Monday, November 10, 2008

The Shadow of the radio

Last week I wrote about Walter B. Gibson, the man who virtually created the Shadow back in 1931. But the character and the mythos he carefully built up over his 280+ novels in Street and Smith's "Shadow Detective Magazine" were largely ignored by the Shadow's radio program.

When most people are asked about the Shadow, they can usually remember the quote "The Shadow Knows," if nothing else. For the most part, it's the radio version of the Shadow that people remember. And that quote is part of the show's opening:

"The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. The Shadow knows!"

The origin and premise are kept pretty simple, as befitting a half hour program. The Shadow is the alter-ego of Lamont Cranston, a wealthy man-about-town, and his power is simply one of hypnosis. He can "cloud men's minds" so that he seems invisible. His only assistant is Margo Lane, who serves as a somewhat love interest/person to rescue.

While the Shadow of the pulps is presented as a serious, somber and mysterious character, the radio's version seems anything but. Listen to this scene where Lamont and Margo discuss the chess club that Lamont's a member of.

The Chess Club Murders, scene 1

The carefree manner of Cranston and the easy banter suggest a crimefighter closer to the Saint than to single-minded avenger of justice.

There's a significant change occurs when Cranston becomes the Shadow (and starts speaking through a tube to distort his voice). Here's a pivotal scene where he confronts one of the suspects in the chess club murders.

The change in tone give the radio drama an interesting dynamic, and overall the Shadow's radio program presented a solid half-hour of entertainment.

When the Shadow started out in 1930, he was the host of "The Detective Story Hour," an anthology radio program that dramatized stories published in Street and Smith pulps. In 1932, the Shadow had his own show (but still just as a narrator), and the Shadow Detective Magazine was gaining readership at a tremendous pace. Finally, in 1937, the Shadow became the hero of the radio program.

Walter B. Gibson co-wrote many of the scripts, and a young Orson Welles voiced the Shadow, along with Agnes Moorehead (later to play Endora on "Bewitched") as Margo Lane. Through cast changes and a World War, the Shadow radio show remained popular. Eventually, like many other radio programs, it fell victim to the new technology television, ending its 21-year run in late 1954.

And while I still prefer the Shadow of the pulps, there's something about the radio Shadow that I like very much. What exactly is that quality?

The Shadow knows.

- Ralph

Day 143 of the WJMA Web Watch.

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