Sunday, July 16, 2006
Random Movie Report #8: The Adventures of Captain Marvel
Captain Marvel was once the most popular superhero of all, outselling Superman and making "Shazam!" a household word. One lawsuit from National Publications (later to be known as DC comics) and several court reversals later, his publishers went out of business and Captain Marvel became DC property, vanishing from sight for nearly two decades. (In that time, Marvel Comics created their own "Captain Marvel" title, so when DC did decide to revive the character, they couldn't market him or his books with the title "Captain Marvel", hence 'Shazam' has become the character's trade name.) Even when DC allowed the theoretically-copyright-infringing character to return to the spotlight, he was never treated as one of the A-list, and at this point it's possible more people know "Shazam" from Gomer Pyle than the Big Red Cheese. But back in 1941, he was a rising star, and he got his own live-action serial when Superman was still in cartoons. It's good stuff, not great, but I haven't updated the blog in a while, so here we go.
Billy Batson (Frank Coghlan, Jr.) is a teenage boy who accompanies a group of archaeologists and their guide into the Valley of Tombs somewhere around Central Asia, where they uncover an old tomb (of course) and inside it, an artifact called the Scorpion which, when its lenses are positioned properly, can turn anything into gold and destroy mountainsides and so forth. Batson is visited by the tomb's guardian, the ancient sorcerer Shazam (Nigel De Brulier), who fears that the Scorpion will be used for evil, and so gives Billy the power to become Captain Marvel (played by Tom Tyler), a superhero with the wisdom of Solomon, strength of Hercules, stamina of Atlas, power of Zeus, courage of Achilles, and speed of Mercury. Which in practical terms means that Billy yells "Shazam!", there's a thunderclap and flash of smoke, and he becomes a large muscular fellow in red tights who flies around and beats people up. And it turns out his services are needed right away. The scientists agree that the artifact would be too dangerous in the wrong hands, and split up the lenses amongst themselves for safe keeping. But as it happens, one of the party takes to walking around in a hooded costume and calling himself "The Scorpion", planning to steal the lenses and use the artifact to gain power. First he incites an attack by the heavily armed locals, and then, when everyone has returned to the US (including the guide), he goes about trying to steal the remaining lenses with the assistance of several henchmen (lead by serial vet Kenne Duncan.)
Since this is a Republic serial, most of the proceedings boil down to shady gentlemen in hats breaking into houses and engaging in fistfights, with the twist that there's a super-strong guy in the mix. (Strangely enough, the most impressive fighting comes not from Marvel but from the unnamed butler of one of the scientists, who puts up a heroic struggle to prevent his boss' property from being stolen. You can't buy loyalty like that.) There's also a good "Whodunnit" angle to the film- the Scorpion is uncredited (and as it happens, the guy who does his voice does not play any of the characters who could actually be him), and all the suspects do a good job of looking shifty and uncomfortable whenever Billy Batson and partners "Whitey" Murphy (William Benedict) and Betty Wallace (Louise Currie) bring up the subject of who it might be. I freely confess my own hunch turned out to be completely off the mark.
Over 12 chapters, the story does get to be a bit repetitive- the serials sometimes suffer from our being able to watch multiple chapters at once. But it's slick, and decently plotted, and has the mystery angle to string you along. I can imagine kids in 1941 having spirited debates on the subject of which middle-aged, vaguely sinister gentleman was the evil Scorpion. They would most likely grow up to create the Internet, so that such discussions could be archived for eternity.