FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: * psychological*
This obscure serial has two distinctions: it's the first sound serial by long-time serial-maker Universal Studios to make heavy use of SF-devices (credited in part to Ken Strickfadden, hence lots of zap-happy electrical arcs), and (2) it's the first feature effort by actor-turned-director Lew Landers, who would make his best-known film-- the Bela Lugosi/Boris Karloff horror-film THE RAVEN-- the very next year.
In addition, this outing reverses one of the more common tropes of the SF-tinged adventure-serial. From the silent years onward, it was standard for the heroes or heroines to be skilled but essentially ordinary human beings faced with mad geniuses who could conjure up assorted super-technological death-devices, as seen in the previous year's THE WHISPERING SHADOW.
VANISHING SHADOW starts with a common enough setup: young (but repetitively named) scientist Stanley Stanfield wishes to avenge the death of his father, brought about by corrupt businessman Barnett. But Stanley happens to make contact with an even more inventive scientist, Doctor Van Dorn, who also bears Barnett a grudge. Van Dorn happens to have a small arsenal of weapons that he'd been developing on his own, with a vaguely expressed idea of turning them over to the army for national defense. With Van Dorn's help Stanley begins using the weapons against Barnett and his gangster allies-- particularly the device that gives the serial its name, an "almost-invisibility belt." When anyone wears the belt, his body vanishes from sight but his shadow remains visible. In addition the sometimes mad-seeming scientist also cooks up a death-ray that destroys only living matter, various electrical traps and, in the very last episodes, a giant humanoid robot (seen above).
The narrative problem of this reversal soon becomes clear: with so many super-weapons against them, Barnett and his thugs seem overmatched-- so the scripters are forced to even the odds by allowing the hoods to get control of the weapons, or to have the weapons backfire on the heroes, etc.
Despite this weakness, VANISHING is never dull. Like many Universal directors of the time Landers keeps the action quotient high, while the actors are allowed to have a few moments of relatively strong characterization. Female lead Gloria is actually the estranged daughter of Barnett, but she's foresworn her father's name due to his criminal activities. She has some good melodramatic moments trying to persuade her father to go straight. She's also the one who asks Van Dorn why he, one of the "good guys," happens to making all these death-weapons.
To horror-fans familiar with Onslow Stevens' work in Universal's 1945 HOUSE OF DRACULA, it'll prove interesting to see him as a young serial-hero, for all that he's not especially dashing. James Durkin has the best role as the semi-mad scientist Van Dorn. The villains, unfortunately, are never interesting beyond Barnett's conflict with his daughter, and spend most of their time trying to steal some valuable bonds rather than appropriating Van Dorn's miracle weapons.