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Adventures of Captain Marvel

Original theatrical poster for Adventures of Captain Marvel Episode 10: "Doom Ship"
Directed by William Witney
John English
Produced by Hiram S. Brown, Jr.
Written by Character:
Bill Parker
C. C. Beck
Screenplay:
Ronald Davidson
Norman S. Hall
Arch B. Heath
Joseph Poland
Sol Shor
Starring Tom Tyler
Frank Coghlan Jr.
William Benedict
Louise Currie
Robert Strange
Harry Worth
Bryant Washburn
John Davidson
Music by Cy Feuer
Cinematography William Nobles
Distributed by Republic Pictures
Release date(s) March 28, 1941 (1941-03-28)[1]
Running time 12 chapters / 216 minutes[1]
Country United States
Language English
Budget $135,553 (negative cost: $119,343)[1]

Adventures of Captain Marvel is a 1941 twelve-chapter film serial directed by John English and William Witney for Republic Pictures, adapted from the popular Captain Marvel comic book character then appearing in Fawcett Comics publications such as Whiz Comics and Captain Marvel Adventures. It starred Tom Tyler (who also played The Phantom) in the title role of Captain Marvel and Frank Coghlan Jr. as his alter ego, Billy Batson.

This serial was the twenty-first of the sixty-six serials produced by Republic and their first comic book adaptation (not counting comic strips such as Dick Tracy). Spy Smasher, also based on a Fawcett character, would follow in 1942.

This serial was the first film adaptation of a comic book superhero. That claim would have gone to the previous serial, Mysterious Doctor Satan, which was intended to have been a Superman serial until National Comics (now DC Comics) pulled out of negotiations. National Comics unsuccessfully attempted to sue Republic for producing a Captain Marvel serial.

Contents

Plot

The serial featured an adaptation of the Fawcett Comics superhero, placed within an original story in which he fights a mysterious masked criminal mastermind, called The Scorpion, who is determined to gain total control of a magical gold scorpion figurine. It is actually a disguised optical weapon of incredible power (including, but not limited to, melting rock via a projected death ray).

Billy Batson is an assistant radio operator with the Malcolm archaeological expedition to "the Valley of the Tombs" in Siam. The expedition is attacked by natives but Tal Chotali parleys with Rahman Bar. A sacred legend states no desecration will occur until the volcano, Scorpio, is active again. At the tombs, Billy refuses to enter the inner tomb as it would desecrate the religious beliefs of others. Instead he goes to pack pottery in another tunnel. In the inner tomb, Tal Chotali, Prof Malcolm, Prof Luthor Bentley, Dwight Fisher, and Dr Stephen Lang, find the Golden Scorpion. A ray from the Scorpion collapses the entrance to the tombs and opens a hidden passage between Billy and the ancient wizard Shazam. Shazam grants him the ability to change into Captain Marvel in order to prevent the Golden Scorpion from falling into the wrong hands. It is his "duty to see that the curse of the Scorpion is not visited on innocent people."

The lenses from the Golden Scorpion are divided among the five scientists. Scorpio then erupts which triggers a native attack. However, the masked mystery villain the Scorpion is orchestrating it, stealing one of the lenses during the hostilities. The expedition is rescued by cavalry from Fort Mooltan. Captain Marvel then flies to a group of natives with a machine gun, knocks them out by throwing one at the other, and takes over the gun. Marvel then throws aside the gun and attacks with his bare fists. Marvel learns he is invulnerable as bullets bounce off his chest.

The expedition then returns to the United States, where the Scorpion attempts to acquire all of the lenses and the Scorpion device for his own power. Several expedition members are killed in his quest despite Captain Marvel's continual efforts to thwart the villain. Billy Batson soon decides that the man behind the Scorpion's mask is one of the team.

Eventually a second expedition sets out because it has been learned that Long had actually hidden his lens in the tomb. The Scorpion witnesses Billy's change during this and captures him - tying him up and gagging him. The Scorpion interrogates Billy for the secret. When Billy agrees to tell him, The Scorpion removes the gag and Billy says "Shazam", which transforms him into Captain Marvel.

The Scorpion is then revealed to be Bentley. He is killed by the disillusioned native chief, Rahman Bar, who uses the Scorpion in death ray mode. Shazam himself is heard to say the magic word and Captain Marvel is transformed back into Billy Batson.

Cast

Production

DVD front cover for The Adventures of Captain Marvel serial.

Adventures of Captain Marvel was budgeted at $135,553 although the final negative cost was $145,588 (a $10,035, or 7.4%, overspend).[1] It was filmed between December 23, 1940 and January 30, 1941 under the working title Captain Marvel.[1] The serial's production number was 1098.[1]

The serial was an outgrowth of Republic's failed attempt at a chapterplay to feature National Periodical Publications (today DC Comics)'s Superman, the script for which had become the studio's Mysterious Doctor Satan. The film company approached Fawcett Comics for their most popular character, and that publishing house did not refuse. Director William Witney was, however, skeptical about trying to film Captain Marvel after the problems with Superman.[2] As a result, Adventures of Captain Marvel became the first superhero film adaptation of a comic book.[3][4]

National attempted legal action to prevent the filming, citing the previous attempt at a Superman serial, but was unsuccessful. Writing in his autobiography of the period, William Witney revealed that in his deposition he had claimed that both Superman and Captain Marvel were derivatives of Popeye.[2] About a decade later, following a legal battle with National and a declining market, Fawcett ceased publication of all its comic series. In the 1970s, the Captain Marvel family of characters was licensed and revived (and ultimately purchased) by DC Comics.

The opening military scenes are taken from a 1938 Republic Pictures film Storm Over Bengal.

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Writing

The Republic writers replaced the wit and humor of the original comics with "serious, dedicated professionalism." As they could not use the standard fistfights with Captain Marvel, due to his superpowers compared to the normal antagonists, they had time for plot and characterization in the script.[5]

Casting

Republic cast Frank Coghlan as Billy Batson due to his physical resemblance to the character.[6] However, there was some criticism that Tom Tyler did not sufficiently resemble the "beefy, baby-faced Captain Marvel."[6] At the time, Tyler was a weightlifting champion and the costume matched Captain Marvel's original appearance, even down to slenderness. The appearance of the comic version had changed by this time, however.[5]

Tyler, who was described as clumsy, knocked over props with his "lanky arms". Punches in fight scenes would sometimes connect.[5]

Due to his performance in King of the Royal Mounted, Robert Strange as John Malcolm was the choice as the villain in this serial; however, in the end he was not actually the villain.[7]

Special effects

The serial has been hailed as among the finest of the form for both its writing and its production values. In particular, the special effects produced primarily by the Lydecker brothers, and specifically the shots showing Captain Marvel flying, are often impressive.

The flying effects were performed with a dummy. The dummy was slightly larger than life, at 7 feet tall, and made of paper mâché so that it weighed only 15 lbs. The uniform was made of thin silk and a cotton jersey. Four pulleys connected to each shoulder and calf, which were strung on two wires so the dummy moved along them by its own weight. The wires were attached to two objects across the view of the camera, and the dummy slid from one to the other, giving the appearance of flight. This system was originally intended for a Superman serial, a prototype of which was built but discarded.[5] The flying pose used for the dummy, arms outstretched and back arched, was based on drawing by Mac Raboy.[5] If Captain Marvel needed to be seen flying upwards, the cape was weighted down and the dummy slid backwards. The film of this was then reversed.[5]

Dave Sharpe was the human part of the effect. Dressed as Captain Marvel, he would leap from a high point with his body straight, as if able to fly, then roll to land at the last second. The combination of effects and stunts produced the overall illusion of a flying person. Sharpe also performed other stunts as Captain Marvel, such as back flipping and knocking down attacking natives in the first chapter.[5] Some shots of Captain Marvel flying were filmed with Tyler against rear projected clouds. However, some of these scenes show the wires used to hold him up.[5]

According to Stedman, the flight scenes were "the most successful illusion of such aerobatics ever put upon the screen, in serial or feature."[8]

The technique had been developed in the earlier serial Darkest Africa (1936) and was later used again in the "Rocket Man" serials (King of the Rocket Men, Radar Men from the Moon, Zombies of the Stratosphere and Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe) released during 1949-1953.

The much cheaper Columbia Pictures Superman serials which appeared in the late 1940s used animated cartoon sequences to represent various actions, most frequently Superman's flights (Columbia produced the cheapest serials of the period and producer Sam Katzman was notorious for cutting costs).

Costume

The tunic worn by Tom Tyler and stuntman David Sharp was actually colored gray, not red. Since the serial was filmed in black and white, this change is unnoticeable. Some Republic publicity materials featured water-colored stills of Tyler in this uniform, in which it was mistakenly colored blue instead of red.

One of the tunics later appeared as the costume of a member of the Kryptonian science counsel in the first episode of The Adventures of Superman television show, filmed in 1951.[9] The lightning bolt on the tunic is partially concealed by means of an oversized collar around the actor's neck, but it is unmistakable to anyone familiar with this serial. Considering the fact that Captain Marvel was still being published and that Fawcett Publications and Superman's publishers were bitter adversaries, the appearance of Captain Marvel's uniform in Episode One for his rival could be seen as highly ironic. It is unknown if anyone from the cast or crew was aware of the significance of the artifact.

After the usage in Episode 1 of Superman, two Captain Marvel tunics were sported by actors in early episodes of the original U.S. version of the pioneering TV series Space Patrol. Very soon into the series, however, the Marvel tunics were replaced by shirts custom made for the series.

Today, at The Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle, Washington, one of the remaining Captain Marvel tunics is on public display (they also have one of the Superman uniforms from the classic George Reeves TV series as well).

Release

Theatrical

Adventures of Captain Marvel's official release date was March 28, 1941, although this is actually the date the sixth chapter was made available to film exchanges.[1] The serial was re-released on April 15, 1953 under the title Return of Captain Marvel, between the first runs of Jungle Drums of Africa and Canadian Mounties vs. Atomic Invaders.[1] Due to the 'nostalgia' craze in the spring of 1966 resulting from the hit Batman TV show, the serial was re-released as a 4-hour movie compiling all 12 chapters.

Home media

Republic Pictures released the serial as a two-tape VHS set in 1995. The serial was released on DVD in 2003.

Critical reception

Harmon and Glut claim that Adventures of Captain Marvel is "unquestionably one of the finest movie serials ever made, possible the best with the exception of the three Flash Gordon epics."[5] Cline describes this as one of the most outstanding of all serials[10] and Republic's "masterpiece."[7] He writes that Tyler's "striking performance...remains in thousands of minds as the most memorable serial hero of all time - bar none."[11]

Influence

The exposure of the movie serial no doubt aided sales of the Captain Marvel magazines, and it is well-documented that for several years the character outsold Superman.

The original Captain Marvel comics, as a rule, did not absorb many elements of this serial, but there were some effects nonetheless. The characters of Betty Wallace and Whitey Murphy both appeared in the Fawcett comics for a while in the 1940s, and Whitey Murphy made at least one cameo appearance in the 1970s DC Comics incarnation of Captain Marvel.

A serialized two year story arc featuring Mr. Mind and the original Monster Society of Evil in Captain Marvel Adventures #22-#46 showed the influence and inspiration of the Adventures of Captain Marvel serial.[12] This two-year story arc was the first of its kind, and is regarded by comic book fans and historians as one of the milestones of the Golden Age of Comics.[13] In 1989, cartoonist Mike Higgs compiled this entire story arc into a hardcover limited edition collection. This book includes a photo of Tom Tyler as Captain Marvel, underscoring the linkage to this serial.[14]

Captain Marvel was the first super-powered and costumed comic strip hero to be filmed, and the first character exclusively created for comic books (as opposed to newspaper strips, such as Flash Gordon and Dick Tracy) to be filmed as well. Therefore, it fell upon The Adventures of Captain Marvel to prove that comic book heroes could be bankable movie properties. The release of the serial led to a long line of comic book super-hero serials, films, and television shows, which continues to this day.

Home video copies of this serial became commercially available in the 1990s, bringing it to a wider audience. The Scorpion weapon would reappear in the 1990s Power of Shazam comic book.

In 1994, comic book writer/artist Jerry Ordway introduced modern audiences to Captain Marvel with a long-form painted graphic novel, The Power of Shazam!, and an ongoing comic book series spin-off which ran from 1995 to 1999. Ordway used the Republic serial as his initial inspiration in his handling of the Captain Marvel characters, and the influence is evident in both the graphic novel and the series [15]: Captain Marvel's costume design was restored to the button-flap tunic version seen in early issues od Whiz Comics and this serial, and the Scorpion weapon from the film serial appears in several of the issues.

Screenwriter and B-movie producer Don Glut, a fan of the serial, would later go on to become a writer for the live-action Shazam! TV program, a popular 1970's adaptation of Captain Marvel. At least one episode of Shazam! featured outdoor shots of the famous Bronson Cave, which had been used for a memorable sequence in Adventures of Captain Marvel.

Chapters

  1. "Curse of the Scorpion" (30 min.)
  2. "The Guillotine" (16 min.)
  3. "Time Bomb" (17 min.)
  4. "Death Takes the Wheel" (16 min.)
  5. "The Scorpion Strikes" (16 min.)
  6. "Lens of Death" (16 min.)
  7. Human Targets (17 min.)
  8. Boomerang (17 min.)
  9. "Dead Man's Trap" (16 min.)
  10. "Doom Ship" (16 min.)
  11. "Valley of Death" (16 min.)
  12. "Captain Marvel's Secret" (16 min.)

Source:[1][16]

References

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Mathis, Jack. Valley of the Cliffhangers Supplement. Jack Mathis Advertising. pp. 3, 10, 52–53. ISBN 0-9632878-1-8. 
  2. ^ a b Witney, William. In a Door, Into a Fight, Out a Door, Into a Chase: Moviemaking Remembered by the Guy at the Door. (McFarland & Company) ISBN 0786422580
  3. ^ Stedman, Raymond William. "5. Shazam and Good-by". Serials: Suspense and Drama By Installment. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 125. ISBN 9780806109275. "First superhero "taken directly from a comic book"" 
  4. ^ Cline, William C.. "2. In Search of Ammunition". In the Nick of Time. McFarland & Company, Inc.. p. 20. ISBN 078640471X. ""Adventures of Captain Marvel in 1941 pioneered a completely new type of screen champion - the SuperHero [sic]."" 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i Harmon, Jim; Donald F. Glut. "9. The Superheroes "Could Superman Knock Out Captain Marvel"". The Great Movie Serials: Their Sound and Fury. Routledge. pp. 219, 222, 223, 226, 227, 230. ISBN 9780713000979. 
  6. ^ a b Cline, William C.. "2. In Search of Ammunition". In the Nick of Time. McFarland & Company, Inc.. pp. 20, 26. ISBN 078640471X. 
  7. ^ a b Cline, William C.. "9. They Who Also Serve (The Citizens)". In the Nick of Time. McFarland & Company, Inc.. p. 142. ISBN 078640471X. 
  8. ^ Stedman, Raymond William. "5. Shazam and Good-by". Serials: Suspense and Drama By Installment. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 127. ISBN 9780806109275. ""It was the most successful illusion of such aerobatics ever put upon the screen, in serial or feature."" 
  9. ^ Adventures of Superman-The Complete First Season (1952; Warner Home Video; Release Date: 10-18-05; Episode 1, "Superman on Earth.")
  10. ^ Cline, William C.. "3. The Six Faces of Adventure". In the Nick of Time. McFarland & Company, Inc.. p. 37. ISBN 078640471X. 
  11. ^ Cline, William C.. "5. A Cheer for the Champions (The Heroes and Heroines)". In the Nick of Time. McFarland & Company, Inc.. p. 83. ISBN 078640471X. 
  12. ^ Captain Marvel Adventures #22, March 1943, "The Monster Society of Evil, Chapter I, The Pearl of Peril."
  13. ^ Furey, Emmett (Feb. 1 2007)
  14. ^ The Monster Society of Evil: Deluxe Limited Collector's Edition (Hardcover); 1989. C.C. Beck and Otto Binder. Edited by Mike Higgs. American Nostalgia Library/Hawk Books. ISBN 0948248076.
  15. ^ (April 1998) Interview with Jerry Ordway. WestfieldComics.com. Retrieved April 10, 2009.
  16. ^ Cline, William C.. "Filmography". In the Nick of Time. McFarland & Company, Inc.. p. 230. ISBN 078640471X. 

External links

Preceded by
Mysterious Doctor Satan (1940)
Republic Serial
The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941)
Succeeded by
Jungle Girl (1941)
Preceded by
Mysterious Doctor Satan (1940)
Witney-English Serial
The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941)
Succeeded by
Jungle Girl (1941)

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