Mandrake The Magician (1939)

Mandrake The Magician (1939)‘Black magic conjures up a holocaust of thrills.’

A brilliant scientist is being menaced by the criminal underworld, who are desperate to obtain his latest invention. The proper authorities seem powerless to act (as usual) so his daughter turns to world famous stage magician Mandrake and his assistant Lothar. Breaking off a lucrative cruise ship engagement, they rush to the rescue…

Many fans of the original ‘Mandrake’ comic strip don’t care for this 12 episode serial from Columbia. Their main objection seems to be that the main character is less of a mystic and more of a two-fisted detective (who also happens to be the world’s premier stage magician). In this aspect, the project somewhat foreshadows the ‘Captain America’ (1944) serial, where the hero was just imposed on a standard chapter-play with no reference to the original source material at all. Having said that, this is not quite so bad; Mandrake does display some sleight of hand and there are some sequences of his stage act, but there is little indication of his hypnotic abilities. Warren Hull also lacks any sense of mystery in the title role but he does bring a lot of personality, something that was usually lacking in serial heroes.

The criminal mastermind here is ‘The Wasp’, a strange gent in a hat, rubber mask and cape who sits behind a desk and communicates with his goons via a widescreen TV. No one knows his secret identity but we suspect he might be one of the colleagues of the scientist father of heroine Doris Weston. And, yes, the old geezer has created the usual gizmo that can ‘be of vast benefit to mankind’ but also could ‘be a deadly weapon in the hands of the wrong people.’ This time it’s a radium energy machine and The Wasp spends a lot of time trying to get his mucky forelegs on it. Of course, once he has, there are some further elements that he needs to make it work; in particular Platinite; a meteoric element that can only be found in a local mine conveniently owned by our heroes.

Mandrake The Magician (1939)

‘What do you mean I look like a prat?’

So, it’s serial business as usual; people are abducted and rescued, there are lots of underwhelming car chases, Mandrake fights the goons without his hat falling off  and makes the usual cliff hanger escapes. My favourite of these was when he is dragged into a replica mill wheel in a roadside tavern (don’t ask, just take my word for it!) and rather than being squished, he just falls lamely a couple of feet to the floor of the room beneath.

Columbia’s serial unit triple threat (director Spencer Gordon Bennet, writer George H Plympton & producer Sam Katzman) were yet to establish themselves at the studio, so direction is handled by Norman Deming and Sam Nelson.  Deming went on to a notable career as a production manager (‘Spartacus’ (1960) & ‘The Birds’ (1963) among others) and Nelson was the assistant director on such ‘A’ list projects as ‘3:10 to Yuma’ (1957) and ‘Some Like It Hot’ (1959). However, there is little evidence of that quality here and a noticeable lack of dynamism to the action sequences. On the bright side, proceedings only last 12 chapters; subsequent efforts from Columbia tending to stretch themselves too thin over 15 episodes.

If you can leave behind any pre-conceived ideas you might have about the character, this is a fair to middling serial with a few memorable moments; certainly not the worst of its kind but a long way from the best.

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