An upfront warning to any Marvel Comics fans who happen to come on this page: Captain America, the serial, bears no resemblance to its popular comic-book source; possible reasons for this lack of fidelity are given in the postscript at the end of the review.
The chapterplay Captain America is a District Attorney named Grant Gardner (Dick Purcell), who uses his costumed alter ego to fight against a criminal madman known as the Scarab. The Scarab is actually Doctor Cyrus Maldor (Lionel Atwill), a brilliant but seriously twisted scientist who led a successful archeological expedition to the Yucatan jungle years ago. Maldor was the expedition leader, but has been rewarded with nothing but the curatorship of an “insignificant museum,” while his colleagues have reaped wealth and fame. For revenge, the embittered Maldor has been systematically murdering his former friends, and stealing not only the artifacts they found in the Yucatan but their inventions and personal property as well. Gardner/Captain America and his secretary Gail Richards (Lorna Gray) must try to protect the Scarab’s targets and dodge the assaults of his henchman Matson (George J. Lewis), while trying to find out the villain’s true identity.
Captain America, like most other Republic serials made during the World War Two era, largely lacks the location shooting of earlier Republic outings and tends to overemphasize fight scenes–although said fight scenes are several cuts above similar sequences in the other Republic serials of the period. It also possesses some scripting problems peculiarly its own; Captain America features more writers than any other Republic serial (seven in all), and, watching it, one begins to picture Grant Nelson, Jesse Duffy, Joseph Poland, Harry Fraser, Royal Cole, Ronald Davidson, and Basil Dickey creating a story generic enough to hang multiple ideas on, and then cobbling as many random notions as possible into the script–like hoboes making a stew. The end result is flavorful, but sloppy.
Captain America’s script, like that of many Republic serials, features a series of loosely related hero-villain clashes that serve as a pretext for an incredible amount of fight scenes. The thread linking these scenes together, however, is a bit weaker than in most serials; the hero’s ongoing attempts to defeat Maldor’s vengeance scheme never seem quite as urgent as they should. Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc., which featured a similarly revenge-bent villain, increased suspense by introducing us to his prospective victims in the first chapter and featuring them throughout the serial. In Captain America, though, the scientists targeted by the Scarab enter and exit one by one, with a new character taking over the function of his predecessor as soon as that predecessor is killed or safely removed from the villain’s sphere of influence. It’s hard to get too involved in these men’s plight, since the script’s structure makes their status as mere plot devices so blatant.
This procession of incidental professors does allow for a wide assortment of scientific and archeological MacGuffins, ranging from a sonic vibration machine that can destroy buildings to a map that gives the location of a lost Central American city. Maldor’s arsenal of weapons–a hypnotic gas called the Purple Death, a poison-dart blowgun, a remote-controlled explosive truck, a mummifying gas–is similarly eclectic. These gimmicks add to the serial’s disjointed feel at times, but they also give plenty of color to what would otherwise be a straightforward crime drama. However, one of these devices really should have been either excised or given more screen time–the “life-restoring machine” that is used to revive slain heavy George J. Lewis; this sequence contains the stuff of horror films, but is handled so quickly and so matter-of-factly that the machine seems about as creepy as a clothes dryer.
Captain America’s greatest strength is in its large collection of set-smashing fight scenes, which do seem repetitive at times but which are greatly enlivened by the work of directors John English and Elmer Clifton and cinematographer John MacBurnie. This trio uses creative camera angles to give the action scenes a more stylish look than the typical Republic brawls of the period; the dialogue scenes feature some unusually good compositions as well. The fights here are also differentiated from most of their contemporaries by the fact that Ken Terrell doubles for action heavy George J. Lewis and serves as Dale Van Sickel’s (doubling Dick Purcell) major opponent in most scenes. With the gymnast Terrell playing a leading “role,” the fights feature many more judo flips and acrobatic stunts than other serials’ brawls between the fisticuffs-oriented team of Van Sickel and Tom Steele (who only appears in one scene in Captain America, since he was starring in The Masked Marvel at the time).
Johnny Daheim, Duke Green, Fred Graham, Joe Yrigoyen, Eddie Parker, and Gil Perkins all contribute heavily to the fights as well. There are so many expertly choreographed tussles that it’s hard to pick standouts, but the climactic battle between Captain America and the Scarab (doubled by Graham) in the latter’s ornate museum definitely ranks not only as one of the best in the chapterplay, but one of Republic’s best serial fights period: spears, furniture, vases, and suits of armor all come into play, while the camera work is outstanding. The sequence also is genuinely suspenseful, being intercut with the heroine’s struggles inside a coffin filling with gas.
The warehouse fight that climaxes Chapter Three is another highlight, as is the cave fight in Chapter Six, and the construction-yard fight in Chapter Ten–which features some welcome location work and culminates in Van Sickel and Terrell battling on top of a high wooden scaffolding. There are also some good non-fistfight action scenes scattered throughout the serial, particularly the well-staged shootout in the garage in Chapter Seven.
The cliffhanger endings involve some memorable miniatures by the Lydecker Brothers, including a skyscraper that impressively shakes apart at the end of Chapter One. Another good cliffhanger has Captain America trapped in Maldor’s remote-controlled explosive truck, zooming relentlessly through police blockades on a collision course with a scientist’s home; this scene culminates in another Lydecker explosion when the truck strikes a garage, as does the fight scene in the farmhouse at the end of Chapter Fourteen. Among the most memorable non-Lydecker-designed cliffhangers are the Chapter Five ending, with Lorna Gray apparently guillotined, and the Chapter Six one, with Dick Purcell knocked down a mine shaft and then seemingly crushed by a boulder pushed after him.
The serial’s cast is another big mark in its favor; in sharp contrast to most other war-era chapterplays, Captain America has no weak link among its major and minor players. Admittedly, the stocky Dick Purcell (who looks rather older than his thirty-eight years) is a physically odd choice for a tights-wearing hero, but while he doesn’t look his best in Captain America’s costume, he handles his dialogue with above-average flair. Purcell was a veteran of Warner Brothers’ B-crime films, and he plays his crook-busting DA with the same tough manner, confident grin, and raspy-voiced authoritativeness he brought to the cops and robbers in those features.
The beautiful Lorna Gray manages to seem confident and assured enough to be convincing as a DA’s assistant, while still bringing plenty of warmth and an appropriate touch of vulnerability to her role. George J. Lewis is excellent as lead henchman Matson, going about his villainy with a cold glare and a strong suggestion of murderous, hardly-restrained anger.
As good as his co-stars are, Lionel Atwill succeeds in stealing scene after scene from all of them. His polished line delivery is arresting–whether he’s wryly and half-humorously deceiving the good guys or stonily but angrily confronting his ex-colleagues–and his facial expressions are priceless, from the cynically appraising look with which he evaluates stolen treasures to the maniacal grin he flashes as he drops a bomb on Captain America.
John Davidson has little to do but stand around looking sinister as Atwill’s assistant Gruber, but he handles his few lines of dialogue with his customary aplomb. Stellar character actors Charles Trowbridge (the dignified Police Commissioner) and Russell Hicks (the contentious Mayor) are given even less to do. Hugh Sothern, Tom Chatterton, John Hamilton, Robert Frazer, and Frank Reicher–distinguished and distinctive gentlemen, one and all–have varying amounts of screen time as Maldor’s various targets, with Sothern and Hamilton getting the largest roles. Edward Van Sloan, venerable co-star of several Universal horror films, has a small part as Reicher’s assistant.
John S. Bagni appears throughout the serial as a shoeshine “boy” who acts as the Scarab’s lookout man, while Jay Novello, Kenne Duncan, LeRoy Mason, Ralf Harolde, Edward Keane, Stanley Price, Tom London, and Bud Geary all pop up briefly as bad guys in various chapters. Crane Whitley has a more extended role as a Scarab henchman who agrees to turn state’s evidence. Jack Kirk, George Sherwood, and Ben Taggart play policemen, Norman Nesbitt is a newscaster, and Ed Cassidy puts in an appearance as a security guard.
Captain America’s unfocused script keeps it from measuring up to Republic’s Golden Age chapterplays, but it holds its own against its peers from 1943-1945. Its fight scenes, if too numerous, are unusually good, while its array of gizmos and deadly devices is impressive and its cast compares very favorably to the acting lineups in other serials–even many from the Golden Age. Like the hobo stew I mentioned above, Captain America never becomes entirely cohesive, but it still entertains through the strength of its ingredients.
Postscript: Author and serial historian Raymond William Stedman, in The Movie Serial Companion, Book 2, puts forward the very convincing theory that Captain America was originally intended as a serial vehicle for Mr. Scarlet, a Fawcett Comics masked avenger whose alter ego was District Attorney Brian Butler. Republic, who had earlier adapted Fawcett’s characters Captain Marvel and Spy Smasher, seems to have decided to steer clear of further Fawcett superhero serials when Fawcett was sued by National Periodical Publications over Captain Marvel’s similarities to National’s Superman. Dr. Stedman argues–and I concur–that Republic, rather than junk the Mr. Scarlet script, hastily acquired another superhero character from a less controversial company, and shoehorned him into Mr. Scarlet’s place. This would go a long way towards explaining why the serial Captain America was a DA named Grant Gardner (which sounds suspiciously like Brian Butler) instead of a GI named Steve Rogers and why a character who was conceived solely as an Axis-smasher found himself fighting domestic crime right in the middle of World War Two.