Friday, December 11, 2009

For the Love of Comics #6: The Shadow in the Great Depression

Words: Christopher Irving

It was in the beginning months of the Great Depression, on the night of Thursday, July, 31, 1930 (not quite a year after the Stock Market Crash of October, 1929) that a sinister laugh first pierced the airwaves of America and began a cultural phenomena that echoed well past the end of the Depression in everything from pulp magazines to movie serials.

Pulp magazine publisher Street and Smith decided to promote their magazines on radio with Street & Smith’s Detective Story Magazine, a thirty-minute program on CBS radio at 9:30 p.m. which featured a story from the Detective Story pulp due out the following day. The voice of the enigmatic host, The Shadow, spoke its first words after that haunting laugh:

“ The Shadow! Conscience is a taskmaster no crook can escape. It is a jeering shadow even in the blackest lives. The Shadow knows...and you too shall know if you listen as Street & Smith’s Detective Story Magazine relates for you the story of...The House of Death.”

In truth, the character was a mere host created by Dave Christman of Ruthrauff & Ryan advertising and writer Bill Sweets, and wasn’t named until fledgling scriptwriter Harry Charlot came up with the character’s moniker (Charlot, in a move out of a pulp, later wound up mysteriously dead in a Bowery flophouse in 1935, and wire services would erroneously credit him as the writer of The Shadow pulp novels). Jimmy LaCurto was the actor who first supplied the sinister voice of the enigmatic Shadow, but was soon replaced by fellow Detective Story regular Frank Readick, Jr., his ominous voice a great contrast to his slight 5’6” and 135 pound frame.

The Shadow stole the show, literally, as listeners raided newstands requesting The Shadow, rather than Detective Story Magazine. The overwhelming demand and request for The Shadow led Street & Smith manager Henry William Ralston to publish a regular Shadow pulp magazine.

Needing a story in a short amount of time, editor-in-chief Frank Blackwell contacted 33-year old magician/journalist Walter B. Gibson to write a Shadow feature novel, with the promise of three more on a quarterly basis if the initial outing was satisfactory.

Gibson had ghosted books for magicians such as Harry Houdini, Blackstone and Thurston, as well as having written many newspaper puzzles, articles, and features. Due to his amazing speed in writing, Gibson had been chosen to first develop a character for the voice that had been both scaring and entertaining America for around a year. Blackwell had started a contest in Detective Story Magazine, dropping clues as to The Shadow’s appearance, at roughly the same time Gibson began writing his first Shadow outing under the pen name of Maxwell Grant. The Shadow had been described, through the clues, as a tall and thin man in his early 40’s, with hawk-like features and blond hair, and a powerful athlete with a keen and powerful deductive mind.

“The Living Shadow,” the first Shadow pulp novel, was finished ahead of schedule, thanks to Gibson’s speedy writing habits: he was known to smoke an average of four packs of cigarettes a day, and typed so fast that his fingers bled. Gibson’s Shadow was a dark figure, clad in black robes and slouch hat, who recruited those he saved as agents. The first scene in “The Living Shadow” involves The Shadow saving a young man, Harry Vincent, from committing suicide by jumping off a bridge. Promising a life of adventure for Vincent, “The Living Shadow” follows Vincent’s adventure, with The Shadow appearing from to rescue him, either as himself or in one of many masterful disguises.

One can easily see the appeal behind “The Living Shadow,” in the times of the Great Depression: not only is the relative bleakness of the period well represented, but for as much of “The Living Shadow” that is rooted in the grim reality of the time, there is an equal amount of semi-believable fantasy involved. The main focus (or proxy hero) of the story is Harry Vincent, who plays the “everyman” to the seemingly omniscient Shadow. The arrangement that Vincent holds with The Shadow is that he will become his field agent in exchange for The Shadow’s seemingly limitless financial support. Work was hard enough to come by in the Depression, and the idea of a philanthropic adventurer/ employer who would usher in a life of excitement was the stuff of dreams.

While The Shadow worked behind the scenes in the early novels, his participation became more active by the mid-1930’s. The second Shadow novel, “The Eyes of the Shadow,” introduced The Shadow’s alter ego as millionaire Lamont Cranston. The following novel, “The Shadow Laughs!” established that the nebulous Shadow used Cranston as only one of many identities, eventually meeting up with the real Cranston when the travelling millionaire returned to the city.

Shortly after his pulp debut in the summer of 1931, The Shadow made his big screen debut with a series of six two-reel films based upon Detective Story radio shows, appearing only as a silhouette. The Shadow crept through radioland through 1935, hosting everything from Street & Smith’s Detective Story and then Love Story Dramas programs! After actor Frank Readick’s vocal portrayal of The Shadow in The Blue Coal Radio Revue on CBS from September, 1931 to June, 1932, The Shadow had become more than a mere host by October of 1932’s Shadow program, often speaking as a character’s conscience. Due to a disagreement between Street & Smith and sponsor Blue Coal regarding the direction of The Shadow program, the show ended on March 27, 1935. Where Blue Coal wanted The Shadow relegated to host status, Street & Smith wanted a program starring the crimefighter; the result was that the character would go on radio hiatus for two years.

It wasn’t until seven years after his pulp debut, in 1937’s “The Shadow Unmasks,” that The Shadow’s true identity was established as missing aviator and spy Kent Allard. Author Gibson had The Shadow employ his true Allard identity (in hand with the Cranston one) for only a few more years, ultimately abandoning it by 1940.

1937 also marked the debut of The Shadow in his own half-hour radio program on the Mutual Radio Network. Orson Welles, then the twenty-two year old “boy wonder” of Broadway, was cast in the title role. Many changes were made in order to translate the mysterious Shadow to the airwaves: the first was that, rather than The Shadow using the Lamont Cranston identity as a cover, he was Lamont Cranston using The Shadow identity. The only of The Shadow’s agents to make it to radio was Harry Vincent, who was only featured in the premiere episode, “The Death House Rescue,” but soon replaced by a new character that would present a contrast to the deepness of Welles’s voice in the next episode. Margot Lane, played by Agnes Moorehead, was introduced as Cranston’s “lovely friend and companion,” who often helped (or was helped by) The Shadow in his cases.

The most distinct change was in The Shadow’s abilities: rather than having an aptitude for skulking in the shadows (as in the pulps), The Shadow now possessed telepathic abilities learned from Tibet, and the hypnotic ability to “cloud men’s minds so that they can not see him.” Due to this new ability, The Shadow did not require his black cloak or slouch hat, as he was always invisible to his villains, often driving them to their deaths with his disembodied taunting.

The Shadow radio program was immensely successful, partially due to the abilities of the young Welles, who received $185 a week for his portrayal of the crime fighter. As part of his contract with sponsor Blue Coal, Welles was not required to attend rehearsals, having the run-throughs attended by assistants Richard Wilson and Bill Alland. Still, Welles, without having read the script prior to the broadcast, managed to pull off an impressive and defining Shadow. The one thing that Welles couldn’t master, however, was The Shadow’s eerie trademark laugh: as a result, all opening and ending segments incorporated a recording of predecessor Frank Readick reciting “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” and “The weed of crime bears bitter fruit...”

Welles left The Shadow program, after having brought it daytime radio’s highest ratings, to start The Mercury Theatre of the Air, which would produce the affecting and landmark adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds that sent a nation in a panic. Supporting cast member Bill Johnstone won the role of Lamont/The Shadow, and remained for five seasons, beginning on September 25, 1938, and lasting until well through the Depression. Due to the leaving of script editor Edith Meiser, Margot devolved from an able-bodied agent to the typical damsel-in-distress rampant in most popular fiction. The Shadow had been altered shortly after Johnstone took up the microphone, turning into a kinder crimefighter, as opposed to the almost merciless avenger of Welles' run.

Despite that fact that the radio Shadow, due partially to his not dispensing justice with firearms, remained less violent and graphic, it still managed to reflect the late Depression era culture that so many other programs may have optimistically tried to avoid…or cynically embraced. The grimness of the 1938 Summer episode “The Blind Beggar Dies,” in which The Shadow bands together with a group of hobos and street people (even utilizing the written Hobo language to communicate) to avenge the murder of a blind street singer, steeps itself in the reality of the destitute American drifter who was a normal fixture of the Depression. That’s not to say that The Shadow wouldn’t delve into the realm of the strange and bizarre, however, as Lamont and Margot found themselves against radioactive rays, and even the walking dead. No matter where his invisible feet tread, The Shadow programs always contained a fair share of bone-chilling moments (March 2, 1941’s “Death Rides a Broomstick,” where a dead witch’s curse culminates in the wiping out of an entire ancestral line, still sends chills up this writer’s spine. At the end of the cursed man’s life, the witch’s cackle can be heard, and Lamont assures Margot and himself that it is “just the wind”).

Perhaps the most faithful interpretation of The Shadow (even more faithful than the radio program) came in 1940, when Columbia Pictures produced a fifteen-chapter serial starring actor Victor Jory as The Shadow/ Lamont Cranston. Jory carried himself convincingly as Cranston, and fairly well as The Shadow, mostly due to his hawkish, yet handsome, features and commanding presence. Throughout fifteen chapters, The Shadow battled the invisible Black Tiger through collapsing rooms, wrecked cars, and exploding substances. However, where most serial heroes escaped their cliffhangers, The Shadow just lived through them, escaping in only a handful of the chapters (he survives roughly six collapsing rooms, only to get up and dust himself off in the next chapters!). Rather than a playboy and amatuer detective, Cranston was an established criminal scientist, with Veda Ann Borg’s Margo as his lab assistant and Roger Moore’s Harry Vincent as his chauffeur and right-hand man. A few elements were culled from “The Living Shadow”: one of The Shadow’s undercover aliases in the first pulp adventure was an Oriental named Ling Chow who worked at a curio shop in Chinatown, while Lamont Cranston’s only alias (aside from his black-garbed alter ego) was Lin Chang, an underworld contact who owned a small curio shop. It could also be argued that, due to his invisible nature, the Black Tiger was a stand-in for Shiwan Khan, master of invisibility, and archfoe of The Shadow’s from the pulps.

Also in 1940, aside from the movie serial, The Shadow creeped upon the comic strip sections. Newspaper comic strips were, in the Great Depression, a relatively affordable and popular form of entertainment. The Ledger Syndicate had both Walter Gibson and artist Vernon Greene produce a Shadow daily comic strip. The strip didn’t quite last two years, as paper shortages caused after Pearl Harbor (when America joined World War II) sounded its death knell. The Shadow comic book by Street & Smith, which also adapted from the Gibson pulps, lasted into 1946, featuring both newly produced stories and repastings of the strip.

The Shadow radio show eventually had effected the pulp novels. June 15, 1941’s “The Thunder King” novel opened with Margo Lane waiting for Lamont Cranston, establishing her as one of The Shadow’s primary field agents and a companion to Lamont in the remaining novels. The Shadow himself had started to become less mysterious and bloodthirsty, and more emphasis had been placed upon his role as a crimefighter rather than a force of justice and vengeance. The ultimate example of the radio show influence was when, in “The Star of Delhi” (the novel following “The Thunder King”), The Shadow utilizes arch-enemy Shiwan Khan’s ability to become invisible and “...produce the semblance of a power through which he could cloud men’s minds.”

The Shadow continued to prosper throughout the war years, with the pulp magazine folding in 1949, and the radio show ending on December 26, 1954 (surely a rotten late Christmas present for Shadow fans!). The Shadow lived through series of paperback novels, comic books, and a big-budget movie in the 1990’s. While he established the multi-media hero (along with the likes of The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet), The Shadow still lives on in spurts, appearing in one form or another, but only enjoying a limited degree of success each time.