Monday, December 5, 2011

Guest Review: Shadow(s) on the Big Screen

By Philip Schweier

In 1931, Walter Gibson, under the penname of Maxwell Grant, was tapped to write the adventures of The Shadow for Street & Smith magazines. Gibson’s history as a newspaper reporter and amateur magician made him ideally suited to craft on of the most popular crimefighters of the era. Over the next 15 years, he would write all but a handful of the more than 300 stories featuring the mysterious Master of Darkness.

But then, in 1946, The Shadow magazine did the unthinkable: it replaced him.

Bruce Elliott wrote 14 The Shadow stories, and these are regarded by many to be a low point in the character’s history. Many of the elements that had contributed to the magazine’s popularity disappeared, and the character became just another crime solving detective, The Shadow becoming a barely-used persona that he uses to sneak around. In fact, there is one story in which Cranston never appears as his crimefighting counterpart.

Some say it was a salary dispute, but one possible reason may have the potentially lucrative idea of licensing The Shadow for motion pictures. The Shadow had already appeared in three Saturday matinee B-pictures/serials starring Rod LaRocque and Victor Jory, but a new series was being launched at Monogram Pictures, famous for its low budget productions.

The Shadow Returns (1946) starred Kane Richmond as The Shadow, who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men. As the nephew of police commissioner Weston (Pierre Watkin), he is an amateur sleuth/criminologist, akin to that of the radio version of Lamont Cranston, palling around with lovely friend and companion Margo Lane (Barbara Read) and cab driver Shrevvy (Tom Dugan). Both were later featured in the Shadow stories published in the magazine, as well as two peripheral characters, Burbank and Hawkeye.

Under the authority of the police, a grave is being opened to expose hidden gems, being smuggled into the country from overseas. But when Yomans (Emmett Vogan), who led the cops to the gems, disappears into the nearby mansion of Michael Hasdon (Frank Reicher), Weston and Inspector Cardona (Joseph Crehan) move quickly to investigate. The house is full of various suspicious characters, including Charles Frobay (Robert Emmett Keane) an importer.  Hasdon inexplicably leaps to his death from the balcony. But it doesn’t tale long to turn to a clear case of murder.

The investigation suggests gems were being smuggled into the country from overseas using dead bodies, courtesy of Frobay Imports. Lamont, Margo and Shrevvy look into Frobay’s import business, where they spot Hasden’s butler, John Adams (Cyril Delevanti), lurking around. After a visit to Frobay they return to Shrevvy’s cab only to discover a corpse, dead for a week, later revealed to be Yomans. This clinches the idea that the fake Yomans was really one of Hasdon’s guests the night he died.

Cranston, as The Shadow, returns to Hasdon’s mansion where Adams follows his late master over balcony, another apparent suicide. The Shadow returns to Frobay, where the man takes a Brody over the second-floor catwalk of the warehouse. Lamont and Margo discover a secret passage from Frobay’s warehouse to a secret lab where he had been developing a new plastic formula. This gives Lamont all the information he needs to trick the murderer into betraying himself. At The Shadow’s behest, Weston and Cardona call all the suspects together at Hasden’s house. There he reveals the culprit, and the method of the murders.

The Missing Lady (1946) opens with Cranston sleeping in a Bowery flophouse where he’s trying to dig up some leads on the month-old murder of a wealthy art collector. Exposed as a stoolie, Cranston returns home with his faithful cab driver Shrevvy (George Chandler), where he is sidetracked by another murder in his own apartment building. Cranston’s neighbor, Ann Walsh (Frances Robinson) and her friend Gilda (Jo Carroll Dennison) initially accuse him of the murder, but his uncle, Commissioner Weston (Pierre Watkin), is able to spring him from jail. But when Walsh, ends up dead, all eyes look to Cranston. Cranston is assisted in clearing his name by Shrevvy and their girlfriends, Margo Lane (Barbara Read) and Jenny Delaney (Dorothea Kent).

Cranston begins to see a connection among all three deaths, that being the Jade Lady, a statuette that’s been missing (hence the title of the film) since the first killing. He trails Gilda to the upstairs apartment of John Fields (George Lewis). With all this excitement going on under his very nose, Cranston looks to the most likely witnesses: two spinster sisters (Almira Sessions and Nora Cecil) who bought the building so they could race the elevators up and down.

Disguised as floozies, Lucy and Ethe – er, Margo and Jenny – follow Lamont and Shrevvy to a Bowery dive. Cranston seems to know a great deal, dropping clues with little comment as to where they come from. There, Cranston questions Rose (Claire Carleton), who leads him into a trap with the brutal Ox (Jack Overman), who is revealed to be Ann Walsh’s husband (again, how Cranston knows this is never fully explained). Ox is beating on Cranston when the hapless Inspector Cardona (James Flavin) and Weston arrive.

Despite the pounding, Cranston seems to have cracked the case and promises to have the statuette at his apartment the following night. But all this is said for Ox’s benefit, who shows up at Cranston’s place looking for the statue. He flees upstairs to Fields’ place where the police have gathered all the suspects. There, Cranston reveals all and exposes the culprit.

In between these two productions was another Shadow film, entitled Behind the Mask (1946). All three were written by George Callahan who wrote many of the Charlie Chan mysteries for Monogram. As such, one can’t expect a great deal of mystery thrills, but there are certainly worse ways to kill an hour.

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Rick29 said...

Ivan, several of The Shadow novels were reprinted as paperbacks when I was a kid and I enjoyed them all. Gibson wrote a great foreward to a hardback collection of three of his novels. He describes his writing style--he typically wrote a Shadow novel in 4-5 days and once wrote one in one day! The only movies I've seen are THE SHADOW STRIKES (fairish) and the Alec Baldwin pic. The serials sound entertaining if a tad conventional.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

I remember seeing the Alec Baldwin Shadow in a theater when it came out in 1994 and how crushingly awful it was. There's a lot I like about the movie (mostly its visual style) but on the whole it was a major disappointment. The 1940 serial is a lot of fun, even though it's not the most faithful adaptation of the character.

Admittedly, I've only read one or two of the novels...I'm much more familiar with the radio version. The Shadow always seemed to me to be the perfect hero for radio -- a man you only heard but never saw.

Elisson said...


The Shadow do!

His real name (according to the MAD comic version) was Lamont Shadowskeedeeboomboom. Shadow for short.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

His real name (according to the MAD comic version) was Lamont Shadowskeedeeboomboom. Shadow for short.

One of my favorite MAD parodies. "Good heavens! This man doesn't have a mind TO cloud!"