Silver Screen Shadow
I WAS SITTING IN Hollywood's famous Egyptian Theatre, the legendary movie palace from the Golden Age of cinema. The cavernous theater was quiet, until the stillness was broken by a series of piercing sounds: shrill police whistles, rolling thunder, a howling wolf and a creaking door, followed by the mocking laughter that announced the arrival of the guest of honor. If there was any doubt as to the identity of that mysterious personage, it was quickly settled when a harsh, mocking voice announced:
This is... The Shadow!
It was the voice Id been waiting to hear for more than a quarter of a centurythe voice that had made The Shadow a broadcasting sensation back in 1930, before there was a Shadow Magazine. The same harsh voice first heard by Walter Gibson during a visit to Howard Thurstons Long Island home in the fall of 1930, when the famous magician and his ghost-writer tuned in to CBS new mystery series, Street & Smiths Detective Story Program. Those eerie tones uttered by actor Frank Readick were unlike anything that had previously emerged from the radio ether.
The Detective Story Program was replaced after a year by Street & Smiths Love Story Drama, but The Shadows popularity had grown so strong that the character was retained as the narrator of the new series. What a loss to fandom, protested a Radio Guide columnist in 1931, when The Shadow tottered from his underworld throne into those Street & Smith love stories.
However, The Shadow soon returned to his underworld haunts as host of the mystery segments on the Blue Coal Radio Revue, a Sunday-night series that began The Shadows long association with sponsor Blue Coal and announcer Ken Roberts. Readicks performances as network radios first sinister narrator were eventually displaced by the arrival of a new crimebusting super sleuth based on Gibsons pulp hero, played for two seasons (1937-1938) by Orson Welles.
In 1983, after attending an old-time radio tribute at New Yorks prestigious Players Club, I gave Roberts a ride home, at which time he dropped a bombshell. Announcer Ed Herlihy had introduced a medley of radio openings during the event, and Ken complained that Ed had misidentified the voice in the familiar Shadow opening signature. My heart skipped a beat. Recognizing that the particular opening was from a Welles show, I asked, Are you saying that it was by who I think youre suggesting? Ken responded: That wasnt Orson; that was Frank Readick doing the opening!
Of course, Ken would know, having, announced several of Readicks seasons at CBS as well as Orsons seasons. Subsequent interviews with Welles costars, including Paul Stewart and Richard Wilson, revealed that Orson had never perfected The Shadows famous laugh, and that recordings of Readicks laugh were frequently used in the body of the shows as well. A fact had emerged that none of us had previously suspected: Orson Welles was the only radio Shadow who never performed the characters trademark opening and closing signatures.
Ever since working with Walter Gibson on The Shadow Scrapbook more than a quarter-century ago, Ive been determined to discover all I could about the early Frank Readick Shadow broadcasts. Readick is the missing link in the characters history. Though he was the second actor to voice The Shadow on Street & Smiths Detective Story Program, it was his sibilant tones and mocking laugh that Walter Gibson always described in his Shadow novels. Unfortunately, his performances as network radios first sinister mystery host have been lost in the shadows of time. Only his powerful opening and closing signatures are known to survive, along with a single latter episode in which he portrayed The Shadows evil doppelganger opposite Bill Johnstone.
However, if Readicks Shadow broadcasts were truly lost, another avenue remained unexplored. While researching my chapters in The Shadow Scrapbook, I learned of a vintage newspaper article announcing the first of a series of 1931 Shadow two-reelers adapted from Detective Story Program. Less than a year after his radio debut, while the second issue of The Shadow Magazine was still on newsstands. The Shadow had cast his sinister silhouette on movie screens as the star of a series of mystery short features.
In keeping with his radio role, he appeared as a narrator, not an active participant in the stories. Only A Burglar to the Rescue, the first of 13 planned Shadow Detective filmettes, was mentioned in the clipping, but Jim Glaser in Universals New York offices supplied additional information. Glasers records indicated that six Shadow Detective two-reelers had been released, and he supplied the titles of the five additional short subjects: Trapped, Sealed Lips, House of Mystery, The Red Shadow, and The Circus Show-up.
These two-reelersall of them adapted from stories that had appeared in Detective Story Magazinewere all believed lost until recently, when Universals new archivist, Bob ONeill, made preservation of the studios vintage shorts a priority. ONeill unearthed A Burglar to the Rescue, had it restored, and struck a new master 35mm print.
The film was scheduled for screening at the 2004 Cinecon, an annual Hollywood-based film festival for devotees of obscure old movies. Thus, on September 4th, I found myself sitting in the darkened Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, waiting to view a film unseen for more than 70 years, hoping it could answer unsolved mysteries. In particular, I wanted to know just how involved The Shadow was as narrator, since the famous character was sparingly heard in the opening and closing of NBCs 1932-33 Shadow broadcasts, the only Readick season with surviving scripts.
Though I had questioned the wisdom of flying roundtrip to Los Angeles to view a 20-minute short, I feel my trip was worthwhile. Burglar To The Rescue prominently featured Frank Readick as The Shadow, regularly interrupting the proceedings with asides that dripped irony. Readicks Shadowy intonations were biting and raspy, with a threatening quality not unlike Patrick McGoohans unearthly tones in Disneys The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh. (Readicks menacing intonations on film were far nastier than the more ethereal signatures featured on the Welles broadcasts; perhaps The Shadows observations became more intimate and less threatening the following season during his tenure as host of Street & Smiths Love Story Drama.)
The two-reelers opening titles were superimposed over a cover from Detective Story Magazine, promoting a tie-in with both the magazine and the CBS radio series. Just as Readicks identity as the mysterious voice of The Shadow was a closely guarded sec
ret at CBS, the filmettes credits concealed The Shadows true identity behind a question marka gimmick Universal would repeat later that same year in Frankenstein.
Burglar relates the story of Steve Corley (Thurston Hall), a small-town bank president facing ruin with the impending visit of a bank examiner, who is bound to discover the absence of more than $25,000. The funds were squandered by Corley on his actress girlfriend. Marian (Charlotte Wynters), a.character absent from Herman Landons original story, published in the November 1, 1930 issue of Street & Smiths Detective Story Magazine. (The female role was probably created for the October 23, 1930 broadcast to provide exposition and vocal contrast.) She comes to the bank that night at her lovers request and is informed of the situation. The banker suggests that they leave the city with whatever money remains in the vault, and then set up housekeeping somewhere else. Marian refuses and leaves him flat.
Corleys seeming salvation arrives in the form of a thief who claims to be Jack Dunning (Flash Gordons Frank Shannon), an escaped convict falsely imprisoned many years before after being framed by the banker. Corley doesnt recognize the former cashier whose life he ruined, and who now wants to kill him. Quickly realizing that a robbery would cover his embezzlement, Corley persuades the vengeance-seeking Dunning to spare his life and take the $14,000 remaining of the $40,000 that should be in the vault. When the convict does so and flees, Steve summons chief of police Andy Kurd (Arthur Aylesworth) and fingers Dunning as the thief. Hurd thinks Corleys story preposterous, so the banker urges him to call the state penitentiary. The Shadow comments:
"Escape! Ah, Corley, again you have escaped. Again you have beaten the law. They can't get you now, can they? (laugh)"
The chief makes the call and elicits some startling information: Dunning is still in jail. The warden makes a point of telling Hurd that Jacks long-time cellmate Jim Holt was just released, and upon hearing that Corley realizes it was Holt who came to the bank, seeking revenge on Dunnings behalf. The chief, now convinced of Steves guilt, takes the bank president away in handcuffs. Corley winds up in prison, with The Shadow jeering him:
Does crime ever pay? I alone know, for I am
The two-reeler is rather stilted, as are many early-talkie short subjects. Writer/director George Cochrane was a veteran of silent movies, and his film is plagued by long periods of silence that certainly wouldnt have derived from the original Detective Story broadcast directed by dramatic-radio pioneer Bill Sweets.
Burglar truly comes alive only during The Shadows sibilant narration, but with Frank Readick supplying the venomous voice, that was more than enough to create a memorable film debut. Certainly, The Shadow registers in Universals premier short in a way he never did in the plodding Rod La Rocque features produced a half-dozen years later.
Unanswered questions still remained concerning the Shadow Detective filmettes. Only the first was filmed in the New York area; the others appear to have been Hollywood productions. Had Readick been retained as The Shadows voice in the later filmettes? One would expect so, since his menacing tones had become strongly identified with the radio role. Certainly, cost would not have been a deterrent: Readick was receiving only $25 per Detective Story broadcast, the standard payment in 1931 for any New York-based network half-hour drama.
However, the following year I returned to Cinecon to view Trapped, and was disappointed to discover that Readicks mocking tones were absent from the second filmette. Though photos from the other two-reelers had suggested that many of the same Shadowy silhouettes featured in Burglar were reused in the following shorts, it proved not to be the case. A West Coast actor apparently replaced radios premier mystery man in both voice and silhouette, to the detriment of the film.
However, the Burglar to the Rescue filmette survives as The Shadows earliest dramatic performance, and the only surviving example of The Shadows original incarnation as network radios first sinister storyteller. Will this important historical performance eventually be released for public consumption, perhaps as an extra on a future expanded DVD release of Universals 1994 Shadow feature?
Only The Shadow knows!