The Back Row’s Weekly Serial Review: Mandrake the Magician

Basic Story Line
Professor Houston invents a powerful new device to aid humanity. (Although we’re not exactly sure how. All it seems to do is blow stuff up. But they keep telling us that it will be a great benefit to humanity, so I guess it has other applications.) A mysterious masked villain known as, The Wasp, steals the invention and kidnaps the Professor. Stepping in to help save the scientist and retrieve the radium-energy machine from the clutches of the madman is, Mandrake, a world famous magician, and freelance crime fighter.

Quick Facts
Released in 1939
Directed by Sam Nelson, and Norman Deming
Written by Joseph Poland, Basil Dickey, and Ned Dandy
Starring Warren Hull, Doris Weston, and Al Kikume

Among all the comic book superheroes that appear in serials, Mandrake the Magician is one of the least known. His serial, however, is one of the best.

Mandrake was created by Lee Falk, a writer who is best known as the creator of The Phantom. Mandrake first appeared in comic strip form in 1934. In the comics he can hypnotise people instantly and his powers seem more magical. He fights everyone from mobsters to aliens to an evil alternate version of himself. In the serial, Mandrake is rooted more in reality (Well, as close to reality as a crime fighting magician, on the hunt for a radium-energy machine, stolen by a masked madman, can be). He uses illusion and misdirection to fight his enemies. Although Mandrake has not been in the popular consciousness for some time there is rumour of a Mandrake movie in the near future. However, as of right now, there isn’t an IMDb page for any such project. If a movie does get made, my friend Vic and I suggest Hugh Jackman and Dwayne Johnson as Mandrake and his sidekick Lothar. (You know, just in case one of the fifty or so people who read this article is a film producer considering this movie.)

You might think that a magician in eveningwear and a top hat fighting crime would be hard to buy. Turns out on film it makes as much sense as a multi-millionaire dressing up as a bat. You accept that Mandrake can use his talents as a magician to deceive the bad guys. Although, I personally would have liked to have seen him use his magic more. He has a few interesting gadgets but mostly it is his abilities with knots and a supply of smoke bombs that come in handy.

Our villain is The Wasp. It’s a cool name but the character needed to be pushed further. It’s just a guy in a suit, wearing a mask and a garish cape. They needed to give him a reason for being called the wasp. Make the mask more wasp like. Have him dispose of his enemies by letting them be stung to death by killer wasps. Give him some word play like, “The world shall feel the sting of the wasp!” Anything! But he is not a total washout as a villain. His lair has secret passageways, hidden doors, rooms that fill with gas, and hallways that close themselves off. He has a microphone that alters his voice. One of his henchmen is a hypnotist and a magician. For most of the serial The Wasp seems to lack a plan. He is just randomly blowing stuff up. However, things do make sense at the end. His acts are all about vengeance, spreading terror, and exerting power. True, that’s not exactly a great plan, but it’s there.

I wish I had as many good things to say about Betty, the female character. She is, unfortunately, one of those annoyingly useless women you sometimes get in serials. Her only purpose is to be the love interest and to, occasionally, be someone to rescue. Her younger brother, Tommy, does more to help Mandrake, and he’s ten years old.

The script for Mandrake the Magician keeps moving forward. Often serials do not have enough story to last all twelve to fifteen chapters. When this happens the stories often meander, go over the top, or become repetitive. (“Blast! The hero stopped my unstoppable super weapon! But he will never stop this other super weapon that is even more unstoppable than the last!”) It helps that, unlike most serials, our villain stays one step ahead of our heroes. It isn’t until the two-thirds mark before Mandrake starts to turn the tables. The mystery of who is The Wasp works pretty well. There are red herrings, and some legitimate clues to the identity of the villain. In serials, the hero does not kill the villain. Usually the villain is killed by a third party or by their own device. In Mandrake the Magician the writers find a way to make Mandrake directly, although not intentionally, responsible for the death of The Wasp, giving us a much more satisfying ending.

Columbia was not known for its serials. They didn’t produce many, they had some weak female characters, and rather lame fight scenes. However, they did manage to get some of the biggest names in comic strip heroes, including Batman, Superman, The Phantom, and Mandrake the Magician. Sometimes they made those serials really well.

Things to watch for
-A cup and ball magic routine
-A cool interrogation scene
-Electrified water pipes
-Continuity errors in the final fight scene

The Back Row Weekly Serial Drinking Game
While watching a serial, anytime you or a friend point out a plot hole or inconsistency, take a drink. (Note: Yes, the fact that The Wasp tells his henchmen that there are no second chances and then proceeds to give them all second chances, is worth a drink.)
Odds of getting sloshed: Medium

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