I do love me some movie serials. Currently I own four, but I would like to both own more and do reviews of them. (I would do them in video form, but I would either like to do it from an actual movie theater or do something with a storyline in homage. My budget allows for neither.)
The Adventures of Captain Marvel is my favorite movie serial, so much so that even though I already owned the VHS I wanted to get this on DVD. Not just because I’m trying to clean some space on my movie shelves by replacing the tapes with the less-room-taking DVDs, because I’m planning to keep this tape, but because I wanted to make sure I had a way to watch this.
For the uniformed who didn’t click the Wikipedia link up there, movie serials come from the days where there were no televisions. Comics were still around, and you could listen to your favorite characters on audio dramas, but every Saturday kids could head down to their local theater to catch their favorite characters, and a few originals, in multi-part stories of good versus evil. It’s an experience that my generation never really had, since unless you went over your friend’s house to do something other than play Atari 2600 or get kicked outside by your friend’s parents so they could watch their own shows or get at that Donkey Kong you could “enjoy the fresh air and sunlight”, you never came close to knowing.
Nowadays you can watch something like Lost and discuss what happened over the water cooler the next day, or just wait and ruin the experience by watching all the DVD’s in a big marathon. Or you can wait until the Internet is hosting them somewhere because you can’t fathom waiting a week for the next chapter. Because you’re a bunch of wussies. (I changed a letter to fit the usual BW protocols. Guess which one.) I used to catch Matinee at the Bijou on PBS and that (plus some airing on my local Cable Access channel) is how I fell in love with them. My favorite animated series, Filmation’s Flash Gordon was also done in this style and they did two other shows in the serial format that I loved as a kid, Jason of Star Command and a segment on their version of Mighty Mouse called “The Great Space Chase“.
Someday I’ll get into serials as a whole and why I like them, but for this transfer from my “Scanning My Collection” article series (which usually goes into comics but I also go through my videos) we take a look at this one specifically, and see why I like it so much.
Totally need to design a logo if I’m making this a separate article series.Tom Tyler, Frank Coghlan, Jr, Louise Currie, William Benedict, and others SHOW TYPE: 12-part movie serial DISTRIBUTOR: (originally) Republic Pictures (this collection) Artisan (VHS version) Republic Home Video
This calls on the question of why Republic didn’t release the DVD as well, and I think they were both released at the same time. I picked up the VHS because I didn’t have a DVD player at the time.
The story is, of course, based on the then Fawcett Publications owned comic character. According to IMDB, this was intended as a Superman serial but National turned it down. (They would later make two serials with Columbia.) Actually, Wikipedia seems to indicate it was the previous film, Mysterious Doctor Satan, which I haven’t seen, so I should probably fix that in the original review. Anyway, Captain Marvel would be the first live-action superhero from the comics.
To depict Marvel’s flying ability, the special effects team used a dummy dressed in the Marvel costume (dummies would also be used when Captain Marvel needed to toss guys around) on a set of wires, with the actor, the late Tom Tyler, or his stuntman also using properly choreographed leaps. This might not work as well today, but framed right and in black and white it is as believable as the 1940s are going to get. (It was better than using a cartoon character for flying and the occasional superpower display, as the later Superman serials would employ.) This technique was developed in an earlier serial, Darkest Africa, and would be used again in their infamous “rocket man” series of serials (which inspired the comic book The Rocketeer, later made into a movie by Disney). The outfit itself is rather faithful to the comic of the time, right down to the patterns on the cape. (Although if you see the original costume, the colors don’t match due to black-and-white filming.)
There were some changes to the comic’s history for the sake of the story, however, showing right from the start Hollywood would get it wrong. Instead of a 10-year-old boy, Billy Batson (Frank Coglain, Jr), appears to be closer to 20. Also, he is already a radio news reporter, although we never actually seem him report anything. He accompanies an expedition to Egypt, where they uncover an old tomb. It’s Billy’s reluctance to enter a warned off area that show him worthy to protect the secret weapon within. (Because as any Yu-Gi-Oh fan knows, ancient Egypt wants us DEAD! Just ask Linkara.) Position the lenses of the scorpion statue correctly and you can turn base metals into gold. (It’s the 1940′s, best to go along with it.) Position them wrong, and you end up with a superweapon (by that era’s standards) can could blow you up or melt a cliff face.
Seeking this weapon is “the Scorpion”, who convinces some of the locals that he speaks for the volcano god, Scorpio. (My ancient Egypt mythology is weak, but I don’t recall that god.) He uses the natives to help steal the scorpion statue, but the lenses have been split up among the party. In true Republic serial fashion, one of that party happens to BE the Scorpion, who uses his gang to recover the other lenses.
Kept from the original origin is the meeting with the ancient wizard, Shazam, complete with the famous acronym. Captain Marvel is to be the protector of the scorpion, and must get it back from the criminal. Tal Chotali, Prof Malcolm, Prof Luthor Bentley, Harry Carlyle, Dwight Fisher, and Dr Stephen Lang are the other members of the party, one of whom is the Scorpion. (I’m not telling which one.) He plans to wipe out the other members with his gang and his right-hand man, Barnett, and steal all the parts of his namesake for money and power. Rounding out the cast, and giving Billy some trusted allies, are Malcom’s assistant, Betty Wallace, and Billy’s partner, Whitey Murphy. (The links will take you to the actors who played those roles.)
In the following chapters, Billy and his friends must escape the usual deathtraps in order to uncover which of the party is the Scorpion. This is made easy as each person is killed on by one until the Scorpion is revealed in the final episode. My favorite trap was actually set by one of the good guys, who set up his own security system for his lens. When you work the safe, oscillating machine guns pop up and fire when the final number is hit. Who needs ADT?
I won’t spoil the ending (outside of a joke caption I just had to make), because I really want you folks to watch this. Amazon.com has it available, and I highly recommend it. Alternately, The Internet Archive also has the serial up for viewing. The DVD has no extras, which is actually disappointing. Background information on the serial, interviews with any surviving actors, or a discussion with fans would have been interesting. All we have are closed captions and scene selections. However, if you’re a movie serial or superhero fan, especially of the Shazam! franchise, this is a must have for your collection.