Collectors and enthusiasts of the serials produced by
Republic Pictures Corporation (1936-1955) have reason to rejoice. Save for the too occasional and often spotty
rare film release, proprietary rights to the Republic’s vast back catalog from
that studio’s “Golden Age” have mostly languished in the vaults. Then, with little fanfare, Paramount
Pictures, Inc. - the company who had obtained the rights through a dizzying history
of corporate takeovers and mergers - began to quietly make some of these
moribund but treasured troves of rare films digitally available to fans in late
2015. Though streaming through the Youtube
channel via the company’s Paramount Vault portal was not the platform that many
of us had hoped for, it was a welcome
turn of events and certainly better than nothing.
If nothing else it was a long time coming. Devotees of these decidedly nostalgic vintage
chapter plays have too long been forced to enjoy these treasures via ropey and
gauzy VHS rips from tattered 16mm film elements. Many collectors will recall the old days when
the only conduit for tracking down copies was through the purchase of
bootleg-market videotapes from mysterious and transient P.O. Box address-only sellers
listed provocatively in back page classifieds of genre magazines.
of Captain Marvel, now available on Blu-Ray via Kino/Lorber
Studio Classics, is generally acknowledged as one of the finest and exciting serials. It’s also noteworthy as the titular Captain Marvel
is the first comic book superhero to make it to the big screen with an equally
big splash. The character Captain Marvel first appeared in the second issue of Whiz Comics in February of 1940. He quickly became the best-selling comic book
superhero of the 1940s, his popularity partly due no doubt to the success of
this Republic serial of 1941. On the
printed page, Captain Marvel would face down many enemies, but in real life his
greatest nemesis might have been the creators of Superman. The man from Krypton, of course, made an
earlier debut in Action Comics in
June of 1938.
With his leotards, tall boots, cape, whisk of black hair,
gift of flight and apparent invincibility, there was something about Captain
Marvel that seemed uncomfortably too similar and oddly familiar to Superman’s
copyright holders – and soon the inevitable teams of lawyers were brought in to
sort it all out. The litigation lasted
for years and years, but within a year of the character’s creation Republic
Pictures had already brought The
Adventures of Captain Marvel successfully to the big screen. In contrast, Columbia Picture’s Superman serial (starring Kirk Alyn as
the big screen’s first man from Krypton) would not be released until 1948.
In some small way, you can hold some degree of sympathy
for the litigious maneuverings of Superman’s copyright holders. Much like the fabled “Man of Steel,” Captain
Marvel was similarly styled in appearance and powers and hid behind the
protection of a secretive dual identity. He could also fly, withstand a barrage
of gunfire, and bend steel bars in his bare hands. In some small ways the Fawcett Publications
superhero was different. Though it takes
a good dose of rare Kryptonite to bring down the mighty Superman, in The Adventures of Captain Marvel it seemingly
only takes a good jolt of electricity to – if only temporarily - incapacitate
our hero. In any event, the popularity of The
Adventures of Captain Marvel would cause Republic to return to the
wellspring of their success. Throughout
the 1940s the studio would produce a score of serials featuring pop-culture characters
licensed from the pages of comic books: these iconic films would introduce
young moviegoers to the first celluloid adventures of Dick Tracy, Red Ryder, Spy Smasher, Captain America, The Lone Ranger
Reversible sleeve artwork.
The serial’s scenario was a simple one. In a “remote section of Siam, near the Burmese border,” the Malcolm Archaeological Expedition is busily searching for the lost secret of the Scorpion Dynasty. Though they are being advised by the somewhat sketchy turban-topped Tal Chotali (John Davidson), their semi-suspicious guide is the least of their problems. Upon journeying into the foreboding but aptly named Valley of the Tombs (“taboo to the white man,” we’re told), the expedition comes under rifle attack by an irate local named Rahman Bar and the soldiers of his village militia. They scientists seek refuge in a crypt but soon discover that an ancient and ominous King Tutankhamen-type curse awaits any infidel who dares desecrate the sacred tomb.
The perplexed expedition of gentleman-scientists don’t quite understand the level of unwelcoming animosity demonstrated by the villagers – after all, one grouses amidst gunfire, that the proper excavation permits had been secured by the authorities. Suddenly and secreted behind a hidden panel, the explorers find the trinket they’ve been searching for - the shimmering statue of the legendary Golden Scorpion. The Golden Scorpion, they soon discover, has powers beyond anything imagined. If one aligns a series of four lenses held in its claw-like grasp, the beam produced can then supernaturally turn base metals into gold. More ominously, they learn that the beam can also be misused and configured as a powerful explosive weapon if one should so desire.
The Golden Scorpion is little more than the MacGuffin of The Adventures of Captain Marvel, an easy to understand plot device to propel the narrative forward. The good guys decide to independently hold and secure the four lenses so no one man can combine them to harness control over the powerful and deadly device. The bad guys, led by a black shrouded and hooded character named the Scorpion, consequently really want to take possession and will engage in any variety of criminal activities to acquire it.
The titular Captain Marvel is played by Tom Tyler, a popular star of western features since the Silent Era of the mid-1920s. Tyler was to the horse opera genre that, say, what Boris Karloff was to horror films or Edward G. Robinson was to gangster pictures. In a rare non-western role, Tyler was tapped by Universal Studios to portray the mute but effectively eerie Kharis in The Mummy’s Hand (1940), the belated sequel to the iconic Karl Freund masterpiece of 1932. Tyler’s reign as the shuffling mummy was brief; by 1942 the studio shuttled Lon Chaney Jr. into the fire-damaged bandages for three additional sequels. It hardly mattered, as Kharis was hardly a role necessitating the hire of an actor of nuance. The combination of Jack Pierce’s heavy make-up and a totally mute and shambling monster called only for a formidable looking big guy to skulk through the mist in his musty wrapping.
It must be said that while he might have been fighting on the side of the angels, Tyler’s square-jawed Captain Marvel is a somewhat less colorful hero than his cowboy pictures might suggest. It’s certainly not the actor’s fault; he’s just given little to do that might reveal any personality traits aside from one-note crime-fighter. Captain Marvel’s alter-ego in fact is the skinny “Billy Batson,” an “Aw, Shucks” kind of clean-cut Midwest kid played by a completely different actor (Frank Coghlan, Jr.) who gets the lion share of screen-time. The creators of Captain Marvel wisely chose not to weigh down the boyish Batson with a semi-unbelievable “Clark Kent” style masquerade of spectacles and civilian clothes. Thanks to Billy having not pried too deeply into the “Secrets of the Scorpion,” the white-bearded guardian of the ancient artifact, Shazam, tells the perplexed Batson that he need only invoke his name to be instantly transformed (within a plume of billowing smoke) into the strapping and muscular Captain Marvel.
As Coghlan’s character actually interacts with other members of the cast, his role is a bit better drawn by the serial’s writers. As Captain Marvel, Tyler, on the other hand, is left with little more to do than grab evildoers by their jacket collars, giving them a good shake, and demanding they supply him with information. This is not necessarily a criticism of the writing team; their job is to keep the action moving and the dialogue breezily succinct over twelve slam-bang chapters. ‘Tis true there’s little in the way of introspective character development, but who really cares? I personally have little interest in the conflicted modern heroes of today’s cinema who carry with them painful, emotion-wrought back stories. I appreciate and prefer the refreshingly simple good vs. evil moralities of these old serials.
This serial’s damsel-in-distress is Louise Currie who, for all intent and purposes, is the only female character of any substance in the film at all. As “Betty Wallace,” the blond-haired Currie gets into several tight spots and screams a lot. She’s no pushover though, and in fact is a bit of a trooper doing her best to bring the evil Scorpion to justice. Though Currie’s movie-acting career lasted little more than a decade, the recognizable actress did her share of genre films. She is, perhaps, best remembered as a low-budget studio substitution for Universal’s Scream Queen Evelyn Ankers. The actress is remembered fondly for several horror and mystery films she appeared in for Monogram Pictures in the 1940s: the Bela Lugosi vehicles “The Ape Man” (1943) and “Voodoo Man” (1944), and the Charlie Chan pic “The Chinese Ring” (1947). Prior to The Adventures of Captain Marvel, she appeared in yet another Republic serial based on a comic-book character, The Green Hornet Strikes Again (1940).
Still another familiar face in the cast is that of William “Billy” Benedict, as “Whitey,” the blond-tousled friend of Billy Batson. Anybody who was a fan of Monogram’s East Side Kids/Bowery Boys features from 1946-1951 will recognize Benedict as one the old members of the gang.
Casting aside, this isn’t a cerebral “actor’s movie,” nor should it be. There’s enough slam-bang car crashes, guillotine chops, ticking time bombs, punishing fisticuff displays, plummeting car engines, trap doors, molten floods, aerial free-falls, electrocutions, demolition bomb deployments, retractable machine gun turrets, carbon monoxide poisonings, perilous sea voyages, volcanic eruptions, and hanging gibbet cage tortures to satisfy the juvenile audiences of the 1940s… as well as the most action-orientated viewers of today with a keen sense of nostalgia. It must also be said that The Adventures of Captain Marvel features some pretty neat special effects for a film of this vintage. The clarity of this new Blu Ray release exposes some of the wires holding the flying Tyler aloft, but the flying sequences are exceptionally well mounted and convincing. Pretty thrilling stuff in 1941, I would imagine, and not unimpressive in 2017. Having dipped their toe into the serial pool with The Adventures of Captain Marvel and Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939), let’s hope that Kino Lorber might steward more of Republic’s amazing back catalog to again shine bright in the light of day.
The Kino Lorber Studio Classics Blu-Ray of The Adventures of Captain Marvel features a 4K Scan from the Paramount Archives, with a 1920x1080p 1.33:1 transfer. The set features all twelve chapters of the B&W serial (totaling some 216 minutes) and an optional audio commentary track featuring no fewer than ten film historians contributing amusing and informative anecdotes and factoids. The package also includes a twelve page booklet written by Matt Singer which provides not only a more in-depth telling of the Captain Marvel saga but also includes reproductions of the colorful promotional posters advertising the serial.