A couple of years before the dreaded Batman tv show, I'd heard that there would be a Batman film shown at my local ABC Minors and rushed to be first in the queue. This being 1964 and me being a fairly undiscerning 10 year old, I thought the weekly screen adventures of Batman, starring Lewis Wilson, were just brilliant.
|A lineup of the top comic characters of the 1940s who successfully transitioned in the serials - Captain Marvel, Batman, Spy Smasher, Captain America and Superman. Click image to enlarge.|
Republic Studios was the best known producer of serials in the USA during the 1930s, but hadn't fared so well in the great comic strip landgrab of that decade. Universal, with its deeper pockets, had done a deal with the most successful purveyor of newspaper comic strips, King Features Syndicate, and had locked up the rights to Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim, Secret Agent X-9 (all Alex Raymond-drawn strips), Radio Patrol, Tim Tyler's Luck, Ace Drummond, and Red Barry. The other top comic strips, including Mandrake the Magician, The Phantom, Terry and the Pirates and Brenda Starr Reporter had been licensed by Columbia Pictures ... leaving Republic out in the cold.
So Republic approached National Comics in 1940 with an offer to buy the film rights to their wildly successful character, Superman, probably after noticing the success of the syndicated Superman radio show that began in February 1940. The negotiations appeared to be progressing smoothly, and Republic began production of their serial, getting scripts written and coming up with an ingenious way of portraying Superman's flying powers. What Republic didn't know was that National were hedging their bets and also talking to Fleischer Studios and Paramount. In the end, Paramount won an exclusive licence to portray the Man of Steel on-screen and Republic were again out in the cold.
Admittedly, the screen version of Superman produced by Paramount was pretty cool. Max and Dave Fleischer - who had created ground-breaking cartoons like Betty Boop and Popeye, and had invented the Rotoscope - brought the technically superior animated Superman to the screen, and no expense was spared, costing $30,000 each, twice the cost of the Popeye cartoons of the same period.
|The Fleischer's approach was quite epic and treated the character completely seriously. The Rotoscope method was used extensively, tracing the animation art from live footage to give the figures weight and realism.|
But all of that was cold comfort to Republic, who were left with a Superman script and a whole pile of expenses researching how to make a man fly, and no project to write them off against. So producer Hiram Brown simply called Fawcett Publications and made an offer for their top character Captain Marvel. Fawcett were delighted and threw in the rights to the Captain's Whiz Comics stablemate Spy Smasher as a sweetener.
With the rights to a suitable headline character secured, Brown turned his attention to getting the serial made. Costing a tad over $145,000, the production's budget was about average for the period, but probably cheap for a serial with so much special effects work. As the production went before the cameras, National Comics tried to use legal means to stop the project, but the judge threw the case out.
The directors were the Republic dream-team of William Whitney and John English (who really was English). Serials involved around three hours of on-screen action and were shot on punishing schedules - fourteen-hour days were the norm - stretching over six weeks. It really wasn't sensible to have serials shot by just one director - though some were.
Republic found themselves in the strange situation of having to cast two actors for the role of the hero. For the hero's civilian identity, the studio cast Frank Coghlan Jr, due to his physical resemblance to Billy Batson. For Captain Marvel, Republic hired Tom Tyler, a champion weightlifter and cowboy bit player. Tyler had started out in B-westerns, then graduated to small roles in several John Ford movies like Stagecoach (1939) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940), before being cast as The Mummy in The Mummy's Hand (1940) due to his slight resemblance to Boris Karloff.
Since every serial has to have a "damsel in distress" Republic cast Louise Currie as Betty Wallace, the feisty secretary to the Malcolm Archeological Expedition that's targeted by the mysterious hooded menace known as The Scorpion. The roster of suspects includes Robert Strange, Harry Worth, John Davidson and George Pembroke.
The plot has the members of the Malcolm Expedition, accompanied by radio reporter Billy Batson, come under attack by restless natives when they excavate a tomb in a remote area of Siam (now Thailand). However, it turns that that the tomb is actually the hiding place of a golden artefact shaped like a scorpion that holds five lenses. When these lenses are aligned, the device can either disintegrate matter or transform base materials into gold.
|As Billy Batson is the only member of the expedition to respect the sanctity of the Scorpion Temple, he is chosen by the guardian Shazam to wield the power of Captain Marvel to keep the Golden Scorpion safe.|
|John Malcolm explains to Billy that tampering with the Golden Scorpion caused an explosion inside the temple, injuring Professor Bentley and almost causing the collapse of the building.|
WHO WAS THAT MASKED MAN?The Hooded Villain was a common device of the serials. It allowed a simplistic mystery to be planted at the beginning of the proceedings that would, at least in the film-makers' estimation, ensure that the audience returned every week until the final chapter, when the identity of the masked menace would revealed.
Any number of serials included weird masked and be-gowned baddies, designed for the sole purpose of eliciting boos and hisses from the enthusiastic and youthful audiences that the serials attracted. The trope was a hangover from the pulps, where the masked and be-gowned goodies - like The Shadow and The Spider - would battle their criminal counterparts who would often conceal their identities in a similar manner. The Hooded Villain would invariably turn out to be one of the heroes, or at least a significant supporting character, and the film-makers would cast suspicion of various characters from week to week as the chases and fist-fights unspooled.
|The Perils of Penelope Pitstop's Hooded Claw was, in reality, Penelope's Uncle Sylvester who, every week, would try some outlandish scheme or deathtrap to do away with his niece so he could grab her inheritance.|
MEANWHILE, IN AMERICAWith the members of the safely back on US soil, The Scorpion can begin his campaign to gain the other four lenses. One by one, he targets his fellow Expedition members, starting with Henry Carlyle ... As is usually the case in the serials, the hooded villain has a cohort of henchmen, mostly inept, who stand by to do their every bidding. In this case, thug-in-waiting Barnett (Kenne Duncan) is tasked with wresting the first lens from Carlyle's safe. Then, when the Scorpion's henchmen manage to kill Carlyle while trying to get the lens from him, the arch-villain targets the Expedition's secretary Betty Wallace.
|Over and over again, The Scorpion gazes lovingly at the Golden Scorpion in its own custom-built alcove and tells his henchman Barnett, “My friends think they can keep me from getting Carlyle’s lens — they do not realise the power of the Scorpion!”|
|The standard "screaming female" role in Adventures of Captain Marvel was filled by Louise Currie, who would go on to play a similar character in The Masked Marvel (1943) as well as a walk-on role in Citizen Kane (1941).|
By episode five, Billy has figured out that The Scorpion seems to know just about everything that goes on with The Expedition, ergo The Scorpion must be one of The Expedition. But when he puts this to the scientists seated round their meeting table, they all act insulted. Not long after this, they allow themselves to be bluffed by the Scorpion who tells them over a radio link that he has all the lenses bar one (he doesn't). This sends the scientists skeedaddling to where they hid their lenses, followed closely by The Scorpion's henchmen. Scientists they may be, smart they are not.
Bentley is the next to lose his lens to the thugs, despite the valiant fight put up by his butler to protect it. Captain Marvel retrieves the lens, hands it back to the battling butler then flies off to offer aid to Fisher. But Fisher is being threatened by The Scorpion in person and, while trying to help Marvel fight off the arch-villain, he shot dead.
A little while later, Betty redeems herself a little ... kidnapped by the Scorpion's goons, the hapless secretary is dragged before hooded menace, who demands her cooperation. Far from being fazed, Betty wrests a gun from one of the goons and shoots The Scorpion in the hand. Though they leave Betty in yet another deathtrap, she is rescued by Captain Marvel. By this point in the serial, I was expecting Betty to start rescuing Captain Marvel. And surely the wounded hand will uncover The Scorpion's identity at the next meeting ...
Billy produces a paper he's faked up and asks each of the Expedition to sign it. The only one with a bandaged hand is Dr Lang. While Betty keeps Lang busy after the meeting, Billy disguises himself as Lang and takes the scientist's car to search his house for incriminating evidence.
|Chapter 8: Billy, in his unconvincing Lang disguise, is cornered in a garage by two of The Scorpion's followers. They clock him and leave him to be gassed by carbon monoxide fumes. Luckily Captain Marvel is invulnerable.|
In the following chapter, Lang and Billy are snatched by Scorpion goons and the Doctor is dragged before ... The Scorpion! Who doesn't have a bandaged hand! What a cheat! The evil mastermind puts Lang in a torture cage to make him more cooperative and not surprisingly Lang gives up the combination to his safe. Meanwhile, in the basement, Billy has Shazamed and is putting the strongarm on a thug to reveal where Lang is. In the scuffle, Marvel bats the thug's gun away, which hits a wall and goes off, killing the thug.
|Chapter 9: No point in shooting him, you'll just make him angry. Scorpion thugs never learn. This one thinks he'll get the better of Marvel with a gun. But he ends up shot in the back by his own weapon. And Marvel displays not a hint of remorse.|
Captain Marvel gives chase through some secret tunnels under the house, and at one point, the baddie loses his mask (though we don't see his face). Cunningly, the Scorpion doubles back to the house to retrieve the Golden Scorpion and Lang sees him unmasked. "So you're The Scorpion," he gasps, before the evil mastermind plugs him with a .38 bullet and escapes.
|Chapter 9: Callously shot by The Scorpion for being the only witness who can identify him, Dr Lang manages to gasp out a warning to Captain Marvel. His mission: save Betty.|
Barnett and two of his thugs show up and knock our intrepid heroes out and set about opening the safe themselves. One thug falls victim to the Tommy guns, but Barnett dodges and reaches into the safe to pull out ... a map of Siam. Lang never brought the lens back to the States, Barnett realises. It's still in the Temple.
|Chapter 10: Bentley and Tal Chotali look like they want to eat the map at the final meeting of the surviving members of the Expedition. Only Malcom doesn't seem that bothered. Could he be The Scorpion?|
As luck would have it, the steamer they're travelling on runs into some bad weather and is driven onto some rocks off the coast of Siam. While everyone is lining up for evacuation, Betty claims to have left something in her room. In her cabin, Betty grabs her handbag from a cabinet as The Scorpion creeps up behind her and clonks her over the head with his gun butt. Why is never made clear.
|Chapter 10: So important is Betty's handbag to her that she risks almost certain death to go below decks on a sinking ship to get it. As it goes, the sinking ship is the least of her worries as hooded villain The Scorpion is waiting for her.|
After overnighting in the Khandapur Hotel, the Expedition sets off for the Temple, their every move watched by The Scorpion's hill-tribe minions. When they get to the Temple, they consult their map and quickly find the missing lens, just as the local volcano erupts and causes a cave-in, trapping them in the Temple. Except for Tal Chotali and Billy, who once again refuse to enter the sacred building. With the eruption, the hostile natives sound a gong, a signal to kill the foreign interlopers. Billy pleads with Tal Chotali to intercede with them while he tries to dig the expedition out. Or rather Captain Marvel will. With a quick Shazam, the transformed Billy tears away the fallen granite blocks from the entrance to the tomb and carries Whitey and Betty to safety. Inside the Temple, Malcolm finds a back way out and makes to leave. But Bentley pulls a gun and shoots him. It's true. Bentley is The Scorpion! And to prove the point, when he emerges alone into the daylight, he's in his Scorpion outfit, and just in time to witness Captain Marvel transforming back into Billy.
Elsewhere, in a cave, Tal Chotali is calling on the tribesmen to let the foreign devils alone. But The Scorpion enters the chamber to rally his troops. "The white men," he cries, "must be destroyed." Cue for much cheering and spear-waving. The evil madman orders Tal Chotali restrained and the Expedition members captured and brought before him, so the tribesmen set off to do his bidding.
Presently, Billy and the others are tied and gagged in the cave, surrounded by jeering hostile natives. The Scorpion threatens to kill Betty unless Billy tells him how the transformations to Captain Marvel work, and foolishly removes Billy's gag to hear the one-word answer. In a puff of familiar smoke Captain Marvel appears and mops the room with the Scorpion's minions. But not before The Scorpion's own chief tribal follower accidentally fries his evil leader with the Golden Scorpion.
|Chapter 12: And that's the end of that. With the Golden Scorpion melted in a river of lava and no further need for the powers of Captain Marvel, Billy, Betty and Whitey are able to return home and live normal lives.|
Though I'd happily recommend Adventures of Captain Marvel as a rattling good example of a movie serial, it shares a problem common in the genre - it's a regular b-movie script padded out to three and a half hours with plot loops and sequences - like those endless Expedition meetings - that don't actually advance the story. Then there's the scenes that just don't make sense. A prime example of this is after The Scorpion's henchmen kidnap Betty and wrest the combination of Carlyle's safe from her, Billy says he'll be able to reach Carlyle's ahead of the Scorpion's men by flying there in his plane. He doesn't know that the baddies have cut the plane radio's wires and planted a time bomb on the craft, all of which leads into a "how will Billy escape?" cliffhanger. But the real question is, why did Billy need to be in the plane at all? He could have Shazamed into Captain Marvel and flown there under his own power. But of course, if he'd done that, no cliffhanger ending for Episode 3.
But despite all that, even though movie serials were no longer being made in the 1960s, whole generations of kids could still enjoy the efforts of Tom Tyler and his supporting stunt players as the serials continued to unspool at Saturday Morning Pictures all over the UK.
And in the same way that Flash Gordon had created the trend for space-going (and newspaper strip) serial heroes, The Adventures of Captain Marvel demonstrated that there was a place for comic book heroes in the weekly chapterplays. Because right behind that one came Captain Marvel's Fawcett Comics stablemate Spy Smasher (1942):
|The far-too-complicated-to-go-into-here plot of Spy Smasher (1942) features Marguerite Chapman (as Eve Corby, Alan's brother's fiancee) and Kane Richmond (Alan Armstrong, the Spy Smasher). The serial was one of the better examples in the 1940s.|
- Batman (DC, 1943)
- Captain America (Marvel, 1944)
- Hop Harrigan (DC, 1946)
- The Vigilante (DC, 1947)
- Congo Bill (DC 1948)
- Superman (DC 1948 - finally!)
- Batman and Robin (DC 1949)
- Atom Man vs Superman (DC, 1950)
- Blackhawk (DC, 1952)
- King of the Congo (ME, 1952 - starring Buster Crabbe as Thun'da)
- Copperhead, in Mysterious Doctor Satan (1940)
- The Masked Marvel (1943)
- King of the Rocket Men (Rocket Man, 1949)
- Radar Men from the Moon (featuring Commando Cody in the Rocket Man flying suit, 1952)
- Zombies of the Stratosphere (Rocket Man suit, 1952)
- Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe (Rocket Man suit, 1953)
I'll cover some of these in future blog entries, but it's time for me to return to writing about the core subject ... Marvel Comics in the Silver Age.
Next: Marvel's cowboys (or, Oh how I hated westerns)