After the disappointing first two films with Rod La Rocque, I was more than ready to actually see The Shadow as I knew him on screen. Within the first few seconds of chapter 1 of The Shadow (1940), I knew things were going to be better as I heard the familiar laugh and a mysterious voice say “I am The Shadow”. Over the course of the next 15 chapters lasting more than four hours, we are finally getting something that more closely resembles The Shadow of print and radio.
Before diving into The Shadow, it is best to understand the format of a chapter serial. Back in the 30s and 40s, movie theaters would have matinees every Saturday afternoon. For 10 cents, you could spend the entire afternoon enthralled by what you were watching on the big screen. There would be two movies, a cartoon, a short subject (such as The Three Stooges), a newsreel and a chapter serial. Serials were usually 12 to 15 episodes in length with each episode lasting about 17 minutes. Often, the opening chapter would last up to 30 minutes long, establishing the story and characters. Each episode would end with a thrilling cliffhanger, usually leaving our main hero in jeopardy. You would be lured to return the next Saturday for the next chapter. It would take months to complete the adventure and that is really the best way to watch these stories. They weren’t designed for a four hour consecutive viewing as the plots can often be a little repetitive. However, a well-crafted chapter serial can still be entertaining if watched in blocks and The Shadow doesn’t disappoint.
While not based on any specific story, The Shadow does give credit to The Shadow magazine. Lamont Cranston is a scientist working with the police to stop the mysterious Black Tiger, a villain who can make himself invisible and is planning world domination. One by one, he gains control over key citizens and their industries. Meanwhile, The Shadow is working to stop The Black Tiger while the police think both men are one in the same. Victor Jory (Cat-Women on the Moon, Charlie Chan in Rio) heads the cast as Cranston and does an amazing job. I would close my eyes and imagine him on the radio, convinced he had to have listened to Orson Welles or Bill Johnstone play the character. While we have the sinister laugh and The Shadow looked the part (cloak, hat, scarf and gun in hand) he did not possess the power of invisibility. Having The Shadow always invisible wouldn’t work on the big screen in 1940, so I am willing to forgive that creative change. Veda Ann Borg (Fog Island) plays Margo Lane, a bit more brash and less a society girl than we normally have Margo portrayed. Straight out of the pulp novels and aiding The Shadow is Harry Vincent (played by Roger Moore, and no, not the same actor who played James Bond). Add to that the characters of Inspector Cardona and Commissioner Weston and you have a very faithful adaptation.
Now, there are some problems with The Shadow. Being a chapter serial, it can get repetitive if viewed in one long block of time. But, as stated earlier, breaking up the viewing will ease that pain a little. While capturing the thrilling aspects of the character, it could have benefited from being a little more mysterious. Victor Jory does present Cranston’s ability to change his appearance as he adopts the alter ego of Asian Lin Chang. It is not politically correct today but, if you can enjoy Charlie Chan for its’ historical value, you should not be offended here. While we are missing some aspects of The Shadow character, such as the previously mentioned invisibility, it certainly is a much better effort and I can honestly recommend this adventure for viewing. Yes, it is formulaic and not a 100% true presentation of The Shadow from the radio and print but much closer than we’ve seen so far up to this point.
The Shadow is available on DVD through various sources, although none appear to be a legitimate source. It can also be found easily on YouTube. Take the time to check this one out and you won’t be disappointed. Meanwhile, I once again highly recommend checking out Martin Grams’ fabulous book as he has done tremendous research into The Shadow as seen on film.
Next time, we journey to 1946 as Kane Richmond assumes the role of The Shadow for three films.