“Mandrake: A Magical Life” is a mundane little documentary on the life and career of Leon Mandrake, a Canadian magician who spent 60 years in show biz without ever cracking the A-list. In a way, filmmaker Mary Ungerielder set herself up with an impossible task of making an interesting film about an individual who, truth be told, was a fairly uninteresting personality.
The tuxedoed and elegant Leon Mandrake (who took his surname and dapper image from the once-popular Mandrake the Magician comic strip) spent the course of his life performing sleight-of-hand, mental illusions and escape tricks throughout North America. He began in vaudeville, then switched over to nightclubs when vaudeville finally died. As time went on, Mandrake’s career began to wane and his venues of performance were on the less stellar edges of show biz: carnivals, state fairs, private functions at VFW halls. On rare occasions he snagged a Canadian TV appearance (there is nothing here to suggest he ever performed on Ed Sullivan or any major US variety program), though whatever charm and personality he possessed on stage was absent on the small screen.
To its advantage, “Mandrake: A Magical Life” provides an interesting lesson in perseverance. As someone who never achieved the level of recognition afforded the likes of Houdini or Harry Blackstone (or even fellow Canuck Doug Henning), Mandrake nonetheless had a remarkable perseverance to push ahead with his act despite an obvious lack of popular enthusiasm. Interviews with his wife (who performed as his on-stage assistant under the name “Velvet”) and his three sons portray a man who was eternally optimistic and happily carved out a show biz niche…even if it meant doing shows in tiny Alaska nightclubs.
To its disadvantage, however, the film ignores the fairly obvious fact that Mandrake may not have been such a great performer. A clip from a 1963 Canadian TV appearance is painful to watch as Mandrake and his assistants literally screw up their illusionist sequence, dropping props or poking through the sets prematurely. A 1978 TV interview offers a cute magical turn with a handkerchief coming to life and zipping in and out of a glass jug…but Mandrake’s running commentary as the handkerchief’s straight-man is deadly dull. Even more monotonous is newsreel footage from a 1957 publicity stunt when Mandrake has his eyes taped over and blindfolded before he gets into a convertible to drive through the streets. The fact that he was going about five miles per hour down a parade route somewhat negates the effectiveness of the trick.
“Mandrake: A Magical Life” is not a bad film and at 45 minutes it never wears out its welcome. Perhaps next time filmmaker Ungerielder can find a subject more deserving and more fascinating to spotlight than this low-grade pick-a-card trickster.