S …is for

The Shielding Shadow


Many of the conventions that have become commonplace in modern films and television programs hark back to early serials; and the “cloak” or “mantle” of invisibility is no exception. It is, in fact, the recurring motif in The Shielding Shadow (1916), a fifteen-part serial produced by Astra and distributed by the Pathé Exchange. An American/French collaboration, it was directed by cinema pioneer, the French-American film director, producer, screenwriter, and former stage actor Louis J. Gasnier, and American actor and director Donald MacKenzie. Gasnier and MacKenzie had first worked together in 1914 on The Perils of Pauline, the landmark serial starring Pearl White that had elevated the reputation of both men in the industry. After Perils’ release, Gasnier became vice-president at the American division of Pathé, a position he later resigned to establish Astra Films with George B. Seitz (though notably, even at Astra, Gasnier continued to distribute his films through Pathé). After Seitz’s departure, Astra Films became Louis J. Gasnier Productions, but the company produced only a handful of films before Gasnier was contracted to Budd Schulberg’s Preferred Pictures (and later Paramount), where his name was often featured above the title. MacKenzie’s star rose as well, though definitely not as high as Gasnier’s. He went on to direct several more serials, including The Carter Case, and to act, mostly in minor roles, into the early 1930s.

Based on a scenario by George Seitz (later novelized by Randall Parrish), The Shielding Shadow was directly inspired by another silent movie serial, Judex (1916), produced by Pathé’s competitor, the French film company Gaumont. The release of Judex (whose first episode was entitled “The Mysterious Shadow”) had been delayed because of World War One, so The Shielding Shadow arrived on American screens first. (The opposite was true in France, where The Shielding Shadow—known by its other title, Ravengar—appeared after Judex.) Both films are thought to have inspired the popular character of “The Shadow.”


Grace Darmond as the pretty heroine Leontine.

Starring as the heroine Leontine Walcott was Grace Darmond, a Canadian-born actress who had found early stardom at Vitagraph but whose career soon faded. By the late 1910s and early 1920s, in fact, her appearances were limited to unmemorable low-budget, independently-produced serials. Starring opposite Darmond as Jerry Carson was French actor (and later director) Léon Bary, best known for his role as Athos in The Three Musketeers (1921) and other Hollywood period dramas in the 1920s. Although it lacked big-name stars, The Shielding Shadow excited audiences with its suspenseful action, elaborate settings, and sensational scenes. The plot had a number of interesting (albeit somewhat confusing) twists: Leontine is the object of the affections of two men, Spanish adventurer Sebastian Navarro (Bary) and impoverished writer Jerry Carson (Ralph Kellard).

Among the strangest hazards in the serial is a giant octopus.


After his ship is wrecked, Jerry crawls across the ocean floor, where he must battle for his life with a giant octopus. Upon reaching shore, he finds a bottle containing notes written by a scientist, which direct him to the location of an amazing treasure that affords unusual powers of invisibility. Meanwhile, Sebastian commits a murder and frames Jerry, who is convicted of the crime but later escapes the prison ship where he is being held. Believing Jerry to be dead, Leontine marries Sebastian in order to save her father from financial ruin, but she vows to be his wife in name only. When Sebastian tries to force himself on her, he is confronted by a mysterious shadow with burning eyes and ghostly white hands, who speaks to Leontine and urges her to remain true to Jerry.


Over the remaining episodes, the “Shielding Shadow” routinely frustrates Sebastian’s evil plans, seeks the confession that will clear Jerry’s name, and repeatedly come to Leontine’s rescue whenever she finds herself in danger. Particularly after the introduction of a new character, a “Mysterious Stranger” named Ravengar (who is later revealed to be Jerry), the battle for possession of the “powers”—which include a box of magical black pellets and a mantle that confers invisibility upon its wearer—grows even more intense. Those coveted items pass through many hands, including those of Sebastian, “One Lamp Louie,” criminal queen Bianca, and other underworld denizens like Whitey Wang. Ultimately, Leontine learns that her protector is actually Jerry, who has used the secret of invisibility to serve as her “Shielding Shadow.” As one reviewer noted, the serial’s suspense “fully vindicates its reason for being.”


Pathé apparently had such confidence in the serial that it doubled prices and justified the jump in several ways: the money expended on the scenario, the cost of the production itself, and the massive advertising campaign to promote it. As Ed Hulse observed, the jump came as quite a shock to exhibitors, who had long looked to Pathé as having the most reasonable rates of any major distributor. But the serial “generated a record number of bookings and lived up to its ballyhoo. Complaints were few in number.”

The serial was replete with exciting devices, including a skeleton on a ledge, a hot-air balloon that explodes and drops into the sea, and a floating coffin. But the most striking and intriguing device was, of course, the invisibility cloak, which became central to later films such as Invisible Man (1933) and which remains popular even in modern films such as Wonder Woman, Marvel’s The Avengers, and the Harry Potter film franchise. As ads for “The Wonder Serial” The Shielding Shadow insisted: “The tens of millions who speculated as to the identity of the LAUGHING MASK in Pathé’s ‘Iron Claw’ serial will be vastly more at sea” in trying to solve the mysteries of the “Shadow” serial.

A poster for the “box office attraction,” The Shielding Shadow.



Survival Status: According to Treasures from the Film Archive, only a few chapters—4, 10, 11, 14, 15—survive.

Director: Louis J. Gasnier, Donald MacKenzie

Release Date: October 1, 1916

Release Company: Astra Film Corporation, distributed by Pathé Exchange, Incorporated

Cast: Grace Darmond (Leontine), Ralph Kellard (Jerry Carson, also known as Ravengar), Léon Bary (Sebastian Navarro), Madlaine Traverse (Barbara), Lionel Braham (The Bouncer), Frankie Mann (Cabaret Singer), Leslie King (“One Lump” Louie), Hallen Mostyn, Madeline Francine.

Episodes: (two reels each) 1. The Treasure Trove. 2. Into the Depths. 3. The Mystic Defender. 4. The Earthquake. 5. Through Bolted Doors. 6. The Disappearing Shadow. 7. The Awakening. 8. The Haunting Hand. 9. The Incorrigible Captive. 10. The Vanishing Mantle. 11. The Great Sacrifice. 12. The Stolen Shadow. 13. The Hidden Menace. 14. Absolute Black. 15. The Final Chapter.