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The First Marvel ‘Avenger’ On The Screen

Features
by Leonard Maltin
May 3, 2012 1:00 AM
21 Comments
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Joss Whedon’s The Avengers gathers a galaxy of Marvel Comics superstars, but I wish more people could see the first comic book superhero to make the leap to the big screen: Captain Marvel, in what many aficionados consider the best serial ever made, The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941). Former Western star Tom Tyler made a handsome and heroic superhero, and perennial juvenile actor Frank Coghlan, Jr. was ideally cast as Billy Batson, the plucky young fellow who transformed himself into Captain Marvel by uttering the magic word, “SHAZAM.” (For the uninitiated, SHAZAM is an acronym that represents 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. That’s all explained in Chapter One of the serial.) There’s a hooded villain called the Scorpion, a secret society, and all the other trappings of a really good Saturday matinee serial, with 12 chapters in all.

To achieve the effect of Captain Marvel flying, ace Republic directors William Witney and John English collaborated with the studio’s visual effects wizards Theodore and Howard Lydecker, whose work equaled (and in many cases surpassed) the efforts of Hollywood’s major studios at that time. They built a 7-foot dummy of the flying hero and suspended him on two taut piano wires which the camera couldn’t discern. They intercut those genuine flying shots, over the San Fernando Valley, with excellent medium and close-up shots of Tom Tyler against a process screen backdrop. The coup de grace was the Captain’s takeoffs and landings, which were performed by stunt man David Sharpe, a former gymnastics champion who made the seemingly impossible come true right before our eyes.

Serials are underrated in today’s pop culture world. When my daughter was little I showed her the videocassette of The Adventures of Captain Marvel and she was mesmerized. Even my large class of 20-somethings at USC has responded to Flash Gordon and Zorro’s Fighting Legion. They’re skeptical at first but gradually get caught up in the fun.

Republic Pictures made the best serials, so it’s frustrating that only a handful of theirs are legally available for home viewing: fortunately, Zorro’s Fighting Legion is in the public domain, and is one of the very best of the lot. VCI Entertainment is the largest distributor of vintage serials and offers that title as well as Jungle Girl with Frances Gifford, the underrated King of the Royal Mounted, and four Dick Tracy serials that rate fairly high. Most of VCI’s serials come from Universal and Columbia studios, however, which didn’t have the consistently fine special effects, stunt work, and brisk pacing that made the Republic chapter-plays so good.

Oddly enough, the comic-book superhero serials that followed Captain Marvel, and have the most marquee value today, are among the cheesiest of the genre: Superman and Atom Man vs. Superman are nothing to write home about, nor are Batman and Batman and Robin, all made by Columbia (although the Superman serials are now owned by Warner Bros.) I’m not even that crazy about Republic’s 1944 version of Captain America.

Billy Batson learns about his destiny from the character known as Shazam.

No, The Adventures of Captain Marvel is in a class by itself. It was released on vhs, laserdisc, and even dvd once upon a time by the now-defunct Republic Pictures Home Video, and is currently out of print. I’m hoping that Olive Films, which has a licensing deal with Paramount (current owner of that Republic library) will think about issuing this and other vintage serials, from the original 35mm masters.

If you’ve never seen any of these serials, you must remember that they were made for 10-to-12-year-old boys. The writing is simplistic in the extreme, and the production values are modest at best; there was no CGI to fall back on in those days. But at their best, these cliffhangers—which kept kids coming back to their neighborhood theaters week after week—have a momentum that is irresistible, and a good-guy-vs.-bad-guy template that never fails. Telling stories in serialized form has worked from the days of Charles Dickens right up through TV sensations like Lost. It’s high time more of today’s comic-book-crazy moviegoers got in on the fun of those old-time serials.

You can learn more about all of this, and view a number of serials and individual chapters at the web home of Serial Squadron.

           P.S.  A reader called me an idiot for not knowing that D.C. Comics owns Captain Marvel. I’m well aware of that, but the reader may not know that D.C. does NOT own the 1941 serial, which remains in the Republic library. Unfortunately, it has been treated as a public domain property by some outlets.

Here’s stunt man David Sharpe doing one of his patented leaps, not in 'The Adventures of Captain Marvel' but another fine Republic serial, 'Drums of Fu Manchu' (1939). Henry Brandon, in the title role, is about to get clobbered .
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21 Comments

  • Sakima Haruchi | January 12, 2014 10:11 PMReply

    Republic released the majority of their serials on VHS, so they ARE quite "legally available." While the quality of the first batch issued was on the soft side, subsequent releases were top-notch visually. The best thing is that they even put out tapes of titles that had fallen into public domain, like UNDERSEA KINGDOM, PAINTED STALLION, SOS COAST GUARD, et al, so you won't find better quality on those! These items can generally be found on Ebay for reasonable prices, and so can VHS players if you don't have one. Adding in the VCI and Serial Squadron releases, all 66 Republic serials are available (including of course the ones that exist in incomplete form)!

  • Jeffrey W | May 24, 2012 5:16 AMReply

    PS- Cap's cape is one of the many excellent things about his costume design- no other hero (or villain) has anything like it. The cape (along with the sash/cummerbund and the original bib-front top) helped to make Captain Marvel's costume dramatic and distinctive. As far as dramatic capes go only Batman's is better- Superman's doesn't even come close.

  • Jeffrey W | May 24, 2012 5:11 AMReply

    Thanks for this review, Leonard. I grew up on the 1970s Saturday morning tv version of 'Captain Marvel' as well as reprints of the original (beautiful) 1940s comics by CC Beck et al. You've given me the courage to check the serial out- I have faith in your good taste.

  • Norm | May 10, 2012 1:52 PMReply

    P.S. What has to be the most annoying, distracting and dysfunctional piece of wardrobe is that silly little half cape worn by Capt. Marvrel. It has NO function than to incite the viewer and interfere with the action. Covered with Ankhs it really needs to rethought. BTW, Tom Tyler does a fine job as CM, although , one could find work as a carpenter whenever he is near. One last thought, Billy Batson was clobbered on the head no less than 6 times in the viewing, do you think he might have PTSD...? ouch...

  • Norm | May 8, 2012 7:15 PMReply

    Capt. Marvel, Upon Further Review...Awesome..after obtaining rather easily an original Artisan print, the exploits of the Capt. and Company are always seemingly available. The creativity and imagination put into this project is first rate. Tom Tyler, Frank Coghlan jr. and Louise Currie are perfectly cast. This serial is always on the move, but does give you time to catch your breath, and it is NOT politically correct. Should be used as a primer in film study on how to make films, without the filler. The boyish "Oh Golly" energy of Coghlan is infectious ,and endearing. Betty Wallace(Currie) had nothing to learn from Lois Lane as she tackles any obstacle with full on determination. I thought the character of "Whitey" more of a plot device than a person. While the budget does lack for exotic locations, I mean c'mon, Siam looks like California, the vitality and enthusiasim are inspiring and bring the audience with them. Now, because of Leonards other associates, it seems I need to check out "Spy Smasher"...hhmm...
    Really the best serial, whatever happened to Gene Autry and the "Phantom Empire",lost land of Muriania....ouch...Cowboys & Aliens anyone..?

  • Dick Siegel | May 5, 2012 5:23 PMReply

    Sorry Leonard, old chum, SPY SMASHER was the one to beat NOT Captain Marvel - heard about Cap for years as being the best chapterplay EVER but Kane Richmond's dual role in the opening chapter and the non-stop Republic action sealed Smasher the best one for me (after FLASH GORDON 36). Fawcett Comics who published both comics licensed both Capt. M and Smasher to Republic in a bi-pack deal. I'm rather fond of The MASKED MARVEL which had a Lone Ranger like guessing game as to who the Marvel really was and THE PERILS OF NYOKA (aka NYOKA and THE TIGER MEN). Oddly enough Republic was trying to strike a deal with National Comics Publications (DC) for Superman but when that deal fell through they turned their Super-script into MYSTERIOUS DR. SATAN with the ol' Copperhead. Always a pleasure to read your columns and get the old projector reelin' in the head.

  • Norm | May 4, 2012 3:54 PMReply

    P.S. Kudos to Leonard for providing the "Voice" for the audience without a face..We that don't have access to the "Moguls" in the Industry to express the demand to recreate a series or promote the general welfare of the Film going public. Without the History of Film ,we have a poor choice of starting points. Films ,TV or even books from the 50's,60's and 70's are in danger of disappearing...Much less the History that surrounds them...

  • John E. Petty | May 4, 2012 2:09 PMReply

    Don't forget "Mysterious Dr. Satan." Although The Copperhead never appeared in comic book form, the serial was originally planned and designed as a Republic Superman serial. When rights discussions fell through, Witney and English hastily retooled the property for a non-powered hero, hence the Copperhead was born. Their plans for Superman - facing an army of killer robots in the heart of Metropolis - was nicely realized in "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow."

  • Mark Heimback-Nielsen | May 4, 2012 11:11 AMReply

    They showed the last episode of the series at the 75th anniversary celebration of Republic Pictures in 2010. It was a beautiful 35 mm print that looked more like a digital projection (in that the image was so crisp and had a wide tonal range). I, too, am hoping that the entire series transferred from 35mm will be available some day either on Blu-ray or DVD.

  • SirOtter | May 3, 2012 8:25 PMReply

    Great column, Leonard, and I couldn't agree more. I second the earlier commenter's praise of Spy Smasher, as well. Too true about Republic's Captain America. It wasn't the worst serial made (Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island, anyone?), but it had about as much to do with the comic Cap as Columbia's Mandrake serial had to do with Lee Falk's comic strip. Even less, I suppose, but I have to say it was the better of the two. That's true of virtually all Republics when compared to almost any Columbias.

    And kudos for acknowledging the contributions of the wonderful David Sharpe! He makes any serial even more worth watching.

  • Kevin Barry | May 3, 2012 7:36 PMReply

    My 11 year old grandson and I love to watch vintage films together and I've tried recreating the golden age movie experience for him by showing classic features along with Disney cartoons, Laurel and Hardy shorts and serial episodes. I'm happy that he is aware of the fact that movies are so much more than just the new products. By the way, Leonard, your book "151 Best Movies You've Never Seen" is a goldmine for film buffs, and like everything you do it is scholarly, entertaining and informative. I've given a number of copies as gifts to friends and you can see the joy in their eyes the minute they see the cover.

  • Norm | May 3, 2012 7:31 PMReply

    My Kingdom for a Saturday Serial...Growing up in St. Loius in the early 60's, didn't allow for the serials, and the timing seems to have been from the 40's thru the 50's...Although Commander Cody caught my eye and the power and freedom of flight is still very appealing...
    Love then robots, Lyle Talbot, and the moon vehicles..what a treat... The interesting side story of Capt. Marvel is the threat he appeared to National Perioodical Publictions/DC, and their continuing lawsuits against the publishers...really..Superman was threatened by another costumed hero...one of the downsides of the industry..ironic to say the least...Fred McMurray...Shazam...

  • Colin | May 3, 2012 3:38 PMReply

    I was lucky to see the Captain Marvel serial on the big screen as part of a series of kid's screenings at the LA County Museum of Art when I was a youngster. I loved them, and couldn't wait to see what crazy method they'd dream up to save the Captain from each episode's certain doom. The simple but stunning flying effects in particular really made an impression. Republic had a talented crew that sure knew how to make a lot out of not much.

  • Dbenson | May 3, 2012 3:08 PMReply

    I keep Captain Marvel and the rest in a shredded wheat carton in the living room, patiently waiting for someone to ask what's in the cereal box. The ones who know keep steering the conversation elsewhere.

    As a kid I was always catching random episodes of old serials on TV; had to wait for home video to actually see ANY serial all the way through. They're not much for story or character development, but most of them are great fun.

  • John Keefer | May 3, 2012 2:15 PMReply

    Mr. Maltin! Mr. Maltin! Thank you for this and thank you for Cliffhanger: Adventures from the Thrill Factory. It was rented by me many a time from my local Blockbuster. The first time the clerk said to me, "You know this isn't the movie Cliffhanger, right?" Proud as I had ever been in my nerd-dom I replied "Yes I know, it's a documentary about serials." Is it weird that an 11 year old watched a lot of serials and listened to old radio shows?...yes, yes it was. But hopefully it'll pay off. Cheers!

  • Paul Penna | May 3, 2012 11:33 AMReply

    Agree with you about Republic serials, although I'd say that Spy Smasher could give Captain Marvel a good run for its money, plus it had stuntman Dave Sharpe in a real role. As for their release from prime 35mm elements, if seemingly-authoritative near-inside sources posting on the Home Theater Forum are to be believed, Olive Films apparently thinks that the numerous gray-market and outright bootlegs that have cropped up over the years have glutted the market. The same applies to their apparent decision not to include the public domain Betty Boop cartoons from their upcoming set.

  • Mark | May 3, 2012 8:04 AMReply

    This Capt Marvel is a DC Property you idiot. Read up before you write.

  • Mike F. | May 3, 2012 3:13 PM

    Hey Mark, read up before you write, moron!

  • leonard | May 3, 2012 10:31 AM

    He wasn't when he was created, or when the movie was made in 1941... but I won't call you names as I correct your comment.

  • Richard W. Bann | May 3, 2012 4:44 AMReply

    Good work.

  • Jackson Bostwick | May 5, 2012 5:03 PM

    Great article, Leonard. Looks like like now I'll be one of the last actors to portray the World's Mightiest Mortal as Captain Marvel, now that DC has decided (to avoid "confusion" among the fans. HAH!) to change the character's name to Shazam. Poor Mary Shazam and Captain Shazam, Jr. and I guess the old wizard will now be called Shazam, Sr. ARRG! C.C. Beck will haunt their halls till "Kingdom Come."

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