Columbia, 15 Chapters, 1940. Starring Victor Jory, Veda Ann Borg, Roger Moore, Jack Ingram, Eddie Fetherston, Frank LaRue.
Lamont Cranston (Victor Jory), a wealthy criminologist, is recruited by Police Commissioner Weston (Frank LaRue) and a group of concerned industrial leaders to fight a master criminal called the Black Tiger–who is trying to gain control of said leaders’ various industries through a ruthless campaign of terrorization and sabotage. This campaign is opposed not only by Cranston but by the Shadow, a mysterious figure who’s suspected and hunted by the police but who is really a tireless crime-fighter–and who is also Cranston’s alter ego. Cranston’s second identity is known only to his secretary Margo Lane (Veda Ann Borg), his chauffer Vincent (Roger Moore), and Chinatown shopkeeper Wu Yung (Phillip Ahn)–who also helps Cranston maintain a third identity as Chinese fence Ling Chang, a character in which the investigator can move at will through the underworld. In these three guises, Cranston battles the Black Tiger’s forces, while becoming increasingly certain that the unknown mastermind himself is actually one of the prominent citizens ostensibly opposing the Tiger.
Above: Victor Jory’s Cranston listens to a threatening rant by the Black Tiger, delivered over one of the villain’s tiger-head radios.
The Shadow is officially based on the pulp-magazine exploits of its title character, although it borrows a few elements from the Shadow radio show as well. However, it’s most strongly influenced by Columbia’s highly successful earlier serial The Spider’s Web; the hero’s tripartite identity (respected police consultant/misunderstood masked avenger/colorful underworld character) duplicates that of Web’s protagonist, while his police-commissioner ally, his personal aides, and his megalomaniacal mystery-villain adversary are also reminiscent of their counterparts in Web. The Shadow’s storyline is pretty similar to that of Spider’s Web, too, with writers Ned Dandy, Joseph O’Donnell, and Joseph Poland pitting hero against villain in a loosely-connected series of clashes (over valuable inventions, airlines, railroads, and so forth) that are strung together by the latter’s broadly ambitious master plan.
These clashes are less interesting and more noticeably repetitious in Shadow than they were in Web, though–partly because they’re far tamer; the Shadow prefers to merely punch his enemies around, instead of expeditiously gunning them down like the Spider or the pulp version of the Shadow (ironically, it was the Shadow magazine stories that inspired the Spider’s pulp-magazine adventures). The frequent fistfights between the Shadow and the Black Tiger’s men aren’t as silly-looking as the lengthy but bloodless gunfights in other post-Web Columbia serials like Flying G-Men and Overland With Kit Carson, but they do diminish the hero’s aura of mystery and menace; his billowing cloak/cape and his sinister laugh are properly imposing when he suddenly appears from out of the darkness, but they lose in impressiveness whenever he’s forced to engage in protracted brawls with the thugs he initially terrorized.
Above: The Shadow, laughing sinisterly, corners the villains, but has to duke it out with them yet again in a sequence from Chapter Ten.
The fights themselves are staged capably if routinely by director James W. Horne–who, in his first solo directorial assignment of the sound-serial era, largely steers clear of the slapstick six-against-one fights that characterized almost all his later efforts. Star Victor Jory is presumably doubled, although the Shadow mask and Horne’s preference for shooting action in longer shots make it impossible to ascertain who’s doing the doubling; the serial’s team of henchmen (durable heavies like ex-wrestler Constantine Romanoff and occasional stuntmen Chuck Hamilton and Jack Ingram) seem to be doing most of their own fight work. The fight on the stairs in Chapter Six, the Chapter Seven warehouse fight (which features a good rope-swing by the hero), and the later warehouse fight in Chapter Thirteen (which makes creative use of an array of boxes) are among the best of the serial’s various fistic encounters.
Above: A shot from the Chapter Thirteen fight sequence.
The Shadow’s forceful entrance into the Black Tiger’s lair in the final chapter (by ramming a truck through the wall), his ensuing inexorable rush through the ranks villain’s henchmen and his face-to-face confrontation with the villain himself are good as well; unfortunately, the inevitable fistfight which follows this dramatic showdown ends in confusing and rather unsatisfying fashion. Other noteworthy pieces of action include the car chases along country roads in Chapters Four and Five, the Shadow’s frequent leaps through windows to elude gangsters or policemen, his zippy automotive getaway through Columbia’s backlot city streets at the beginning of Chapter Eight, and his innumerable climbs up the sides of the aforesaid backlot’s mansions and office buildings. The comically undercranked and awkward-looking lab fight in Chapter Seven and the clumsy Chapter Nine sanitarium-hall fight are noteworthy for another reason–they’re much more in line with director Horne’s typical approach to action scenes than most of the serial’s other fights and chases.
Above left: The Shadow does some second-story work. Above right: The Shadow’s car speeds through the city streets.
The Shadow’s chapter endings are justly notorious among chapterplay buffs for their cartoonish resolutions; Horne would display a definite fondness for similarly ridiculous cliffhanger “escapes” throughout his Columbia-serial career. The cliffhangers in Shadow are unusually repetitious as well as risibly resolved; no fewer than six episodes end with the Shadow being buried beneath a ceiling brought down by an explosion; in the ensuing chapter, he invariably and unbelievably crawls out from under the crushing piles of rubble without a scratch. The Shadow’s flattening by an exploded safe door at the end of Chapter Eleven provides a break from the falling-roof cliffhangers, but is resolved in equally impossible style. However, there are several perfectly sound chapter endings sandwiched in between the recurring ceiling collapses–the Chapter Two flaming-truck crash and the Chapter Nine heat-ray sequence being probably the most memorable of these.
Above: Fire and falling beams engulf the Shadow at the close of a chapter (left), but the hero rises like a battered phoenix from the rubble at the beginning of the next chapter (right).
Victor Jory is ideally cast in The Shadow’s title role; the actor’s hawk-like face and piercing eyes perfectly mirror the Shadow depicted on countless pulp covers, while his smooth but commandingly sinister voice effectively evokes the radio version of the character. Jory’s acting in this tailor-made part is quite strong; as Cranston, he’s suavely good-natured but also briskly authoritative–keenly and swiftly explaining his criminological deductions and his crime-fighting plans with a Sherlock-Holmes-like self-assurance; as the Shadow, he barks out orders in intimidating style and indulges in a wonderfully menacing laugh whenever he wants to unsettle his criminal opponents. Jory’s charade as “Lin Chang” is less successful than his portrayals of Cranston and the Shadow, though it is amusingly weird; slathered in heavy but unconvincing makeup, and affecting a high-pitched voice and an exaggerated sing-song accent, he delivers an outrageously over-the-top performance that comes off as more of a deliberately preposterous vaudeville turn than a serious attempt at an undercover pose; either Jory or Horne (or possibly both) seems to have felt that the notion of having Jory impersonate a Chinese was impossible to take seriously.
Above left: Frank LaRue watches as Victor Jory ponders. Above right: Victor Jory in his Lin Chang makeup chats with henchman Eddie Fetherston.
The attractive but rather hard-boiled Veda Ann Borg is nothing like the sprightly and sophisticated Margo Lane of the radio show, although her sardonically blunt demeanor is suitable enough to the revamped “secretary/lab-assistant” version of the character presented in the serial. Her performance is so resolutely down-to-earth that her eardrum-shattering screams of terror (a characteristic of all Horne’s serial heroines) whenever she’s confronted by the villains feel more than a bit out-of-character; her respectful but frequently bemused and even irritated attitude towards the rather aloof Jory’s mystifying detective work also gives a definite out-of-left-field air to the romantic moment between to the two at the finale. Roger Moore is bland but pleasant as Cranston’s other principal aide Vincent; he’s (obviously) not the later British movie star of that name, but is connected to a different movie star; he’s the older brother of actor Robert Young. Shorter and pudgier than his famous sibling, he otherwise bears a strong physical resemblance to him and possesses a bit of his easygoing breeziness as well–not enough to make him particularly charismatic, but enough to make him likable.
Above left: Veda Ann Borg rolls her eyes over Cranston’s latest experiment. Above right: Roger Moore drives the Shadow to a crime scene.
The mysterious Black Tiger, who hides his identity not with a mask but with a light beam that renders him invisible, is blessed with a nicely shadowy lair, some fierce-looking tiger radios for communicating with his gang, and a beautifully-shot introductory scene (which is repeated in practically every chapter)–but proves a severe disappointment as soon as he starts talking; his harsh and nasal voice is so grating that it makes Edwin Stanley’s Lightning in Fighting Devil Dogs sound euphonious by comparison, while the bombastically sneering edge he gives to almost every one of his lines makes Forest Taylor’s Skull in Deadwood Dick seem subtly underplayed. This deranged overacting does successfully disguise the voice of the Tiger (the same actor who’s unmasked as the villain in the final chapter), but it also turns a potentially threatening heavy into an annoying and laughable figure, much to the detriment of the serial; the Tiger’s identity could easily have been concealed in a less damaging way, but director Horne undoubtedly wanted to make his master villain sound as absurd as possible.
Above: The Black Tiger dematerializes before conferring with his men.
Though the Tiger’s henchmen are comically diffident and jittery at times, they’re not as consistently clownish as the thugs in many of Horne’s other serials. Jack Ingram, as the Tiger’s self-possessed chief lieutenant, plays things pretty straight; unfortunately, he has fairly little active villainy to perform, serving more as a henching coordinator than an active field commander. Instead, the field-commander role is more frequently (and less satisfactorily) filled by dumpy and round-faced Eddie Fetherston, who projects almost no physical menace and also delivers his lines in excessively broad fashion, emphasizing his Brooklyn accent for comic effect. The slick Richard Botiller, the smug Chuck Hamilton, the phlegmatic Charles King, the weaselly Lew Sargent, and the gruff-voiced Kit Guard are all occasionally saddled with comedic bits of business, but on the whole make a satisfactory team of supporting thugs; ex-wrestler Constantine Romanoff (like most of the aforementioned heavies, a Horne serial regular) is the most consistently goofy member of the henchman pack–snoring unconcernedly while his associates tensely wait for their boss to appear in the first chapter, and eagerly asking to hear the story of Goldilocks in another episode.
Above, left to right: henchmen Kit Guard, Chuck Hamilton, Jack Ingram, and Richard Botiller.
Frank LaRue is grave but energetic as Commissioner Weston, and thankfully never descends into the blustering pomposity typical of the police officials in later Horne efforts; Edward Peil is similarly serious as his right-hand-man Inspector Cardona, but has much less to do. Unlike these policeman portrayers, some of the actors who make up the suspect board are more than a little hammy at times–particularly Charles French (who rants over-dramatically when accused of being the Black Tiger), J. Paul Jones (who becomes increasingly hysterical as the serial progresses), and Hal Cooke (who sounds on the verge of hyperventilating when the Tiger threatens him in the first chapter). Robert Fiske gets rather shrill when his explosive bulbs are stolen early on (and is overstatedly fiery when defying the villains in the final chapter), but adopts a coolly collected manner for the bulk of the serial; Gordon Hart, Griff Barnett, and Lee Shumway manage to maintain a proper balance of perturbation and dignity in nearly all of their scenes.
Above, left to right: Gordon Hart, Griff Barnett, J. Paul Jones, Charles French, and Robert Fiske.
Phillip Ahn makes the most of his brief recurring appearances as the Shadow’s astute Chinese confidant; as in his larger supporting role in Red Barry, he talks in pidgin English when interacting with the police or the villains, but uses his own mellifluous and unaccented voice when conferring with his colleagues. Mary McLaren is a villainous nurse, Charles Sullivan a bartender, Budd Buster an underworld character, Harry Tenbrook a captured henchman, Frank Hagney a thug, Lloyd Ingraham a judge, Tom London a truck driver, former silent star Franklyn Farnum the custodian of the villains’ plane-stopping ray, and future serial hero George Turner an attendant at the “Cobalt Club” where the board of suspects gathers.
The Shadow is no Spider’s Web, but it’s also not as blatantly tongue-in-cheek as The Spider Returns, Terry and the Pirates, and so many of its director’s other chapterplay efforts were; unlike those outings, it does come off as a genuine serial adventure instead of a comedic self-parody–albeit a rather mediocre serial adventure. With a less ludicrous-sounding villain, a better collection of cliffhangers, and a set of action scenes more carefully tailored to its distinctive hero, it’d have been a terrific chapterplay; instead, it’s an acceptable but forgettable effort chiefly distinguished by the presence of Jory–who definitely deserved a better vehicle for his fine realization of the title character.
This being the Christmas season,I’ll withhold my usual remarks about James Horne and say that Jory is fine as Lamont Cranston and the less said about the Chinese character. O.k serial.
***out of *****
I met Victor Jory at a film convention in St. Louis in the late 70’s, and he sat in with us and viewed chapter one. He said that Horne was nuts. He was a great guest.
No has ever been able to adequately present the Shadow in a film, and this one is no exception. While the performances are uniformly good, the story is so generic the Shadow is almost redundant. As a Shadow fan, I would characterize this as another cinematic disappointment.
I have to disagree with the consensus here. I note up front that I am not into the radio Shadow or the magazine Shadow. From what I have read, they differ, and this serial is not that off on how the Shadow was presented in the 1930’s in some stories. Regardless of that, I came to the serial quite willing to accept the Shadow as presented in the serial.
This serial reminds me of Superman. There is an obvious downside. The animated flying sequences in Superman. The poor “crawl out from under the wreckage” cliffhangers in The Shadow. However, I think both are fine serials because of everything else. The negative is that if these weaknesses had been better handled, Superman and The Shadow would be among the very best serials. They are still very good.
I thought the Shadow is one of the very best serial heroes, and for me a rival of Zorro as the best masked hero. The Shadow get-up was terrific. Victor Jory might be the best actor to ever headline a serial, and he does a terrific job. He is surprisingly smooth and likable as Lamont Cranston, and seems the man born to be the Shadow, with his deep, ominous voice and the best sinister laugh I have heard. I can’t imagine any actor of the day, up to and including Bogart, doing better. I also liked that the Shadow was a forensic scientist rather than a playboy.
The Lin Chang impersonation was not an actual Asian character, but a westerner playing a stereotyped Asian, so I don’t share the negative take on Jory’s effort here. Richard Loo also did the same double act, smooth when talking to the good guys, pidgin English and sing-song delivery when talking to the baddies. Took the edge off Chang for me.
I found the Black Tiger one of the best of all serial villains. The invisibility bit was fun, and too brief in execution to be tedious, and I liked the Tiger head with the glaring eyes and smoking mouth. His voice didn’t bother me. To my ear he was voiced by the veteran villain Richard Cramer and I had no problem with the snarling delivery. How one reacts to a voice is totally subjective, and I found the whole presentation fun.
The rest. The supporting cast all did their jobs, with Veda Ann Borg displaying more personality than most serial heroines. Horne kept his humor under control in this one. The jokes came across as acceptable comic relief rather than over-the-top farce. Just didn’t bother me. The music was excellent, especially for Columbia. I had no idea which one of the suspects would turn out to be the Black Tiger so in that sense the mystery worked for me, although it didn’t matter which one of the old fellows around the table turned out to be guilty. Overall there was a fast pace and plenty of action.
Sorry to run on so long, but I disagreed here with the almost totally negative takes, and so wanted to give my view. The best take I have read is a review which said “It is hard to believe a cliffhanger with such poor cliffhangers could come out so entertaining.” That sums up my reaction.
As the review and the previous comments show, there are some very divided opinions about this one. My feeling is that there is more good than bad, and that “forgettable” is a somewhat harsh assessment.
True, the cliffhangers are sometimes weak, the Lin Chang character really does seem too much of a caricature to be taken seriously, and Columbia’s penchant for revealing chapter endings is a definite minus, but overall I still thought the serial was pretty enjoyable. Victor Jory is probably one of the best actors ever to appear in a chapter play, and he’s very good as the title character. The Black Tiger portrayal was certainly over-the-top, but I found it to be more in the fun category, and not so annoying or absurd as to totally undercut his villainy.
Horne’s involvement always seems to be a polarizing factor, but here he’s more under control and less given to indulging his comedic tendencies. The cast is large and there’s plenty of variety in their performances to keep things interesting (albeit with plenty of ham at times). I would have liked Veda Ann Borg (minus the screaming) and Phillip Ahn to have been given more to do, but that’s a minor quibble.
The comments from “Old Serial Fan” summed up my feelings as well. Despite the flaws, the serial is definitely entertaining and worth watching.