(4/10) In a nutshell: An entertaining horror-inspired mystery/crime serial with sci-fi elements that features Bela Lugosi in his best paid role ever. Entertaining and well acted, if quite confusing and not very original. It did, however, help pave the way for science fiction serials in Hollywood.
The Whispering Shadow. Serial. 1933, USA. Directed by Robert Clark, Albert Herman. Written by Barney A. Sarecky, George Morgan, Norman S. Hall, Colbert Clark, Wyndham Gittens. Starring: Bela Lugosi, Robert Warwick, Viva Tattersall, Malcolm McGregor, Henry B. Walthall, Ethel Clayton, Roy D’Arcy, Karl Dane, Lloyd Whitlock, Bob Kortman, Lafe McKee. Music: Lee Zahler. Cinematography: Edgar Lyons, Ernest Miller. Produced by Nat Levine, J. Laurence Wickland for Mascot. IMDb score: 5.2
In 1933 the serial format was catching new wind in its sails after the devastating blow of sound pictures, that made films more expensive to make. In the silent era, studios could often make a 12-part serial with one camera in a week, bringing in bit-part players and extras for the roles. These shoestring-budgeted serials could often bring in in double or triple the production cost even with a very modest attendance. When sound equipment was suddenly required, all Hollywood studios save Mascot and Universal dropped their serial productions.
But directors like B. Reeves Eason, Henry MacRae and Ray Taylor at Mascot and Universal proved that very successful serials could still be made at a reasonable cost, even with sound, and they were quickly popularised with the help of stars like Boris Karloff, John Wayne and Tim McCoy. Westerns were the cheapest to make so they were the most common ones, jungle adventures a good second, on the wings of two Tarzan serials. A little further down the list were crime/mystery serials. Science fiction was introduced – sort of – with the first ever full sound serial Voice from the Sky in 1930 – although the sci-fi element was strictly a MacGuffin.
In 1933 Bela Lugosi was more or less at the peak of his fame, and wasn’t yet as mercilessly shuffled around by studios for peanuts as in later years. Having appeared in a number of successful horror films in under three years, including Dracula (1931), White Zombie and Island of Lost Souls (1932, review), Lugosi was a name that packed a punch, and he was in a position where he could pick and choose – which certainly wasn’t the case just a few years later. Mascot had to cough up a considerable amount of money to get Lugosi to appear in The Whispering Shadow in 1933, his first of five serials. It is a testament to how badly Lugosi was treated by the bigger film studios that this little known serial provided him with the biggest film salary of his life – 10 000 dollars, a considerable amount of money for any actor at the time.
The Whispering Shadow, along with Universal’s The Vanishing Shadow (1934), can be seen as the forerunners in bringing sci-fi to the serial format. The serials are alike in many respects, but very different in others. Both feature people who appear as disembodied shadows on walls, and both deal with groups of people chasing valuables. But this is also where the similarities more or less end.
The Whispering Shadow is more of a mystery/action serial with strong sci-fi elements. The story lacks a prominent hero, although one does root for the dashing hothead Jack Foster (Malcolm McGregor), who along with renowned detective Robert Raymond (Robert Warwick) tries to solve the serial’s mysteries. Foster is really the only character that is clearly innocent throughout the serial. The prolific McGregor could, had the stars been aligned differently, well have been a much bigger star in the thirties than he was.
The film revolves around a mad dash for the Czar’s jewels, stolen from a warehouse, that keep changing hands in every episode. Behind the theft and a number of strange deaths is The Whispering Shadow – an evil mastermind and radio wave scientist, who is able to control radio waves to make himself appear as a shadow from afar, and to kill people with his ”radio death ray”. The Shadow appears on walls and whispers threats and instructions in the voice of Bela Lugosi. The serial has a double MacGuffin – first of all to find out who (currently) holds the jewels and retrieve them – and to find out the true identity of The Whispering Shadow. Lugosi plays a mysterious former horror star, who now owns a wax museum and works on some secret project. Naturally, he turns out to be a red herring. As many other films of the era, the idea of the death ray was inspired by British scientist Harry Grindell Matthews’ supposed invention of a device that could stop combustion engines via some sort of ”ray”. His claims that it could be developed to incapacitate whole armies, his secrecy of how it worked, and the fact that he tried to shop it to any state willing to pay for it, made the death ray headline news for years.
The Whispering Shadow owes a lot to Dracula’s cinematographer Karl Freund, and is filmed in an expressionistic style, with dark shadows and close-ups of Lugosi’s eyes – though without the cinematographic mastery of Freund. The acting is good all-round, especially Lugosi and McGregor stand out. The serial is helped immensely by Lugosi bringing his theatrical charisma and slow, dark menace to the show. Many later serials often lacked this charismatic center – and even if Lugosi isn’t the villain, he brings just the sort of brooding darkness that lacks in many efforts, where the actual villains turn out to be less than intimidating.
The Whispering Shadow is filled with exciting action and some great stunt work, and feels quite expansive despite its urban setting. The special effects are few and far between and the serial is much more interested in the mystery whodunnit plot than the sci-fi elements, which merely serve as a backdrop. The acting is adequate across the board, and even the less qualified actors get away with a bit of stiffness because of the neckbreak pace of the serial. The plot is whimsical and confusing, and it is hard to keep track of who has the jewels at which time, and who is actually in team with whom. But it is entertaining enough for such things to be forgiven.
The cast includes Lloyd Whitlock from The Invisible Ray (1936, review), The Fighting Devil Dogs (1938), Mysterious Doctor Satan (1940), Bob Kortman (Island of Lost Souls) and Karl Dane from The Mysterious Island (1929, review).
Along with The Voice from the Sky, The Whispering Shadow was the first serial to set out the often-copied (in films, but particularly in sci-fi serials) trope of a mysterious villain with a super-weapon wreaking havoc. In The Voice from the Sky (which I unfortunately haven’t found) the aim was to take over the world, when in The Whispering Shadow the villain’s aim is a lot more prosaic. But the rest of the plot is pretty much derived from earlier crime serials. It did, however, along with The Invisible Man that came out later in 1933 (review), set up the background for Universal’s much more sci-fi-influenced The Vanishing Shadow. And together with jungle fantasy serials, and sthe sci-fi The Phantom Empire (1935, review) it paved the way for the seminal sci-fi serial Flash Gordon in 1936 (review). And the rest, as they say, is history.
The Whispering Shadow. Serial. 1933, USA. Directed by Robert Clark, Albert Herman. Written by Barney A. Sarecky, George Morgan, Norman S. Hall, Colbert Clark, Wyndham Gittens. Starring: Bela Lugosi, Robert Warwick, Viva Tattersall, Malcolm McGregor, Henry B. Walthall, Ethel Clayton, Roy D’Arcy, Karl Dane, Lloyd Whitlock, Bob Kortman, Lafe McKee. Music: Lee Zahler. Cinematography: Edgar Lyons, Ernest Miller. Produced by Nat Levine, J. Laurence Wickland for Mascot.