March 23rd, 1882 — February 6th, 1968
Tall and broad-shouldered, with sternly handsome features, a high forehead surmounted by a shock of silver hair, and a penetratingly shrewd gaze, C. Montague Shaw was both imposingly dignified and highly intelligent in appearance; his British accent and his precise, expertly modulated speaking voice made him sound just as distinguished and astute as he looked. The serial producers of the 1930s and early 1940s made frequent and effective use of Shaw’s strong acting presence, most typically casting him as eminent scientists who resisted the villains’ efforts to utilize their knowledge for evil purposes; he always effectively projected the acumen and the stalwartness appropriate to such characters, and invariably made their elucidations of fictitious scientific theories sound assured and completely believable.
C. Montague Shaw was born Charles Montague Discombe Sparrow in Adelaide, Australia; as a boy, he attended the Australian boarding school known as Prince Alfred College–from which his friend Lionel Logue, later the speech therapist to England’s King George VI, also graduated. Like Logue, Sparrow pursued the study of elocution after leaving school—but wasn’t initially able to use his voice as the basis of a career; he worked as a clerk and made a few prospecting forays before leaving Australia to seek his fortune in England in 1906. There, he found employment first as a paid “reader” and then as a Shakespearean repertory actor, touring Britain with the Benson Company for several years; in 1911, he signed with the Henry Herbert theatrical company and traveled to South Africa, where he subsequently began a second career as an elocution teacher. His teaching was interrupted by World War 1, during which he served with Britain’s colonial East African forces and achieved the rank of captain; after concluding his military service, he went back to England in 1919, where he married and resumed his acting career. He and his wife briefly returned to South Africa, but moved to England shortly after the birth of their daughter in 1921. Sparrow obtained a job as an elocution teacher at a Toronto school in 1922, and relocated to Canada with his family; in 1924 he took another teaching position at a school in Boston and settled for a time in Massachusetts.
In 1926, Sparrow began acting again, appearing in a couple of silent Hollywood features but principally working on the New York stage; it was around this time that he adopted “Shaw” as his stage name. He played prominent parts in several Broadway shows (including a revival of William Gillette’s famed Sherlock Holmes play) during the late 1920s and early 1930s; by 1932, he had permanently settled in California, where he appeared in West Coast stage plays and took many minor supporting roles in the Hollywood features of the 1930s–particularly films set in England (such as The Mystery of Mr. X) and historical epics (like Queen Christina). He won larger roles in 1930s chapterplays, however–the first of these being Undersea Kingdom (Republic, 1936), in which he was cast as the brilliant Professor Norton, a scientist who was apparently a geologist, archeologist, and physicist. Hoping to discover the cause of a series of mysterious undersea earthquakes, Norton led a submarine expedition to the legendary sunken realm of Atlantis—which he (accurately) believed to have been preserved by a gigantic watertight dome. Shortly after arriving in Atlantis, Norton was captured and brainwashed by the kingdom’s evil ruler Unga Khan (Monte Blue), who then ordered the scientist to develop powerful rockets that would allow Khan to conquer the “surface world.” Navy officer Crash Corrigan (Ray Corrigan) eventually managed to rescue the professor and restore his mind–and then, with his help, smashed Khan’s ambitious scheme. Shaw was excellent in this part, which amounted in effect to a dual role. He was calmly commanding as the “real” Norton–gravely and tersely rebuking a hysterical submarine crewman, expounding on his Atlantean theory with convincing authority, and courageously defying Khan; as the mind-controlled Norton, he adopted a memorably crazed and monomaniacal manner—obsessively laboring in his “master’s” laboratory, insistently pestering Khan for needed scientific supplies, and grinning evilly whenever he saw a chance to remove his “enemy” Corrigan.
Ace Drummond (Universal, 1936) featured Shaw as the archeologist Dr. Trainor, who discovered a mountain of jade in Mongolia and was imprisoned by a mysterious criminal called the Dragon–who hoped to force Trainor to give him the location of the mountain; the Dragon also began sabotaging attempts to build an airbase in Mongolia, fearing that the construction project might accidentally uncover the jade. Trainor’s daughter Peggy (Jean Rogers) came to Mongolia find her father, and was assisted in her search to by Ace Drummond (John King), the pilot-detective assigned to investigate the airplane sabotage. Shaw had a little less screen time in Drummond than in Undersea Kingdom, due to the Universal serial’s very large cast–but still played a pivotal role in the plot and figured prominently in many scenes, conveying unsinkable determination and cool resourcefulness when he was standing up to the Dragon’s henchmen or making attempts to escape from their hideout
Above: C. Montague Shaw points an accusing finger at Chester Gan, who’s being yanked out of a trapdoor by John King (left) and Noah Beery Jr. in Ace Drummond (Universal, 1936). Standing behind Shaw is Jean Rogers; Arthur Loft is next to Rogers and Guy Bates Post is standing on the far right.
Radio Patrol (Universal, 1937) cast Shaw as another upright character—or so it seemed for most of the serial’s running time. As a philanthropic steel magnate named Wellington, he spent eleven of the serial’s twelve episodes firmly pledging his support to policeman hero Grant Withers, gravely voicing his disapproval of the criminals Withers was battling, and expressing sympathy for young Mickey Rentschler (the son of a murdered inventor) and heroine Catherine Hughes (who brother was wrongfully accused of the murder). However, in the final chapter, Shaw’s seemingly irreproachable Wellington turned out to be the man behind all the serial’s villainy; he submitted to arrest with what seemed to be dignified resignation, wryly regretting his inability to get his hands on the flexible-steel formula for which he’d committed his crimes–but then met his end in a last attempt to kill the hero.
Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (Universal, 1938) gave Shaw perhaps the most memorable role of his serial career; he was cast as the Clay King, ruler of a race of once-powerful Martians who had been turned into clay men by the Martian sorceress-queen Azura and were now forced to live in underground caverns. Azura, at the urging of her ally Ming (Charles Middleton), began draining off the vital element “nitron” from the Earth’s atmosphere, planning to convert it into weapons that could be used to permanently eradicate the Clay People; a party of Earthlings led by Flash Gordon (Buster Crabbe) soon rocketed to Mars to put a stop to this scheme, and wound up joining forces with the Clay People in their fight against Azura. Shaw spent most of Trip to Mars wearing eerie and grotesque clay-man makeup, finally doffing it in the thirteenth chapter when the King and his people were restored to their original shapes; though thus deprived of the use of facial expressions for the bulk of the serial, he did an excellent job of making the King seem frustrated, grim, despairing, and desperately hopeful by turns, conveying these differing moods through voice and gesture alone. Said voice–as distinguished-sounding as ever, yet emanating from the Clay King’s blobby face–also helped to give Shaw’s characterization an eerie and tragic air of ruined nobility.
Shaw’s next serial was Buck Rogers (Universal, 1939), which was set on a future Earth dominated by the evil dictator Killer Kane (Anthony Warde). Shaw played Dr. Huer, the “Scientist-General” of an army of anti-Kane holdouts headquartered in the Hidden City; his character provided hero Buck Rogers (Buster Crabbe) with a disappearing ray and others devices that came in useful in the battle against Kane’s legions. Shaw registered impressive resentment of Kane’s tyranny, took part in Hidden City strategizing sessions with assurance, and explained the serial’s gadgetry with characteristic aplomb; he also gave his character a slightly more uncharacteristic touch of comic eccentricity, sometimes demonstrating new inventions with an amusing combination of pride and glee.
Daredevils of the Red Circle (Republic, 1939) featured Shaw in his first villainous serial role since Radio Patrol; unlike that serial, Daredevils revealed him as a heavy in its first chapter—although he maintained an upstanding pose for most of the chapterplay. As Dr. Malcolm, the personal physician of millionaire Horace Granville (Miles Mander), he treacherously joined forces with Granville’s bitter enemy Harry Crowel (Charles Middleton), who was bent on destroying Granville’s financial empire. To further this plan, Crowel kidnapped Granville and secretly imprisoned him; Malcolm helped him to carry off this impersonation and served as his chief counselor, before accidentally killing his boss and himself in the last chapter by trying to make an escape in a booby-trapped car. Though prominent in the serial’s climax, Shaw’s character did little but offer comments and suggestions to Crowel in Daredevils’ earlier scenes; however, he made an excellent foil for Middleton’s villain, his cautious and controlled demeanor contrasting well with Middleton’s ruthlessly ferocious manner whenever the two characters laid their schemes.
Zorro’s Fighting Legion (Republic, 1939), also cast Shaw as a villain—Pablo, the corrupt chief justice of the Mexican province of San Mendolito. His character, along with three other treacherous members of San Mendolito’s government, was secretly conspiring to overthrow Mexico’s government with the aid of the Yaqui Indians; the leader of the quartet posed as the Yaqui god Don Del Oro to further this goal–although the writers took care to keep the audience guessing as to which of the four traitors was in supreme command, letting each of the four take the lead in various plotting scenes. Shaw handled his share of these scenes with first-rate craftiness and suavity, particularly when asking some dangerously shrewd questions of council member Don Diego Vega (Reed Hadley)—who was secretly Don Del Oro’s chief enemy Zorro. In the final chapter, Don Del Oro killed his co-conspirators to protect his identity, but was subsequently unmasked by Zorro and proved to be Shaw’s Pablo–a revelation that was not too surprising, since Shaw had made the unjust justice seem by far the most formidable of the suspect quartet.
The Green Hornet Strikes Again (Universal, 1940) gave Shaw the smallest of his chapterplay roles; he made two brief appearances as a crooked scientist named Weaver, who was developing an anti-aircraft bomb that the villains hoped to sell to a foreign power; confronted and questioned by the masked hero known as the Green Hornet (Warren Hull), Shaw convincingly veered from calm hypocrisy to nervousness to panic, and was then knocked out in a lab explosion while trying to flee from the hero.
Shaw took his last major serial role in Mysterious Doctor Satan (Republic, 1940). As Thomas Scott, the inventor of a remote control cell sought by the fiendish genius Doctor Satan (Eduardo Ciannelli), he didn’t immediately become a captive of the villain (as in Undersea Kingdom or Ace Drummond); instead, he took an active part in the campaign against Dr. Satan in the serial’s first four episodes, assuredly devising strategies and even participating in some fistfights. After being imprisoned by the heavies in Chapter Five, he still received some excellent scenes–steadfastly defying Dr. Satan and persuasively talking a henchman into assisting him in an elaborate and near-successful escape plan. He receded into the background after being drugged into a more helpful frame of mind by Dr. Satan in Chapter Six, but emerged strongly in the serial’s final episode—in which, freed from the influence of the drug, he accompanied the hero in a stealthy climactic raid on Dr. Satan’s headquarters, helped to bring about the villain’s demise, and assisted in rescuing most of the other cast members from Dr. Satan’s killer robot.
Shaw’s screen appearances began to slack off dramatically during the early 1940s, although he kept working on the California stage. He played four more serial roles, all of them small, from 1941 to 1943; the first of these was his turn as Secret Service chief John W. Malloy in Holt of the Secret Service (Columbia, 1941). Though he received third billing, he only made token appearances throughout the serial—assigning hero Jack Holt to track down a counterfeiting ring in the first chapter, then periodically popping up to receive his progress reports in subsequent episodes. Several of Holt’s other cast members overacted outrageously at the behest of director James W. Horne, but Shaw managed to retain his customary reserve and dignity in his scattered scenes.
Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. (Republic, 1941) featured Shaw in its first chapter as scientist Jonathan Martin, who discovered the existence of a dangerous earth fault in New York City’s principal harbor—and was then kidnapped by a deranged criminal called the Ghost, who forced him (via bamboo-shoot torture) to reveal the location of the fault and dispatched agents to drop bombs on the geological weak spot, planning to flood New York City as part of a vengeance scheme. Shaw, however, craftily managed to alert Dick Tracy (Ralph Byrd) to his whereabouts, and was rescued in time to warn the hero of the Ghost’s destructive plan.
Above: C. Montague Shaw shows Michael Owen (back to camera), Ralph Byrd, and Kenneth Harlan (in the police uniform) how the Ghost plans to strike at New York City in Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. (Republic, 1941).
Shaw appeared briefly in two of the later episodes of Perils of the Royal Mounted (Columbia, 1942) as RCMP Commissioner Phillips; this outing, like his other Columbia chapterplay, was directed by the comedy-loving James W. Horne, but Shaw again performed his scenes without any loss of dignity. He took his last serial part in G-Men vs. the Black Dragon (Republic, 1943), playing a two-chapter role as yet another distinguished and courageous scientist targeted by villains—Professor Nicholson by name. His character examined a Japanese submarine-detecting device for G-man hero Rod Cameron, then was captured by Japanese spies who wanted to recover the detector and destroy the notes the professor had made on it. Nicholson pretended to acquiesce to his captors’ demands after nearly being throttled, but managed to get a helpful message out to Cameron; however, the unfortunate professor met his end shortly thereafter, shot by one of the spies during a desperate escape attempt.
Above: C. Montague Shaw as Professor Nicholson scornfully reminds Japanese spy Haruchi (Nino Pipitone, far right) of the latter’s long record of treachery “before Pearl Harbor and in the Philippines.” Noel Cravat is on the far left, George J. Lewis between Shaw and Pipitone in this scene from G-Men vs. the Black Dragon (Republic, 1943).
During the remaining years of the 1940s, Shaw made only about a dozen more movie appearances; his last film was the independently-produced 1949 feature The Pilgrimage Play—a well-done adaptation of a stage play about the Passion of Christ, in which Shaw played the Jewish high priest Caiaphas. In 1952, Shaw retired from stage acting as well as screen acting, and went to live with his children and grandchildren on a family apricot farm near Hemet, California. Ill health obliged him to enter the Woodland Hills Motion Picture Hospital in the mid-1960s; he passed away there in 1968.
C. Montague Shaw never needed to resort to dramatic gestures or thunderous-sounding dialogue delivery in order to make himself seem dignified or authoritative. His scholarly and rather regal appearance, reserved but impressive manner, and similarly reserved but impressive voice always immediately stamped his chapterplay characters as gentlemen of great distinction–and as men that were sure to provide the villains (or, on occasion, the heroes) with formidably firm and sharply intelligent opposition.
Acknowledgements: My special thanks to Kathleen Hall Parks, the daughter of C. Montague Shaw’s daughter Barbara; the wealth of information about her grandfather that she’s assembled at Ancestry.com provided me with the biographical info I needed for this article. If any of the serial fans reading this piece happen to be signed up with Ancestry.com (a subscription-only website), I strongly recommend that they check her page out; an Ancestry.com search on Charles Montague Discombe Sparrow/Shaw will bring it up. The Internet Movie Database’s short biography of Shaw (by one “frankfob2”) was also of help in constructing this article.