Mandrake The Magician (serial)
Sound: C Extras: C Serial: C
Its something that American pop culture is so rich,
that there are dozens of great characters that have been forgotten, though they
are known by name. In the world of vintage
comic strips, one of the giants was Mandrake The Magician, co-created by Lee
Falk. Falk is best known as the creator of The Phantom, which had a successful
feature film made with actor Billy Zane (Titanic, GQ) in the title
role. As for Mandrake, we now have the
original Columbia Pictures serial from VCI on DVD.
Warren Hull is the title character, a world-famous
magician who happens to get involved in action/adventure plots. He is no detective, but he’s no dummy
either. He’s interested in Betty Houston
(Doris Weston), who happens to have a genius scientist/father. Professor Houston has found another one of
those rare, barely known natural-occurring elements that have weird, funny
names, and only seem to surface in these chapter-plays.
He is now the main target for an evil organization
run by an unknown criminal mastermind who calls himself The Wasp! If he can just get the Professor’s deadly
invention, made in his basement of course, The Wasp will take over the country
and then the world. These are the usual
fare and underpinnings of chapter plays like this, but Mandrake The Magician
(1939) turns out to be one of the best Columbia ever made.
For one thing, they do not cheat in later chapters
by repeating what was already seen in the first three or four. Also, this cast has better chemistry
together than one usually finds in serials, though the ones with comedy need
such casts strongly so. Additionally,
1939 was a great year for Hollywood and even a then-“little sister” “poverty
row” outfit like Columbia was in fine form.
Hull is really good here, while the directing by Sam Nelson & Norman
Deming flows very well.
The 1.33 X 1 black and white picture is a few copy
generations down, but is not bad. It
still keeps its video black and gray scale well enough, but a frame of image in
all four corners is missing a bit, though this is only occasionally
noticed. Whatever the source material,
it is not badly scratched or spotted, so that is a plus. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono shows its age,
but dialogue is surprisingly clear with that considered. The music, what little was composed, is the
serial’s weak point.
There are some nice extras, including a nice brief
write-up about the character that folds out into a reproduction of the original
poster art. The DVD itself contains
some stills, biographies on the directors and leads, and an extensive set of
trailers for other movie serials. As a
matter of fact, this is the best set VCI has offered since the awesome solid
hour of them on their fine DVD set of Jungle Girl still available.
Those trailers are: Zorro Rides Again, Radar
Men from the Moon, The Mysterious Mr. M, Dick Tracy’s G-Men (which
follows the Dick Tracy special edition serial set VCI issued not
long ago, so hope we get this one), The
Royal Mounted Rides Again, and two
with no less than John Wayne: The
Hurricane Express and Shadow of the Eagle.
Wayne was surprisingly fun in the 1933 Three Musketeers serial,
and these look good too. You will also
be surprised how long and well done some of these trailers are, so fans will
want to get this set for both its trailers and the serial.
Columbia has not always
been great at doing serials. The Shadow is a wreck, while their serials on Batman are often unintentionally funnier than the 1960s TV series, but Mandrake The Magician is much more like what the studio was capable of,
and is a great way to get introduced to an American original.
- Nicholas Sheffo