Friday, March 14, 2014

The Shadow Returns (Monogram, 1946)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles an download of a 1946 thriller (term intended merely as a genre description, not to convey that this film has any sense of excitement or “thrills”!) called The Shadow Returns, part of a short-lived attempt by Monogram Pictures to do a series based on the famous pulp-magazine and radio character The Shadow. The Shadow had originated in 1931 as a radio promotion by the Street and Smith pulp-magazine publishers, and the original idea was simply to have actor James La Curtom read the magazine stories on the air. As the show developed the producers decided to call him “The Shadow,” start dramatizing the stories, and use the catch phrase, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” Street and Smith realized they had a popular — and potentially profitable — character, so they decided to build a magazine around him and hired writer Walter Gibson (though they credited the stories to a company-owned pseudonym, “Maxwell Grant”) to do a full-length story about him. Gibson came up with a man who’s so mysterious, and affects so many disguises to capture criminals, that pulp historian Ron Goulart said even Gibson himself didn’t seem all too sure of who he really was. They also decided to scrimp on the first issue by using an already existing painting in their files for a cover — only the only picture they had of a person’s shadow showed it falling over the face of a frightened Chinese, and not having written any Chinese characters into his story, Gibson had to go back and insert one. The Shadow magazine was a success, and apparently the character’s film debut was in a series of shorts for Universal starting in 1933, but nobody made a Shadow feature until Edward Alperson’s Colony Pictures, releasing through Grand National, made The Shadow Strikes in 1936. This was a boring, seemingly interminable and all too faithful adaptation of one of Gibson’s pulp stories which cast former silent star Rod La Rocque as the Shadow. Surprisingly, the one follow-up to The Shadow Strikes, International Crime from 1938, was a great movie, a marvelous Thin Man-ish mash-up of murder mystery and screwball comedy, though it ignored the Shadow character as established both in the pulps and on the later radio show (where he was given only one alternate identity — millionaire playboy Lamont Cranston — and the ability to “cloud men’s minds” so that he can be invisible, something he supposedly learned from a yogi while on a trip to the Far East); in International Crime the Shadow is basically a radio host doing a program that’s essentially the 1930’s version of America’s Most Wanted. 

The Shadow then remained fallow as movie material until Monogram decided to take him up in the 1940’s, casting Kane Richmond (frequent hero of Republic serials) as the Shadow and entrusting him to the team that were making Monogram’s Charlie Chan movies: writer George Callahan and directors William Beaudine and Phil Rosen (The Shadow Returns is credited to Rosen exclusively but Beaudine is listed as an uncredited co-director on The name of the producer is a surprise: Lou Brock, who in 1933 was at RKO running the shorts department when he was given the opportunity to make a feature — which was a musical called Flying Down to Rio, less important for its top-billed stars (Gene Raymond, Dolores Del Rio and Raul Roulien) than the supporting players, particularly a couple of dancers named Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. But Brock’s star fell as fast as it rose after he green-lighted a project about some shipwrecked socialites called Down to Their Last Yacht and offered it to RKO production chief Merian C. Cooper as the second Astaire-Rogers movie. It eventually got made in 1935, but sans Fred and Ginger, and was a box-office disappointment. The Shadow Returns was a pretty good movie, though most of it was dull and it didn’t live up to the potential of the character — but then virtually none of the attempts to bring the Shadow to the screen have; while other radio dramas (notably The Lone Ranger) had long and successful transitions to television, the few attempts to do the Shadow as a TV series never got beyond the pilot stage (and it’s difficult, to say the least, to do a story in which the central character is invisible in a visual medium) and the Shadow as presented by Monogram is a rather conventional superhero whose only concessions to “Shadow-ness” are to change from Lamont Cranston’s regular street clothes to a black outfit with a mask and a big black hat and speak in an echoey voice that doesn’t seem to be coming from anywhere in particular.

Though this Shadow doesn’t have the power to cloud men’s minds and therefore render himself invisible, he does seem to get into all sorts of interesting places as he investigates an odd mystery centering around a graveyard, the opening of a coffin to extract some clear pellets that look like contraband jewels, and a succession of people apparently hurling themselves off balconies but actually being murdered by a man with a bullwhip who uses it to pull them off the balconies, so it looks (even to eyewitnesses) like they’ve committed suicide but they’ve actually been murdered. The chemistry between Kane Richmond as the Shadow (a.k.a. Lamont Cranston) and Barbara Read as Margo Lane is O.K. (though hardly at the level of the marvelous love-hate relationship between Rod La Rocque and Astrid Allwyn in International Crime!), and the first victim is a well-to-do man named Michael Hasdon (Frank Reicher). After several of his colleagues have fallen similarly and suspicion has fallen on a mysterious “Joseph Yomans” who was present at the grave-opening at the start of the film, took off his ridiculously obvious fake beard and entered the Hasdon home through a secret doorway (it’s that sort of a movie), Cranston and Margo eventually realize that the pellets aren’t jewels but secret capsules containing a bunch of microfilms containing the formula for making the world’s greatest plastic, which is worth millions and the subject of industrial espionage, and the culprit is Hasdon’s butler Paul Breck (Emmet Vogan), who was the mysterious “Yomans” and didn’t want there to be a legal heir so he could grab the secret and make the millions it’s worth himself. It’s the sort of resolution that pretty much provokes a yawn — as I’ve joked about other movies before, this is less a whodunit than a whocareswhodunit — but The Shadow Returns has some occasional visual atmospherics and a surprisingly good deadpan performance by Tom Dugan as cabdriver and chauffeur Moe Shrevnitz, who in the Shadow’s print stories was yet one more incognito the Shadow used to get closer to the underworld and gather information, but on the radio show (as here) became a separate character, largely used as comic relief.