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.
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.