“The Whispering Shadow”
When I was in my teens during the “Batman” phenomena of the mid ‘60s—which also spawned an interest in the so-called campish aspects of old films, serials included—a local Bay Area TV station aired a live Sunday afternoon show called “POW”, a video crazy-quilt of interviews, short subjects, music and skits, which was the brainchild of a guy named Rolfe Peterson who also hosted it. During the short run of “POW”, Peterson, in keeping with the show’s campy style, aired several serials including “Phantom Empire”starring Gene Autry and “Whispering Shadow” with Bela Lugosi, neither of which I had ever seen. At that time, with a few exceptions such as Universal’s “Flash Gordon” chapterplays, I was really only familiar with the sleek, beautifully crafted Republic product which made watching Mascot’s “Whispering Shadow” a rather difficult and taxing experience. It seemed so primitive compared to efforts like “Adventures of Captain Marvel” and “Crimson Ghost”. The action sequences appeared awkward and poorly choreographed with the acting stiff and labored, actually comical on occasion. Even for a kid who grew up watching and loving classic movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s, this was still pretty rough going.
Initially, the big allure of this serial was its star, Bela Lugosi, who’d thrilled and terrified me in “Dracula”. When “Whispering Shadow” was made, Lugosi, who plays the ultra suspicious owner of “The House of Mystery”, a wax museum (the displays are obviously real actors), was freelancing, not always making the wisest career choices, and this cliffhanger could certainly be placed in that category.
Nat Levine produced while Albert Herman and co-scripter Colbert Clark directed. It could hardly be considered the high-water mark of any of their careers. It also took five screenwriters to create the tangled plot, often seeming as if they weren’t consulting each other during the project. The intricately plotted storyline has the title character— who can scientifically project his voice and shadowy shape anywhere he likes as well as destroying his enemies with an exploding radio ray—plotting throughout 12 rather convoluted chapters against various other suspicious personalities in his search for the valuable Imperial Jewels of the Czar. Added to the mix are a wax museum, a lot of futuristic scientific gizmos and some fairly predictable cliffhangers. This is a serial where there are almost too many red herrings to keep track of. Hardly a character can be found who doesn’t occasionally appear guilty, sinister and a possible candidate for the true identity of the Whispering Shadow.
To say that most of the cast, which includes Henry B. Walthall, Viva Tattersall, Karl Dane, Malcolm McGregor, Lafe McKee, Lloyd Whitlock, Jack Perrin, Bob Kortman, Roy D’Arcy, Tom London, William Desmond and a very young George J. Lewis (killed in Ch. 1), either chew the scenery or look terribly uncomfortable in their roles would be a understatement of mammoth proportions. In fact, this is one of the rare instances when Lugosi—no slouch in occasionally overacting himself—is actually eclipsed by the over-ripe performances of some of his co-stars, particularly D’arcy as Steinbeck who doesn’t miss an opportunity to leer, grimace and skulk about. The only actor who manages to conduct himself with a degree of restraint and measured solidness is the fine character actor Robert Warwick as intrepid criminologist Robert Raymond.
If “Whispering Shadow” was tough going for me 35 years ago, it was nearly impossible—as well as mildly torturous—to sit through recently. The unintentional laughs are not frequent enough to have fun with and the thing creaks louder than a mummy’s coffin lid. In keeping with producer Levine’s legendary thriftiness, the special effects are cheaply devised and look like events I constructed in my own backyard with my Erector Set. There is an overabundance of flashback recap scenes(Ch. 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 12), and the lack of a musical score only made many stretches of inaction more labored, plodding and tedious. Directors Herman and Clark have no sense of pacing and there is a rushed and amateurish feel about the whole thing, although it isn’t rushed half enough for my tastes.
The Principals in "The Whispering Shadow"
Wax museum operator Professor Strang: Bela Lugosi (1882-1956) worked in films from 1917-1956). This was Lugosi’s first serial after scoring big in “Dracula” (‘31). He’s also Dr. Frank Chandler aka Master Magician Chandu in Principal’s “Return of Chandu” (‘34), demented genius Victor Poten in “Shadow of Chinatown” (‘36 Victory), the evil Boroff in Republic’s “S.O.S. Coastguard” (‘37) and the determined-to-rule-the-world Dr. Alex Zorka in “The Phantom Creeps” (‘39 Universal).
Empire Transport Co. traffic manager Jack Foster: Malcolm McGregor (1892-1945) worked in films from 1922-1936. His only other serial was a lesser role as Zogg in Republic’s “Undersea Kingdom”(‘36), his last filmwork.
Professor Strang's daughter Vera: Viva Tattersall (1910-1989). Born in Wales, U.K, she only worked in films from 1932-1936. She had a small role in Ch. 1 of “Call of the Savage” (‘35 Universal).
Detective Robert Raymond: Robert Warwick (1878-1964) was in over 250 films from 1914-1962. He has a small role as Col. Brent in “Three Musketeers” (‘33 Mascot), as Indian Dark Eagle in “Fighting with Kit Carson” (‘33 Mascot), Col. Bennett in “Fighting Marines” (‘35 Mascot), airline commissioner Winston in “Ace Drummond” (‘36 Universal), czarist agent Raspinoff in “The Vigilantes Are Coming” (‘36 Republic) and a lesser role as MacLeod in “Jungle Menace” (‘37 Columbia).
Empire Transport President Bradley: Henry B. Walthall (1878-1936) worked in nearly 400 films from 1908-1936. His only sound serial was as Frankie Darro’s uncle in “Wolf Dog” (‘33 Mascot).
Jerome, a V.P. at Empire Transport: Lafe McKee (1872-1959) was seen in over 400 films from 1912-1948, especially westerns and some 14 sound srials (and four silent chapterplays). Usually cast in supporting roles, he is revealed to be the mysterious voice, Hornbeck, in “Vanishing Legion” (‘31 Mascot) and had prominent roles as leading citizen John Hayden suspected of robbery in “Lightning Warrior” (‘31 Mascot), Stephen Gray, owner of Gray Construction Company in “Mystery Squadron” (‘33 Mascot) and as Kali, high priest of the Temple of Mu in “Queen of the Jungle” (‘35 Screen Attractions).
Steinbeck, communications director of Empire Transport: Roy D’Arcy (1894-1969) appeared in films from 1925-1939. His only other serial was a lesser role in “Shadow of the Eagle” (‘32 Mascot).
Jewel thief Jasper Slade: Bob Kortman (1887-1967) was seen in almost 300 films from 1914 to 1958, including 17 serials. Although always playing vicious henchmen, Kortman is best remembered for is roles as Huron Chief Magua in “Last of the Mohicans” (‘32 Mascot), traitorous Ravenhead warrior Longboat in “Miracle Rider” (‘35 Mascot), Russian Cossack Petroff in “The Vigilantes Are Coming” (‘36 Republic), Johnny Mack Brown's pal Trigger Benton in Universal's “Wild West Days” (‘37) and as the black-eye-patched One Eye in “The Adventures of Red Ryder” (‘40 Republic).
Sparks, the radio man: Karl Dane (1886-1934). This was the end of the line for the Danish born onetime silent star who entered films in 1918.
Henchman Young: Lloyd Whitlock (1891-1966) with some 200 films to his credit from 1916-1949, Whitlock worked in one silent serial and seven sound serials. He was suspected of being The Wrecker in “Hurricane Express” and of being The Eagle in “Shadow of the Eagle” (both ‘32 Mascot).
Okay, not all the serials are great. Even the weakest, though, usually have some enjoyable moments. So let’s discuss guilty pleasures. Just for fun, I ran “Queen of the Jungle” (‘35 Screen Attractions) again, and had a very good time. That’s the only way to watch it. If you take it a bit seriously, you just sit there and groan.
Most of the action is obviously lifted from the silent “Jungle Goddess” (‘22) (“The Lost City” in ‘35 used scenes from that source, too), but it is spectacular. They spent money on serials in those days. The “Queen of the Jungle” producers also spent money to match the silent footage. There are elaborate new sets, many costumed players, some added fights and sometimes, the match-up wasn’t easy. Elinor Field appeared in different costumes throughout “Jungle Goddess”. In an inspired bit of improvisation, the “Queen” writer (J. Griffin Jay) had Joan (Mary Kornman) and David (Reed Howes) row ashore from a ship overrun by wild animals. David had salvaged a duffel bag. It didn’t contain weapons or provisions, but something far more important: a change of clothes to agree with stock footage in Joan’s next scenes. Reed Howes fits the stock shots of Truman Van Dyke and lovely Mary Kornman looks a lot like Elinor Field. Lafe McKee has it easy; he appears in the same role in both serials. However, dialogue (sometimes added to the silent footage) is less than inspired.
We first see Reed Howes enroute to Mary’s home with George Chesebro. We’re not supposed to notice they’re watching animals on the open plains from deep in the overgrown jungle. Howes wipes away sweat, swats a mosquito, and proclaims, “Gee, Ken, it’s certainly great to be back in the jungle, again.” After he and Chesebro are quickly killed off, Howes is resurrected in another role, but Chesebro never reappears.
During lulls in the action, Howes keeps trying to teach Mary English, with lines much like the “Me…Tarzan…You…Jane” of those other movies. He usually gives up, saying, “Oh, skip it.”
The main story line has Howes, as David Worth, trying to return Joan Lawrence (Mary Kornman), now worshipped as the White Priestess Queen of the Jungle, to her parents. The high priest of Mu seeks radium for some reason, and there is even mention of the burial ground of the elephants. Joan’s father, driven mad by the loss of his wife and daughter (that’s Mary Kornman twice!) is now galloping about as a masked rider on (what else?) a masked horse. Aided by friendly Arabs (also seeking the radium) and a Leopard Woman, they escape the jungle. The sight of his daughter restores John Lawrence to his senses. Safe at last, Joan speaks her first sentence in English: “Oh, skip it.” Don’t try to make sense of it, but, hey, I had a good time through all 12 chapters. That will have to do, unless “Jungle Goddess” surfaces.
Pierce Lyden wrote in his book, THOSE SATURDAY SERIALS, “Serials were a very satisfying period during the 14 and a half years with (Sam) Katzman productions, a subsidiary of Columbia. Not only from a financial point of view. They were all different, not all the same type western, not all sea or Tarzan type. Some were far out science fiction, Buck Rogers, Superman, etc. The end of each episode was different and it was always fun to see how they developed and how they were going to leave the star hanging at the end of this one. They were fun because there was never a dull moment during the six or seven weeks. Always plenty of action and many times there were dangerous and close calls. Like once on ‘Pirates of the High Seas’ with Buster Crabbe they threw five or six of us baddies overboard from the ship we were trying to capture. We were supposed to swim toward shore, the camera would cut and a motorboat would come out and pick us up—only the guy couldn’t get it started and we had to swim for shore. The ocean was cold as ice! I’m not a long distance swimmer and never could have made it except for the help of Rusty Wescoatt and another stuntman, Solly.”
“Playing a pirate one other time and stripped to the waist, a guy in back of me tripped and fell, shooting off his gun with 12 gauge shot wadding going into my back. That hurts and can be poisonous, you know! That’s what made them interesting or different, and worthwhile. Hard work, long hours and action!”
“‘Roar of the Iron Horse’ was the second serial with Jocko Mahoney. It was made mainly in Carson City, NV, in early ‘51. It was a hard working, rough job almost every day, at least for me. Myron Healey fell off his horse and went to the hospital. So the next day, when it was unknown when he would be back, they blended his part with—who else? Mine. I was changing makeup, wardrobe, horses, playing an Indian, a cowboy, and memorizing dialogue in between times, until I didn’t have time to sleep. There were days when I was up all day long, riding western saddle, bareback or with a blanket over one of the hard wooden army saddles. I had blisters you wouldn’t believe, and, to add insult to injury, in a chase the horse ahead of me picked up a stone that cut through my trousers, tearing my knee open and filled my boot with blood! So it was a serial to remember, but it was great fun! A great location! And never a dull moment (as usual) around Jocko. There was an excellent serial cast again and again to work with. William Fawcett, Rusty Wescoatt, Frank Ellis, Dick Curtis, Hugh Prosser, Bud Osborne, Rick Vallin, and my good friend Jack Ingram, who had a great time every night (as did many others) at the crap tables, even if they did leave most of their salary there. It was all capped off by leaving in a chartered, rejected plane from World War II in a snow storm! The plane had been gutted so we sat on the floor. The roughest plane ride I’ve ever had. We were coming in and were fogged in at Burbank. After several circles around the field, the pilot said, ‘I’ve found a hole, I think,’ and he went down. You have never seen so many cowboys pile out and kiss the ground.”
Pierce Lyden’s numerous film credits include a total of 22 serials, which spanned from “The Green Hornet” in ‘40 through the final serial in ‘56, Columbia’s “Blazing the Overland Trail”.