When Street and Smith, a Depression era publisher of pulp fiction, decided to boost the sagging sales of its flagship Detective Story Magazine they took a flyer on radio, which was just coming into its own as a platform for dramas. David Chrisman of the Ruthrauff & Ryan advertising agency was hired to create a package that would frame stories from the magazine adapted by editor/publisher William Sweets. It was decided to have the stories introduced by a mysterious, nameless narrator. Several possibilities were tossed around until writer Harry Engman Charlot suggested the eerie and sinister sounding The Shadow.
Detective Story Hour premiered on Thursday July 31, 1930 on the CBS Radio network. It was the first interaction of an American cultural phenomenon which would go on to become one of the longest running an most popular radio dramas of all time, a long running series of twice-a-month pulp novel and spawn movie serials and features, comic books, and a TV series. The character of The Shadow would help inspire the superhero genre on in comic books, especially The BatMan and the Green Hornet on radio. The Hornet was depicted as the modern nephew of the Lone Ranger by as Detroit radio station desperate for a mystery program to match The Shadow.
But all of that was as yet in the future. The character and the radio show both had some growing and adapting to do.
In those early broadcasts, the eerie introduction that became famous was not yet in its full form. The Shadow did not yet have a secret identity and was not an active participant in the stories, just a kind of omnipresent observer to the unfolding yarn. But the narrator voiced by James LaCurto and later Frank Readick uttered the now familiar introduction “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows…”
Audiences were hooked from the beginning. Smith and Street were gratified by the success of the show, but somewhat stunned by the audience reaction to The Shadow. But being smart purveyors of popular culture, the company wasted no time in cashing in. On April 1, 1931 the company launched a new magazine, The Shadow, a quarterly which featured a complete novel in each issue plus additional detective short stories. The editors commissioned Walter B. Gibson, a prolific pulp writer and stage magician as the principal author of the novels which were published under the name Maxwell Grant.
Gibson fleshed out the character and invented the mythos surrounding him. The new book was such a sensation that within months it went from a four times a year schedule to twice a month—requiring the hyperactive writer to churn out 75,000 word stories every two weeks in addition to later contributing to the radio program, comic books, and a daily syndicated comic strip. Although eventually other writers were brought in to take up some of the slack, Gibson would go on to pen 282 of the 325 Shadow novels. And after the pulp magazine folded he went on to write three additional longer form novels under his own name in a new series issued by Belmont Books.
In the Gibson stories The Shadow’s secret identity was Kent Allard, a World War I air ace who flew for France and was known as the Black Eagle. After the war, Allard turned to the challenge in waging war on criminals. He faked his death in the South American jungles, then returned to the States. Back in New York City, he adopted numerous identities to conceal his existence, Lamont Cranston, a “wealthy young man about town,” being just one of them. Alard blackmailed the real playboy into allowing him to assume his identity while he traveled the world.
Assuming the identity of Cranston and others the Shadow pursued villains relentlessly by night employing the skills of a cat burglar, hypnotist, magician, and master of disguise to seemingly be anywhere. He would often torment the men—and occasional woman—he stalked them with ominous taunts from the darkness, often driving them to near insanity. In the end either The Shadow would cut the bad guy down in a blaze of gun fire or lead him into a police trap, or even have him killed by his own accomplices or victims. For most of the duration of the pulp series there was no hint that The Shadow possessed any supernatural powers.
Lurid covers with endangered beauties and oriental villains sold magazines.
The lurid pulp covers gripped readers with an unforgettable image of the anti-hero. He wore a large, wide brimmed black hat pulled low over his face revealing only intense staring eyes. Over an ordinary black business suit he wore a crimson lined black cape pulled up revealing only a hawk-like nose.
With the magazine launched, the company was still a little unsure how to use the character on the radio show. They even tried to employ him as the narrator for another short lived series based on a Smith and Street rag, Love Story Hour, which took over the original Thursday night slot. Detective Story Hour shifted to Sunday evenings. In September, 1931 the program acquired a commercial sponsor and was re-named the Blue Coal Radio Revue but it remained an hour long program with Frank Readick starring as The Shadow.
The following year the show and its sponsor jumped to NBC on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Readick remained the star, although LaCurto sometimes filled in. And the program was now officially what audiences had called it all along The Shadow.
As the radio dramas began to integrate the narrator into the story lines, some of them borrowed from and adapted from the novels for the sake of simplicity some elements of character as portrayed by Gibson were dropped or altered. First to go was any mention of Kent Allard or other assumed identities. The Shadow was Lamont Cranston. To avoid bringing the action to a screeching halt to explain in each episode how the Shadow seems to be everywhere, a key part of the novels, it was said simply that he “had the power to cloud men’s minds.” This was inferred to be a form of hypnotism mastered by The Shadow in the Orient. Later in the series it he seemed to have acquired a super power of invisibility.
Agness Morehead was The Shadow's accomplice on the radio show.
One of the most important differences between the books and the show was the introduction of a female accomplice, Margo Lane, who learns Cranston’s secret, becomes his companion, possible lover, and abets him in his crusade. The part was added to give a feminine voice to the series, and Lane sometimes stepped in as narrator explaining her part in the unfolding drama. Gibson was resentful of this change and refused for quite a while to include Lane in his novels, finally giving in to public pressure after 1940. In 1937 the program moved to the Mutual Network and Sunday nights where it became an institution. And with a new Shadow, youthful wiz kid Orson Welles and Agnes Morehead as Margo Lane the program took on the form that is most remembered, and which is still heard on old time radio programs and available in CD collections. Although the famous introduction and the closing sinister laugh were still provided by recording of Readick, Welles’s deep rich voice and nuanced performance built tension as never before.
Orson Welles became the most famous voice of The Shadow.
Welles only stayed with the show for two seasons, moving on to his own ambitious Mercury Theater of the Air and Hollywood, taking Morehead with him on both adventures, but his stamp remained on the program through the several other actors called upon to portray the mysterious crime fighter including Bill Johnstone (1938-1943), John Archer (1944-1945), and Bret Morrison (1943-1944, 1945-1954). Lane was portrayed by Morehead through 1940 then by Majorie Anderson (1940-1944), Grace Matthews (1946-1949), and Gertrude Warner (1949-1954).
Bret Morison and Marjorie Anderson were a '40's pairing as The Shadow and Margo Lane.
The show remained popular and Blue Coal remained the usual sponsor on the East Coast until replaced by the U.S. Army and Air Force, and later by Wildroot Cream Oil. After 1953 no regular single sponsor could be found and the program was sustained by the network with spot advertising. That was writing on the wall, listeners and advertisers were abandoning long form drama radio for the glamor of television. The Shadow aired its last original episode on December 26, 1954.
The Shadow also lived across multiple other media. There were several film versions, mostly by minor studios, beginning with a series of two reel shorts produced by Universal Pictures during the first flush of success on the radio in 1930-31. The first entry in the series, A Burglar to the Rescue, was filmed in New York City with the voice of The Shadow on radio, Frank Readick. Subsequent instalments were filmed cheaply in Hollywood with different actors. In 1937 and ’38 Rod La Rocque starred in two Grand National Pictures releases.
Victor Jory played The Shadow in a Columbia Pictures serial. Poverty Row B-movie studios churned out cheep bottom-of-the-Double feature films.
The Shadow was a 15 episode cliff hanging serial starring Victor Jory in probably the most memorable cinematic portrayal for Columbia in 1940. Poverty row Monogram Pictures, best known for their westerns, made three super-low budget entries in the post war years.
In the 1958 two pilot episodes of a failed TV series were slapped together and released to theaters as Invisible Avenger.
The character did not get a first class film presentation until 1994 when Alec Baldwin and Penelope Ann Miller appeared in The Shadow in what Universal Pictures hoped would be a blockbuster. The film feature John Lone as an Asian supervillain working to develop an atomic bomb, and a supporting cast of Peter Boyle, Jonathon Winters, Ian McKellan, and Tim Curry. Although the film made money, it was not warmly greeted by critics and failed to become a mega-hit.
The Shadow finally got a big budget production in 1994 when Alec Baldwin played the lead and Penelope Ann Miller played Margo Lane. It was supposed to set up a movie franchise for Universal Pictures, but failed to become a blockbuster.
The Shadow fared better in illustrated print. Walter Gibson participated in a daily strip drawn by Vernon Greene which ran for two years, 1940-42 and covered six adventures adapted from his novels until it was cancelled along with many other strips to preserve paper during the war years. The strips were assembled and released as two comic books.
Publishers Street and Smith published their own comic book series, Shadow Comics for 101 issues between 1940 and 1949 based on the magazine version of the hero. Archie Comics tried to cash in on the super hero craze in 1964 with a new series based on the radio show. In the second issue of an eight book arc, a blond Lamont Cranston and The Shadow was transformed into a muscular superhero in green and blue tights. Loyal Shadow fans were not amused and neither was the intended teen age audience.
Street and Smith issued the first comic book which ran for 101 issues through the 1940.s.
D.C. Comics produced four Shadow series—a 12-issue series (Nov. 1973 - Sept. 1975) drawing heavily on the atmosphere of the novels and the graphic content of their covers; a 1986 mini-series, Shadow: Blood and Judgment that brought the old hero to modern New York; and in 1987 a new a monthly series by writer Andy Helfer and drawn primarily by artists Bill Sienkiewicz and Kyle Baker continuing the modern universe of the mini-series. During this period The Shadow also made cross appearances in other DC Comics, particularly Detective Comics where Batman acknowledges the now elderly Shadow as his inspiration and we learn that the character had once saved the lives of Bruce Wayne’s parents.
At DC Comics The Shadow had his own book and showed up with the company's superheroes, notably Batman in other books.
From 1989 to 1992, DC published a new Shadow series, The Shadow Strikes, written by Gerard Jones and Eduardo Barreto set in the ‘30s and returning The Shadow to his pulp origins.
Marvel Comics also had a crack at The Shadow with a graphic novel, The Shadow 1941: Hitler’s Astrologer by writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Michael Kaluta who had worked together on D.C.’s first series.
Dark Horse Comics acquired the rights to The Shadow and published the mini-series In The Coils of Leviathan in 1993, Hell’s Heat Wave, and The Shadow and Doc Savage both in 1995 as well as two single issue specials.
In 2012 Dynamite Entertainment began yet another new series written by Garth Ennis and illustrated by Aaron Campbell and a mini-series Masks, teaming the 1930 era Shadow with the Spider, The Green Hornet and Kato, and a 1930s version of Zorro.
It seems that after all of these years pop culture fans still can’t get enough of The Shadow.