Friday, September 13, 2019

The Shadow: 1940 Cliffhanger Serial

The Shadow (1940 cliffhanger serial) with Victor Jory.
In late 1939, one of the major film studios, Columbia Pictures, produced a 15-chapter cliffhanger serial, which premiered in theaters as a weekly chapter play days after Americans rang in the New Year. The Shadow featured Victor Jory (Bret Morrison’s former roommate at the Pasadena Playhouse) in the role of Lamont Cranston and the shadowy alias. Harry Vincent, Commissioner Weston, Margot Lane and Detective Cardona were also featured among the chapters, which thrilled audiences throughout the early months of 1940. This Shadow, however, does not possess the power to cloud men’s minds. That role was bestowed on the villain known as The Black Tiger, who, while using scientific apparatus, had the power to make himself invisible. His ultimate goal was to take over the world with his newly constructed death ray. Radio connections are evident as the first chapter relies heavily on the radio episode “Prelude to Terror” (January 29, 1939), which concerned a mastermind who filled light bulbs with explosive gas, rendering the city helpless as the explosions rocked the night scene. 

In the serial version, The Shadow goes into action after an attack on a radio station to save the lives of dozens attending a new television exhibit, almost becoming a victim himself from the exploding light bulbs. With The Shadow cloaked in black and the villain cloaked with invisibility, the scenario was certainly mystifying to an audience trying to associate the differences they heard each week on the program. According to the contract agreement between Street & Smith Publications and Columbia Pictures dated July 19, 1939, Columbia was granted permission to create the 15-chapter play based on the radio episode “Prelude to Terror” and a trio of Gibson’s Shadow novels, The Green Hoods (August 15, 1938), The Lone Tiger (February 15, 1939) and Silver Skull (January 1, 1939). Under the terms of the contract, the two stories adapted previously for the two movies produced by Grand National Pictures, Inc. were avoided. A release from Max Alexander, the producer of the two pictures, was sent to Columbia, surrendering his option to produce the additional Shadow pictures. Clause No.12 in the contract made it understood to both parties that during the life of the cliffhanger serial, should the Goodrich Tire Co. or D.L.&W. Coal Co., for any reason whatsoever, desire to discontinue the use of the character “The Shadow” for radio broadcasting purposes, Street & Smith was free to dispose of the radio broadcast rights of The Shadow character to any sponsor who in their opinion was satisfactory. The studio had no control over the radio program. This meant if a new sponsor took over the program and it was a competitor of Columbia, the movie studio was powerless against the decision.

John Nanovic and Walter Gibson both reviewed the screenplay for the entire serial and submitted a list of corrections and suggestions, which the studio promptly applied between the first and final draft (letter of confirmation from the studio dated July 21, 1939). The Shadow’s guns, as instructed, were two .45 automatics at Gibson’s request. (On the radio program, it was revealed that Lamont Cranston had two trusty automatic pistols, both Colt .45s, Model 1911A.)

Columbia assured Gibson that the character of Moe Schrevnitz would not be used, and an added line spoken by Harry Vincent in the first chapter stated he was filling in for Schrevnitz due to his illness. The name of the Metropolitan Club was changed to the Cobalt Club, so that it would match the same club mentioned in the pulps and the radio program. Early negotiations for the cliffhanger film almost were held up because of S. Heagan Bayles of Ruthrauff & Ryan when, on April 14, 1939, he wrote to Floyd L. Weber of Columbia Pictures stating that William J. de Grouchy of Street & Smith had mentioned to the agency the studio’s desire to make use of the radio scripts in writing the scenarios for The Shadow serial. “We have had to hold up writing to you about this until we could clearly establish our rights to these scripts. Our attorneys tell us that we clearly have the radio rights and we believe, further, all the rights, including motion pictures because our release does not cover any limitation of rights. However, to be on the safe side, we suggest that you contact us further before using any of this material, in whole or in part, as written.”

But three days later Bayles backtracked from Ruthrauff & Ryan’s claim of “all the rights” to The Shadow character, and he writes de Grouchy at Street & Smith, “In behalf of our client, Blue Coal, we control only the radio rights, for which we pay Street & Smith a royalty. All other rights to the ‘Shadow’ including motion picture, syndication, publishing, novelty, and so forth, are retained by Street & Smith. We shall be glad to cooperate with Columbia Pictures in allowing their writers to use the ‘Shadow’ scripts in developing the scenarios for the ‘Shadow’ motion picture serial.” 

On April 19, Floyd Weber of Columbia Pictures wrote to H.W. Ralston: “Before executing the contract our attorneys advise me that they would like to examine two documents; one, a specimen copy of the contract that exists between Ruthrauff & Ryan, Inc. and the writer or writers of the radio script; two, a copy of the agreement that exists between Street & Smith Publications, Inc. and Ruthrauff & Ryan, Inc. relative to the radio rights in and to the material. The reason we are only asking for copies of the contract is because we are not interested in any money figures that might appear in these documents requested but merely interested in determining who owns the motion picture rights to the radio scripts.”

Publicity photo for The Shadow (1940 cliffhanger serial).
Clarification of the ownership rights was affirmed when the July 30, 1942, issue of Radio Daily reported: “Dramatic rights to The Shadow, MBS program sponsored by D.L.&W. Coal Co., have been acquired from Street & Smith, publishers, by Lew Cantor and Hugh Skelley, who plan to produce the vehicle as a stage play.” 

The August 29, 1942, edition of The New York Times reported: “Lew Cantor and Hugh Skelley, who plan to produce a dramatization of the radio serial, The Shadow, have asked the authors to write the play so that all the scenery will be drapes that can be shipped in trunks. This will solve transportation problems for the producers, baggage cars being hard to find these days.” Apparently, the play was never produced, but Brian J. Byrne adapted his “Mansion of Madness” (November 5, 1939) into an un-produced three-act stage play in April of 1941. The script opens exactly like the radio program, complete with The Shadow’s signature opening, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” and a narrator reciting the same lines delivered at the beginning of every radio broadcast, including Margot’s awareness of Lamont’s secret. The curtain rises after the opening and the stage play commences. The Shadow is never seen on the stage cloaked in black like his silver screen counterparts. Instead, the voice of The Shadow originates off stage through a filter mike. Could this have been the same stage play Cantor and Skelley planned on producing?

Radio Advertisement
The September 1, 1940, issue of The Shadow Magazine featured a list of the numerous movie houses and locations where The Shadow cliffhanger serial could be seen. This comes as no surprise since similar cross-promotion had been done for the radio program. The serial was a financial success for Columbia, and a second script for another 15 chapters was commissioned, tentatively titled "The Shadow Returns." Business matters caused plans for the sequel to cease. Rather than waste the script, the scenario was produced as a sequel to an earlier Columbia cliffhanger, The Spider’s Web (1938), the sequel now referred to as The Spider Returns. The Spider was a brazen imitation of The Shadow Magazine, and Popular Publications competed against The Shadow character with a fictional vigilante who also wore a signet ring, black cloak and floppy hat. At one time The Spider was practicing his own version of a creepy laugh designed to strike fear in evildoers. Theater patrons who saw the Spider sequel were probably unaware what they were watching was intended to a Shadow sequel.

The press book issued to theater managers suggested a radio tie-in with an insert of all the radio stations (complete up to press time) over which The Shadow program was broadcast. In the event that no local radio station offered the radio chiller, it was suggested the theater manager contact his local radio station. “Impress the local director with enormous listener appeal,” it suggested, revealing detailed promotional information could be obtained direct from Mr. William J. de Grouchy, c/o Street & Smith Publications, Inc., New York. Theater managers were also instructed to dress a street bally man in the eerie and mysterious outfit of The Shadow. The same press book offered theater managers a large number of Shadow merchandise, including masks, makeup kits, costumes, stationery and toy gun holsters — all of which have been mistaken as promotional merchandise for the radio series.

In Republic Pictures’ Blackmail (1947), Dan Turner, a New York City private detective, is hired to investigate a case involving “Ziggy” Cranston, a rich California playboy and owner of a national radio network, who is being blackmailed for $50,000 by a gangster, he thinks, who claims he can prove Cranston murdered a nightclub singer. An odd radio connection to The Shadow radio program that can only be a coincidence?

The Shadow book
This article was compiled from excerpts from The Shadow: The History and Mystery of the Radio Program, 1930-1954, by Martin Grams. Reprinted with permission from the author and the publisher. For more information, visit

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