The Vanishing Shadow (1934)

The_Vanishing_Shadow_(1934)‘Professor, why do you use a brain, an intellect like yours, to make agencies of destruction..’

A young engineer teams up with an elderly scientist to fight an evil businessman and his criminal gang. The two invent a ‘Vanishing Ray’ which allows the user to become invisible, and the Professor has a number of other gadgets that prove useful, including a giant robot.

Early science-fiction movie serial from Universal Studios, that demonstrates the formula was still evolving and hadn’t reached its peak. There simply isn’t enough action here, the lack of the requisite number of punch ups being very noticeable. This does mean there’s a pleasing lack of recourse to the film library for old disaster footage, but the cliffhangers are often hopelessly contrived, and usually centre on the misuse of one of the Professor’s less than friendly inventions.

As per usual in movie serials, there’s a lot of running about, with both sets of protagonists desperately questing for the story’s main McGuffin. So what is it? A secret formula for a new mega weapon? An unknown element with a silly name that’s part of a meteorite? That crazy ray that will knock planes from the sky, and divert missiles? Umm…no. It’s a wad of paper. Actually, the hero’s shares in his late father’s newspaper. Evil businessman Walter Miller is desperate to obtain them as it’s the only publication that still opposes him and his nefarious schemes, whatever the hell they are! Because we never really find out. Yes, he has a gang of goons to do his bidding, yes, he caused the death of the hero’s father (how exactly?) but that’s about it, apart from a barge filled with bootleg liquor we see in one of the later chapters. He is a little conflicted about his actions, though, especially when they put his daughter (Ada lnce) in harm’s way. She’s a journalist on the newspaper, although she never seems to file a story.

Apart from using the ‘Vanishing Ray’ (which also allows his clothes to dematerialise and reappear), hero Onslow Stevens only has one other weapon at his fingertips, but it’s a vital one. The ability to find a parking space in front of whatever building he wants to visit. Always. It’s a biggie to be sure and, although demonstrated by many others since, no one seems to quite have it like he did. Actually, all these shenanigans were good practice for Stevens who went onto to try and cure John Carradine of his vampiric tendencies in ‘House of Dracula’ (1945).

The Vanishing Shadow (1934)

Remarkable robot, the Norwegian Blue, ain’t it? Beautiful plumage!

The most interesting aspect of the tale focuses on the elderly Professor Van Dorn (James Durkin). Although he’s apparently one of the good guys, all his solo inventions are nothing but weapons of mass destruction. Stevens even calls him on it at one point. These devices include a giant robot, which looks strangely like a cross between a boiler on legs and a giant parrot. His death ray seems more effective on houseplants than people, though, the City’s entire population of begonias being decimated by the end of Chapter 12. He may have invented some invulnerability formula too, as our heroic trio walk away from a terrible car smash down the side of a mountain with nothing more inconvenient than dusty clothing.

Making an appearance in the ‘we all have to start somewhere’ file is heavyweight actor Lee J. Cobb, unbilled as the leader of a road gang. As he shares a surname with another more heavily featured member of the cast (Edmund Cobb), this may have been a case of nepotism, although I can find no trace of a connection between the two. But, whatever the case, it was the beginning of a glittering career that included an Oscar nomination for ‘On The Waterfront’ (1954) and many other leading character parts in classics such as ‘12 Angry Men’ (1957) and ‘The Exorcist’ (1973).

Generally, this is a fairly unmemorable, if painless, experience. The robot is a hoot but only appears with any frequency in the last few chapters. The acting is considerably better than most of the serials of the time, particularly those produced in the independent sector, although that’s not saying a great deal. Director Lew Landers (billed under his real name of ‘Louis Friedlander’) will also be remembered as the man behind the megaphone on the immortal Lugosi-Karloff classic ‘The Raven’ (1935).

And, if nothing else, it’s always nice to see the hero bringing an aeroplane down with a handgun.


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