My Dad grew up during the Great Depression and he fondly remembered going to the local theaters for the Saturday morning matinees, where they’d always show two pictures, a few shorts or newsreels, and of course, a chapter of a serial.
These were sort of the precursor of television: cheap, quickly made, and churned out to fill a slot in the program, only parceled out in twelve or fourteen (and sometimes as many as fifteen!) fifteen to twenty minute segments.
They were also one of the great loves of my Dad’s life, and he spent years collecting them on VHS and later on DVD.
But there was one serial that was his Holy Grail: The Vanishing Shadow.
It has the distinction of being the first SF film full of “scientific” gadgets and the stills showed a huge robot (with an appealingly goofy face and interesting, multi-jointed arms)far more impressive than the infamous “hot water heaters” that appeared in dozens of Republic Serials. It was also one of the few serials made by Universal – who also made the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials. And best of all, it was totally unavailable.
The sources we had listed it as a lost film. But that didn’t stop Dad from asking for it for Christmas year after year.
So it came as a shock, years later, to find a review on The Scifist who had obviously seen it (in fact a user on IMDB.com talked about seeing it on TV in the 70s!). A quick search even turned up a copy on Youtube.
If you’ve seen a serial, you probably have some idea what to expect: There’s the hero who is tough, two-fisted but not necessarily a great fighter or particularly good looking. There’s the girl who is vaguely a love interest, but only rarely does that amount to much more than standing close to each other (there’s almost a kiss in this one). Then we have the villain, his chief henchman and a bevy of indistinguishable stooges, who often drop like flies.
The Vanishing Shadow is no exception. In fact, with its rather repetitive plot (which moves between four main locations) it resembles those later serials which seem stuck in an endless loop until the hero clears it all up without warning in the last chapter. It is primarily a crime thriller, with the hero (played by Onslow Stevens, who later would have a major part in Them!) trying to keep Wade Barnett, the local gang leader from taking over the Sentinel, the only newspaper that dares to stand up against him.
He’s helped by Barnett’s daughter, and Professor Van Dorn, who is responsible for all the scientific gadgets on display.
Curiously, in the credits, one gets the impression that he’s the masked villain we expect in this sort of film, as we see him in black robes, taking off a black hood. This is actually a shot from the first episode and the suit is supposed to be protection from his gadgets (it is never seen again. He must have loaned it to the scientists in Jellyfish Eyes). But before long, he’s working with the hero, Stanley Stanfield, as well as Stanley’s new invention, the Vanishing Ray, which makes people invisible.
However (and this is, to the best of my knowledge, unique in any serial), Van Dorn proves to be a rather bloodthirsty helper: his weapons are usually designed to kill (like his death ray) and he is remarkably eager to use them. I mean really eager, like killing people is his first answer to any problem (Coffee too cold? Mailman late?). This leads to an absolutely insane sequence in the last two chapters, when the robot finally gets to go to work after lurking in his closet for most of the serial (it appears briefly in the first chapter, and in the credits).
It is also notable that Van Dorn’s lethal inventions and crazy booby traps have an uncomfortable tendency to get sprung by our heroes. But then, we need something to serve as a “Cliffhanger” in every episode, don’t we? At least it’s better than some of the more repetitive later serials where it seems the hero has an endless supply of identical tan convertibles so he can drive one over a cliff every week.
However, one of the unbilled stars here (besides whoever is in the robot suit, who is, let’s face it, the real star!) is Kenneth Strickfaden, whose inventions make yet another screen appearance here. Strickfaden built all sorts of crazy electrical devices whose sole real purpose was to produce lots and lots of sparks. He ended up renting them to Hollywood where, starting with the 1931 Frankenstein, they dressed up countless mad scientist labs for years.
Ultimately, this is a mashup of the newly released The Invisible Man and the sort of crime dramas then popular. Like most of these serials it has a sort of averageness about it, with spurts of sheer batty genius (yes, like that robot rampage!) Serial lovers will embrace this one (even if their expectations for an SF serial by the people who put out the exceptional Flash Gordon serial might be far too high).
And of course, there is that robot.
So take it for what it is: flawed, cheap, slightly repetitive and routine – and yet entertainingly crazy in its best moments.
(Most of the Youtube videos have a timing problem with the audio track on all but two chapters. While this version has been corrected, you might prefer to watch or download the full serial here).