May 6, 2021
Orson Welles was already a celebrated theatrical producer, director, and star by the late 1930s. He financed his productions in part from his earnings as a radio character actor. But he became a household name when he stepped into the spotlight - or, to be more precise into the shadows when he was cast as Lamont Cranston, known to the underworld as The Shadow. The success of the series boosted Welles' popularity outside of the world of Broadway, and it helped to launch him into his own radio broadcast (The Mercury Theatre On the Air).
Welles starred as the Shadow for two seasons - one sponsored by Blue Coal from the fall of 1937 until the spring of 1938, and the second syndicated by Goodrich Tires through that summer. For many of those episodes, Welles was joined by actors he'd work with in the theatre and would go on to work with on screen, particularly Agnes Moorehead (as "the lovely Margot Lane") and Ray Collins (as Commissioner Weston, the Shadow's uneasy ally in the police department). Welles left the role after this stint, but despite his short run he may be the actor most associated with the role today.
In later years, The Shadow would evolve (or devolve, depending on your point of view) into more of a traditional detective series where the hero could turn himself invisible. The Welles broadcasts featured complex plots and a Shadow who could not only "cloud men's minds so they cannot see him." This Shadow could manipulate perception, create hallucinations, and he had no compunction about sending villains to their deaths.
In honor of Orson Welles' birthday, here are ten of my favorite episodes from his run as radio's invisible avenger.
The Temple Bells of Neban - Lamont Cranston receives a blast from the past as he investigates a drug ring running rampant in the city. A touring performer was a young girl in the temple where he learned how to cloud men's minds. Not only does she know his secret identity; she has powers of her own, and she wants the Shadow out of the way so she can enjoy the profits of her deadly drug trade. (October 24, 1937)
Circle of Death - A mad bomber stalks the city, detonating explosives in the middle of crowded areas with no trace of how the bombs are delivered. As panic sweeps through town and Commissioner Weston faces pressure to resign, the Shadow sets a daring trap to identify the madman and end his wave of terror. (11/28/37)
The Death Triangle - This one opens on Devil's Island as a whipped prisoner promises revenge on the men who betrayed his attempt to escape. Years later, a celebrated child surgeon (and former political prisoner of the island) has been targeted for death, and he asks the Shadow to save him from a long-simmering vengeance. (12/12/37)
The Poison Death - People all over the city - old and young alike - are succumbing to mysterious poisonings. The police are baffled, and they're shocked when a note signed by the Shadow claims responsibility for the attacks. Lamont and Margot not only have to save the city from a deranged killer; they also need to clear the Shadow's name. (1/30/38)
The Phantom Voice - The Shadow comes to the aid of an upstanding public servant on trial for accepting a bribe. The senator's fate seems certain when filmed evidence is played in court, but Lamont is unconvinced. He's sure a political fixer is behind it, and he discovers the clever plot set up to bring down an innocent man. (2/6/38)
The Silent Avenger - This episode is surprising not only for its subject matter, but for the compassionate view it takes of the people involved. A killer is sentenced to die in the electric chair, and he enlists the aid of his brother - a World War I veteran sniper suffering debilitating PTSD ("shell shock") - to take vengeance on the jury that convicted him. The ace marksman carries out his brother's wishes as the Shadow races to stop him and hopefully get the man the help he desperately needs. (3/13/38)
The White Legion - Orson Welles and co-star Agnes Moorehead make appearances out of character at the end of this episode - the finale of the first season sponsored by Blue Coal. Before we meet the people behind the Shadow and Margot Lane, there's a story of a political mob resorting to kidnapping and murder to advance their agenda in City Hall. (3/20/38)
The Hypnotized Audience - To save his brother from a date with the electric chair, a celebrated dancer hypnotizes a theater of VIPs and abducts the governor. Only Lamont is immune from the effects of the mesmeric trance, and now it's up to the Shadow to save the governor before midnight. This episode and the next two on the list come from the syndicated summer season sponsored by Goodrich Tires. Most of the cast returned, but Agnes Moorehead was replaced by Margot Stevenson - the actress who inspired the name of the Shadow's friend and companion.
Tenor with a Broken Voice - Lamont and Margot investigate a series of fatal "accidents" plaguing an opera house whenever Pagliacci is sung. Is anyone who steps onto the stage doomed, or will the Shadow uncover the secret and save the day?
Murders in Wax - The capture of a notorious criminal is memorialized in wax at a city museum, but a killer is replacing the figures with the corpses of their real-life counterparts one by one. Commissioner Weston is slated as the next victim if the Shadow can't find the ghoulish murderer.