Shadow Players

When I read that Lamont Cranston is being resurrected for another big screen adventure scheduled to begin in 2010, I decided to catch up with one of the earlier Shadow plays. The Shadow, of course, always played well on the radio. On this day, 26 June, in 1938, he was again called into action when a “Blind Beggar Dies” after refusing to share his pittance with a gang of racketeers. The blind beggars alive to such melodrama and asking for more were millions of American radio listeners tuning in to follow the exploits of that “wealthy man about town” who was able to “cloud men’s minds” while opening them to the wonders of non-visual storytelling. On the screen, the Shadow never quite managed to immaterialize; a previous attempt at delineating The Shadow on the screen, in the form and figure of Alex Baldwin, failed to attract audiences large enough to warrant a franchise.

Considerably less accomplished than the 1994 adaptation was the 1937 feature The Shadow Strikes, which bears little resemblance to the myth conceived for radio (initially as a mere sales gimmick for Street and Smith story magazines, publications popular during the first half of the 20th century). At just about the time when Orson Welles made his debut in the role on radio (as mentioned here), the mysterious crime fighter was impersonated on the screen by silent screen star Rod La Rocque, whose image I came across today while leafing through the recently acquired rarity Alice in Movieland, a gossipy little volume written back in 1927, when La Rocque was still remembered as a major Cecil B. DeMille player by, well, almost everyone:

You would have thought Rod La Rocque and Vilma Banky [the silent screen star with whom La Rocque was about to tie the knot] sure to be recognized at sight anywhere short of the South Pole. But not so!

At a preview of a DeMille picture at a Hollywood theater, seats had been roped off for the stars, as one among whom La Rocque was not being recognized by the usher.

Rod and Vilma crept away. Slow fade-out! I think, however, they did contrive later to annex the two worst seats in the theatre, behind a pillar of something. But all the easier to hold hands.

One of La Rocque’s last movies, The Shadow Strikes, is strictly of the ‘slow fade’ variety, even though the character La Rocque portrayed was so in the 1930s that a follow-up was released half a year later, featuring the same leading man.

Never mind that La Rocque does not get to utter that menacing laugh and is not equipped with mental powers superior to those of other popular crimefighting acts just outside the law, the Falcon, say, or the Saint. The producers of the movie did not even bother to check the spelling of the name of his alter ego when it appeared on the cover of a newspaper. So, what fate awaits this great figure of 20th-century popular culture? Will he return only to receive a final blow, like a beggar too impoverished to pay up? Will those who watch him on the screen follow him back to the airwaves, into the shadows where he truly belongs?

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