“I never thought we’d really know a foreign correspondent!” the two youngsters gush, in an early scene of this 1949 radio drama.
“Oh now children,” says their mother. “Stop acting as if he’s a foreign correspondent in the movies.”
The man in question replies, modestly enough, “It’s just a job. You know, kids, we’re not heroes. The men I admire are the scientists, working behind the scenes in all sorts of risky experiments. Your husband was a man like that, wasn’t he, Dorothy?” — and he proceeds to praise the kids’ presumably deceased father.
Unfortunately, this “foreign correspondent,” Gordon Douglas, is not someone to admire. He has killed someone. It’s even unclear whether he is a journalist gone bad or simply an evildoer using that title as a cover in order to steal scientific secrets. Douglas intends to turn them over to another shadowy figure, “Roxor,” whose goal is world domination.
Fortunately for the world, Roxor and Douglas don’t know that Dorothy’s brother has powerful secrets of his own. He is Frank Chandler, also known as Chandu, the Magician (more information at Wikipedia, including cast member names), the real hero of this radio story. Alas, Bela Lugosi is not in the radio play, although he was in two Chandu movies. And Chandu apparently was the inspiration for Marvel Comics’ “Dr. Strange” a generation later.
Chandu’s on-the-air adventure series ran from 1931-1936 and was spun off into two Hollywood productions, a 1932 feature film and a 1934 movie serial. Chandu was brought back to radio in 1948, continuing in various formats until 1950. The Internet Archive has a collection of 178 episodes from that later series.
The episode on today’s MP3 player, The Black Steps, broadcast Feb. 3, 1949, launched a new half-hour format in place of a previous 15-minutes-a-day serial. In the 15-minute version, Douglas’s treachery was stretched over a series of episodes in 1948, starting with this one… Gordon Douglas, 48-08-12
While Chandu’s occult knowledge covered psychic communication more than journalism, that moment of dialogue between his sister and her children does suggest that in the years after World War II the trench-coated foreign correspondent was an image with some magic of its own, enough of an excuse for inclusion of the story here at “Newspaper Heroes on the Air.”
After that one half-hour episode, I did backtrack and listen to a few of the soap-opera style 15-minute serial Chandu the Magician episodes at the Internet Archive, and discovered that Douglas’s treachery had been revealed even more gradually than I’d thought. His character evolved through most of the month of August, 1948, more than three hours of radio play. It was part of an even longer extended plot about Dorothy’s scientist husband’s turning out not being dead after all. She and Chandler are in Egypt searching for him. Douglas appears as a self-described “nosy reporter” with constant questions about Dorothy’s husband, who was believed drowned at sea nine years earlier.
Our heroes have mixed reactions to the inquiring correspondent …
Dorothy: “What a disagreeable way to have to earn a living — prying into people’s private lives. How can a man like that bring himself to do it?”
Bobby: “I’d love every minute of it… It’s a job with him. He gets to travel all over, be in on stuff everywhere, secret meetings…”
Chandler: “He’s an accredited correspondent all right; I telephoned the press association in Rome.”
But, astutely, Chandler mentions that even an accredited reporter might be working for the evil Roxor, which turns out to be half-true. He is working for Roxor, but he is not the real Douglas. The reporter apparently was murdered by Roxor, who gave his credentials to the unnamed imposter and instructed him to mimic the reporter’s style with his editors while pursuing leads to both the missing scientist and the mysterious Chandler/Chandu.
Sorry about the “spoilers,” but skimming the episode titles and seeing “Douglas Is an Imposter,” “Fraud’s Identity” and “Douglas Disappears” among them just might be a giveaway. By August 19, Chandler had used his occult powers — and a crystal ball — to uncover Douglas’s evil background.
I’ll listen to more of Chandu, just in case other reporters or editors appear, or Douglas reappears. If you are a Chandu fan who has run into more stories with actual “newspaperman hero” (or “newspaperman villain”) plots, please use the comment field below to point me to them!
Sources: In addition to the downloadable MP3 files at the Internet Archive and elsewhere, professionally produced CD versions of Chandu episodes are available from the Radio Spirits company. It also carries “The Return of Chandu” movie serial, in which Bela Lugosi plays the hero.
(Speaking of magic, in the earlier feature-length Chandu film, source of the Internet Movie DataBase poster and link above, Lugosi was the villain!)