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.
MANDRAKE THE MAGICIAN is, admittedly, a rather poor adaptation of the classic comic strip of the same name. Mandrake is a magician in the serial and performs a few tricks, but he generally dresses in suit and fedora instead of tux and top hat. His assistant Lothar is a heavy-set Hawaiian of average height instead of an African giant, and Mandrake’s hypnotic powers are nowhere to be seen. As a result, MANDRAKE has suffered the same fate as Republic’s CAPTAIN AMERICA—the actual worth of both serials has usually been ignored by those who are simply indignant over their lack of faithfulness to its source material. But taken on its own terms, MANDRAKE THE MAGICIAN is a lot of fun. It begins as world-famous magician Mandrake (Warren Hull) is returning from the Orient with his faithful Asian assistant Lothar (Al Kikume) and his friend, engineer James Webster (Kenneth MacDonald). Mandrake receives a cable from his friend Professor Houston (Forbes Murray), notifying him that Houston has almost completed his radium machine. As Mandrake explains to Webster, the radium machine is intended to be of great medical value to humanity, and he’s been helping Houston work on it. Shortly afterwards, two thugs try to murder Mandrake during a shipboard magic performance, and Houston, while working in his lab, is threatened by a mysterious criminal known as the Wasp. It appears that the Wasp intends to utilize the radium machine’s tremendous energy for destructive purposes, and he is determined to remove all obstacles from his way. Shortly after Mandrake arrives in America, Houston is kidnapped and the radium machine is stolen. Mandrake, with the help of Lothar and Houston’s daughter Betty (Doris Weston), attempts to track down the Wasp and stop him from using the machine to wreak destruction on power sources—dams, telephone companies, radio stations—throughout the country. Webster also lends a hand, along with Mandrake’s good friends Dr. Andre Bennett (Edward Earle) and theatrical manager Frank Raymond (Don Beddoe)—but is one of these genial and helpful gentlemen secretly the Wasp? It will take all of Mandrake’s considerable cleverness to figure that one out.
MANDRAKE THE MAGICIAN was the last Columbia serial made before James W. Horne began his three-year run as director of the studio’s cliffhangers and turned them into slapstick comedies. MANDRAKE is so enjoyable that one sincerely wishes that Columbia had continued to turn out serials in this mold rather than the comedic concoctions of Horne. A marked step up from FLYING G-MEN and OVERLAND WITH KIT CARSON, Mandrake benefits immensely from a strong hero, some fast action, and a total lack of the ludicrous “you-can’t-hit-me” shootouts that marred its two predecessors. Not to say that there aren’t plenty of Columbia’s typically hazy plot points in the serial. Scripters Basil Dickey, Joseph Poland, and Ned Dandy never make it clear just what the Wasp’s master plan is; his goal seems to be nothing more than causing general mayhem and destruction. The radium machine’s purposes and capabilities are also rather cavalierly explained, and the character of Raymond is introduced rather abruptly in the first chapter (a scene that would have introduced him nicely takes place in the second chapter instead—possibly through an editing mistake). Aside from these problems, however, MANDRAKE flows smoothly and pleasantly along in the best serial fashion, with heroes and villains waging furious war over an all-powerful “MacGuffin.” The pace never stands still, and the action scenes are generally well done. The directors and writers avoid the problem of the no-gun-killings rule that was imposed on Columbia following THE SPIDER’S WEB by simply omitting gun battles altogether. However, the serial doesn’t suffer from this omission, since the chases and fistfights are more than enough to keep us from noticing the lack of gunplay.
The fight scenes are energetic and exciting, although not nearly as well choreographed as those at Republic. There’s a good deal of wild arm-swinging in these brawls, but it never takes on the slapstick proportions of some of the fights in FLYING G-MEN or in later Horne serials. Several acrobatic leaps and falls also help the fight scenes along immensely, particularly in one sequence where Mandrake leaps from the roof of a car onto a pack of henchmen and then leaps over another car to escape them. Another excellent action sequence involves Mandrake battling a thug in a cable car high over a canyon, with the car ultimately crashing to the ground far below. An extended chase/fight through the maze-like halls of the Wasp’s sanitarium hideout in Chapter 10 is also a standout, as is the final tussle between Mandrake and the Wasp and the subsequent car chase. Several of the chapter endings are classics, such as the end of Chapter Eleven, in which the Wasp uses the radium machine to bring Mandrake’s living room crashing down on Mandrake and the rest of the good guys in the cast. The scene is genuinely eerie, with the lights darkening and sparks flying up behind the various terror-stricken victims. The cliffhanger of Chapter One, in which a henchman corners Mandrake in Houston’s lab and proceeds to zap him with Houston’s ray, is also eerily and effectively lit. The above-mentioned cable car cliffhanger stands out too, and so does a chapter ending in which Mandrake and Lothar are trapped in the path of raging floodwater.
Warren Hull gives a splendid performance in the lead; he’s fully as suave, determined, tough, energetic, and intelligent as he was in THE SPIDER’S WEB. He dominates the serial with almost effortless ease. Doris Weston is rather subdued as the heroine, but quite pretty and likable, and Forbes Murray is excellent as her dignified but genial scientist father. Perennial background “native” Al Kikume has the biggest role of his career as Lothar and does a fine job as a loyal, dependable sidekick. Young Rex Downing, as Murray’s son and Weston’s brother, is given little to do despite his high billing; it seems as if he was intended to play the sort of part Sammy McKim played in FLYING G-MEN (he even leads a group called the Junior Magicians, akin to the Junior Air Defenders in G-MEN) but he never really plays an important part in the plot. The three “suspects” for the Wasp—Kenneth MacDonald, Don Beddoe, and Edward Earle—are all terrific. All three actors play their parts with a perfect mixture of sincerity and shiftiness; they also get to lend active assistance to Mandrake from time to time, instead of merely hanging around to offer comments on the proceedings, which makes the riddle of the Wasp’s identity a more interesting one—you’re genuinely curious to find out which one of these likable fellows is secretly a fiend.
Slick John Tyrell makes a perfect lieutenant for the Wasp; his smug and businesslike ruthlessness is memorable indeed. The Wasp himself doesn’t have much more to do than the Octopus did in SPIDER’S WEB, but his outfit is much more striking and his voice is fully as nasty and aggressive as the Octopus’s was. The Wasp’s henchmen include clean-cut Stanley Brown (who’s surprisingly effective as a shifty hood), Ernie Adams (who once again gets to do his patented “squealer” bit when pressured by the good guys), and Dick Curtis (who gets a chance to operate the radium machine midway through the serial and seems ghoulishly thrilled to be able to do so). Sam Ash plays a crooked hypnotist/magician, Lester Dorr is a henchman who unwisely tries to “drop a dime” 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 rest home. Old friends George Chesebro, Tom London, and Stanley Blystone also put in appearances as henchmen, as does Eddie Parker, who doubles Al Kikume in the fight scenes, while George DeNormand does similar duty for Warren Hull.
The cliffhanger also features a fine music score, courtesy of Floyd Morgan and Stanley Cutner. Directors Sam Nelson and Norman Deming (who were originally announced as the directors of Columbia’s subsequent serial, THE SHADOW) do a fine job in wrapping the whole serial together into a pretty enjoyable package. Columbia producer Jack Fier (who also gave us THE SPIDER’S WEB, FLYING G-MEN, and the two Bill Elliott serials) was supposedly very upset at being taken off the studio’s serials (Larry Darmour took over during Horne’s tenure) but he certainly closed his cliffhanger career with a winner.