Wednesday, February 6, 2013


Most fans of pulp magazines, comic books, serial adventures and radio know who the Shadow is. The vengeful vigilante with the black cloak and hat and the red scarf to hide all features except for the hawk nose and piercing eyes that was as much a trademark for fans of his pulp adventures as his maniacal laugh was for fans of his radio adventures. Introduced each week to the sound of Camille Saint-Saens “Le Rouet d'Omphale”, the Shadow was a mysterious figure who sought to wipe out crime with the help of his underground cabal of agents who did his bidding. When the Shadow first debuted, he was simply an eerie voice who introduced radio show mysteries that were part of the “Detective Story Hour”, a radio show that spun off from a popular pulp magazine called “Detective Story Magazine.” This early narrator version of The Shadow debuted on July 31, 1930. In less than a year, the “Shadow” became the main star of the show he introduced. On April 1, 1931, The Shadow got his own pulp magazine with stories written by Walter Gibson aka Maxwell Grant. Of course it didn’t’ take long for the imitators to follow. Soon came The Spider, The Avenger, Green Hornet, The Black Bat and many others, all of whom were the forefathers of the comic book hero.
 Frank Readick Jr. is the early voice of The Shadow
Right around the same time that The Shadow was making his debut in pulp magazines as the more fully realized interpretation we know today, there was another mystery writer in the UK who was just as prolific as Walter Gibson. His name was George Goodchild(1888-1969) aka Alan Dare aka Wallace Reid aka Jesse Templeton. Goodchild created a character called “The Reckoner” in a novel called The Splendid Crime renamed “The Public Defender” for its US release. The Reckoner had a lot in common with The Shadow and with a character whose creation the Shadow inspired--Batman. The Reckoner used agents with specific talents to help him in his campaign against crime as did The Shadow. The Reckoner‘s alter ego was a millionaire playboy, just like Bruce Wayne. While The Reckoner didn’t have a trademark laugh to send chills down the spines of his victims, he did have a calling card with a picture of the scales of justice along with the words “See You Next Week” which let his victims know that he would come calling on them again to dispense justice. He also had some cool gadgets such as an exploding wallet.

Shirley Grey and Richard Dix in The Public Defender
The Shadow and the Reckoner were created an ocean apart and too close together in time for one to be an imitation of the other. Gibson and Goodchild both were prolific mystery writers in the early 30s and Goodchild had created several detective heroes prior to the Reckoner. What made The Reckoner interesting and perhaps even relevant today was that he went after corrupt financiers and bankers with the style of a modern day Robin Hood. The Reckoner was an identity created by millionaire playboy Pike Winslow who wanted to get revenge against and bring to justice a group of corrupt bank executives who framed an innocent man for their crimes. That innocent man just happened to have a daughter that Winslow Pike loved. In the movie adaptation of “The Public Defender”, Winslow is played by Richard Dix. Helping Winslow in his efforts to bring down the corrupt bankers are “The Professor” played by Boris Karloff. The Professor is the “talent”, the guy who does the research and gets all the info that Winslow needs to bring down the bankers. The Professor is Winslow’s “Alfred.” Then there’s Winslow’s other partner Doc played by Paul Hurst. Doc is a dead ringer for Shadow sidekick and cab driver Moe “Shreevy” Shrevnitz. Doc is the “muscle”. He helps run interference so that boss Winslow can skip over the flunkies on his way to the top dog. Doc is Winslow’s Robin.

Irene Dunne and Richard Dix in the Oscar winning "Cimarron"
Over the course of the film, the main villain turns the tables on The Reckoner, framing the vigilante for murder. Unfortunately for Winslow, his unsuspecting friend Inspector O’Neil is quickly closing in on the real identity of The Reckoner. This movie starts out kind of slow and I almost gave up on it as just another mediocre early 30s melodrama. But then we find out that Dix is a kick ass, Robin Hood Shadow hybrid of a vigilante who has Boris Karloff as a sidekick! How could I not watch that? I was glad I stuck with this fun little pulp movie adaptation. I liked seeing Karloff as a hero (albeit a devious looking one) and I enjoyed the similarities to other pulp heroes who were just a year or so away from being created. Dix’s foray into the world of pulp didn’t end with The Reckoner. He would go on to star in The Whistler film series. The Whistler owed much to the Shadow’s early roots. Like the early version of the Shadow, the Whistler was a mysterious figure who narrated stories of criminals who learned the hard way that crime did not pay. But instead of a maniacal laugh, the Whistler…um…whistled.

Richard Dix loses his mind in Val Lewton's The Ghost Ship(1943)
1931 was a good year for Richard Dix. He was nominated for a best actor Oscar for his performance in the film adaptation of Edna Ferber’s Cimarron. Cimarron won a then record 7 nominations and won three for production, writing adaptation and art direction. Richard Dix is an interesting actor to watch and over time I have become a fan. You might not “get” Richard Dix if you only watch one or two of his films. He’s an acquired taste and often comes off as kind of wooden. But he has given some rather complex and poignant performances over the course of his far too short career. If you really want to see why I’m a fan of Richard Dix, take a look at his transformation from conscientious objector to bloodthirsty killer in the WW1 film Ace Of Aces(1933). Watch his frightening performance as the homicidal ships captain who slowly goes insane in The Ghost Ship(1943) or watch him in It Happened In Hollywood(1937) as the kind hearted cowboy turned Hollywood silent star whose loses it all with the onset of talkies, struggling to keep his integrity and be worthy of the adoration of his young fans even as he entertains the idea of a life of crime. Turner Classic Movies shows the occasional obscure Richard Dix film now and then. Check out his films if you get the chance. He might just grow on you.        

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