“THE VANISHING SHADOW”— A Cliffhanger from 1934


A Cliffhanger from 1934

Amos Lassen

Never before released  on any video  format. “The Vanishing Shadow” is now on Blu-ray and remastered from the original studio film. It is a 12-episode Universal serial in which a son avenges the death of his father at the hands of corrupt politicians. He develops a wide variety of complex devices in his crusade including ray guns, robots and a ‘vanishing belt. (The serial features what is believed to be the first appearance of a hand held ray gun in film).

The most interesting aspect of the tale focuses on elderly Professor Van Dorn (James Durkin). Although he’s apparently one of the good guys, all his solo inventions are nothing but weapons of mass destruction. These devices include a giant robot, which looks strangely like a cross between a boiler on legs and a giant parrot. His death ray seems more effective on houseplants than people, though, the City’s entire population of begonias being decimated by the end of Chapter 12. He may have invented some invulnerability formula too, as our heroic trio walk away from a terrible car smash down the side of a mountain with nothing more inconvenient than dusty clothing.

Director Lew Landers (billed under his real name of ‘Louis Friedlander’) begins as electrical engineer Stanley Stanfield (Onslow Stevens) brings his “Vanishing Ray” to Professor Carl Van Dorn to ask  the older scientist’s aid in perfecting the invisibility device, which he intends to put to an important use. Stanley’s father, publisher of a big-city newspaper has recently died of the stress caused by Wade Barnett’s (Walter Miller) attempts to seize control of the paper. Barnett, a corrupt businessman who runs the Public Utilities department and most of the city, is determined to get a controlling interest of the paper and silencing its opposition to his power. He puts pressure on Stanley who is the paper’s majority stockholder to surrender  shares. Stanley, however, plans to use the Vanishing Ray to not only thwart Barnett’s takeover plans, but to destroy the grafter’s stranglehold on the city. Van Dorn, who was a friend of Stanley’s father and also harbors an overmastering hatred of criminals, joins Stanley’s crusade, bringing with him an array of destructive weapons that he’s only too eager to use on Barnett and his followers.

Gloria Grant (Ada Ince), a news reporter, joins Stanley as well, and we soon learn that she is actually Wade Barnett’s daughter; though estranged from her father, and bearing an assumed name to distance herself from his ruthlessness. She still hopes to reform him once his schemes are defeated. Stanley, Van Dorn, and Gloria are opposed by Barnett’s henchman Dorgan (Richard Cramer) and a band of thugs; both sides are both helped and hindered in their fight by Van Dorn’s marvelous inventions–which, though intended to aid Stanfield, tend to keep inadvertently falling into the hands of Barnett’s gang.

“The Vanishing Shadow” has quickly acquired a fan following. It is a fascinating cliffhanger that echoes earlier types of matinee entertainment as well as anticipating later forms.  Like most early sound serials, it is melodramatic and features some pleasantly old-fashioned dialogue that is delivered with sincerity, no matter how theatrical it sounds at times. Character-driven subplots–like Professor Van Dorn’s continual flirtation with insanity and the strained relationship between Gloria and her father are prominent in the storyline.

As an early foray into science fiction, the series  demonstrates the formula was still evolving and hadn’t reached its peak. There isn’t enough action here and the lack of the requisite number of punch ups is very noticeable.

The chapterplay’s cast is excellent, all the performers bringing absolute conviction to the script’s mix of melodrama and sci-fi. The suave, polished Onslow Stevens is perfect for the role of Stanley Stanfield–a protagonist who uses his brains as well as his fists. Stevens manages to give his character both the heroic determination appropriate to an underdog who’s opposing a powerful grafter and the shrewd intelligence suited to the inventor of a vanishing ray. Ada Ince, with her cheerful smile and soft Kentucky drawl, is a very sympathetic heroine; her continual concern for her scoundrel of a father could seem ridiculous in some actresses’ hands.

James Durkin all but steals the serial as the benevolent but somewhat unstable Professor Van Dorn. Van Dorn, as he announces to Stanley Stanfield, is eager to serve as the villains’  “judge, jury, and executioner,” and Stanfield must continually restrain his friend to keep him from burning  up some gangster. Later Van Dorn goes temporarily berserk following a head wound, allowing Durkin to deliver some very impressive  maniacal laughter. However, Durkin doesn’t play his role at a level of continual rage, which could prove tiresome; when talking with Stanley or Gloria, his Van Dorn is charmingly avuncular, which makes the good Professor’s occasional outbursts of anger much more startling.

The ultimate result is one of the most  historically interesting and completely entertaining of the early sound serials.

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