Adventures of Captain Marvel (William Witney and John English, 1941)

Eclipse LogoConsidered by many as the finest serial ever made, Adventures of Captain Marvel chronicles the exploits of “The World’s Mightiest Mortal” as he combats The Scorpion, a hooded villain intent on obtaining 6 optical lenses that, when aligned properly, can turn ordinary stone into gold or destroy their target completely.  Radio reporter Billy Batson (Frank Coghlan Jr.) is granted the ability to transform into Captain Marvel (Tom Tyler) by the wizard Shazam and is tasked to protect the lenses, facing all manners of danger including hails of bullets, electrocutions, and cave-ins.  Marking the very first time a comic book superhero’s adventures appeared on the silver screen, William Witney and John English’s 12-chapter serial is an achievement in effects, excitement, and entertainment still capable of inspiring belief that a man can actually fly.

Adventures of Captain Marvel is considered by many movie serial aficionados to be the pinnacle of the form, second only, perhaps, to the Flash Gordon trilogy.  With its fine acting, brisk pacing, convincing effects, and the notoriety of being the first comic book superhero to reach the silver screen, the serial is often cited as the best work of Republic Pictures’ serial department and possibly of all the Hollywood chapter plays.  The project was originally conceived as an adaptation of Superman scheduled for production in 1940, but licensing problems caused Republic to pursue Fawcett Comics and its powerhouse protector, Captain Marvel.  Fawcett was only too happy to license their hero, who was out-selling Superman at the time by 2 or 3 times, and the project proceeded despite the efforts of Superman‘s publisher to block the film.  Some slight amendments were made to translate the comic to the big screen.  Frank Coghlan Jr.’s Billy Batson is older than the comic book’s 12 year-old and Tom Tyler’s Captain Marvel is rather more hardened than the strait-laced pen and ink version, something plainly apparent when the film version of the hero casually guns down evil henchmen or throws them to their deaths from roofs or canyon ledges.  Times were tough for henchmen in the 1940s.

The serial begins in Siam where Professor Luther Malcolm (Robert Strange) leads an expedition into the Valley of the Tombs where they discover the Golden Scorpion, an ancient artifact with lenses mounted in its legs.  Properly arranged, the lenses can turn any substance into gold, but can also be employed as a devastating weapon.  For safe keeping, the lenses are divided between the 5 scientists of the expedition.  Billy stumbles upon another passage and finds his virtue rewarded by the ancient wizard Shazam who grants him the power of Captain Marvel whenever he speaks the wizard’s name.  In doing so, Billy is given the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury.  With the help of local scientist Tal Chotali (John Davidson), the Malcolm Expedition escapes Rahman Bar (Reed Hadley) and the Valley’s hostile natives and returns to America, however the mysterious Scorpion, a member of the expedition who shrouds his identity behind a villainous costume, hatches an evil scheme to obtain the lenses for himself.  It’s up to Billy, Professor Malcolm’s secretary Betty Wallace (Louise Currie), and Billy’s colleague Whitey (William Benedict) to deduce the identify of the Scorpion and up to Captain Marvel to protect the lenses and keep them all safe.  Eventually, the serial returns to Siam where the terrible power of the Golden Scorpion is revealed and Captain Marvel must put an end to its threat once and for all.

Filmmakers John English and William Witney co-directed the serial using an alternating-day method common in chapter play production.  One would direct filming while the other used his time off-set to plan his next day’s shooting.  Witney reported the practice as being highly efficient and resulted in a division of labour that allowed each director to work to his strengths, with Witney focusing on action shot on location and English directing interior-set drama.  Stunt legend David Sharpe does a lot of the notable work, and which is elaborated on by match-cut extraordinaire editors Edward Todd and William Thompson and the special effects staff of Howard Lydecker.  Lydecker is most famous for the recurring shot of Captain Marvel, on location, flying through the sky, a truly convincing image achieved through a 7’ tall papier-mâché dummy running smoothly across invisible wires.  Together, these unseen heroes of the serial form created a comic book world with all the texture and weight of true reality.

We must admit that Adventures of Captain Marvel is not even our favourite of the 3 titles discussed here, but it’s still easy to see why the serial is so popular and inspires such loyalty.  The emphasis on Coghlan Jr.’s Billy Batson as the serial’s main protagonist ensures drama in its plot and a sympathetic figure with which the audience can identify.  Batson is youthful, clever, adventurous, and, most importantly, reliant only on Captain Marvel when superhuman qualities are necessary.  Captain Marvel does often assume the role of a ready deus ex machina, but the serial avoids the worse problem of watching an indestructible man proceed unthreatened over 12 episodes.  And, while onscreen, Tyler cuts a believable figure as the world’s mightiest mortal, aided in no small part by effects and editing that convincingly make the power of flight seem possible.  There remains something magical to this day about seeing that shot of an outstretched Captain Marvel somehow gliding through the air.  He is undoubtedly there in physical form, sharing the mundane reality of our world yet inextricably and effortlessly aloft.  It is a moment that affirms Adventures of Captain Marvel as a true and faithful depiction of the comic book superheroes of its time.  Straight off the pages of comics’ Golden Age and onto celluloid, the comic page gutter is replaced by the space between frames and then obliterated when run at 24 frames per second, presenting the illusion of seamless action and of a childhood’s imagination made real.  Such is the magic of cinema and the bold and energetic world of the movie serial.

Credits:  Adventures of Captain Marvel did have DVD release, but has since become long out of print.  The cover summary is adapted in part from that edition’s packaging.  DC Comics licensed the Fawcett Comics properties in 1972, but interests to the serial run separately, meaning that the current rights holder should pose no encumbrance to the chapter-play seeing a release on hard media.  Those with an interest in the serial might wish to check out Zombo’s Closet and this post providing a booklet on the serial published by Jack Mathis in the late ’60s or ’70s.

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