The Egyptian princess Nadji (Maria Alba) is being relentlessly pursued by the members of the sinister cult of Ubasti, ancient goddess of darkness and wrath; these practitioners of black magic plan to sacrifice the Princess and use her soul to revive their long-dead priestess Ossana–hoping to thus recapture the world power that their cult enjoyed in ancient times. One formidable opponent stands in the cultists’ path, however: Frank Chandler (Bela Lugosi), the man Nadji loves. A lifetime of study in the Far East (where he’s become known as Chandu the Magician) has given Chandler an exhaustive knowledge of white magic that allows him to challenge the devotees of Ubasti, and challenge them he does–in California, on the high seas, in the tropical city of Suva, and–most dangerously–on the sinister jungle island of Lemuria, all that remains of the lost continent where the cult has made its headquarters since ancient times.
The character of Chandu the Magician–to whom later magician-heroes like Mandrake and Dr. Strange owe more than a passing debt–was originally created for a serialized afternoon radio series (starring Gayne Whitman) in the early 1930s. The show quickly became popular enough for Fox to adapt it to feature-film format; their Chandu the Magician, with Edmund Lowe in the title role, was released to theaters in 1932. Sol Lesser, an independent producer whose ownership of a theater chain gave him a fair share of Hollywood clout, subsequently negotiated an agreement to produce a quasi-sequel to the Fox film–and hired Bela Lugosi, who’d played the arch-villain Roxor in said film, to take over the Chandu role.
Since Lesser’s “Principal Pictures” was an outfit that enjoyed better access to filmmaking resources than most other independent studios (Lesser was frequently hired to turn out B-features for bigger studios), Return of Chandu boasts production values far more polished than those of other independent serials. Indeed, visually speaking it looks every bit as good as the chapterplays released by Mascot and even Universal during the same era–due in large part to fine work by director Ray Taylor and cinematographer John Hickson, both of them frequent contributors to Universal serials; they shoot Chandu in an eerie, atmospheric, and frequently striking style quite appropriate to the serial’s unusual “occult” theme.
Chandu’s strategic use of the many A-film sets located on RKO’s Culver City backlot also boosts the quality of its visuals considerably; the most notable of these is the iconic Great Gate of Skull Island from the classic King Kong, which is seen here as the towering doorway of the Ubasti temple. Other impressive Culver City locations well-utilized in Chandu include the mansion that figures in the early episodes, the ship on which the Chandler party journeys, the streets and houses of the Eastern seaport city of “Suva,” the thick jungles and underground tunnels on the island of Lemuria, and the huge cave (complete with a gigantic stone cat idol) in which the Ubasti cult conducts its rites. This cavernous temple, incidentally, is generously supplied with extras whenever said rites are performed, helping to make the Ubasti cult seem like a genuinely formidable big-scale organization; the party scenes at the mansion and the sequences set in the streets of Suva also are enhanced by the presence of plenty of bystanders.
Above, top left: Chandu’s car speeds away from the front of the Regent mansion, in search of Nadji. Top right: Chandu and his nephew Bob explore the streets of Suva. Bottom left: The priests of Ubasti make a processional entrance through the impressive gate of their temple. Bottom right: The interior of the temple, filled with cultists.
Along with its good camerawork and location work, Chandu boasts a production frill not found in most contemporary serials–musical themes that periodically accompany the serial’s in-chapter action and aren’t just played over each episode’s credits; these pieces are by turns moodily ominous, quietly mysterious-sounding (like the serial’s opening theme, derived from the radio show) and feverishly excited (particularly Christoph Gluck’s insistent “Dance of the Furies”). Like the cinematography, the music comes off as well-suited to Chandu’s narrative; it also helps to make many scenes that would have otherwise come off as static–like the Chapter Two sequence in which Nadji slowly succumbs to the effects of a drugged flower–seem suspenseful instead.
Chandu’s screenplay was adapted (by Barry Barringer) directly from a Chandu radio continuity penned by Harry Earnshaw, R. R. Morgan, and Vera Oldham. The first half of the serial centers around the cultists’ attempts to kidnap Nadji and Chandu’s interference with their abduction schemes–a scenario that sounds repetitive, but stays fresh enough thanks to the magical gimmicks involved–hypnosis, teleportation, telepathy–and to the serial’s steadily changing locales. The plot’s focus shifts at the serial’s halfway mark, when Nadji is immured in the temple on Lemuria and Chandu is subsequently shipwrecked on the same island along with his sister, niece, and nephew; with the hero’s magical powers all but neutralized by the black-magic “curtain” that envelops Lemuria, his contest with the cultists in the remaining episodes becomes less of an even duel and more of a desperate struggle to survive. This second-half storyline is, in outline, less repetitious than the serial’s first half–since Chandu is continually forced to rescue multiple characters (including himself), and not just the Princess–but it’s also more padded than the earlier episodes; even the above-mentioned musical accompaniment can’t keep some of the lengthy scenes of characters prowling through the Lemurian caves or jungles from seeming irritatingly slow.
Additional second-half padding is provided by random and largely pointless attacks by the ferocious Lemurian natives (the Cat Men pictured above) and by a flashback sequence that’s framed as a sort of “trial” of Chandu by the Ubasti cult; another noticeable padding device (one featured throughout the serial) is lengthy “cutbacks” at the beginning of each episode; most of the chapters replay a good two or three minutes’ worth of the preceding episode’s footage before arriving at the cliffhanger-resolution sequence and moving on with the plot–an irritating budget-saving device also utilized in most of the Mascot serials of the time, but one that probably wouldn’t have been as bothersome to someone watching the serial in its original chapter-a-week format. All of this padding was partly the result of producer Lesser’s desire to maximize his financial return from Chandu: the serial was structured so that it could be easily and coherently condensed into two separate feature films (The Return of Chandu and Chandu on the Magic Island) and re-released to gain further profits–a plan that forced Lesser to make sure that Chandu contained a fair share of easily-removable footage.
Fortunately, the serial’s production values give the Lemurian setting an exotic, almost otherworldly atmosphere that helps the serial to maintain a respectable level of interest in its later episodes, despite the padding; additional supernatural gimmickry (like the invisibility spell introduced in Chapter Nine) aids in this department as well. For the most part, Chandu’s writers do a very good job of incorporating such supernatural plot devices into the storyline, using them to enliven the narrative but making them seem logical and understandable enough once one accepts the notion of their existence. However, the writers do allow the magical element of the story to get a little too confusing in the last two chapters; the insufficiently-explained yammering about vows of renunciation during the buildup to the climactic showdown leaves the audience wishing for a copy of White and Black Magic for Dummies to make things comprehensible–although the showdown itself is admittedly a satisfying one, with Chandu dramatically appearing to dispatch the entire Ubasti cult in very definitive fashion.
Most of the “action” scenes in Chandu (the showdown sequence among them) focus more on creating a mood of tense suspense and drama than on showcasing conventional physical combats–and are quite successful in achieving this goal, thanks to the direction, the cinematography, and Bela Lugosi’s strong and unusual presence. Among the best of these suspense scenes are the drugged-wine sequence in Chapter One, the mental duel between Chandu and the knife-wielding Ubasti priest Vindhyan in Chapter Four, and the invisible Chandu’s Chapter Nine rescue of his nephew Bob from an intimidating deathtrap (as the sands of a magic hourglass signal the imminent approach of Chandu’s return to visibility). There are a few conventional action scenes–competent but unremarkable–on hand as well, among them the large-scale brawl in the native village in Chapter Five and Chandu and Bob’s separate fistfights with Ubasti cultists in Chapter Eleven.
Above: Lucien Prival as Vindhyan threatens to stab Maria Alba (top left-hand picture), while Bela Lugosi, flanked by an alarmed Phyllis Ludwig and Deane Benton, hypnotically commands Prival to “drop…that…knife” (top right-hand picture). At bottom left, Josef Swickard monitors the magic hourglass of invisibility, while (at bottom right) an unseen Lugosi lifts Benton from under a swinging sword-blade, much to the surprise of watching villains.
A fistfight also figures into the serial’s single most memorable action sequence, although it’s only a minor contributor to the scene’s effectiveness. Chandu’s Chapter Four rescue of Nadji from an underground Ubasti temple in Suva is the scene in question, a sequence that has Vindhyan preparing to sacrifice Nadji and showing her a nightmarish vision of his fellow-cultists on Lemuria relentlessly chanting “Princess Nadji, we await thy soul”–while Chandu races down a circular staircase to the rescue, eventually bursting into the temple and battling Vindhyan on a platform above the sacrificial fire (Lesser later used this standout sequence as a fitting climax to the first of the two features he concocted from Chandu).
Above: Several shots from the above-mentioned Chapter Four sequence. The sacrificial ceremony begins (top left), a disguised Chandu hurries down the staircase (top right), attacks Vindhyan (bottom left) and fights him above the fire (bottom right).
The gripping nature of the Chapter Four rescue scene also makes the “situational” cliffhanger that follows it quite effective; as Chandu and Nadji are rejoicing that all their troubles are over, we cut to the temple on Lemuria, where the leader of the Ubasti cult is assigning a new agent to the Nadji case–ending the episode on a very ominous note. The situational cliffhanger of Chapter Five–with cultist Vitras transporting himself and Nadji out of Chandu’s reach by the use of a magic fire-circle–is also very memorable. There are several other respectable situational chapter endings (and one mediocre one, the Chapter Three knifing threat) in Chandu, but also a fair share of typical imperilment ones; among the latter, the poison-dart and crushing-rock cliffhangers are good, while the tiger-pit fall is terrific–thanks mainly to the excellent, tension-building shots of the big cat excitedly racing round the pit as Chandu tries to swing across its lair on an about-to-break chain. The Chapter Two car-crash cliffhanger, on the other hand, is absurd–a sequence that has Chandu, driving along steep California roads in search of Nadji, suddenly veering off the road from no cause other than apparent recklessness on his part (perhaps he was so busy studying white magic that he never had a chance to take driving lessons).
Bela Lugosi is excellent but somewhat miscast in Chandu‘s title role–not because it’s a sympathetic part, but because the radio Chandu was portrayed as a down-to-earth and rather avuncular American, helping to make him seem like a relatable character to his audience despite his tremendous mystic powers. Lugosi, though a strong actor, is just too arrestingly alien in accent and demeanor to be similarly relatable. Still, he gives the part his all–effectively conveying genuine affection and concern for his family and Nadji, displaying a reserved but likable jauntiness on occasion, and registering despair, anger, grim resolve, and alarm with equal intensity as the odds mount against his character in the later episodes. He’s at his best, however, when he’s required to be menacingly authoritative; he gives such conviction to his burning glares and imposing gestures that he makes his character’s demonstrations of his magical powers seem entirely believable.
Spanish-born leading lady Maria Alba possesses such a thick foreign accent that her Princess Nadji–like Lugosi’s Chandu–becomes slightly distanced from the audience; however, her graceful, slightly fragile-looking Mediterranean beauty and her charmingly polite and gracious manner still make it easy to like her and to care about her beleagured character’s plight. Distinguished stage and silent-film actress Clara Kimball Young does a fine job as Chandu’s sister Dorothy Regent, conveying both motherly kindness and dignified determination; she has some good moments in the first half (particularly when she firmly insists on accompanying Nadji on a dangerous trip), but is given virtually nothing to do but stand in the background looking worried in the serial’s second half.
Deane Benton plays the part of Bob Regent (Dorothy’s son and Chandu’s nephew) with the gee-whiz chipperness expected of most 1930s screen juveniles, but doesn’t overdo it to an obnoxious extent; his offhanded affability actually provides a good contrast to the more stately and remote performances of Lugosi and Alba–but, though he’s never shoved as far into the background as Young is, he still doesn’t have enough screen time to function as a full-time counterweight to either the hero or the heroine. As Bob’s sister Betty, Phyllis Ludwig is cute and perky, but comes off as a little too carelessly giddy at several points in the serial’s first half (in the second half, she has even less to do than Young).
It would have been preferable to have seen a real bravura character actor (like John Davidson or Edwin Maxwell) as one of Chandu‘s principal villains, but the less flamboyant performers that head up the Ubasti cult still do respectable jobs. Nasty-looking Lucien Prival, as Vindhyan, serves as the serial’s chief villain in its earlier episodes; despite his rather nasal voice, he manages to come off as properly menacing, affecting a sneering but carefully measured delivery that deemphasizes his unimpressive vocal pitch. Jack J. Clark is more gruff and overbearing than Prival–but less sinister in appearance and demeanor–as Vitras, another prominent Ubasti priest; while properly nasty, he comes off as more of a bullying thug than an insidious magician. Murdock McQuarrie, usually a bit player, does a nice turn as the Supreme Voice of Ubasti, the leader of the cult; his gaunt, wizened, and partially toothless face look appropriate for the part of an ancient sorcerer, while the ferocious, crazed-sounding vigor with which he snarls out threats against Chandu and utters paeans to Ubasti make him sound frighteningly fanatical.
Josef Swickard is both venerable and energetic as Tyba, a lonely Lemurian priest of white magic who becomes a valuable assistant to Chandu once the hero is stranded on the evil island; Wilfred Lucas, a notable silent-era actor, is given prominent billing as the stalwart ship captain who accompanies Chandu’s party during their adventures on the island, but has very little to do. Another silent-film notable, Bryant Washburn, is even more underused as the Indian prince Andra (whose yacht transports Chandu and company to the East); he’s aristocratic but pleasantly genial in his few scenes. The actor who provides the voice of the unseen Yogi (Chandu’s “teacher across the sea,” who periodically provides him with rather generic advice) is uncredited.
Former child star “Baby Peggy” (Peggy Montgomery) has an amusing bit as a pesky and flirtatious party guest; Beatrice Roberts is another party guest, while a third guest is played by none other than Gloria Holden–who’d go on to follow in Lugosi’s vampiric footsteps and star as Dracula’s Daughter at Universal. Cyril Armbrister, the dialogue director for both the serial and the Chandu radio show, is suavely threatening in a too-brief turn as a Ubasti agent; April Armbrister (presumably his wife) appears as a native dancer in the Suva café scene. Louise Emmons is memorably spooky as an old woman who serves the Ubasti cult, Ed Peil pops up as an airport manager in the first chapter, Don Brodie is a hustling newspaper reporter, and Frank Lanning appears as a Ubasti agent who impersonates a police official. Richard Botiller does double duty as a Cat Man and a Ubasti henchman, Iron Eyes Cody is another Cat Man, Merrill McCormick a henchman, and Filipino actor Frazer Acosta a shifty butler.
The supernatural aura of The Return of Chandu makes it unique among sound serials, and it has resultantly enjoyed a more sharply divided critical reception than almost any other talking chapterplay. Most of the leading genre historians–Alan G. Barbour, Raymond William Stedman, Ed Hulse–have given it high marks, but many other serial fans have been turned off by its emphasis of moody suspense over slam-bang action. Despite the strong showcase it provides for Lugosi and an overall ambience very similar to that of many classic 1930s chiller features, it’s also received very mixed reviews from horror-movie fans (largely because of the repetitive plotting and the padded narrative). In short, it’s too much like an old-time horror film to uniformly please serial buffs, and too serial-like to make all horror-film buffs happy. Still, it’s an interesting and well-produced endeavor, though one with several flaws; I myself would concur with Barbour in ranking it as the best of the independent serials–but can also understand why many viewers have failed to enjoy it; it could perhaps be best described as something of an acquired taste.