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Chandu? Can Do!

Posted in Blood 'n' Thunder on June 18, 2012 @ 10:13 am

I don’t remember exactly how, when or where I first learned about Chandu the Magician. Most likely I saw stills from it in Famous Monsters of Filmland, Castle of Frankenstein, or one of the other “monster mags” published during the Sixties. I do remember being intrigued by the character right away, and a little research told me he was created for a radio show that was wildly popular in the early Thirties. It didn’t occur to me — at least, not back then — that some of his airwave adventures might have survived in the form of transcription discs prepared when the series was syndicated.

I was especially fascinated to learn that Bela Lugosi appeared in the two Chandu films produced after the radio broadcast became a hit. The first, Chandu the Magician (1932), cast him as the series’ arch-villain, typically referred to as “the malevolent Roxor.” But the second, a 12-chapter serial fittingly titled The Return of Chandu (1934), gave him a shot at the title role. This really piqued my curiosity; just what sort of hero was this Chandu that he could be portrayed by Bela Lugosi?

Several years passed before I was able to screen feature or serial. In the interim I learned that Chandu’s real name was Frank Chandler; that he had gone to India after the first World War; that he spent years there studying occult practices common in the East; that he was given the name “Chandu” by a yogi whom he periodically consulted; that he loved the beautiful Nadji, last in a long line of Egyptian princesses; and that he belonged to a secret society committed to opposing evil men who employed the black arts in their pursuit of wealth and power.


In 1972 I saw Chandu the Magician at a New York City museum screening. Some audience members thought it too campy, but I loved every ultra-melodramatic minute. A few years later I caught up with Return of Chandu, not as good but certainly interesting in its own right. By this time — long before home video — I was collecting 16mm prints of vintage movies and in fairly short order tracked down two feature films edited from the serial, Return of Chandu and Chandu on the Magic Island.

Finally, in the late Seventies, I discovered that Chandu enjoyed two radio incarnations: The first run ended in 1934 or thereabouts, but there had been a 1949 revival using lightly updated rewrites of the original scripts. Few of the Thirties broadcasts (featuring Gayne Whitman as Chandu) seemed to survive, but all the revival episodes (starring Tom Collins) existed and tape copies of them could be purchased from various Old-Time Radio hobbyists. It took me a while, but eventually I acquired the entire run.

Still later, after discovering the works of pulp writer Talbot Mundy, I came across one of his novels that could well have served as a blueprint for the Chandu series. The similarities were numerous and profound. I remember thinking, “One of these days, I ought to write an article comparing the two.” Well, it took me more than a decade to turn that thought into action, but I’ve finally completed a history of Chandu. It’ll appear in the upcoming Tenth Anniversary Special issue of Blood ‘n’ Thunder.

I think you’ll find this piece very interesting, as it lays out a case that one of Mundy’s most popular yarns — one of his best-selling books — was ruthlessly pillaged for the characters and elements that made Chandu the Magician such a sensation in the early Depression years. The article is illustrated with many rare stills, including behind-the-scenes photos taken during production of the 1932 feature film and staged shots of Gayne Whitman in character, enacting scenes from the earliest radio episodes. If you don’t know anything about Chandu — or even if you do — you’re in for a treat.

46 thoughts on “Chandu? Can Do!

  1. One of things I look for when I visit a Half-Price Book store (or the equivalent) is old time radio material in the audio department. Several years said shelves at a local H-P store suddenly groaned under the weight of a hundred or more audiocassettes of the CHANDU radio show — all marked on the j-cards as being from the personal library of Jim Harmon.

    If there had been only one or two of them I would have snapped them up, but the sight of all those shows rather overwhelmed me, and for some reason I left without buying any.

    I don’t recall if this was before or after Harmon’s passing, but if before I suspect he may have been transferring his OTR audiocassettes to some other format and dumped his originals on his local H-P store, whereby through some national chain osmosis portions of the collection were spread far and wide. I wish the Twin Cities had gotten a portion specializing in a rather more interesting show, though (though I’ve heard a few CHANDU episodes and found them passable, just nothing I want to collect in bulk).

  2. I first saw the second Chandu film sometime in the 50’s on the old Million Dollar movie program on TV.They would run a single movie 4 or 5 times a day for a week.If you liked it you could see it over and over again.Enjoyed it a lot and always wanted to see the first one.I got a copy of the 2nd one a few years ago and enjoyed it,never got to see the first one though.

  3. Im a chandu fan, I have just listened to all of the chandu episodes, I just love them, but there is a question that was not answered on them…what is the secret of nadji?…My guess is that she was the reincarnation of Oriunda, an evil
    sorceress, this was never said, but thinking about the ideas shown on the series, it seems to be so.

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