Brother Clary (cleireac) wrote,
Brother Clary

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[Review] Chandu, the Magician

I had not picked up Chandu the Magician before, as I thought (incorrectly) that it was too much of a juvenile series for me to be interested in. I had listened to other juvenile series in the past, and wasn't inclined to pick another up right away.

But for some reason, I took a chance on Chandu. And I regret my earlier hesitation, as this series has quickly climbed into the highest tier of my favorites category, that of "Can Listen to Again and Again".

The story is about an American, Frank Chandler who has spent a decade studying under a yogi in the East and is now a master of the 'occult.' Chandler, or 'Chandu' as he's known in the East, displays a mastery of teleportation, illusion, mind control, and precognition. The only limitation seems to come when his sister is present and loses herself to 'blind fear.'

Over the course of the series, we learn that Chandler is a Master of the 'Three Times Three,' and a member of 'the Brotherhood of the Lotus,' a college (of sorts) of mystics employed by the 'Inner Council,' an international diplomatic and intelligence agency, although he is sometimes mistaken for an American agent. Chandler is tasked by the Council to investigate matters that threaten the security of the world.

He is often assisted by Princess Naji, an Egyptian woman whose family history stretches back thousands of years. Chandler loves Naji, but she holds him at arms' length, due to a secret Naji refuses to divulge, in spite of the love she has for him. She is a sorceress who wields 'the power of the Blue Flame.' Her family has opposed the 'dark arts' throughout the centuries, but may have one apostate in the line.

It premiered at a time when interest in Eastern mysticism was high in Hollywood. According to the book On the Air: the Encyclopedia of Old Time Radio, by Jim Dunning, series creator Harry A. Earnshaw and his partner, Raymond R. Morgan, were looking to develop a new series in 1931. Earnshaw mentioned that he had taken note of the public’s growing interest in magic, and Chandu, the Magician was born. I think it interesting to note that when Franklin Roosevelt was sworn in as President in 1931, he included Henry A. Wallace in his cabinet as Agriculture Secretary. Wallace, a fellow Freemason, was also fascinated by Eastern occult belief and certain letters of his indicating some of his more eccentric beliefs were used to discredit him during the 1940 presidential election.

It might also be worth noting that the Hitler and the Nazis began to consolidate their hold on the German government by not later than 1933, so by 1936, it would be obvious that a madman bent on taking over the world was a very real possibility, and not a plot device in a 15-minute daily serial. While I don’t know of any scholarly examinations of real world events impacting the series, I wouldn’t be surprised if these two facts contributed to both the rise and decline of the 1932-1936 continuity.

Chapter One, "The Search for Robert Regent" (68 episodes) introduces us to the Regent Family, a widowed mother Dorothy Chandler Regent, raising two teen-aged children, Bob and Betty. Dorothy's husband Robert, a brilliant chemist, was presumed drowned ten years previously. The Regents are expecting a visit from Dorothy's brother Frank Chandler. Frank has spent the last nine years or so in India studying at the feat of a yogi mystic and has now become a master of psychic powers. Chandler is known and feared in the East as 'Chandu, the Magician.'

After a set of Regent's formulas are discovered missing from his home laboratory/office, Chandler, Dorothy and the children follow the trail to Egypt, Algiers, and Malta. They discover that Robert Regent had been kidnapped by the megalomaniac scientist known by the palindrome name of 'Roxor.'

Chapter Two, "Mission to Montebania" (38 episodes), pits them against not only Roxor, but also a Russian, Prince Dmitry, who is a master of sorts of black magic, and has influence with an international gang of thugs from India known as the 'Daku Kafai,' or 'Brotherhood of Jeopardy.' This chapter is possibly the most plot-dense of the three reviewed. There is a political intrigue, a story about the gypsies, and an encounter with black magic.

Chapter Three, "The Return of Roxor" (34 episodes), brings the family to the Far East where they are threatened by a fierce tribe of native villagers who worship a deadly cobra god. This chapter, in the 1948-49 continuity marks the end of Roxor's machinations permanently.

The series was created by Harry Earnshaw, with scripts written by Vera Oldham. It was directed and produced by Cyril Armbrister and broadcast over the Mutual/Don Lee Network, then later on ABC.

Originally, it ran each weekday from 1932-1936 in 15-minute cliffhanger-ending episodes between 1932-1936. In 1948, it was revived, or 'rebooted' (with a completely new cast using updated original scripts to reference the recent war) and ran again in the same format until early 1949 when it was rebooted again. This time the serial format was dumped in favor of 30-minute episodes, and continued in this format until 1950 with new writers.

The writing seems to improve from the 1932-1936 continuity to the 1948-1949 continuity (telling the same story in the first three chapters), with the lines for the young sidekicks (Chandler's nephew and niece) noticeably improved

This last incarnation shoves most of Chandu’s mysticism to the side, revealing it only at the end, as a device to help wrap the story up. The writing is somewhat inferior to Oldham’s scripts, casting Chandler as an American secret agent who also happens to have occult powers. As a case, it seems that everyone (except the crooks for the most part) knows that Frank Chandler is a secret agent and that his main cover ID is ‘Chandu, the Magician.’ With knowledge like that it beggars the imagination that he could consistently bluff his way until the end. One would think his cover would be blown immediately. The writing became even more formulaic than before, relegating Chandler's occult powers to only at the end in order to wrap the case up.

An examination of the Wikipedia entry for Chandu reveals that during the period of 1949-1950 it aired at 7:30 p.m. and later at 9:30 p.m. on weeknights. Since this would have been on school nights, I have my doubts that Chandu was intended as a juvenile series, and that any classification of it as such is more due to our 'modern' sensibilities, rather than the creators' original intent.

In 1932, Fox attempted to cash in on the supernatural thriller bandwagon (a result of the successes of Universal's Dracula and Frankenstein) by releasing Chandu the Magician, which was a loose adaptation of the first chapter of the series. It featured Bela Lugosi as the villain, who chewed way more scenery than the titular hero (who is barely known today). The film was not well received, but the characters influenced others, like Mandrake. Later a motion picture serial was released, The Return of Chandu the Magician, this time with Lugosi in the role of Frank Chandler.

I'm also surprised that as popular as this character was in his time, there haven't been any modern revivals, reboots or re-imaginings. It is certainly worthy.

Chandu, the Magician can be downloaded from the Internet Archive using these links: Link 1 Link 2
Tags: otr, radio
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