The Vanishing Shadow

∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ 

(4/10) In a nutshell: Mature direction and script, quality effects, a good lead actor and a whole heap of Strickfadens make this early sci-fi serial a relatively entertaining outing – but it is nonetheless a pretty cheap exploitation of The Invisible Man and earlier crime dramas.

The Vanishing Shadow. USA, 1934. Serial. Directed by: Lew Landers. Written by: Basil Dickey, George Morgan, Ella O’Neill, Het Mannheim. Starring: Onslow Stevens, Ada Ince, Walter Miller, James Durkin, Richard Cramer, Lee J. Cobb. Music: Edward Ward. Cinematography: Richard Fryer. Editing: Saul A. Goodkind. Alvin Todd, Edward Todd. Special effects: Elmer A. Johnson, Raymond Lindsay, Kenneth Strickfaden. Produced by Henry McRae for Universal. IMDb score: 6.1

Original poster for the early sci-fi serial The Vanishing Shadow.

Original poster for the early sci-fi serial The Vanishing Shadow.

The Vanishing Shadow (1934) was one of the serials riding on the wave of newfound interest from studios in serial-making. After sound cinema bloated the budgets of filmmaking, most studios quickly dropped their serials, and only Mascot and Universal hung on – and this of course opened the door for many smaller studios to cut in on the action. Serials were again on the rise after western star Tim McCoy fronted the hugely successful The Indians Are Coming in late 1930, and after this stars like John Wayne, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi (The Whispering Shadow, 1933, review) and the dog Rin Tin Tin all helped to further drive the format forward. The Vanishing Shadow had no real big-name star, but in this serial it is Kenneth Strickfaden’s electrical sci-fi gadgets and the special effects created by director Lew Landers and cinematographer Richard Fryer, along with editor Saul A. Goodkind, that shine.

The robot of Dr. Van Dorn wreaking havoc.

The robot of Dr. Van Dorn wreaking havoc.

The Vanishing Shadow came out the year after Mascot’s The Whispering Shadow, featuring a villain who is a disembodied shadow, and Universal’s hit film The Invisible Man (review). Just like Whispering, Vanishing is also an urban crime serial, although a bit heavier on the melodrama and a bit lighter on the action. It also involves a group of people chasing after valuables. In Whispering it was the jewels of the Czar, in Vanishing it is a briefcase with bonds.

But The Vanishing Shadow isn’t as much of an action serial, as it is a crime melodrama. There are a few fistfights and a car chases, but most of the serial is comprised of people standing around desks talking. It is a rather complex drama – the hero is Stanley Stanfield (Onslow Stevens), one of the inventors of a machine (a vest-like apparatus), that turns the wearer invisible, leaving only hir shadow visible. He is also the son of the late editor of the Tribune newspaper. The editor was hounded to death by the villainous businessman Ward Barnett (Walter Miller). Barnett is adamant to get a hold of the bonds that Stanfield is carrying, and doesn’t mind stepping over a few dead bodies. The only problem is that his estranged daughter Gloria (Ada Ince) is now the girlfriend of Stanfield, so he has to work around her without harming her. This doesn’t sit too well with his number 1 henchman Dorgan (Richard Cramer), who grows tired of Barnett’s fussing over the girl, and eventually kidnaps both her and Stanley to blackmail Barnett.

The Vanishing Shadow appears on the door.

The Vanishing Shadow appears on the door.

In the beginning of the serial Stanley Stanfield enlists the help of whimsical and paranoid scientist Carl Van Dorn (James Durkin) to complete his vanishing machine. Van Dorn also becomes Stanley’s and Gloria’s ally in the fight against Barnett and his lackeys. Not only does he invent the vanishing ray, but he also is the cretor of a death ray gun and a ray gun that can cut through steel. In his paranoia he concocts a number of booby traps that somehow end up turning on the heroes, rather than helping them. There is also a brilliant big robot that looks like a water heater and a bunch of drain pipes, adorned with a bucket head and a bird’s beak, that wreaks superb havoc in the end of the serial.

This spark box by Kenneth Strickfaden made its first appearance in The Vanishing Shadow and would continue to show up in a number of films and serials - bearing a whole range of properties.

This spark box by Kenneth Strickfaden made its first appearance in The Vanishing Shadow and would continue to show up in a number of films and serials – bearing a whole range of properties.

As the serial was made by Universal, it got ample assistance from Kenneth Strickfaden’s electrical toys. The series employs many of the crackling sparking machines that turned up in Frankenstein (1931, review) as well as a number of other horror films, and would continue to appear in almost all of the studio’s sci-fi serials of the thirties and forties, including Flash Gordon (1936, review). Apart from The Whispering Shadow and other mystery serials, The Vanishing Shadow of course took its inspiration from Universal’s film The Invisible Man, released in 1933.

The Vanishing Shadow is not a milestone in the history of sci-fi films in any way. Invisibility was used to a much greater effect and in a vastly more elaborate way in The Invisible Man. The double exposure technique used to make various people disappear and reappear – combined with a nice halo effect (animation?) is certainly good-looking, but a pretty old trick. Very little is then made of the invisible person, as far as him or her affecting the world around hir. There are a few doors opening and closing and an ”empty” car driving along, but such effects are hardly impressive. But the serial is nonetheless worthy of mention for being the first serial to make excessive use of science fiction gadgets such as ray guns and crackling, whirring sci-fi labs. Indeed, not even a feature film before this one – save the wacky sci-fi musical comedy Just Imagine (1930, review) – had really been into ray guns, invisibility machines, etc. So in a way, this film did pave the way for later serials like The Phantom Empire (1935, review) and Flash Gordon, which in turn inspired the kids who grew up to make the science fiction films of the Golden Fifties.

Onslow Stevens - and possibly Ada Ince on set.

Onslow Stevens – and possibly Ada Ince on set.

The acting is uneven. Onslow Stevens as the suave, moustachioed hero, with his velvety voice and droopy, romantic eyes is charismatic, and along with the stiff but occasionally funny Durkin as the old scientist he carries the show on his shoulders. Stevens – a prolific character actor – had another prominent sci-fi outing as Brigadier General Robert O’Brien in Them! (review) – the film that more or less gave birth to the giant insect genre in 1954. But apart from these two, most of the acting is pretty bland and stiff, which isn’t helped by the stagy setups around desks – the dialogue is decent, though. I would call the serial fairly entertaining if one is interested in old crime serials of this sort. The character motivations are a bit more nuanced than one usually finds in serials of this type, but that don’t make it a very thoughtful serial. The action is a bit too sparsely portioned to balance out the long chatty parts, and the chatty parts aren’t really engaging enough.

Ada Willians (Ince) as Miss Miami 1927.

Ada Williams (Ince) as Miss Miami 1927.

Ada Ince was a 1927 Miss Miami and Miss Florida, and a runner-up for Miss America (then as Ada Williams), who turned to acting in the late twenties. She certainly was cute, but couldn’t act herself out of a paper bag, and only appeared in eight films or serials between 1929 and 1935. This was her only sci-fi. The staple heavy Richard Cramer (best known for his appearance in Laurel & Hardy films) would also appear in the 1937 film Sky Racket, inspired by the old death ray plot used in the 1936 film Ghost Patrol, among others. Walter Miller similarly played the villain in Ghost Patrol, and in the serial The Secret of Treasure Island (1938). He appears in a bit-part as a derelict in the 1936 film The Invisible Ray (review), starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.

Edmund Cobb (as one of the henchmen) was an extremely prolific bit-part player and extra who appeared in over 600 films, serials and series between 1912 and 1966, including The Fighting Devils Dogs (1938), The Phantom Creeps (1939), Adventures of Superman (1952), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), The Atomic Submarine (1959) and The Underwater City (1962). Several others of the henchmen were also serial staples, like Monte Montague, whose records include Flash Gordon, The Invisible Man, The Fighting Devils Dogs, as well as The Phantom Creeps (1939) and The Green Hornet (1940). Irish-American Al Ferguson appeared in the first two Flash serials, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1941), Captain America (1944), Brick Bradford (1947) and had a small role in the classic The War of the Worlds (1953, review).

Lee J. Cobb in The Exorcist in 1973.

Lee J. Cobb in The Exorcist in 1973.

William Desmond actually appeared in both The Whispering Shadow and The Vanishing Shadow, as well as Flash Gordon. Don Brodie played in The Phantom Empire, Flash Gordon, The Phantom Creeps, the movie Donovan’s Brain (1953) and an episode of the TV-show Science Fiction Theatre (1955). The serial also includes a young Lee J. Cobb. Cobb was not much of a sci-fi staple, but he did appear in a role in another genre classic, The Exorcist, in 1973, as the police detective who investigates the death of the possessed Regan’s babysitter. But more than anything, he was one of the more noted character actors of the three decades following WWII, and appeared in a number of celebrated dramas, film noirs and westerns. He was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor twice: for On the Waterfront (1954) and The Brothers Karamazov (1958). He was nominated for a Golden Globe twice and an Emmy thrice. He is perhaps best known for his explosive performance in Sidney Lumet’s jury drama 12 Angry Men (1957). The Vanishing Shadow was Cobb’s first cinematic role – he appears in two episodes as ”Roadwork foreman”.

Editorial supervisor Saul A. Goodkind went on to edit all three Flash Gordon serials, the movie Planet Outlaws (1953) and he brilliantly bad giant turkey movie The Giant Claw (1957) and also directed the Bela Lugosi serial The Phantom Creeps in 1939.

The Vanishing Shadow. USA, 1934. Serial. Directed by: Lew Landers. Written by: Basil Dickey, George Morgan, Ella O’Neill, Het Mannheim. Starring: Onslow Stevens, Ada Ince, Walter Miller, James Durkin, Richard Cramer, Lee J. Cobb, William Desmond, J. Frank Glendon, Sidney Bracey, Monte Montague, Edmund Cobb, Beulah Hutton, Don Brodie, Al Ferguson. Music: Edward Ward. Cinematography: Richard Fryer. Editing: Saul A. Goodkind. Alvin Todd, Edward Todd. Special effects: Elmer A. Johnson, Raymond Lindsay, Kenneth Strickfaden. Produced by Henry McRae for Universal.

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