If you’re under 25, then you probably don’t remember when the AMC network aired nothing but old movies. I’m talking black and white movies and westerns, lots of westerns.
Back then, AMC stood for American Movie Classics, and it was one of my favorite channels to watch every weekend. The reason for this was because in the early 1990’s AMC would air movie serials on Saturday mornings.
This is where I first discovered serials from the 30’s and 40’s, including: Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, the 1943 and 1949 Batman serials, and more.
But there was always one classic serial that eluded me until this day, and that is 1941’s “The Adventures of Captain Marvel.”
The reason I never saw this serial was because I couldn’t find it on dvd. I suppose I could have found it online, but I didn’t want to risk missing an episode or two. But as luck would have it, I found a used dvd copy of “The Adventures of Captain Marvel.” at a flea market for just $2.
The 12 chapter Captain Marvel serial was made by Republic Pictures, and just like in the Fawcett Comic series of the time, it featured young Billy Batson transforming into the superhero Captain Marvel when he says the magic word “Shazam.” The serial starred Tom Tyler in the title role of Captain Marvel, and Frank Coghlan, Jr. as his alter ego, Billy Batson. Captain Marvel had multiple writers and was directed by William Witney and John English.
The serial opens at an archeological expedition in Thailand, at a place referred to as the volcanic Valley of the Tombs. Inside one of the sealed crypts, the expeditions discovers a mysterious device called the Golden Scorpion. When the Golden Scorpion’s quartz lenses are aligned, it emits a powerful beam, which can destroy, but can also turn stone into gold.
The youngest member of the expedition is radio broadcaster Billy Batson (Frank Coghlan Jr.), and he’s one of the few that decided not to enter. Because of this act, he is chosen by an ancient wizard named Shazam (Nigel De Brulier) to be the recipient of amazing powers. To activate them, all Billy has to do is utter the wizard’s name, and he is transformed into Captain Marvel!
The scientists leading the expedition, decide that the Golden Scorpion is too powerful and could fall into the wrong hands. To avoid that, they each take one of the lenses that power it back to the States where they all agree to hide them.
But soon a mysterious hooded figure calling himself the Scorpion steals the device hoping to turn it into a weapon. The expedition scientists are now in grave danger, and the only one who can stop the Scorpion’s plan now is Captain Marvel (Tom Tyler).
I gotta say that out of all the classic movie serials I’ve seen over the years, “The Adventures of Captain Marvel” is one of the best. It’s amazing the amount of stuff Republic Pictures was able to put on the screen despite what I’m sure were limited resources, and lack of special effects. But skill and imagination, the filmmakers delivered a great Captain Marvel tale.
Okay, so some of the special effects are primitive to say the least. In several of the flying shots, they use a life-size dummy dressed in one of the Captain’s costumes. But I have to imagine kids in 1941 were blown away seeing Captain Marvel soaring across the screen like that. Plus the transitions from the wired dummy to Tom Tyler were pretty damn seemless, and a huge improvement over the live action-to-animation switch Columbia Pictures used in their 1948 Superman serial.
Republic Pictures definitely got their money’s worth. There’s even a sequence where Captain Marvel is trapped in a cave that is about to be flooded with lava that features some surprisingly strong rear projection work. I’m usually not a fan of this technique (see early James Bond movies), but it looks awesome in Captain Marvel.
Now we get to the action, and let’s just say that compared to other action/adventure serials of the time, Captain Marvel is a lot more violent. The bad guys use everything from spears, machine guns, pistols, a guillotine; a torture cage; and automobiles. This twelve parter has a huge body count, and I swear even Captain Marvel throws a guy from the top of a building. This is surprising to me since I assume this serial was aimed at kids in 1941.
Like any movie serial of the 30’s or 40’s, “The Adventures of Captain Marvel” features several things you’ve seen before: plenty of people driving places; the girl getting kidnapped; the hooded villain; car chases; meetings; and the dim-witted friend.
None of this surprised me, I expect seeing those things in this sort of movie. But the one thing that did bug me was seeing Frank Coghlan, Jr. get hir from behind, kidnapped and conveniently gagged about half a dozen times. If this were real life, poor Billy would have mutliple concussions. I think the only character that got knocked out even more than Billy was poor Betty (Louise Currie).
Despite these minor complaints, I think “The Adventures of Captain Marvel” was well ahead of its time. The acting for the most part is solid, Captain Marvel looks great, and the special effect are quite good for 1941.
If you’re a fan of classic movie serials, I highly recommend tracking this down, and now its easier than ever because the entire serial is now out Blu-ray. So go watch Captain Marvel!