Friday, 28 December 2018

The Adventures Of Captain Marvel

With One Magic Word

The Adventures Of Captain Marvel
USA 1941 Republic Pictures
Directed by John English and William Witney
DVD Region 1

I’ve absolutely loved the old theatrical serials put out in cinemas in the 1930s to 1950s (and even some of the silent ones made before this period), ever since the BBC first aired a two part omnibus edition of the 1936 Flash Gordon serial on TV back in the early to mid-1970s. That and other serials the BBC acquired for airing back in the 1970s and 1980s were always highlights of my childhood and teenage years and I’m surprised it’s taken me this long to get around to finally reviewing one of my beloved serials on this blog. Which means it’s been a while since I watched one, I guess. Time to start remedying that.

The Adventures of Captain Marvel was, in 1941, the very first serial made from a superhero comic book (various other costumed adventurers such as Superman, Batman and Captain America were not far behind). Based on Captain Marvel appearing in Whiz Comics and other titles by Fawcett Comics, this superhero even used to outsell Superman comics back then. He’s always been pretty much my favourite of the comic book super-powered heroes because he was always written with a lighter touch and the artwork, while simplistic in some ways, was very clear cut and much more striking than that found in many of his contemporaries.

After a lawsuit from DC Comics in the 70s, Fawcett lost in that they were seen to be copying Superman (no, the origins and plot mechanisms and style are totally different) but then DC took over the character themselves and it’s these comics from the early 1970s that got me hooked on The World’s Mightiest Mortal, as he used to be known (although I have read some of the first year or so of the original Fawcett versions in the first two volumes of archive editions that DC put out). However, because of the copyright situation, during this time the comic book company Marvel comics were able to gain control of the name Captain Marvel and promptly used it for their own super-powered hero (one of the spin off characters with her own title was Ms. Marvel who, confusingly, is getting her own film in 2019 called Captain Marvel). So the 1970s edition of the DC comic was called SHAZAM! (often proceeded by the phrase “With one magic word” on the title). This was Cap’s word which changed him in a lightning flash from boy reporter Billy Batson to Captain Marvel, a power bestowed on him in a New York subway by the ancient wizard Shazam, who died at the same time but who became a spirit to help guide and pass over his legacy to Billy (a bit like a force ghost in the Star Wars movies, in some ways).

He was still called Captain Marvel, though, until DC totally screwed everything up at some point in the last ten years and dropped the name completely, calling him by the name Shazam instead. Which is completely backwards and crazy and, well, when was the last time you had a superhero who couldn’t say his own name because it would change him back to his alter ego. Another stupid thing they tried around 20 or so years ago was to have Billy Batson’s personality in the body of Captain Marvel when he changed... up until then they’d always been distinctly different personality types. This allowed room for more ‘fish out of water’ comedy but at the expense, in my view, of one of the unique aspects of this character. Alas, I believe it’s that version of the character they are using in the upcoming 2019 Shazam movie and, frankly, I’m not expecting good things from that. There was also a TV show in America in the 1970s but I don’t think we got it in the UK (or at any rate I’ve never seen it).

However, we do still at least have this serial, which is often cited as the greatest serial ever made. Far from it as far as I’m concerned - certainly as an adaptation and compared to some of the Universal and Columbia serials, I think it tends to pale in comparison. That being said, it’s definitely one of the more competently made and entertaining serials I’ve seen and it’s always a joy to watch.

This one stars Frank Coghlan Jr. as Billy Batson, no longer a news person and working as part of a team of middle aged archaeologists on a dig in Egypt (yeah, you can bet the curse of King Tut’s tomb is referenced in the first episode). Aiding Billy in the ‘running around and doing stuff’ department are actress Betty Wallace and ex-Bowery Boy William 'Billy' Benedict, although Benedict doesn’t have an awful lot to do, it has to be said. Instead of a New York subway... once an ancient tomb is discovered and the main find, an ancient Egyptian laser weapon in the shape of a scorpion which needs six special lenses to operate it, is divided into lenses between the group so nobody can gain possession of it... Billy comes across Ancient Wizard Shazam in the tomb who, there, grants him the power of Captain Marvel. When Billy shout’s the Wizards name (like the comic, the name Shazam is an acronym embodying the powers of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury) he transforms into Captain Marvel in order to protect the weapon of the scorpion from falling into the wrong hands... in a strange twist known only to the makers of the serial, I would guess, once Captain Marvel’s job is done at the end of Chapter 12 - Captain Marvel’s Secret, those powers are taken away from him.

Tom Tyler plays Captain Marvel and, although the character is certainly not as comedic as the original print version, the look of whom was based on film star Fred MacMurray, he does play a straight superhero role fairly well. He made a lot of Westerns in his time and, if memory serves, owned his own ranch in later years from which he would supply horses to the studios for their pictures. Again, in later years, he was accidentally run over by infamous director Edward D. Wood Jr who picked him up and gave him a lift home afterwards. The year prior to Captain Marvel he had, among a load of other roles, played the first incarnation of Kharis The Mummy in the Universal sequel, The Mummy’s Hand (Lon Chaney Jr took over the role in the next three movies in the series) and two years after this he would go on to play another iconic comic book hero in a theatrical serial adaptation of The Phantom (which is also worth a watch).

And all in all this is not a bad serial... just not a great one. Some great, for their time, special effects such as flying and a wonderful cave melting sequence were obviously done by the same effects guys who did the later Republic serial King Of The Rocketmen, which I just loved. As usual the episodes are mostly short, 15 minute affairs (the first episode on these things is usually almost twice that length) and consists of the main characters running around from one location to another and getting into fights, chases and cliffhanger endings.

A lot of the cliffhangers in this one, early on in the serial, consist of the audience finding out about the limits of Captain Marvel’s super powers... so, for instance, an electrically charged guillotine will drop on a curiously unconscious Captain Marvel at the end of one episode and then be shown to be breaking on his head at the opening of the next. It’s not long, however, before the endings are using cheats where additional footage not seen the week before is added in to fool an audience who can’t quite remember what last week’s ending showed and this enables the writers to get the heroes out of what was seen to be an absolutely impossible situation. I used to get really mad at that stuff when I was a kid but, as the years go by, I just find it kinda quaint and enjoy seeing how audaciously the studio can attempt to cheat each ending when it has a mind to.

Other charming features of this serial are things like the little, leap of faith continuity errors which make no sense when you watch them... such as when Captain Marvel enters a bungalow and, when he leaves via the window, is seen leaping from a multi-storey building. And, of course, there are those wonderful Republic fight scenes. You could usually tell which company had made a particlar serial due to little quirks such as, for example, the style of the back story recap at the start of the episodes. One of the things which really shows up that a serial had been put out by Republic Pictures is the quality of their fist fights. Basically, if you’re watching a serial by this studio, you know the fights are going to be enthusiastic, energetic to the point where they almost look like the film has been sped up and... this is the thing... everything breakable in the room gets used and broken in the fight. Seriously, if there’s a prop or item of furniture that isn’t screwed down then it’s definitely going to be used to hit someone with. No Republic fight that I remember has any furniture or unbroken props left in a room once the performers are done with it. This is the main thing I look out for when watching a Republic serial although, by and large, I tend to find the script and pacing of the Universal serials (not to mention the bigger budgets) a lot more watchable.

This serial is one of those types where the good guys have to identify, over the course of the chapter play, which one of their party of friendlies is really the evil villain in disguise and, I have to say, they’re usually tough to spot in these things. Absolutely everyone is made to look like the villain at some point and, just like an Italian giallo of the 1970s, that usually happens just before they get killed off. There’s even one point in this where the whole party are caught in a deathtrap by The Scorpion and you realise, since there are only a few suspects left standing by this point in the proceedings, that said villain has also managed to capture himself in his own deathtrap too, with no hope of escape. Why the heck would he spring it then is anybody’s guess.

The curious thing about this serial is that, by the end of the last episode, only the three young characters of Billy and his friends have survived the story. So why they all walk away looking triumphant when all their eminent friends and colleagues have died is a bit puzzling to say the least.

Still, at the end of the day, The Adventures Of Captain Marvel is a decent enough serial and it’s not a bad one to start on if you’ve never seen any of these things before (although personally I would start on Flash Gordon as a good thing to hook oneself with). It’s fast, fun and a little bit creaky but, frankly, I can’t imagine the new Shazam movie next year being any better than this one. In fact, I’m guessing it might well be a good palette cleanser once you’ve seen the new one... even with the drastic changes to the characters, I’m assuming it’s still more faithful to the original character than his latest incarnation. So maybe give it a go if you’ve been looking for an excuse to get into these wonderful cinema serials of yesteryear... there's something about them which seperate them out from a lot of other cinematic creations.

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