I won't try to convince you that the old, 1934 adventure serial "The Return of Chandu" with Bela Lugosi is the greatest serial of all time. Far from it. But it is the first adventure serial I can remember watching as a youngster from start to finish, all twelve episodes. Now, before you wiseacres out there start questioning just how old I must be to have accomplished such a feat, let me assure you that I watched it on television, on the very first TV set my family ever bought, in fact. It was around 1952, and I was about eight.
Oh, I had seen adventure serials before at the movie theater on Saturday mornings with my dad, but because my dad and I didn't go to the movies every week, we'd often miss a lot of the in-between chapters. However, I remember watching the "Chandu" serial religiously, week in and week out on television. Funny, though, going back to it now after more than fifty years, the only things I could actually recall were Lugosi's character being able to disappear, Lugosi standing by an open car, and a villainous chap in a turban seated in some sort of cave on an island somewhere and talking to his followers, whom I remembered were plotting to take over the world or something.
Anyway, you can understand my nostalgia and anticipation for this old serial when it became available on DVD. Currently, it appears to be issued by several different studios, the one from VCI Entertainment that I watched having the advantage of fitting all twelve chapters, close to three-and-a-half hours, onto one side of a dual-layered disc.
Incidentally, for those of you too young to remember or who were never informed, an adventure serial was a movie invention that flourished in the late 1920s, 30s, 40s, and into the early 50s. It was a multipart story told in chapters of fifteen-to-twenty minutes each that could be played by a theater one week at a time along with other children's fare, the serial bringing the youngsters back time and again to see what would happen next. The term "cliffhanger" was used to describe the endings of the chapters because they always concluded suspensefully in order to draw the viewer back for the next installment. Sometimes the hero would be literally hanging from a rope off the side of a cliff, with the villain cutting the cords! Would this be the end of Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Captain Marvel, Dick Tracy, Mandrake, Zorro, the Phantom, Jungle Jim, Congo Bill, the Masked Rider, the Green Hornet, or Commander Cody?
"The Return of Chandu" was a low-budget project from a small, low-budget studio, Principal Pictures Corporation, and there has always been a question in my mind why Lugosi, who was at the top of his game after his hit "Dracula" in 1931, would have participated in it. One possibility is that he had absolutely no business sense. After the success of "Dracula," he turned down the role of the Frankenstein monster that eventually went to Boris Karloff because Lugosi said he wouldn't accept a nonspeaking part! Lugosi went on to do a whole series of forgettable parts instead, including playing the villain, Roxor, in the first "Chandu" movie, "Chandu the Magician," in 1932. When Lugosi was asked to return to the "Chandu" camp, it was under the condition that he play the protagonist, Frank Chandler, a.k.a. Chandu. Never mind that it was a cheapjack serial; he got to be the hero for a change.
The script for "The Return of Chandu" was written by Barry Barringer, based on a radio play by Harry Earnshaw, R.R. Morgan, and Vera M. Oldham. The serial was directed by Ray Taylor, who had a long and distinguished career in B-movies starting in the 1920s and continuing almost until his death in 1952. He often made up to nine films in a single year, most of them action adventures of a stock Western variety.
But "Chandu" was different. Not only was it different for Taylor (being decidedly a non-Western), it was different for the serial genre. Most old serials emphasized physical action, with heroes that were either superhuman or daring in the extreme. Lugosi's Chandu, on the other hand, was a magician who relied mainly on his wits and on his supernatural powers to get him through. Lugosi has, by my count, only three fight scenes in the entire twelve chapters of the serial. In this regard and others, "The Return of Chandu" is a more mature serial than most.
The plot is inconsequential, of course, but it does show how exotic the proceedings are. An evil cult called the Sect of Ubasti, headquartered on the island remains of the lost continent of Lemuria, has discovered the body of their long-dead goddess, Ossana. They believe that if they can find a genuine Egyptian princess and sacrifice her to Ossana, they can bring Ossana back to life, and their continent will regain its lost glory. The only such princess they can find is Princess Nadji (Maria Alba), who is a close friend of Frank Chandler, also known as Chandu the magician. When Chandu learns of the plan to kidnap the Princess, he determines to guard her at all cost. The twelve chapters depict how the Ubasti cult keeps capturing the Princess and how Chandu keeps rescuing her, in the latter half of the story going to the island of Lemuria and confronting the head baddie himself.
A few of the chapter titles are probably all one needs to know about the story line: "The Chosen Victim," "The Evil Eye," "The Invisible Circle," "The Edge of the Pit," "The Terror Invisible," "The Crushing Rock," "The Knife Descends," and so on.
Interestingly, the primary villain in the first third of the story, the Ubasti High Priest Vindhyan (Lucian Prival), gets killed off at the end of chapter four. He is then replaced by a new villain called the Voice of Ubasti (Murdock MacQuarrie). Why? Well, it seems the producers wanted to make two feature-length films out of the twelve chapters. The first film, based on chapters 1-4, was called "The Return of Chandu" and released just after the serial. The second film, based on chapters 5-12, was called "Chandu on the Magic Island" and released in 1935.
Among the other cast members are Clara Kimball Young as Dorothy Regent, Chandu's sister; and Deane Benton and Phyllis Ludwig as Bob and Betty Regent, Chandu's twenty-something niece and nephew. The sister and the two young people generally tag along on the adventures to create more jeopardy and hardships for the hero.
Needless to say, the film's pacing is often clunky, and the acting is subpar, but we're not looking for Academy Award material here. People in the film often speak and act in the stagey manner of so many actors of the early talkie period of pictures. Yet, other parts of the film are inventive and appealing. The whole supernatural business provides the movie with a creepy air of mystery and suspense, aided by the atmospheric music, the luxurious (given the low budget) set designs, and the many exotic location shots. Although Chandu predated a similar pulp hero, the Shadow, by several years, like the Shadow he learned many things while growing up in the Orient; e.g., being able to make himself disappear; being able to hypnotize people; being able to read minds; and being able to communicate with and seek guidance from his wise old teacher, Yogi, across the whole expanse of the world simply by thinking of him and calling on him in his mind. Neat tricks.
OK, "The Return of Chandu" is a hokey piece of silliness, I know, but it provides much more than mere campy fun. It's genuinely eerie and suspenseful and mysterious, too, and one can easily surmise that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg probably got at least some of their Indiana Jones inspirations from it. (Even Lugosi's adventuring garb resembles Indy's attire.) It's also fun to see the big gates from the old "King Kong" movie being used as part of the Lemuria set and fun to watch that guy hit the giant gong at the beginning of each chapter, while the shadow of Chandu lurks in the background. It's these subtle touches that make "The Return of Chandu" far more a grown-up's adventure serial than a kid's.
Given the movie's age, its low initial budget, and its relative obscurity, one can understand why it would be hard to find a pristine print of it after all these years. And given that the film can hardly be depended upon to become a best-seller on DVD, one can also understand why VCI might have been reluctant to spend the money necessary to give it a full, frame-by-frame restoration. Instead, VCI obtained the best print they could find and did the best they could within the limitations of the source material and the need for high compression to fit all twelve chapters onto one side of a disc.
The 1.33:1 ratio, standard-screen image of the day is marked by numerous ticks, flecks, scratches, lines, and miscellaneous age spots. Nevertheless, the black-and-white contrasts are quite vivid, hardly faded at all, and the overall definition is surprisingly good. The age marks come and go, too, sometimes clearing up nicely and sometimes becoming infuriatingly distracting. Alternating flickers of light also plague the screen from time to time.
Still and all, although it's blasphemous for me to say, I don't think I'd like watching this old serial any other way than with its attendant ticks and scratches. It's how I remember the picture from my youth, and it probably wouldn't seem the same without the markings of time.
The 2.0 mono sound has been brought up to listenability via Dolby Digital reproduction, but it remains old, scratchy, noisy sound no matter how you look at it (or listen to it). There is little range to the frequencies or dynamics, expected from a seventy-year-old recording, and the soundtrack is accompanied by a typical amount of background hiss and pops. Despite these conditions, the dialogue is easy enough to understand, with only the occasional line muffled here and there.
Considering that all twelve chapters in the serial are compacted on one side of a disc, there isn't a lot of room left over for extras. Still, VCI provide us with a few actor biographies; a cliffhanger promo advertising some of their other adventure serials; three additional serial trailers; and twelve chapter selections. English is the only spoken language offered, and there are no subtitles available.
"The Return of Chandu" is no great shakes when compared to adventure movies of our own day. But when considered in light of other old serials in its genre, I believe it is far better than people give it credit for being. Its unique blend of the supernatural and the exotic, its decent production values versus its low budget, and Bela Lugosi in one of his only heroic roles, help it stand out among its competition. Watching it can still be a kick today.