Well, I hadn’t intended to continue quite so sporadic in my out-of-date updates, especially since a visit to my old neighborhood in New York City is likely to bring about further disruptions in the weeks to come, however welcome the cause itself might be. A series of brief power outages last Friday and my subsequent haphazard tinkering with our faltering wireless network are behind my most recent disappearance. It is owing to the know-how of this creative talent that broadcastellan is now back in circulation. So, it seems fitting that, upon returning today, I should commemorate the career of a man who was particularly adept at vanishing, of casting his voice, and of having a laugh at matters least laughable: The Shadow. After all, he first went on the air on this day, 31 July, in 1930.
As old-time radio expert Anthony Tollin relates it in The Shadow Scrapbook, the invisible man with the menacing laugh was at first little more than a radio announcer—a mouthpiece for Street and Smith, a company specializing in the cheap thrills of magazine fiction. While radio had little drama to offer during those early days of network broadcasting, its promotional prowess had long been proven by sharks, shysters, and shamans alike. As is often the case, the advertisement took on a life of its own, as tuners-in were more intrigued by the voice than by the product it was called upon to peddle. So, The Shadow was rushed into the limelight and, after being promoted to the narrator of Street and Smith’s Detective Stories, stories, became a bona fide superhero in print and on the air.
As the Orient—that is, the US concept of such non-Western territory with traditions predating the old world of Europe—was then all the rage, The Shadow is somewhat of a Fu Manchurian candidate, casting himself under an imported family tree from which branches dangle the wise Charlie Chan, the magical Chandu, and the sly Mr. Moto. All these Americanized adventurers and much-relied upon crime solvers owe some of their mystique to an element of the sinister or suspicious, even though this quality became diluted and, in the case of Charlie Chan, was obscured over the years whereas Mr. Moto was sent on leave when the allure of the extra-occidental seemed irreconcilable with the cultural reorientation of the US after Pearl Harbor and the expediencies of wartime propaganda.
Lamont Cranston, as listeners of The Shadow were told each week, had brought back a secret from the Orient—the hypnotic power to “cloud men’s minds so that they cannot see him.” He revelled in this invisibility, the hunt, hide and seek it made possible; as his menacing laugh suggests, he was no kindly Mr. Keen, no detached Sherlock Holmes, no matter-of-fact gumshoe. He enjoyed feeding his enemies the “bitter fruit” borne by the “weed of crime” and of feasting on its juices, on employing powers which, on this day in 1938, for instance, helped him to catch a group of western diamond mine raiders with the aid of a non-western sage turned servant who passed on “The Message from the Hill,” through “mental telepathy, the oldest wireless in the world.”
It is a telling case of a Hollywood identity crisis that screen villain Bela Lugosi first played Chandu’s archenemy and then returned to impersonate the radio original himself in subsequent movie serial sequels; nor should it be surprising that someone as typecast to play outcasts as Peter Lorre was chosen to play Mr. Moto. The duality—the duplicity—of Easterners gone West or Westerners under Oriental influences suggests something adulterated, ominous, and forbidding. It is a spinning forth of yarns like Dracula and The Green Goddess, stories of an East that not so much meets West but infiltrates it or insinuates itself.
Perhaps, in today’s global market, the Shadow might have started out as a hawker of Japanese electronics, the hardware of choice with which western media produce latter-day broken blossoms of diplomacy. It strikes me as disingenuous or incongruous, at least, that melodramatic Orientalism is deemed politically incorrect while demonizations of Iran and North Korea and the anxieties triggered by Communist China, by a distant Asia or Arabia—a far or middle east—are being propagated by a West that glorifies diversity but relies for its cultural survival and economic supremacy on demonstrations of its vulnerability, on images of threatened borders and threatening barbarians.