D: Sam Nelson, Norman Deming / 30m
Cast: Warren Hull, Doris Weston, Al Kikume, Rex Downing, Edward Earle, Forbes Murray, Kenneth MacDonald, Don Beddoe
Travelling back from the Orient aboard the S.S. Mohawk, Mandrake the Magician (Hull) receives a telegram from the daughter of Professor Houston (Murray). She’s worried due to his work on a radium machine that will be a huge benefit to humanity but which also has the capacity to be used for evil. Mandrake has been in Nepal searching for a rare metal called platinite that Houston needs for his invention; during his act, an attempt is made on his life by two henchmen of the master criminal known as the Wasp.
Reaching the US, Mandrake travels to Professor Houston’s California home by single seater plane (and survives a further attempt on his life when it’s tampered with). He meets up with Betty (Weston), the professor’s daughter. Meanwhile, the professor receives a threat from the Wasp. A demonstration of the radium machine reveals its potential for mass destruction, but Houston is encouraged to continue with his work. At the request of a friend of Mandrake’s, Dr Andre Bennett (Earle), Houston agrees to demonstrate the machine to a group of Bennett’s fellow physicians. However, when the time comes, Houston is kidnapped by the Wasp’s henchmen, and one of them takes Houston’s place. Mandrake realises this and a fight ensues, one that leads to the magician being in the firing line of the radium machine.
As an example of the kind of cliffhanger serial that studios big and small churned out through the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, Mandrake, the Magician is a fun, efficiently presented melodrama that features peril at every turn, poorly choreographed fisticuffs, and the kind of dialogue that’s one part exposition to two parts repetition to three parts baloney. It’s all done with a knowing sense of its own ridiculousness, but in many ways it’s all the better for it. Putting Mandrake in danger at least three times in the first episode sets the tone for the serial, and allows writers Joseph F. Poland, Basil Dickey and Ned Dandy (great names all) to indulge in all manner of unbelievable scenarios, including a magic act that features an extended cup and balls routine (this from the world’s greatest magician), and the sight of Professor Houston donning protective clothing to demonstrate his machine while Mandrake and others merely take a step back.
Performance-wise, Hull is as debonair as a man who wears a top hat can be, while Weston has little to do other than look decorative. Kikume is kept in the background, Earle appears too late in the episode to make much of an impression, while MacDonald, as electronics expert Webster, takes an early lead in the who-is-the-Wasp-really? sweepstakes. Nelson and Deming direct with a flair that makes the episode fly by, and the sheer gung-ho spirit of the narrative makes for an enjoyable, leave-your-brain-at-the-door outing that promises much more of the same in the remaining eleven chapters.
Rating: 5/10 – rickety sets and a villain who remains masked while wearing a hat give Mandrake, the Magician a hokey, old-time feel that provokes good-natured amusement instead of disappointment; stirring stuff, and a reminder of when movie making was a lot more innocent and a lot less complicated.
NOTE: In keeping with its original presentation in 1939, the remaining chapters will be reviewed each in turn over the next eleven weeks.