The Vanishing Shadow

Vanishing Shadow titles
Universal, 12 Chapters, 1934. Starring Onslow Stevens, Ada Ince, Walter Miller, James Durkin, Richard Cramer, William Desmond, J. Frank Glendon.

The Vanishing Shadow begins as electrical engineer Stanley Stanfield (Onslow Stevens) brings his “Vanishing Ray” to Professor Carl Van Dorn (James Durkin), to ask  the older scientist’s aid in perfecting the invisibility device, which he intends to put to an important use. It appears that Stanley’s father, publisher of a big-city newspaper called the Tribune, has recently died of the stress caused by Wade Barnett’s (Walter Miller) attempts to seize control of his the paper. Barnett, a corrupt businessman who runs the Public Utilities department and most of the city, is bent on acquiring a controlling interest in the Tribune and silencing its opposition to his power. Thus, he is putting pressure on Stanley, now the paper’s majority stockholder, to surrender his Tribune shares. Stanley, however, plans to use the Vanishing Ray to not only thwart Barnett’s takeover plans, but to destroy the grafter’s stranglehold on the city. Van Dorn, who was a friend of Stanley’s father and also harbors an overmastering hatred of criminals, promptly joins Stanley’s crusade, bringing with him an array of destructive weapons that he’s only too eager to use on Barnett and his followers. Gloria Grant (Ada Ince), a Tribune reporter, joins Stanley as well, and we soon learn that she is actually Wade Barnett’s daughter; though estranged from her father, and bearing an assumed name to distance herself from his ruthlessness, she still hopes to reform him once his schemes are defeated. Stanley, Van Dorn, and Gloria are opposed by Barnett’s henchman Dorgan (Richard Cramer) and a band of thugs; both sides are both helped and hindered in their fight by Van Dorn’s marvelous inventions–which, though intended to aid Stanfield, tend to keep inadvertently falling into the hands of Barnett’s gang.

Rediscovered by buffs comparatively recently following a sojourn in the land of “lost” serials, The Vanishing Shadow has quickly acquired a fan following. It is a remarkably interesting cliffhanger that echoes earlier types of matinee entertainment as well as anticipating later forms.  Like most early sound serials, Shadow harks back to early stage melodrama, and features some pleasantly old-fashioned dialogue that is delivered with convincing sincerity by the actors, no matter how theatrical it sounds at times. Two of my favorite examples are Walter Miller accusing Ada Ince of being full of the “poison of hatred” and henchman Edmund Cobb’s panicked cry for help when he encounters one of Professor Van Dorn’s deadly rayguns: “This devil is trying to kill me with an infernal machine!”  Melodramatic though it might be, the script of  Shadow (the work of Ella O’Neill, Het Mannheim, George Morgan, and Basil Dickey) gives its characters much more depth than the heroes and villains of later cliffhangers would display. Character-driven subplots–like Professor Van Dorn’s continual flirtation with insanity and the strained relationship between Gloria and her father– figure prominently in the storyline; the latter subplot pays off in a surprising way, resulting in one of the most moving and unusual climaxes in any chapterplay.

In many ways, Vanishing Shadow looks forward to Flash Gordon and other famous science-fiction cliffhangers of the 1930s; while earlier cliffhangers such as Phantom of the Air and Tailspin Tommy touched lightly on weird science, Vanishing Shadow can claim the distinction of being the first out-and-out sci-fi sound serial. Its fantastic elements are not mere throwaways but are central to the plot. The “vanishing ray” is used by multiple characters–Stanley, Gloria, Van Dorn, even Dorgan–to great effect throughout the cliffhanger, and Van Dorn’s “Destroying Ray” and metal-melting ray also play a major part in the action. The best of the serial’s effects, however, is saved for last–the large and menacing robot that Van Dorn unveils in Chapter Ten and sends to wreak memorable havoc in Chapter Eleven.  The props and special effects used to make these gadgets look believable are quite well-done, particularly the slow fadeout/fade-in effect that results from the vanishing ray’s use.

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Above: The vanishing ray in action, as Stanley Stanfield materializes outside Wade Barnett’s office.

Vanishing Shadow is light on the fistfights and gunfights that so many serials are built around, but the cliffhanger’s pace is so fast and its gimmicks and characters so interesting that this omission is barely noticed by the viewer; for example, the invisible Stanley’s various maneuvers to outsmart the Barnett gang are a novel and fascinating change of pace from the typical serial brawls. The chapterplay’s only extended fight scene–a violent tussle between Stanley and Barnett in the latter’s office in Chapter Eight–is quite memorable, however, partly because it’s not redundant of prior action. The serial’s chapter endings vary from typical car crashes and explosions to “situational” endings that merely close the episode on a startling note. The most exciting ending, however, is the climax of Chapter Eleven, which finds Stanley being crushed by Van Dorn’s rogue robot, which has already scattered Barnett’s gun-wielding henchmen in a genuinely impressive sequence.

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Above: Scenes from the robot’s rampage in Chapter Eleven.

The chapterplay’s cast is excellent, all the performers bringing absolute conviction to the script’s mix of melodrama and sci-fi. The suave, polished Onslow Stevens, who seemed somewhat miscast as a Western hero in Heroes of the West, is perfect for the role of Stanley Stanfield–a protagonist who uses his brains as well as his fists. Stevens manages to give his character both the heroic determination appropriate to an underdog who’s opposing a powerful grafter and the shrewd intelligence suited to the inventor of a vanishing ray. Ada Ince, with her cheerful smile and soft Kentucky drawl, makes a very sympathetic heroine; her continual concern for her scoundrel of a father could seem ridiculous in some actresses’ hands, but her warm personality helps her make it seem believable and admirable.

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Above: Barnett and Gloria have one of their father-daughter arguments.

James Durkin all but steals the serial as the benevolent but somewhat unstable Professor Van Dorn, one of serialdom’s more unique characters. Van Dorn, as he announces to Stanley Stanfield, is eager to serve as the villains’  “judge, jury, and executioner,” and Stanfield must continually restrain his friend to keep him from burning some gangster “to a cinder.” Later in the cliffhanger, Van Dorn goes temporarily beserk following a head wound, allowing Durkin to deliver some very impressive  maniacal laughter. However, Durkin doesn’t play his role at a level of continual rage, which could prove tiresome; when talking with Stanley or Gloria, his Van Dorn is charmingly avuncular, which makes the good Professor’s occasional outbursts of anger much more startling.

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Above: Stanley politely declines the loan of Van Dorn’s destroying ray

Walter Miller plays the hard-driving Wade Barnett with all of his customary intense and authoritative demeanor. Miller also does a good job depicting his character’s only soft spot, his affection for his daughter: his heartbroken reaction when he receives a false report of her death actually wins him the audience’s sympathy for a few moments, something that almost never happens where chapterplay villains are concerned. Richard Cramer, as Miller’s henchman, begins the serial as something of a background figure, but becomes more and more prominent as the plot progresses, ultimately turning on his own boss. Cramer, with his overbearing swagger and rolling sneer of a voice, makes a delightfully hammy villain, particularly when his character gets possession of the vanishing ray and appears, grinning like a Chesire cat, to startle several of the protagonists. 

Cramer’s principal henchmen are Edmund Cobb, Al Ferguson, and Monte Montague, reliable heavies all. Beulah Hutton appears briefly as a gang moll, and Bud Osborne has an interesting bit as a smuggler who takes pity on Stanley and Gloria and saves them from drowning, afterwards swearing them to secrecy about his group’s activities. William Desmond is the dignified and dependably steadfast editor of the Tribune, who loyally assists our heroes throughout. Sidney Bracey is quite funny as Barnett’s tippling secretary, whose startled reactions to Stanley’s invisible forays into Barnett’s office provide amusing comic relief.  J. Frank Glendon, the smooth brains heavy in The Lost Special, is similarly slick as Barnett’s stockbroker Caldwell, a poker-faced crook who goes about his underhanded activities with bland courtesy. An uncredited Lee J. Cobb, years away from big-budget films like On the Waterfront, makes an appearance as the foreman of a road construction crew.

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Above: Richard Cramer (back to camera) growls at Lee J. Cobb, who is not yet a big enough star to growl back.

Director Lew Landers, who helmed one of Universal’s best serials (The Red Rider), presides over The Vanishing Shadow with equal skill. The ultimate result is one of the most  historically interesting and completely entertaining of the early sound serials, one that well deserves the place in buffs’ esteem it has won after its rediscovery.

8 thoughts on “The Vanishing Shadow

  1. I agree that the Vanishing Shadow is a ground breaking serial. Overlooked as lost–the influence on Flash Gordon and a whole range of SyFi & later more character driven serials–it has been a missing tooth in the 30s chapter plays. Onslow does a fine creditable job in the lead and carries the story. You have to remember also
    that this was “cutting edge” technical cinema for the early 30s–Star Wars is several generations away. it would
    have thrilled the young and was entertaining as a story for the adults. Best of all is that great ROBOT. It takes a
    back seat to nothing in serial-dom. Beware the machines are taking over! Overall, this is a very underrated serial partially due to its unavailability. Anyone who likes serials will like this one. 4 out of 5 stars for me

  2. Speaking of “The Lost Special”, it was only last year that I realized that it — and by “it” I mean the original A.C. Doyle story, its adaptations (especially the Universal serial movie adaptation mentioned above, but also radio adaptations), its historic antecedent (the actual loss of a locomotive in a cave-in in Lindal-in-Furness), and several of the other Doyle stories collected in “Tales of Terror and Mystery” — provided the framework and many details, including most obviously the name, for the recent TV serial, “Lost”. Recreated from the movie serial were the breaking of a vehicle (train reimagined as plane) into 3 pieces, the Tank Room and associated events, the cuts from the front to the back room of the Red Lantern, and the cover-up at the end.

  3. “This serial was used in the early 70’s as part of a county-wide program for school kids to challenge their reading skills in the Hartford CT area. One chapter was broadcast every school night at 7:30 on the local CBS station (prime-time didn’t start until 8:00 back then) and parents were encouraged to let us watch. We were supposed to write down questions about the science aspect of it (well, how did that happen? how did he make the robot do that?) and to attempt to spell at least 10 “adult” words from every chapter and then we would all compare notes in class the next day. I remember really enjoying it, especially since they ran Billy Preston’s “Space Race” song over the ending credits. All in all, it was a novel idea at the time. And I got to see sci-fi every night for a couple of weeks!

    • Interesting. Looks more like an exercise in paying att’n than reading skills, similar to certain radio & TV contests for prizes. I’m sure the sponsors were thrilled by how tightly eyes & ears would’ve been glued to the show! Were you prepped in advance of each episode as to what to watch for, or did you not know until the next day what details would be asked about? For the spelling exercise, were you expected to take note in the dialog of words you weren’t previously familiar with?

      On a completely different note, but related to movie serials, is anybody here familiar with “Everything’s OK at the OK Corral”? It’s one of the cuts on the Bingo Gazingo CD. Bingo Gazingo was an old Jewish poet & rapper here in NYC who died a few yrs. ago when he got run over by a cab on the way to a regular slam night. His CD consisted of his chanting (couldn’t really sing with that voice) his compositions to some semi-improvised music. This track is fun & poignant because it takes a while for the listener to realize it’s not actually in the persona of a child asking to attend a cowboy serial, but that of an old man in a nursing home (or with a home attendant) reminiscing (Or possibly slipping in & out of hallucination!) about those days.

  4. Great review. I recently had the pleasure of viewing this serial for the first time, and found it to be thoroughly entertaining. Some of the melodramatic aspects are a little creaky by modern standards, but none of that spoils the overall enjoyability of the story. I had never seen Onslow Stevens except in his latter-day roles, and found his performance here right on the mark.

  5. Now available on Amazon Prime in near pristine condition this ranks right near the top of serials I have seen. Ada Ince is a treasure, The special effects are great.

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