Sunday, April 29, 2007

“…as haunting to superstitious minds as a ghost…as inevitable as a guilty conscience…”

There are going to be a good many Shadow fans that will react to the James W. Horne serial The Shadow (1940) like an allergic-to-strawberries-rash…but since this is my blog, I’m here to tell you I’m not one of them.  I personally think, after watching all fifteen chapters, that Shadow is one of the best Columbia cliffhangers I’ve seen (keep in mind that I have oodles and oodles of their serial product to go through) even though it’s derived more from the pulp stories than the radio show (for instance, the Shadow can’t cloud men’s minds to make himself invisible…but the villain of the piece can with a narrow beam of light)…and to be completely honest, the plot is straight out of The Spider’s Web (1938).

You have a metropolis menaced by a mysterious, masked villain called the Black Tiger (in Web, it’s the Octopus) who seeks to take over all of the city’s industries by terrorizing its powers-that-be.  The hero is a scientist/criminologist whose secret identity as The Shadow (in Web, it’s the Spider) gets him in Dutch with both the authorities (who suspect that he and the Black Tiger are one and the same) and the underworld.  Naturally, to keep tabs on the underworld he must don another disguise (in Web, it’s Blinky McQuade): that of Lin Chang, an Asian antiquities dealer.  (Let me just say that those of you horrified by Sidney Toler or Peter Lorre’s performances as Asians need to take a gander at star Victor Jory’s Lin Chang—a character that makes Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto the very picture of political correctness.)  He is assisted by his confederates, Margo Lane (played by Veda Ann Borg…who I actually like in this part, even though I usually associate Borg with floozy roles) and Harry Vincent, Cranston’s wheel-man (played by Roger Moore…and not the one you’re thinking of).  If I had to nitpick, I wished someone had eliminated the Vincent character—popular in the pulp stories—and substituted Moe “Shreevy” Shrevnitz instead.  (“You was wantin’ somethin’, Mr. Cranston, you was wantin’?”)

However, the major difference between Web and Shadow is that the latter refuses to take itself too seriously—the goons working for the Black Tiger are among the most inept henchmen in serial history, which provides some wonderfully comic moments; my favorite is in Chapter 9—“The Devil in White”—when the Tiger’s chief henchman, Flint (played by TDOY fave Jack Ingram) tells his fellow thugs: “Now listen, men…we’ve got to do something—he’s really gettin’ mad!”  (I know it doesn’t play funny in print, but Ingram’s performance has a sort of “Will you guys stop pissing around?” quality to it.)  Much has also been said about the uninventiveness of the cliffhangers, a goodly portion of which consist of the ceiling falling down on Cranston/Shadow at each episode’s end.  Sure, this is undeniably funny and off-putting to those who shun comedy in serials…but I like how these events act as violent comic punch lines, similar to Wile E. Coyote tumbling off a cliff or Daffy Duck getting his face shot off by Elmer Fudd.  By contrast, the thugs in the Spider serials (well, Web, anyway) are pretty ruthless customers, despite the fact that they can’t seem to hit the broadside of a barn.  (The speculation on this is that the serial’s producers were ordered to downplay the violence as a result of rulings by the Hays Office.)

But the strengths of Shadow are many, chiefly Jory’s performance in the title role.  (He not only has a great voice, he can do the Shadow's laugh...which is more than Orson Welles could ever do.)  Jory was apparently banished to this serial by the studio for some slight or troublemaking he caused, and it’s a shame that Columbia didn’t punish him more often because he really grabs hold of the role and refuses the temptation to do shtick with it (he reminds me a bit of Basil Rathbone, who would have been the ideal choice to play the Shadow though that would in all likelihood not have happened).  I also like the serial’s brisk pacing; despite its fifteenth-chapter length it never gets boring (this might be due to the fact that director Horne would often direct scenes of people running or driving in slightly sped-up fashion…or as Laughing Gravy so memorable put it, “People moving as if their asses were on fire”)—and the effective atmospheric backdrop of a city under siege by sinister forces is grade-A. Though the identity of the villain is pretty easy to dope out, the ride there is nothing short of entertaining.

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