The Whispering Shadow

Whispering Shadow--titles
Mascot, 12 Chapters, 1933. Starring Malcolm McGregor, Viva Tattersall, Bela Lugosi, Robert Warwick, Roy D’Arcy, Lafe McKee, Bob Kortman, Henry B. Walthall, Lloyd Whitlock, Karl Dane.

The henchmen of a scientific master criminal known as The Whispering Shadow have been making assaults on the trucks, warehouse, and offices of the Empire Transport and Storage Company of Los Angeles. Famed detective Robert Raymond (Robert Warwick) is hired to investigate these crimes by the Company’s president J. B. Bradley (Henry B. Walthall)–and soon learns that the Shadow’s objective is a set of stolen crown jewels hidden in the Company’s headquarters. These jewels are also being sought by the man who originally stole them, escaped convict Jasper Slade (Bob Kortman), and by three more respectable–but equally sinister–characters, one of whom might be the Whispering Shadow himself: Company vice-president D. W. Jerome (Lafe McKee), Company radio technician Alexis Steinbeck (Roy D’Arcy), and wax-museum proprietor Professor Adam Strang (Bela Lugosi). Strang’s daughter Vera (Viva Tattersall) aids her father in his attempts to obtain the jewels, but also assists Company transportation director Jack Foster (Malcolm McGregor)–who’s determined to avenge his truck-driver brother’s murder at the hands of the Shadow’s gang by tracking down the Shadow himself.

The narrative of The Whispering Shadow quickly turns into a marathon tug-of-war over the coveted crown jewels, which are removed from their hiding place in the first chapter and pass rapidly from hand to hand during most of the remaining episodes; the hero’s attempt to clear himself of a murder charge does add a new subplot to the serial at the midway point, but the resultant complications are cleared away within the next few episodes. However, writers Barney Sarecky, Norman Hall, Wyndham Gittens, George Morgan, and Colbert Clark (Clark also co-directs) still manage to make this essentially repetitive storyline seem lively and interesting–mainly because they pack their screenplay with a wide variety of enigmatic, shady, or unabashedly villainous characters. Every major supporting player–even the heroine–has an agenda of their own that regularly brings them into conflict with the hero or with each other; these assorted clashes lend an enjoyably unpredictable air to each episode.

Whispering Shadow--jewel-snatching
Above: While Malcolm McGregor and Bob Kortman wrestle in the background, the mysterious hand of a third party reaches out to seize the box containing the crown jewels.

The riddle of the Whispering Shadow’s true identity also keeps things interesting, the master villain being camouflaged much better here than in most of Mascot’s other chapterplays. Usually, one can pick out Mascot mystery villains well before the final chapter, but in Shadow the writers do such an effective job of mystifying and misdirecting the audience that the unmasking of the guilty party is likely to prove a real surprise. Unfortunately, this mystification is laid on so thickly that the last-chapter explanatory sequence fails to clear all of it away, and leaves an abundance of unanswered questions–although the writers do at least take care to give the “innocent” suspects credible motives for their interest in the jewels, if not for all their strange individual actions. The writers also endeavor to provide logical plotting triggers for the irksome flashbacks that–as in many other post-1932 Mascots–are scattered throughout the later chapters, but though this approach makes these replays of earlier scenes seem a little less arbitrary, it doesn’t make them any less frustrating to viewers eager to get back to the current action.

Whispering Shadow--Karl Dane and puzzle
Above: The audience has about as much chance of completely understanding Whispering Shadow’s plot as Karl Dane’s comic-relief character Sparks does of understanding that linking-ring puzzle he’s grappling with.

Marred thought it is by typical Mascot flaws, (the unnecessary flashbacks, the loose ends of the mystery plot), Whispering Shadow also benefits from typical Mascot strengths. The serial’s large cast of good, bad, and mysterious characters ensures that someone is confronting, attacking, or spying on someone else in nearly every scene; though this constant activity is frequently confusing, it also keeps the serial moving at the brisk pace characteristic of Mascot’s chapterplays. Shadow is additionally enhanced by characteristically atmospheric Mascot camerawork; cinematographers Ernest Miller and Edgar Lyons enliven the serial with many well-composed and eerily-lit shots that complement the mysterious plot. The serial receives yet another boost from some solid action scenes; directors Colbert Clark and Al Herman undoubtedly had a hand in staging these sequences, but the man most responsible for their quality is (of course) Mascot’s regular stunt ramrod, the invaluable Yakima Canutt–who doubles hero Malcolm McGregor here, while his fellow-stuntmen Eddie Parker and George Magrill stand in for other players (Magrill also plays a recurring henchman).

Whispering Shadow--corridor shot Whispering Shadow--window shot
Above: Two examples of Whispering Shadow’s atmospheric cinematography. At left, a lurking Lionel Backus watches Lafe McKee walk down a long corridor at the Company warehouse–while at right, Malcolm McGregor peers in through a window, unaware that the Shadow is crouching in wait for him.

As is always the case when Canutt is on hand, Shadow’s fight scenes–though crude compared to later serial brawls–are more exciting and more visually interesting than the early-1930s norm; combatants regularly jump from heights, violently slam each other to the ground or against walls, and flip each other through the air, instead of simply standing up and swinging frenziedly at each other. The Chapter Seven radio-room fight between the hero and a suspect in Chapter Seven is particularly dynamic; the Chapter Two wax-museum fight (which Canutt concludes with a nice leap from a staircase), the fights in the crate-crammed storeroom in Chapters Four and Nine, and the Chapter Ten fight in the Shadow’s headquarters (during which a heavy gets energetically tossed over a table) are all very good too.

Whispering Shadow--museum fight Whispering Shadow--lab fight
Above left: Yakima Canutt leaps through the air to jump a Shadow henchman during the Chapter Two fight at the museum. Above right: Eddie Parker (doubling Roy D’Arcy) breaks a chair over Canutt’s head during the Chapter Seven radio-room right.

Another action highlight is the attack on the truck in Chapter One, which is entertainingly prefaced by the hero’s cross-country motorcycle race to warn the imperiled vehicle; the attack scene itself has the hero riding atop the truck and exchanging gunfire with a carful of pursuing thugs, as truck and car race along hilly Mulholland Drive. The car-motorcycle chase in Chapter Two is shorter but also lively, culminating with a good jump from cycle to automobile; the Chapter Seven chase and shootout in the Company’s garage (evidently a real one, judging from the number of trucks inside it) is a standout as well, a sequence that has the villains first running across the tops of the garaged trucks, and then taking cover inside three separate trucks in order to unleash a barrage of loudly echoing shots at the hero.

Whispering Shadow--truck chase Whispering Shadow--truck-garage chase
Above left: The good guys’ truck bumps one of the villains’ cars off the edge of the road, thus breaking through an impromptu blockade to begin the Chapter One chase scene. Above right: George Magrill leaps from truck to truck in search of the hero during the Chapter Seven scramble in the garage.

Like the garage sequence, the energetic rooftop fight at the end of Chapter One benefits from what appears to be a “genuine” location; the streets and buildings seen from the rail are obviously not process-screen work. One of the towering and ornate warehouses of the Bekins Storage company–a real-life California storage and transport outfit, very similar to the serial’s Empire Company–is used for exterior shots of the Empire headquarters; it seems possible that the tower’s garage and rooftop were utilized by Shadow’s crew as well (the metal gates and ostentatious elevator entrances within the “Empire” building also look like the “real thing”). The serial’s other locations include various Los Angeles city streets and country roads, the grounds of an apparent mansion, the long dark corridors of the Company storerooms, the prop-laden electrical labs of Steinbeck and Strang, and Strang’s sinister wax-museum. The last-named set is populated by eerie moving dummies that are elaborately introduced in Chapter One, but (disappointingly) serve no further function than that of spooky background scenery after the first wax-museum scene.

Whispering Shadow--tower Whispering Shadow--rooftop fight
Above left: A section of the “Empire” (Bekins) Tower. Above right: Hero and villains square off on the roof of the tower, or at least the roof of some towering structure; note the obviously real skyline scenery around them.

The best of Shadow’s cliffhangers is easily the striking one that follows the aforementioned Chapter One rooftop fight: an auto-gyro in which the hero is battling the villains catches in the radio wires atop the Empire building, and then crashes into one of the building’s radio towers; the miniature work of the Lydecker brothers (Mascot employees at this time) helps to put this scene across very well. The well-shot moving-wall cliffhanger of Chapter Two is also memorable, as is the Chapter Seven ending that has the heroine threatened by the Shadow’s lethal radio-death; the hero’s apparent elimination by the same ray at the end of Chapter Four is less dramatically set up than the Chapter Seven cliffhanger, and thus less effective. The blasting-zone cliffhanger of Chapter Five is far too abrupt, while the hero’s plummet from a highway in Chapter Three, his fall from a window in Chapter Six, and his imperilment by poison gas in Chapter Nine are routine but well-done.

Whispering Shadow--autogyro cliffhanger Whispering Shadow--wall cliffhanger
Above left: The tangled auto-gyro swings into the radio tower at the end of Chapter One. Above: The walls start to close in on Malcolm McGregor and Viva Tattersall for the Chapter Two cliffhanger.

Mascot producer Nat Levine always liked to pack his serial casts with once-famous names, but Shadow has perhaps a higher quotient of ex-stars than any of his other outings. Handsome Malcolm McGregor, a popular leading man at major studios like Fox and Metro (the future MGM) during the silent era, turns in an intensely earnest but frequently hammy performance as hero Jack Foster–ostentatiously “registering” determination or anger, and ranting with over-dramatic vigor when he’s vowing vengeance on the Shadow or accusing various suspects. He’s not unrelentingly grim, however, and easily switches to breezy cheerfulness when necessary–although his displays of geniality often seem a bit overstated as well. Excessively fervent as his acting often is, it’s also so energetically whole-hearted that he comes off as quite likable; his background as a college athlete also allows him to run, climb, and jump around in convincing fashion. However, he remains a bit harder to identify with than the bulk of Mascot’s heroes–most of whom (John Wayne, Harry Carey, Johnny Mack Brown, Tom Tyler) tended to be the most natural and low-key players in serials otherwise filled with floridly hammy thespians.

Whispering Shadow--Malcolm McGregor
Above: Malcolm McGregor advances grimly towards an off-camera suspect who seems to have been revealed as the Shadow.

Viva Tattersall, a British-born former stage actress with less silent-film experience than most of Shadow’s other performers, delivers a very attractive and appealing performance as heroine Vera Strang. She’s suitably impassioned and tearful when begging hero McGregor to trust her, or when trying to keep her screen father Bela Lugosi from running into danger, but rarely overacts; in fact, she does such a good job of acting sincerely worried and affectionate that she makes her emotionally conflicted character’s scenes seem genuinely moving. Her delicate good looks and her clear, charming, English-accented voice further increase the appeal of her characterization.

Whispering Shadow--Viva Tattersall
Above: Viva Tattersall tries to reach an understanding with the off-camera Malcolm McGregor.

As Vera’s enigmatic father Professor Strang, Bela Lugosi (in his first serial) receives top billing, despite his decidedly secondary role. However, he still has the most screen time of any of the Shadow suspects, and gets many chances to be grimly commanding, sinisterly genteel, and even (in some of his scenes with Tattersall) benevolently paternal. He periodically goes over the histrionic top when declaiming about the importance of his mysterious mission or snarling about the interference he’s encountering, but is more terse and restrained in other scenes (as when he curtly tells the gloating Roy D’Arcy to “come to the point”); as always, he’s an equally arresting screen presence whether he’s being broad or subtle.

Whispering Shadow--Bela Lugosi
Above: Bela Lugosi in his spooky laboratory.

Roy D’Arcy, a major villainous actor during the silent era, plays the shady Steinbeck with a wildly exaggerated but very entertaining air of sly sliminess that suggests Bob Clampett’s cartoon character “Dishonest John” more than anything else; he never actually twirls his moustache while chortling evilly, but constantly seems on the verge of doing so. Former stage and silent-film leading man Robert Warwick is a lot more sober as detective Robert Raymond–issuing orders or explaining deductions with measured gravity and dignity, and using his mellifluous voice to get maximum effect out of his lines, but never seeming too self-consciously stagy.

Whispering Shadow--Warwick and D'Arcy
Above: Robert Warwick (left) questions Roy D’Arcy.

As the beleaguered company president, distinguished silent star Henry B. Walthall delivers the most natural performance in the serial, coming off as positively underplayed alongside most of his co-stars. He’s also severely underused, spending most of his screen time in the background; he starts to become a little more prominent in the later episodes, but is finally written out of the story with such casual abruptness that one wonders if he was unable to finish filming the serial. His one really good moment comes in Chapter One, when he delivers a quietly self-recriminatory speech about the danger hanging over his employees.

Whispering Shadow--Walthall and McKee
Above: Henry B. Walthall (left) and Lafe McKee.

Lafe McKee is quite entertaining as Walthall’s respectable-looking but suspicious-acting vice-president, brushing off accusations with blustery dignity and making accusations of his own with determined pugnacity. Bob Kortman, as intimidatingly ugly as ever, snarls and sneers with characteristic energy as the escaped convict Slade–who aggressively threatens all the major characters at one time or another, and doesn’t even show any fear of the Whispering Shadow himself. Lloyd Whitlock is properly smooth and authoritative as the Shadow’s chief henchman, although his excessively precise and mannered delivery of his lines is bothersome at times.

Whispering Shadow--Kortman and Whitlock
Above: Bob Kortman (left) and Lloyd Whitlock investigate a noise, but fail to spot Malcolm McGregor hiding behind those crates.

The Shadow himself is one of Mascot’s better all-round mystery villains; the ominous jamming of radio communications that occurs whenever he’s about to strike, the death-ray that he successfully uses to kill off more than one victim, and the harsh and threatening whisper in which he speaks combine to give him a nicely menacing aura. The black shadow he throws over the scene from time to time (projecting it via a “television” device) is menacing too, though not exactly original; the cloak and broad-brimmed hat sported by this silhouette give it a highly suspicious resemblance to the Shadow—the famed magazine and radio-show character, who’d first been given a near-identical visual appearance in a series of Universal shorts earlier in the 1930s.

Whispering Shadow--the Shadow
Above: The shadow of the Shadow (far right) appears to his men.

Tom London plays one of the Shadow’s recurring henchmen, and receives some good opportunities to act both slick and panicked in the serial’s middle chapters. Prominent silent actress Ethel Clayton is also spotlighted during the same episodes, as a female member (called the “Countess”) of the Shadow’s gang; in a twist unusual to the serial genre, she turns against the Shadow when the villain threatens to eliminate the man she loves (London’s character)—which gives her an extended chance to show her dramatic skills, as she determinedly but distraughtly challenges her erstwhile boss.

Whispering Shadow--Clayton and London
Above: Ethel Clayton rebukes a nervous Tom London.

Karl Dane (yet another silent-era star, best-known for comedy roles) provides subdued comic relief as Sparks, the slow-witted Scandinavian radio operator at the Empire building. He thankfully steers clear of pratfalls or noisiness; most of his comedic bits center instead around his obsession with solving a linking-rings puzzle. Lionel Backus is appropriately sneaky as an untrustworthy clerk who briefly plays a major role in the plot, Max Wagner has a memorable bit as a captured henchman, and Gordon DeMain plays a capable and self-assured assistant detective.  Yakima Canutt pops up briefly as a detective too, Jack Perrin and George Magrill play henchmen roles, Eddie Parker appears as a truck driver, and Kernan Cripps is another trucker who crankily refuses to take on a dangerous run. Last but not least, George J. Lewis makes his serial debut in the role of the hero’s doomed brother Bud, delivering an energetic and buoyantly cheerful performance during his brief time on screen.

With its rich collection of suspicious characters, The Whispering Shadow ranks as one of Mascot’s most thorough-going attempts at a “mystery” chapterplay; the confusions and illogicalities caused by this relentless emphasis on mysteriousness, (along with the pronounced theatricality of most of the actors) have proved off-putting to many serial buffs. However, if one doesn’t go into Shadow expecting it to make complete sense, it’s possible to derive substantial enjoyment from the gusto with which the serial’s cast and crew tackle its full-blooded action scenes, and the old-fashioned stylishness with which they handle its melodramatically mysterious ones.

Whispering Shadow--last

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