columbia’s backlot or at the studio’s usual mansion set (later seen as the Calvert home in Who’s Guilty), the search for the minerals needed to operate the radium machine also takes the characters out into the wilds of Iverson’s Ranch and the Santa Clarita canyon area. However, the most impressive of the serial’s locations is El Miradero, the real-life mansion (a veritable Moorish palace) of California millionaire Leslie Bennett. Its imposing gateway, equally imposing main structure, and spacious grounds function as Mandrake’s home territory in the serial, and serve as very memorable backdrops for several action and dialogue scenes (Mandrake’s possession of such a palatial estate must surely make him one of the most well-heeled chapterplay heroes).

Mandrake the Magician--thug at Iverson's Mandrake the Magician--mining at Iverson's Mandrake the Magician--Miradero 1 Mandrake the Magician--Miradero 2
Above: One of the Wasp’s thugs at Iverson’s (top left), Mandrake and Lothar searching for “platonite” in another Iverson’s scene (top right), Mandrake’s car driving in at the gates of El Miradero (bottom left), and Mandrake exiting one of El Miradero’s side doors to pursue crooks down the mansion’s drive (bottom right).

Warren Hull’s performance in The Spider’s Web (Columbia, 1938) has received well-deserved praise from serial fans, but his turn as Mandrake is just as impressive; as in Web, he manages to seem suave but tough, aristocratic but congenial, and thoughtful but energetic, and dominates the serial almost effortlessly. Honolulu-born Al Kikume, a perennial background player in many jungle serials, is somewhat bland but quite likable as Hull’s sidekick, coming off as jovial, loyal, and enthusiastic.

Forbes Murray is excellent as the dignified but cheerful Professor Houston, conveying a convincing shrewdness and determination in his character’s repeated attempts to outwit the Wasp and escape from the villain’s power. Doris Weston, as his daughter, is pretty and displays a good rapport with Hull, but has comparatively little to do. Rex Downing, as Murray’s young son, also has limited screen time, despite being the leader of a boys’ club called the Junior Magicians, which seems at first as if it will be featured as prominently as the Junior Air Defenders in Flying G-Men or the Flaming Arrows in The Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok; as the serial develops, neither Downing nor his Junior Magician chums play much of a part in the story.

Mandrake the Magician--the Houstons
Above: Doris Weston, Rex Downing, and Forbes Murray.

Kenneth MacDonald, while still urbane, is unusually affable as Webster, while Edward Earle is serious and stern as Dr. Bennett and Don Beddoe is chipper and easygoing as Raymond. All three suspects do a good job of seeming genuinely likable while giving just a hint of menace to their characterizations. As already mentioned, their parts are individualized more than the typical serial red herring, and their distinctive performances give further interest to the riddle of the Wasp’s identity.

The Wasp almost never leaves his headquarters, but his villainous outfit is striking and his voice impressively nasty and aggressive, giving him a strong presence; just as Mandrake is a sorely underrated serial, so is the Wasp a sorely underrated serial mystery villain. The slick, smug, and businesslike John Tyrell makes an excellent lieutenant for the Wasp; looking and acting a bit like Paul Fix, he plays his part in a memorably gangster-like fashion.

Mandrake the Magician--Tyrrell and the Wasp
Above: John Tyrrell and The Wasp.

The Wasp’s other henchmen include clean-cut Stanley Brown  (who’s surprisingly effective as a thug), shifty Ernie Adams (who gets to perform his trademark “squealer” bit when pressured by the good guys), and hulking Dick Curtis (who conveys a ghoulish delight when his character operates the radium energy machine). Sam Ash plays a crooked hypnotist and magician, Lester Dorr is a henchman who unwisely tries to inform on the Wasp, and future leading man Robert Sterling (Roughshod, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, the Topper TV show) plays a thug at the villains’ fake sanitarium. Old reliables George Chesebro, Tom London, and Stanley Blystone also put in appearances as henchmen, as does Eddie Parker, who also doubles Al Kikume in the fight scenes.

Mandrake’s musical score, the work of Floyd Morgan and Stanley Cutner, ranks as one of the more memorable pieces of Columbia serial accompaniment. Overall, Mandrake the Magician, despite its indifferent reputation, is head and shoulders above any Columbia serial from the 1940s or 1950s, thanks to its cast, pacing, action, and production values. It also more than holds its own against the similarly well-produced chapterplays from Columbia’s brief serial-making peak period in the late 1930s, and deserves to place high on any list of the studio’s ten best chapterplays.

Mandrake the Magician--last

5 thoughts on “Mandrake the Magician

  1. *** out of ***** Just got around to watching this one. Decent enough with enough action. The mystery? Well, they blew it by not having the Wasp wear an adequate mask. Like Pegleg, it was easy to figure out who was the mystery villain just on looks which undercut all the rather well-done mystery elements. Aside-don’t know much about the comic-strip Mandrake, but he had a moustache and it occurred to me that Kenneth MacDonald might have been interesting casting as Mandrake. He would have brought a mysterious side to Mandrake that the smiling, guy-next-door Warren Hull didn’t. Just a thought.

    • You’re right that the Wasp could have used a more thorough disguise–although when I first watched it, I didn’t have the mystery spoiled for me, simply because I assumed that the serial would follow the Republic-style formula and have a completely different actor wearing the costume, and thus didn’t even bother to look closely at the villain’s face when he was masked.

      I’ve also thought that Kenneth MacDonald would have made an excellent Mandrake in a more faithful adaptation of the comic strip. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of MacDonald and the comic-strip Mandrake (as drawn by Phil Davis); it’s as close a match as Tom Tyler and the Phantom, I think:

      Mandrake comparison--MacDonaldMandrake comparison--comics

      In such an adaptation, Everett Brown (the outsized black actor who appeared one of the recurring henchmen in Tim Tyler’s Luck, and played “Big Sam” in Gone with the Wind) would have made a very good Lothar.

  2. Rex Downing was living all this time and died a week before Thanksgiving in 2020. I wrote to him in 2019 and had him autograph some photos for me. He had to be one of the very few actors left from the ’30s. Mandrake is one of my favorite serials. Plenty of action and lots of scenes of old L.A. Mandrake’s mansion is not too far from me.

  3. I wasn’t familiar with the comic strip version of Mandrake, so whatever departures the filmmakers took didn’t really matter to me. The serial has a good cast, an interesting storyline, some decent variety in the action scenes, and was very entertaining throughout. I also wasn’t scrutinizing the Wasp’s masked face in any detail, so the buildup of suspense as to his real identity wasn’t spoiled for me when he was finally revealed.

    I thought that the glaringly obvious doubling of Al Kikume (in portions of the fight scenes) really jumped off the screen. You might have thought the producers could have found a stuntman a little closer in body type, and that they could have found him a wig that didn’t look so silly. The other, more serious problem was with the truly bizarre way Columbia handled the cliffhangers. They seemed bound and determined to undercut the drama at every turn.

  4. I just noticed your comment In the “Video Directory” section that the only existing print of this serial has some missing sound in the first chapter, and that the lost dialogue had been re-dubbed by VCI. When I watched this one recently, I kept thinking that the voices (Kenneth MacDonald’s in particular) sounded peculiar and not all like they would normally. At the time, I put it down to either bad audio or something wrong with my television’s sound. I’m glad to find out the correct explanation.

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