The Vanishing Shadow (1934) Blu-ray Review: What a Hoot

Before “Crash” Corrigan found an Undersea Kingdom (1936) or Buster Crabbe became Flash Gordon (1936) and even before Gene Autry faced The Phantom Empire (1935) Universal Pictures gave us The Vanishing Shadow (1934). A 12-part science-fiction serial directed by Lew Landers that stars Onslow Stevens, Ada Ince, and James Durkin. Filled with all kinds of high-tech gadgets like the “electronic key” (essentially a remote control), it can also claim to be the first on-screen appearance of a hand-held ray gun. Another first: this serial can boast of is that it’s the first movie that an uncredited Lee J. Cobb is in, as the foreman for a road crew. This historical gem, long considered lost, looks great in its Blu-ray debut thanks to the folks at VCI.  

Buy The Vanishing Shadow (1934) Blu-ray

Electric coils crackle, buzz, and pop all around as young inventor Stanley Stanfield (Stevens) brings his latest innovation, a wearable vanishing ray, to esteemed scientist Carl Van Dorn (Dunkin). Van Dorn, whose mad scientist vibes will come to fruition at the end, also has a vanishing ray he’s working on, and the two team up in hopes to perfect the device which still casts a shadow. To help fund their work, Stan decides to sell some bonds left to him by his deceased father. Trouble is, the man who hounded Stan’s father to death over those bonds, Wade Barnett, now has his crosshairs set on Stan and will stop at nothing to get those coveted papers. Fortunately for Stan, he runs into Barnett’s daughter, Gloria Grant (Ince), who happens to harbor a strong dislike for her father over the death of her mother and will gladly help Stan evade Barnett’s hired goons. For 12 thrilling, 20-minute chapters, we’ll watch as our heroes get tied up and escape (many times), jump from planes, crash in cars, escape deadly fires, avoid uncountable bullets, and get into just about a fist fight an episode. 

The Vanishing Shadow is four full hours of cliffhanger fun. All of the standard cliffhanger cliches are represented: there’s a plane crash, a parachute jump, someone locked in a vault, cars going over cliffs, ships being set ablaze, people tied up (numerous times), and explosions aplenty. And what sci-fi serial would be complete without all sorts of fancy futuristic weapons? Here we find a vanishing ray, a death ray, an electric torch, an electric key, and a clunking iron man/robot. This robot even lumbers around like another Universal creation that is just as tall, just as strong, and is whipped up by a mad scientist.  

I enjoyed The Vanishing Ray, especially the first few chapters and the last two or three as it draws to its thrilling close. It is a standard B type, silly serial that plods along at times and gets a little overly wordy with some cornball acting and clunky dialogue before the looping punches get thrown in the sped-up fight scenes. For the time, all these gadgets would be cutting edge, super high tech, wonderful stuff; it’s actually still wonderful fun stuff. The Vanishing Ray, with its more mature characters, seems like its target audience was older than the average serial crowd that would come later. Yes, there’s a scientist that goes temporarily mad and a robot that lurches about smashing through walls but it still doesn’t seem as kid oriented as Undersea Kingdom or Flash Gordon.    

I haven’t watched a full serial like this since I was a B Western-loving teenager and sat captivated by Robert Livingston as the Eagle in the Zorro knock off The Vigilantes Are Coming (1936). Now 30 (plus) years later, there I was fully immersed in the world of The Vanishing Ray. I laughed and said, “WTF,” many times as the sci-fi madness unfolded on screen and held my undivided attention as it went from chapter to stirring chapter.

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Joe Garcia III

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