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Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Vanishing Shadow

On the heels of its success with The Invisible Man ('33), Carl Laemmle's Universal Pictures created a serial in early 1934, with an invisible man as the primary gimmick. Actually, it was an invisibility device, so several people were able to be invisible at various points in the story. The Vanishing Shadow (TVS) was a very early (if not the first) science fiction serial. TVS was full of amazing electronic gadgets, ray guns and even a giant unstoppable robot!

Quick Plot Synopsis
Chapter One: Accused of Murder -- Stanley Stanfield and Professor Van Dorn team up to create an invisibility device. Stanley "rescues" a pretty woman from traffic. He and Gloria become immediate friends. Stanley confronts Wade Barnett, a crossover evil-industrialist and mobster, over sale of Stanley's stock in The Tribune. In the scuffle, Barnett's gun goes off, shooting his accountant. Stanley flees, thinking he's killed Cadwell. Barnett's thugs pursue Stanley, but he escapes with the Invisible Ray Device (IRD). Again they chase him in cars. Stanley tries to beat a speeding freight train to a crossing, but fails. Crash!
Chaper Two: The Destroying Ray -- Stanley jumped out of the car just before the crash. Van Dorn brings Stanley back to his hideaway lab in the country. Gloria (who turns out is Barnett's estranged daughter) reports Cadwell is not dead. Van Dorn demonstrates a new hand-held device: The Destroying Ray. The thugs stake out Gloria's house. When Stanley and Van Dorn arrive, a fight ensues. Stanley is in danger of being zapped with the deadly ray.
Chaper Three: The Avalanche -- Stanley escapes the ray, but the thugs escape with Gloria as hostage. Stanley uses the IRD to listen in at Barnett's office and finds out where Gloria is being held. Stanley uses the IRD to get into the mansion and free Gloria. The thugs are confounded, but recover and give chase. Stanley and Gloria drive right through a construction blasting zone as the charge goes off. Boom!
Chapter Four: Trapped -- Gloria and Stanley are showered with dirt and rocks, but made it through the blast. They get to Van Dorn's hideaway lab. He shows off another invention, a Heat Ray (which acts like a cutting torch) Van Dorn puts Stanley's Tribune stock (which Barnett wants) in his super safe. The thugs followed them, so a fight breaks out again. Stanley gets locked in the safe which has an anti-oxygen gas defense. Stanley gasps for air.
Chapter Five: Hurled From The Sky -- The thugs leave, and Gloria uses the heat ray to cut the safe lock and free Stanley in time. Barnett kidnaps the Tribune's editor (and other majority stock holder). Stanley learns that he's being held on an island. He and Gloria, chased yet again by the thugs, get to the airfield and steal Barnett's plane. While they fly away, one of the thug's shots hits an aileron cable. The plane crashes into the sea.
Chapter Six: Chain Lightning -- It turns out that Gloria jumped with the only parachute. Stanley made a controlled ditch in the sea, so is fine. He and Gloria are rescued men in a speedboat. McDonald, freed from the island, meets with Stanley and Gloria. They resolve to never sell out to Barnett. Meanwhile Van Dorn has upgraded his super safe to include paralyzer lightning at the door. Gloria inadvertently gets trapped by it.
Chapter Seven: The Tragic Crash -- Stanley rescues Gloria from the lightning. Barnett's thugs now have Van Dorn prisoner at The Pines. Stanley rescues him with the IRD. As they flee in another chase scene, Gloria swerves to avoid another car, sending theirs careening off a cliff.
Chapter Eight: The Shadow of Death -- Turns out they all survived the crash (?) The thugs capture Stanley and Gloria, but Van Dorn escapes via the IRD. Dorgan (chief thug) ties up Van Dorn and steals the IRD. He uses it to get the jump on Stanley and McDonald and steals all their stocks.
Chapter Nine: Blazing Bulkheads -- It turns out Dorgan stole the wrong stocks. Oops. Van Dorn has worked up a counter weapon to the IRD. It shocks and paralyzes Dorgan. Gloria uses the IRD to overhear that Stanley is captive aboard a ship. Carless thugs cause a fire aboard, where Stanley is tied up.
Chapter Ten: The Iron Death -- Gloria and Van Dorn rescue Stanley. Gloria learns where her father has hidden Stanley's stolen stocks. Van Dorn shows off his remote controlled robot. The thugs burst into the lab, but Van Dorn's robot chases them out.
Chapter Eleven: The Juggernaut -- Van Dorn's robot chases the thugs away. Van Dorn becomes maniacal about getting Barnett. Stanley uses the IRD and the heat ray to cut his stocks out of Barnett's safe. Stanley and Gloria are recaptured and taken to The Pines. Van Dorn has his robot attack. It grabs Stanley in a death grip.
Chapter Twelve: Retribution -- Dorgan tries to extort Barnett. When he brings the $50,000 to The Pines to get Gloria, things go bad. Barnett called the police. When they appear, Dorgan shoots Barnett. The police shoot Dorgan. Barnett apologizes to Gloria for being a bad father. He dies. Stanley and Gloria get married. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
TVS is full of fun 1930s-style gizmos and gadgets that appeal to one's inner 8-year-old. The visual trick of the invisible person still casting a shadow allows for some fun visual effects. (How do you suggest movement of an invisible person?) Cliff hanger serials are, by nature, fun viewing. A sci-fi serial is even more so.

Cultural Connection
Prohibition -- A quiet subtext within TVS is that period in American history when liquor was illegal: "The Great Experiment." While Prohibition does not play a significant role in the plot, it shows up on the edges. For one, Barnett turns out to be a rum runner as well as a corporate mobster. Dorgan tells his fellow thugs that the ship (on which they imprison Stanley) is where Barnett keeps his bootleg liquor. This would have meant more to 1930s audiences than it does today. Note too, the shifty, but undefined, business of the speedboat that picks up Stanley and Gloria from the ditched plane. "Forget you ever saw us," they say. Stanley gives a knowing wink and smile. More run runners. The law was so unpopular that breakers of it had little criminal stigma. Actually, Prohibition may have been repealed as TVS was being written. The 21st Amendment (repealing the 18th) became effective in December of 1933.

Notes
Faint Stars -- TVS did not feature notable stars. Onslow Stevens, who played Stanley, had a long film career, but was usually in westerns. Ada Ince, who played Gloria was the usual "looker", but not strong on acting talent. She only did a few films. James Dinkens, who played Van Dorn, was a stage actor since the turn of the century. This was actually his second to last film. He died later in '34. Many of the cast had careers of "uncredited" and bit parts.

Sparkmaster -- Carl Laemmle knew how to work successes into more. TVS combined the visual effects gimmicks of The Invisible Man, but Laemmle also pulled in the popular trappings of the mad scientist -- his lab full of sparky things. Ken Strickfaden was the uncredited hand behind those gizmos in the lab that sparked and spun in Frankenstein's lab (1931). Viewers can see the similarities between the two labs. Van Dorn's sparky things don't actually appear to DO anything. They just spark and whir and hum awesomely. Strickfaden would go on to provide more sparky things for Bride of Frankenstein ('35) and another sci-fi serial, The Lost City ('35)

Robot As Pre-Nuke -- Mechanical men had appeared in silent films, but Van Dorn's robot may be the first sci-fi robot of the Talkies era. The robot has an odd beak nose, and clanks and whirrs as he moves. His workings were presumed to be very mechanical. When Van Dorn works on him, viewers see rotating cams and push-rods inside the access panel. Stanley asks Van Dorn why he keeps inventing things that are so destructive (Destroyer Ray, Heat Ray, killer robot, etc.), Van Dorn says they have peaceful uses too. Even before the atomic age, we can see the roots of the nuclear dilemma. Nuclear energy might have peaceful uses, but it's destructive power is the unsolvable problem.

Mad Scientist -- Akin to H.G. Wells' invisible man, the huge advantage that Van Dorn's inventions bestow, shows the seeds of corruption. He easily imagines the power his gizmos have to dominate. When temporarily crazed by a glancing head wound, be becomes the stereotypic mad scientist, complete with maniacal laugh, and bent on revenge. Overall, Van Dorn is rather like Ian Flemming's "Q", but taking a more active role in the adventures.

Do No Harm -- Notable in TVS is the lack of actual violence. It gets threatened a lot, and the thugs fire their revolvers a lot, but no one is actually killed until the last of Chapter 12. Even then, it's the double-crossing Dorgan who is killed by the police, for shooting Barnett. Stanley, like many serial heros, doesn't use a gun, but relies on his wits and his fists. Even Van Dorn's powerful Destroyer Ray only manages to wither a couple of houseplants. There are many fist fights, but like childhood game fights, everyone comes away okay.

Bottom line? TVS is old fashioned movie serial fun. Several viewing sessions are better than one. Twelve episodes of 20 minutes each makes for four hours of viewing. The pace is brisk enough and the action plentiful enough, there's just a lot of it. The sci-fi gadgets and labs full of sparky things, are fun for fans of 30's sci-fi. Don't expect a deep or cerebral plot. This was matinee fodder for the youngsters.

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