Republic, 12 Chapters, 1941. Starring Tom Tyler, Frank Coghlan Jr., Louise Currie, Billy Benedict, Robert Strange, John Davidson, Harry Worth, George Pembroke, George Lynn, Kenne Duncan, John S. Bagni, Reed Hadley, Bryant Washburn, and Gerald Mohr as the voice of the Scorpion.
In a remote region of Siam known as the Valley of Tombs, an American archeological expedition discovers a priceless and powerful artifact called the Golden Scorpion–an ancient statue whose adjustable lenses can harness the power of the sun. This device is capable of transmuting metals, melting solid rock, and disintegrating human beings–and could easily make its possessor the master of the world; realizing this, the expedition members divide the lenses among themselves, hoping to keep the Scorpion statute from being put to evil ends. Unfortunately, one of the archeologists has other ideas; donning a disguise and dubbing himself “the Scorpion,” he steals the statute and then sets out to seize all the lenses for himself, cold-bloodedly murdering his colleagues in the process. However, the rediscovery of the Golden Scorpion has awakened Shazam, the statue’s supernatural guardian; he selects an expedition member–the youthful radio broadcaster Billy Batson (Frank Coghlan Jr.)–to act as his human agent, having been impressed by Batson’s refusal to join the archeologists in their rash opening of the Tomb of the Scorpion. Shazam gives Billy the magical ability to transform into a superhuman champion known as Captain Marvel (Tom Tyler), and assigns him the task of protecting the world from the Golden Scorpion’s destructive powers–a task that will involve Billy and his new alter ego in constant battle with the agents of the ruthless human Scorpion.
Screenwriters Ronald Davidson, Norman Hall, Sol Shor, Joseph Poland, and Arch Heath borrow little from the whimsical Fawcett comic books on which Adventures of Captain Marvel was based–save for the Captain’s supernatural origin scene, which they make seem more logical and less fanciful (albeit no less fantastic) than it was in the comics by tying it to the excavation of the Golden Scorpion statue. The writers keep the villains’ pursuit of said statue’s lenses from seeming repetitive by neatly balancing it with the heavies’ attempts to eliminate Billy Batson and Captain Marvel, and with Billy’s efforts to uncover the Scorpion’s identity. The leading characters’ return to Siam in Chapter Ten (after spending Chapters Two through Nine in America) also helps to keep the storyline from getting stale–and leads to an exciting climactic chapter that, like the finales of other classic Republics such as King of the Royal Mounted or Mysterious Doctor Satan, allows the villain to reach the verge of triumph just before receiving his final defeat.
However, solid as Captain Marvel‘s plotting is, its principal claim to fame rests on its terrific action scenes, which are centered around equally terrific special effects. In order to allow Captain Marvel to soar through the air, effects wizards Howard and Theodore Lydecker placed a weighted, life-size paper-mache dummy on thin guide wires, and then let it glide smoothly through various outdoor locations; this simple device makes the Captain’s flight scenes seem utterly believable, by allowing the airborne hero to inhabit the same physical landscape as the people or vehicles he’s pursuing. Stuntman Dave Sharpe’s take-off leaps and landings, which bookend each of the dummy’s flights, further enhance their believability. The closeups of star Tom Tyler in front of a process screen are less satisfactory than the other effects–but are used sparingly, are carefully matched to the background of each scene, and are often improved by the use of smoke clouds to create the illusion that Tyler is soaring through fields of cumulus.
The Chapter One sequence in which Captain Marvel goes into extended action for the first time (battling an army of hostile tribesmen to ensure the expedition’s escape) is heavily reliant on the above-mentioned Lydecker effects and Sharpe stuntwork–and is one of the serial’s action highlights, with Sharpe executing dynamic leaps and backflips as he combats surprised natives on the rocks and hillsides of Iverson’s Ranch, and the dummy convincingly gliding through the same area. Captain Marvel’s Chapter Three chase after a runaway truck containing the heroine (set against another recognizable backdrop, the winding roads of the San Fernando Valley) is another highlight, as are Captain Marvel’s aerial chase after a mounted tribesman in Chapter Eleven and the great Chapter Seven scene that has the Captain swooping down and landing on the dam at Lake Sherwood to rescue the heroine again. There are many other memorable flying scenes spaced throughout the serial–some long, some short, but all of them visually spectacular.
Above, top left: Captain Marvel (Dave Sharpe again) drops down on some as-yet-unaware native ambushers. Top right: Sharpe as Marvel atop the runaway truck. Bottom left: The Captain Marvel dummy swoops towards a heavy on the dam at Lake Sherwood. Bottom right: Captain Marvel (Tom Tyler), after landing atop the dam, advances menacingly towards the heavy as Louise Currie watches.
The action scenes that don’t center around Captain Marvel’s flights are equally well-done; due to the hero’s super-strength, there are fewer fistfight sequences here than in most of Republic’s other Golden Age serials–but the many scenes of the Captain throwing heavies across the room, though shorter, are impressive in their own right; the encounter between Marvel and the henchmen at the antique shop in Chapter Four is particularly good. Tyler, a former Olympic weightlifter, seems to be doing his own thug-tossing in this and other sequences, with Sharpe, Jimmy Fawcett, Ken Terrell, Duke Taylor, Dick Crockett, Henry Wills, and other stuntmen taking the falls for the villains. The serial does feature several excellent “traditional” brawls as well–most noticeably, the fight and chase at the bridge in Chapter Two (which has Sharpe doubling Frank Coghlan Jr. and Fawcett standing in for henchman John Bagni), the gymnastic combat between Terrell (playing an archeologist’s butler) and Sharpe (doubling henchman Carleton Young) in Chapter Six, and the equally lively Chapter Ten fight between Sharpe and Terrell (this time doubling Coghlan and action heavy Kenne Duncan, respectively).
The Chapter Seven foot chase through the woods (which concludes with the dam sequence pictured above) is a standout as well, and makes good use of its outdoor locations–the Lake Sherwood area and the nearby Malibu Creek State Park. Bronson Canyon is featured in Chapter Four, when Billy Batson goes looking for the Scorpion in a cave hideout, while Iverson’s Ranch is “cast” as Siam–forcing one to assume this Siam is not the nation now known as Thailand, but an identically-named country in Central Asia or the Middle East; neither the hills of Iverson’s nor “Siam’s” decidedly Afghan natives (dressed to match stock footage from the feature Storm Over Bengal) remotely resembles the verdant Thailand or its Oriental inhabitants. Geographical quibbles aside, the Ranch–as in Perils of Nyoka–works well as a dangerous wilderness realm; its large standing stockade also provides the backdrop for a memorable siege scene in the first chapter. Republic’s set designers do an excellent job of making the interiors of the Tomb of the Scorpion look as ancient and as sinister as possible, while the long drives of an actual Beverly Hills mansion and a big parking garage provide some good stateside locations.
Cliffhanger sequences in Captain Marvel are generally creative, although the writers are sometimes forced to odd contrivances in order to keep Billy from uttering the magic word of transformation (“Shazam”) and turning into Captain Marvel to resolve the situation too early; the Chapter Three plane explosion and the Chapter Six bombing-range chapter ending–both of which climax with excellent Lydecker miniature explosions–are the most noticeable cases in point. The unconscious heroine’s wild ride down the parking-garage ramp at the end of Chapter Four is very good, as are the melting-mountain cliffhanger in Chapter Five (which draws partially on stock footage from SOS Coast Guard), the Chapter One bridge collapse (which features more good miniature work), the Chapter Nine machine-gun trap, and (especially) the miniature-assisted tomb cave-in that concludes Chapter Eleven. Although not a cliffhanger sequence, the excellent Chapter Twelve chase scene (with native cavalry pursuing the heroine and the sidekick in a car) is also enhanced by a piece of miniature work–an amazing car-jump across a chasm.
Frank Coghlan Jr. and Tom Tyler are ideally suited to their respective heroic roles; although Coghlan conveys proper shrewdness and confidence when devising strategies or questioning suspects, his likably “average” appearance and politely cheerful manner make him seem far more of an easygoing Everyman than any other Republic serial protagonist. He comes off as an honest, bright, but otherwise ordinary youngster forced to deal with an extraordinary situation to the best of his ability–and seems all the more appealing as a result. Tyler cuts a truly imposing figure as Captain Marvel, his powerful physique making him look fully capable of his many feats of strength–hurling villains through the air, carrying friends to safety, lifting fallen trees, and so forth. His steely glare and aquiline features give him a positively menacing look at times, while in other scenes he conveys an almost boyish enthusiasm (particularly when he grins as heavies bounce bullets off his chest) that meshes well with Coghlan’s effervescent depiction of Billy. Tyler’s raspy and oft-criticized voice also works very well in this part, giving an arresting and distinctive sound to his relatively few lines of dialogue.
The cast supporting Coghlan and Tyler is uniformly strong. As Betty Wallace, secretary to the beleaguered archeologists, Louise Currie makes a pleasant, pretty, and quietly spunky heroine–displaying calm resourcefulness, determined courage, fervent admiration for Captain Marvel, and a rather big-sisterly fondness for Billy Batson by turns. William “Billy” Benedict does an excellent job as Billy’s pal Whitey, providing several welcome chuckles through his gangly movements and his breezy manner–but never overdoing the comic aspects of his role or seeming like anything other than a genuine help to the other good guys. Both Currie and Benedict share an excellent rapport with Coghlan; their good-natured interactions and their collective air of youthful energy make them one of the most congenial hero-heroine-sidekick trios in any Republic chapterplay.
The group of character actors–some grumpy, some crafty, some suavely sinister–who make up the pool of Scorpion suspects provide a good contrast to the chipper young leads. Fox-faced Robert Strange is snappishly authoritative as the expedition’s leader Professor Malcolm, while Harry Worth is dryly smug and disdainful in manner as Professor Bentley. The incomparable John Davidson is a delight as the expedition’s Siamese member, Tal Chotali–prophesying doom in his rolling baritone and making suspicious excuses with a serpentine smile. British-accented George Pembroke is dignified and rather aloof as Doctor Lang, and George Lynn scowls and growls to excellent effect as Professor Fisher; Bryant Washburn, as the slightly timid Professor Carlyle, is the most affable and sympathetic of the group, but receives the least screen time. All of these reliable performers play their red-herring parts to the hilt, with Davidson, Worth, and Lynn particularly excelling when it comes to exchanging suspicious glances; their antics make each of the suspects’ “board meetings” highly enjoyable.
The Scorpion himself stands as one of the serial genre’s best mystery villains; his black robe and hood (decorated with scorpion emblems, of course) give him a suitably sinister appearance, but his greatest asset is his voice–which is provided by the accomplished Gerald Mohr. Mohr, a radio-trained actor who went on to a long career in movies and TV shows, handles the villain’s vocals with a subtlety far removed from the hammy declaiming of earlier serial mystery men like the Dragon or the Lightning. Mohr’s Scorpion never raises his voice in anger, instead laying his plots in silky and slyly self-assured tones that carry a touch of mocking sarcasm–and also convey a quiet arrogance more menacing than harsh ranting could ever have been.
Kenne Duncan is characteristically nasty as the Scorpion’s dangerously capable lieutenant Barnett, smirking with evil delight as he prepares to guillotine a captive archeologist or attempts to bury Captain Marvel beneath molten rock. John S. Bagni has one of his biggest henchman roles as Barnett’s roughneck aide Cowan and does a good job in it, his very gangster-like face and emphatically New-Yorkish accent lending themselves well to his tough-talking dialogue. Reed Hadley, as the Scorpion’s fanatical Siamese accomplice Rahman Bar, only appears in four chapters but plays the role with scene-stealing flair–affecting a grandiose, near-operatic haughtiness, and using his wonderfully resonant speaking voice to extract every drop of dramatic juice from his violent exhortations to his followers (“The infidels have entered the Valley of the Tombs and must be destroyed!” )
Jack Mulhall is as likable as ever in his first-chapter turn as the level-headed archeologist Howell, who proposes the prudent division of the lenses before getting killed. Nigel De Brulier, a prominent character player in the silent era, brings an appropriate aura of venerable and remote dignity to the part of the otherworldly Shazam. Perennially slick Carleton Young is one of the Scorpion’s recurring henchmen, while the perennially nervous Stanley Price is showcased in Chapter Four as (what else?) a henchman who’s captured and interrogated by Captain Marvel. Marten Lamont (later the star of Federal Operator 99) pops up as a British soldier, with Leyland Hodgson as his commander. Eddie Dew is the British army officer accompanying the expedition in the first chapter, Al Kikume, Ernest Sarracino, Al Taylor, and Steve Clemente are Siamese tribesmen, and Tetsu Komai is a shifty antique dealer. Lynton Brent and Bud Geary have bits as thugs, Ed Cassidy as a sea captain, and Chuck Morrison as Cassidy’s first mate. With the exception of Dave Sharpe himself, all of the serial’s stuntmen appear in at least one acting role.
Directors William Witney and John English tie the serial’s scripting, special effects, action scenes, and acting together with smooth professionalism; their best cinematographer, William Nobles, does a fine job as well (the camera work during the excavation of the statue in Chapter One is particularly striking). Cy Feuer also makes a notable behind-camera contribution to the proceedings, turning in another of his excellent music scores; the sweeping, harp-and-violin based theme that’s played over the opening credits and serves as Captain Marvel’s primary soundtrack cue within the serial itself is perfectly suited to the high-flying hero. The driving action music which backs the serial’s fights and chases is also very strong, as is the theme that accompanies appearances by the Golden Scorpion or the human Scorpion–a piece that’s alternately stately and quietly mysterious, and has a slight but definite Middle Eastern sound to it.
Adventures of Captain Marvel is easily the most famous of all Republic’s chapterplays, and has been hailed as the studio’s all-time best serial more often than any of the studio’s other outings; while I myself wouldn’t rank it quite that highly, I’d certainly place it among Republic’s top ten. It isn’t as atmospheric as Drums of Fu Manchu or The Fighting Devil Dogs, or as dramatic as Hawk of the Wilderness or Daredevils of the Red Circle, but it’s extremely well-done all the same, and irresistibly entertaining to any serial buff–or, indeed, to any devotee of fantastic comic-book-style adventure.