The Shadow knows but just who is The Shadow? It really depends on which version you are watching or reading. In some cases, such as on radio, he was Lamont Cranston, “wealthy young man about town.” However, in the pulp novels he was Kent Allard and a master of many disguises, one of which was Cranston. Before we begin our cinematic journey, let’s first look at the history of The Shadow before 1937.
I’ll begin by stating that this and forthcoming articles are anything but the definitive word. I highly recommend The Shadow: The History and Mystery of the Radio Program, 1930-1954, written by Martin Grams. There is absolutely no better book on the subject of The Shadow as he pertains to radio, where I believe The Shadow works best. That said, these articles are just to give you a taste of a thrilling character from yesteryear that is just as entertaining today as it was more than 80 years ago.
The Shadow began life as the narrator and host of the Detective Story Hour radio program on July 31, 1930. James LaCurto was the original Shadow, followed by Frank Readick. He was a master of hypnotism, allowing him to be present within the stories. What started out as a hope to improve sales for Detective Story Magazine turned into a large following for the host. Listeners wanted more and the publishers, Street & Smith, had no choice but to hire Walter B. Gibson to begin writing stories on this undeveloped character. Adopting the pen name of Maxwell Grant, he wrote the first novel, which was released in April 1931, The Living Shadow. It was here that, over the course of the next 20 years, some 325 adventures were published, 282 of which were written by Gibson. We would discover that The Shadow was really Kent Allard. He would adopt numerous identities to help in fight against crime, one of which was that of Lamont Cranston. His network of agents on crime included socialite Margo Lane and cabbie Shrevvy. He had numerous enemies, including the evil Shiwan Kahn and the Voodoo Master.
After bouncing around through several radio programs, The Shadow found a home in 1937 when Street & Smith formed a partnership with Blue Coal. Walter Gibson would help transform the radio host and pulp novel hero into a new crime fighter for his own weekly radio program. On September 26, 1937, Orson Welles became the first Shadow. Several ideas from the novels were dropped, the most glaring being that The Shadow was really Lamont Cranston. The identity of Kent Allard and his various other alter egos were not adapted for radio. While some other elements, such as Margo and Shrevvy survived, the rogue’s gallery of villains did not. The Shadow would be an instant hit, reigning supreme on the airwaves until 1954 with four other actors following Welles in the lead role, including Bill Johnstone and Bret Morrison.
With the novels and radio program creating a legion of avid fans, it was only natural that the next step would be to bring The Shadow to life on the silver screen. The Shadow actually started life at the cinema in 1931 as a narrator of six film shorts based on Detective Story Hour. Frank Readick provided the voice as he did on radio, not to mention the first year of the proper radio program with Orson Welles. It was Readick’s voice heard at the beginning and ending of the weekly programs while Welles did the voice in the rest of show. However, with The Shadow now the main character of a movie, a film actor would be hired to help flesh out the role.
Next time, I’ll take a look at the two Shadow movies starring Rod La Rocque, The Shadow Strikes (1937) and International Crime (1938). Meanwhile, turn out the lights and listen to the July 10, 1938 radio episode, He Died at Twelve. Listen for Frank Readick’s voice before Orson Welles takes over the actual story. I also recommend taking at look at the blog of Martin Grams. He just posted a great article on a rare Shadow newsletter from the late 70s. Good stuff!