Once again, I apologize (with hat in hand) to the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear faithful for the fallow blog of late; a lot of my copious free time has been sacrificed to Radio Spirits assignments and their blog (not that I’m complaining, mind you—there’s money in that gig) and the remainder seems to be taken up by the two individuals who swear they’re my Mom and Dad (and that’s good enough for me). I have the thankless job of programming the entertainment for the two of them in the evenings, and while in a perfect world my mother would exit stage left not long after my father has finished his Technicolor Western, I have to find something to amuse her until she passes out (usually ten minutes into the movie—you can set your watch to it). By the time I get her to retire for the evening (it’s hell being a single parent) I’m usually too wiped to do anything on my own.
I was finally able to locate a spare minute or two to complete Friday’s review…and to buy myself a little additional time, I decided to avail myself of an essay that I wrote back in September 2017 that was originally going to go up at the ClassicFlix site…and for one reason or another, never got there. Here’s the long version:
I wrote a column for CF entitled “Where’s That Been?” from 2013 to 2017 as an initial part of my job as the site’s associate editor…and while it was originally going to focus on “overlooked or underappreciated films from the golden age” it really became a conduit for any review that I wrote after watching any movie I obtained via CF’s voluminous rental library. When ClassicFlix moved to its new site from the old one, a good portion of the reviews I penned ended up at its new environs…but there were a few that never made the trip (maybe they handcuffed themselves to the door, like Laura Loomer).
Anyway, I’ve just enough ego to where I’d like these behind-locked-doors reviews to see the light of day—the only way you can read them now is if you’ve rented DVDs from ClassicFlix in the past, and have a password to access the old site—so I took it upon myself to move these reviews here to TDOY, backdating them with the date on which they originally went live at CF. (All you have to do to access them is click on the “Where’s That Been?” link at the top of this post.) As for this review—I don’t know why the decision was made to not post it to the old or new site (though I suspect it might be connected to the company’s eventual establishment of its own video label); they made sure I got a screener…and after I turned it in, that was the last I heard on the subject. I am nothing it not dedicated to recycling, and so I decided to reprint it here—a review of the September 2017 Kino-Lorber Blu-ray/DVD release of Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941).
Since the advent of motion pictures, “cliffhanger serials” were a staple of most theatergoers’ education—presenting weekly chapter plays that offered thrills and excitement as the filmed productions placed their heroes and heroines in situations fraught with peril. Serials were tremendously popular in the teens and twenties, but by the 1930s, they slowly started to become matinee fodder for the Saturday morning kid crowd. Not that adults were prohibited from enjoying chapter plays, you understand—the productions just started to adopt a fantastic element that appealed more to the younger set, with many of those serials featuring heroes from “the funny pages”: Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and so many more.
By the mid-1930s, there were three motion picture studios who ruled the serials’ roost. Columbia chapter plays would feature pulp heroes like The Spider and The Shadow in addition to comic strip icons like Mandrake the Magician and Terry and the Pirates. Universal hit it big with Flash Gordon, who would be the subject of three popular serials released between 1936 and 1940, not to mention familiar funny pages faces like Ace Drummond, Jungle Jim, and Red Barry. The king of the movie serials was unquestionably Republic Pictures, who obtained the rights to pop culture icons like Dick Tracy (star of four cliffhangers released from 1937 to 1941) and The Lone Ranger (appearing in two serials) …and in 1941, the studio brought the first comic book superhero to the big screen with Adventures of Captain Marvel.
An expedition is underway in Thailand in an area known as “The Valley of the Tombs.” A group headed up by John Malcolm (Robert Strange) is exploring those tombs to collect information on “The Scorpion Kingdom” despite the misgivings of guide-interpreter Tal Chotali (John Davidson), who fears the natives in the area will take offense to the “desecration” of the burial place. Only Chotali and radio operator Billy Batson (Frank Coghlan, Jr.) heed a warning engraved on a seal not to enter one specific crypt; Malcolm and his fellow explorers, upon discovering a strange device in the shape of a large scorpion, inadvertently cause an explosion that reseals the crypt, trapping the expedition inside.
Billy will need to come to their rescue…and he’ll be able to do this because, as he’s stranded in a separate chamber, he’s visited by an ancient wizard (Nigel De Brulier) who identifies himself as “Shazam”—his name comprised of the first letter in the names of these individuals:
S = The wisdom of Solomon
H = The strength of Hercules
A = The stamina of Atlas
Z = The power of Zeus
A = The courage of Achilles
M = The speed of Mercury
By speaking the name of the wizard, Billy obtains the power to transform himself into Captain Marvel, “The World’s Mightiest Mortal”—and in the following eleven chapters, he will need to call upon this amazing power to defeat a masked villain known only as The Scorpion, who seeks the possess the Golden Scorpion device the others recovered from the crypt. The mechanism, when activated by five quartz lenses, can disintegrate matter and turns base metals to gold…so the team of explorers decides to split up the lenses among its members: Malcolm, Harry Carlyle (Bryant Washburn), Professor Luther Bentley (Harry Worth), Dr. Stephen Lang (George Pembroke), and Professor Dwight Fisher (Peter George Lynn).
Returning to the U.S.A., Batson quickly learns that not only has the Scorpion followed the explorers back home in his quest to obtain the lenses of his namesake…he’s one of the team members in disguise! With the help of Malcolm’s secretary, Betty Wallace (Louise Currie), and loyal sidekick Whitey Murphy (William “Billy” Benedict), Billy will match wits with The Scorpion in each chapter as the diabolical villain stops at nothing to achieve his goal of world domination.
Authors Jim Harmon and David F. Glut observe in their book The Great Movie Serials: Their Sound and Fury that Adventures of Captain Marvel is “unquestionably one of the finest movie serials ever made, possibly the best with the exception of the three Flash Gordon epics.” Cliffhanger fans are nearly unanimous in agreement; William C. Cline, author of In the Nick of Time, even posits that the production is Republic’s “masterpiece.” Republic, the movie factory that I have jokingly referred to in the past as “the MGM of B-picture studios,” did two things extremely well: B-westerns and serials.
Republic’s serials were directed by the tag team of William Witney and John English, whose track record of successful pre-war chapter plays is a batting average that would be the envy of any major league ball club—Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939), Zorro’s Fighting Legion (1939), Drums of Fu Manchu (1940)…and so many more. The two directors even had solo serial successes (Witney with 1942’s Spy Smasher, English with Daredevils of the West ), and would later graduate to feature film work (Witney helmed many of Republic’s outstanding Roy Rogers westerns while English followed former Republic star Gene Autry to Columbia to ride herd on several Gene’s first-rate oaters).
The Adventures of Captain Marvel project came about from the studio’s attempt to bring the monarch of comic book superheroes, Superman, to the big screen; Republic fashioned a Superman script but lost the bidding war to the Supe character to the Fleischer studios, who instituted a series of successful animated cartoons featuring The Man of Steel. Undaunted, Republic simply refashioned their script (it was later released as Mysterious Doctor Satan) while approaching Fawcett Comics about the possibility of licensing their Captain Marvel character. Fawcett said yes, and the result was what film critic Matt Singer identifies as the first comic book superhero movie—eat your heart out, Avengers!
What makes Adventures of Captain Marvel such a great serial? It’s got a riveting plot, which spread out over twelve chapters never seems padded…and even though the proper way to watch a serial (according to my Facebook colleague Cliff Weimer) is to devour each chapter weekly, like moviegoers did at the time of its original release, it’s a production that can be thoroughly enjoyed in one setting. The special effects may be a bit primitive in an era of CGI (you kind of have to overlook the obvious rear projection shots of Cap flying even though you can clearly see the wires on occasion) but in 1941, non-discerning eight- and nine-year-olds were undeniably enthralled. (Hey—when Superman finally made his serial debut in 1948, he turned into a cartoon whenever he took flight.)
The special effects were the purview of Republic’s Howard and Theodore Lydecker, who were aces when it came to the miniatures needed for car crashes and warehouse explosions. The athletic Tom Tyler, who portrayed Marvel, had a little help in the stunts department; his takeoffs and leaps were executed by the legendary David Sharpe…who was no stranger to chapter plays, having portrayed one of the members in the heroic trio of Daredevils of the Red Circle. In Chapter One of Captain Marvel, Sharpe executes an incredible backflip that manages to subdue two tribesmen heckbent on dealing with the “infidels” that have invaded their valley.
Frank Coghlan, Jr. was cast as Billy Batson due to his physical resemblance to the comic book character…but he does a first-rate job in the role, providing younger viewers with a role model to admire and root for. Actress Louise Currie is plucky as Betty (Currie later appeared as the heroine in Republic’s The Masked Marvel ), and Billy Benedict—this is the first movie in which he plays a character named “Whitey,” his familiar persona in the later Bowery Boys vehicles—provides solid support and a small bit of comic relief. The rest of the cast—Robert Strange, Harry Worth, John Davidson, etc.—is equally fine, and you might recognize the thespian playing “Rahman Bar” as Reed Hadley, future star of TV’s Racket Squad and narrator of so many film noirs (The House on 92nd Street, T-Men). (The other familiar voice—that of the masked Scorpion—belongs to Gerald Mohr, best known as radio’s Philip Marlowe…and an actor who would be pressed into villainous service in Republic’s following serial, Jungle Girl .)
First released as a two-VHS set by Republic Pictures in 1995, Adventures of Captain Marvel made its DVD debut in 2003 also from Republic…but this September 19th, the serial will make its Blu-ray debut courtesy of Kino-Lorber. Newly remastered from a 4K scan from the Paramount Pictures Archives, “The Big Red Cheese” has never looked sharper…and the Blu-ray also features commentary on all 12 chapters (from such luminaries as Leonard Maltin, Jerry Beck, and J.D. Witney—son of director William) plus an informative booklet by ScreenCrush.com’s Matt Singer. There’s only one word that describes the experience of watching this amazing home video release: SHAZAM!