“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”Radio as a format for drama, let alone science fiction or fantasy, won’t be something familiar to American readers of this website, though it remains moderately popular in a few places, notably the UK and Germany. But if you were to turn the clock back to the 1930s and 40s, you’d discover that American radio listeners were treated to vast quantities of radio drama across a range of genres, from romances and soap operas through to science fiction and westerns. Detective mysteries were especially popular, frequently using characters who were already well known in the pulp fiction crime novels and magazines of the time, such as Sam Spade and Simon Templar (better known as the Saint). But none of these shows was more influential than “The Shadow”, a radio show that would run from 1937 all the way through to 1954, imprinting itself firmly on American popular culture.
The Radio Shadow
This isn’t the place to recount the creation and development of the Shadow character in depth; those interested in this story will find the Wikipedia article on the Shadow covers the topic in more than adequate depth. Suffice it to say that the Shadow persona at least was invented in 1930 as a sort of gimmick, a mysterious narrator who introduced otherwise conventional radio mysteries involving their own free-standing characters. It turned out that listeners appreciated the Shadow as much as the dramas, so the publisher Street & Smith hired jobbing writer Walter Gibson to come up with novels featuring the Shadow, the first of which was published in April 1931. Gibson turned out over two hundred such novels over the next couple of decades, portraying the Shadow as a masked, sharp-shooting vigilante with a network of associates that helped him deal with all sorts of crooks and hoodlums.
In 1937 CBS decided to create a radio show around this new version of the Shadow character, but inevitably perhaps changes were made to better fit the new format. For a start, the Shadow became a less overtly violent character, instead relying on stealth and intimidation to cower opponents into submission. While the print version of the Shadow had been a master of disguise and skilled in the Oriental martial arts, the radio Shadow conflated these into the ability to “cloud men's’ minds”, that is, to become invisible using some art that he had learned in India. Invisibility might not sound that impressive considering we’re discussing a character on a radio show, but in fact it turned out to be a stroke of genius.
The man tasked with playing this new version of the Shadow was none other than Orson Welles, an actor with a rich and distinctive voice, and that worked nicely enough when he portrayed the Shadow’s alter ego, amateur detective Lamont Cranston. But when he played the Shadow, Welles modified his voice to make it sound more sinister, supposedly by speaking into a glass of water. However it was done, this simple but dramatic special effect not only added depth to the character but also made it a lot easier for the listener to tell the Shadow apart from Cranston.
The other big change was getting rid of the network of associates that the print version of the Shadow employed. Instead the Shadow was given a single associate, Margo Lane, a young socialite and, incidentally, the only person who knows the Shadow’s true identity. Like the Shadow she was portrayed by a succession of actresses over the years, initially by Agnes Moorehead, perhaps best known today for her role on the 1960s sitcom “Bewitched” where she played Endora, Samantha’s interfering and imperious mother. Lane’s character is a bit inconsistent, combining the traditional role of damsel in distress with that of a skilled, independent agent in her own right able to provide the Shadow with useful assistance. More often than not she starts of helping Cranston determine the nature of the mystery, even going so far as to suggest possible solutions. But by the time the Shadow gets involved she’s either relegated to relaying his discoveries to the police or else finds herself captured by the villains, adding to the sense of urgency and drama.
The world of the Shadow
“The weed of crime bears a bitter fruit!”“The Shadow” is a product of its time, and modern listeners can find some aspects a little disconcerting. While the good guys usually have Anglo-Saxon names, with few exceptions anyone with a German accent is bound to be trouble. Chinese characters are usually out of the Fu Manchu mould, whether scheming mastermind or humble coolie. Black characters are handled at best in a patronising sort of way, as noble if ill-educated peasants on Caribbean islands and the like, and while some of the voodoo storylines conjure up fantastic ideas and images, they do so by portraying the natives as ignorant and easily led by their white masters.
On the other hand, the ‘diesel-punk’ setting might be very much of its time but has aged rather better. There’s something timeless about a world that combines propeller planes and ocean liners with killer robots and mad scientists, and that’s precisely the world we’re dealing with here. Over the years the Shadow finds himself pitted against the usual mobsters and hoodlums of course, but also foreign agents, saboteurs, drug smugglers, murders and blackmailers. Sometimes there’s a technological bent, the antagonist using some uncanny piece of equipment including devices that could change the weather, draw ships to their doom, control flying bombs or age people horrifically quickly.
Usually each episode begins with Cranston and Lane partaking in some type of social activity, whether it’s meeting up with friends, travelling, or simply lounging about in their homes. It should be mentioned here that the relationship between the two lead characters is ambiguous. They’re not married, and that meant they had to be heard to maintain separate households. But they’re otherwise inseparable, and refer to each other in affectionate terms, suggesting, but not proving, a relationship that goes beyond mere friendship. Be that as it may, most of the time it’s Cranston and Lane who start to investigate the mystery, and only later on does the Shadow come on stage.
If the idea of a rich playboy with a secret crimefighting identity sounds familiar, it should do: the Shadow character is widely acknowledged as one of the forerunners of DC Comic’s Batman. In fact the two characters have occasionally appeared together, Batman describing the older character as his biggest inspirations. Batman #259 in particular delves into this, showing that as a boy Bruce Wayne witnessed a gunfight between some hoodlums and the Shadow, and that the noise of the guns is something that has never quite left his mind, and together with seeing his parents gunned down some time later, explains why the Caped Crusader rejects the use of guns himself.
Ten Classic Episodes
More than 600 episodes were produced, of which a couple hundred survive, though the quality of these varies from the excellent through to the barely listenable. What follows is a list of my personal favourites, all of which are obtainable through sites such as the Internet Archive, though the copyright status of ‘The Shadow’ radio show remains somewhat controversial. While most radio shows of this vintage are in the public domain, ‘The Shadow’ used stories and characters from the print magazines that aren’t. More specifically, Conde Nast acquired the Shadow character and its associated intellectual properties, and this gives them some sort of legal rights over the radio show as well. In practise sites hosting MP3s of the radio shows seem to be left alone, but those folks wanting to sell CDs or otherwise develop the Shadow character into something new have found themselves having to deal with Conde Nast’s legal representatives.
Temple Bells Of Neban
Hands-down one of my absolute favourites, this episode has it all! Drug smuggling and exotic villains for a start, but there’s a healthy slice of the Shadow’s backstory too. In fact it’s the only surviving episode that tells us anything much about how the Shadow acquired his uncanny powers somewhere in India. We’re so used to comics and films that dwell on the ‘origin stories’ of superheroes that the idea of a character without one seems strange, and it’s nice that ‘Temple Bells Of Neban’ is able to plug that gap a bit. It’s even better for having a villainess who is easily a match for the Shadow, wielding as she does the telepathic skill known as the Temple Bells Of Neban, which upon their final ‘note’ can dispel his invisibility. Of course the Shadow wins eventually, but not before having to slink off defeated the first time he challenges his foe directly. It’s a great episode, especially in the clever way that musical notes are used to suggest a strange, psychic power that is otherwise not clearly explained.
Death Under The Chapel
Like the ‘Temple Bells Of Neban’ this story gives us a bit more of the Shadow’s backstory, this time his university education where he learned about Oriental philosophy in the classes run by one Professor Kalima. Margo Lane learns that one of Kalima’s students has just killed himself, and it turns out that the university authorities have determined that Kalima’s teachings are to blame for the young man’s death. Cranston decides to pay Kalima a visit and offer what help he can. His kindness is misplaced though, when he discovers that Kalima is bent upon exacting his revenge on the university that failed to support him.What makes this story so interesting is the character of Kalima, a deformed and crippled man with a brilliant mind, reliant upon a deaf-mute servant to carry him around. Of course the nature of radio as a medium works especially well in stories like this, where Kalima’s deformities can be as creepy as your imagination allows!
Power of the Mind
Although most episodes focus on the Shadow’s power of invisibility, some episodes extend his repertoire of uncanny abilities considerably beyond that. In ‘The Man Who Murdered Time’ he has the ability to sense changes to the natural flow of time, while this episode gives him a limited form of telepathy; specifically the ability to receive the thoughts of suitably disciplined or strong-minded individuals who wish to contact him (an ability used again in the episode ‘Message From The Hills’). As interesting as this is, ‘Power of the Mind’ is further improved by showing Margo Lane in a thoroughly admirable light, as a woman of considerable physical prowess and personal courage, providing the Shadow with crucial support as they work together to rescue a kidnapped psychiatrist from foreign spies.
Comic Strip Killer
Relatively few episodes pit the Shadow against an opponent we might describe as a ‘supervillain’ but this is certainly one of them. In this story there’s a spate of murders involving seemingly random victims, but while the police are baffled, Cranston thinks the killer has taken his modus operandi from a recent comic strip serial involving Hypo. Following up on his hunch he visits the comic strip creator, Jack Prescott, but things take a surprising twist when Prescott becomes Hypo’s next victim! Red herrings abound in this episode, and again, we see Lane very much as the brave associate here helping pave the way for the Shadow’s closing moves.
Sabotage By Air
Quite a few ‘Shadow’ episodes deal with foreign agents, but this is one of the best and most action-packed. Bearing in mind this episode was first broadcast in 1939, the idea of a mothership aeroplane that could control up to fifty pilotless flying bombs is nothing short of prophetic. We’re also treated to some clever use of gadgets that help to de-encrypt some mysterious broadcasts and determine their point of origin. Margo has her moments here, but she does end up being captured, her eventual rescue adding to the pile of things the Shadow has to do to foil the saboteurs bent on destroying the mothership and its bombs. Like a lot of the foreign agent stories, this episode is very much of its time. Whether the chief saboteur Borla is meant to be a Nazi or Soviet agent doesn’t really matter, the point is clear: the Shadow will play his part in defeating America’s enemies!
Message from the Hills
Several episodes of ‘The Shadow’ take place on what are presumably Caribbean islands or similar, places where the white man still holds the whip hand, and natives do the labouring. These frequently play up to the anxieties and assumptions of the time they were broadcast, and if not necessarily meant to be racist, they can come across as a little uncomfortable to listen to. But one episode that comes close to balancing things out is ‘Message from the Hills;, a story that involves a remote diamond mine on a British colony. When violent thieves arrive and take over the camp, it’s the old native Tengah who’s able to send a telepathic message to The Shadow hundreds of miles away on the coast! How the Shadow deals with Tengah, someone he sees has having a similar mind to his own, stands in stark contrast to the dismissive attitude of the British colonists.
This interesting episode starts off with the sentencing and execution of a violent criminal, but when the deceased appears to returns from the dead and starts killing off those who sent him to the electric chair, the Shadow finds himself dealing with something other than a murderous ghost. In fact this is one of the more politically charged ‘Shadow’ episodes because of the way it handles what in those days would be termed ‘shell shock’, more familiar today as post-traumatic stress disorder. Although the Shadow eventually brings the killer to account, he takes no pleasure in it, realising that the killer was one society created out of a simple man, by training him to kill, sending him off to fight in wars, but taking no interest in rehabilitating him when he came home, a shattered man.
Drum Of Obi
An underlying theme running through many episodes is the idea of strange religious cults operating just below the surface of American society. More often than not they’re linked with what today we’d call colonialism, the particular cult in question having a link with a family that owned a Caribbean plantation or with an explorer who opened up some remote part of the British Empire. In this episode things kick off with what seems to be a bit of supernatural weirdness: a man buys a coffin, tells the undertaker it’s for himself, and promptly gets run over on the road outside the funeral parlour! Persuaded by Margo to investigate this peculiar occurrence, Cranston is initially skeptical, but when he arrives at the dead man’s home, he hears a drum beating the rhythm of Obi playing upon a drum and his level of interest rises significantly. Obi, he explains to Margo, is a strange demon-god of the island of Jamaica, and when they find one of his priests lurking outside the house, things start to look very grim for the remaining members of the family. As ever, the Shadow uncovers a bit more than mere cult activity, but this time it isn’t the Shadow or even the police who get the killer, but Obi himself!
Science provided ample material for ‘The Shadow’ writers, from killer robots to super vehicles, not to mention all kinds of fiendish weapons. ‘Night Without End’ for example involves a sort of defensive smokescreen used by an gang of crooks to plunge a city into darkness, something the drama evokes with a series of tragic vignettes before the story really gets started. But ‘Gibbering Things’ is one of the creepier mad scientist episodes, featuring the deranged zoologist called Professor Serkoff. As with ‘Death Under The Chapel’, the nature of radio meant that the appearance of the gibbering things is left to the imagination of the listener beyond a few hints about their featureless faces, ape-like bodies, and gum-less mouths filled with sharp teeth. They certainly sound creepy, and the first part of the story makes sure that we’re already primed for something strange thanks to local stories about the haunted woods near the New Hampshire home of Margo’s Aunt Susan. People have disappeared in these woods. Inevitably, Cranston and Lane unearth something more mysterious than folk tales when Aunt Susan fails to appear when expected and then discover the bloodless corpse of the man who drove them from the railway station.
Out of this World
This is one of a handful of ‘Shadow’ episodes from the Australian run of the show, featuring Lloyd Lamble and Lyndall Barbour as Cranston and Lane. While the Australian version of the show used the same scripts as the American one, they are valuable to fans of ’The Shadow’ serial because they preserved stories that haven’t otherwise survived. As mentioned earlier, something like 400 of the original American ‘Shadow’ episodes have vanished, but the handful of Australian survivors do plug a few of the gaps. This episode is unique, being the only one featuring an explicitly extra-terrestrial threat. It’s also unusual in not having a completely clear-cut ending. While the alien infiltrators are certainly defeated, it’s apparent that this isn’t the end of their invasion, and other groups of agents will be doing their best to undermine humanity elsewhere on our planet, beyond the Shadow’s reach…
Neale mostly writes about fish, fossils and old computers, but in his downtime can often be found feeding Daleks or rehoming unwanted sandworms.