Captain Video

Captain Video--titles
Columbia, 15 Chapters, 1951. Starring Judd Holdren, Larry Stewart, George Eldredge, Gene Roth, Don Harvey, William Fawcett, Skelton Knaggs.

Captain Video (Judd Holdren), the commander of a worldwide network of ultra-scientific crime-fighting “Rangers,” pits his organization, his courage, and his encyclopedic technical knowledge against Vultura (Gene Roth)–the dictator of the planet Atoma, who’s planning to conquer the entire solar system, beginning with the peaceful planet Tharos and Video’s own planet Earth. With his chief Ranger (Larry Stewart) by his side, Video battles Vultura’s forces on Earth, Tharos, and Atoma itself; their interplanetary struggle is hindered by the treason of Dr. Tobor (George Eldredge), a brilliant and respected Earth scientist who’s secretly in league with Vultura.

Captain Video was based on a popular early television series of the same name; writers Royal Cole, Joseph Poland, Sherman Lowe, and George Plympton apparently assumed their audience would be familiar with Video and his Rangers, since the heroes are introduced to us in dazzlingly abrupt fashion, even by serial standards. They also make several references to a defunct mad scientist named “Dr. Pauli” (one of the heavies who appeared on the TV show) that are a little confusing to anyone not familiar with Video’s television exploits. One can’t fault the writers for trying to be faithful to their source material in this way; however, their faithfulness to their source in other areas makes Video a less than enthralling chapterplay.

The Captain Video TV show was an incredibly low-budget affair that tried to mask its almost complete lack of production values by providing its science-fiction-loving viewers with overdose amounts of futuristic gadgets. Though the serial version of Video has a bigger budget than its small-screen counterpart, it still relies far too heavily on gadgetry to drive its action; no matter what peril the heroes are threatened by–a warehouse fire, a free-fall through the stratosphere, a bomb-dropping plane, a lab explosion, a giant missile–Video, the Ranger, or their scientist aide Gallagher can be depended on to neutralize the threat by merely flipping a switch or producing a hand-held device from their utility belts; even fistfights are as likely to end with the heroes zapping the villains with “vibrator” pistols as with a traditional finishing punch. These gadgets are almost never introduced and explained beforehand, either; instead, the heroes hurriedly describe the devices’ properties while they’re using them (or after they’ve already used them), repeatedly spouting meaningless, clumsy, and unconvincing pseudo-technical jargon that quickly becomes tiresome.

Captain Video--cosmic pistol Captain Video--anti-detonator
Above left: Larry Stewart fells a thug with a “cosmic vibrator.” Above right: Stewart watches as Judd Holdren reverses a lab explosion with an “anti-detonator.”

The cumulative effect of these incessant technological saves is to make Video seem like an invincible superhero, thus draining the serial of a sense of suspense or adventure. It doesn’t help that–unlike Katzman’s other invincible serial hero Superman–Video has no personality to speak of, and is surrounded by equally colorless aides; as in the Video television show, the hero’s sidekick and apparent best friend isn’t even given a name, being simply referred to as “the Ranger” throughout the serial. Republic’s sci-fi efforts from the same period (Radar Men from the Moon, Zombies of the Stratosphere) had similarly one-dimensional heroes, but said heroes were at least vulnerable enough to make their struggle against extra-terrestrial villains moderately involving, particularly since the villains were always possessed of superior science-fictional weaponry; it’s harder to work up interest in Video’s duel between two equally super-technological opponents. The fact that this duel consists of a typically repetitive set of captures, escapes, MacGuffin thefts, and narrowly-averted disasters, and (like almost all Columbia hero-villain conflicts) is stretched thinly over fifteen lengthy chapters, doesn’t do much to make it more riveting.

Video’s high-tech trappings are also not very interesting in themselves; most of the featured gadgets are pretty dull when in action. The serial’s various laboratory sets do look good, and its prop ray-guns and life-size spaceship mock-ups are quite convincing; however, whenever the spaceships take flight they’re represented by cartoons instead of miniatures, while the “operation” of most of the other scientific contraptions consists of little more than actors pressing buttons while long-windedly explaining what the devices are doing or will do. Captain Video’s super-powered “jetmobile”–a sleek and realistic-looking shell put over a real car–is probably the serial’s single most impressive gizmo; it not only is visually interesting, but can also move around convincingly. Vultura’s robots (the same tin suits seen over a decade earlier in Mascot’s The Phantom Empire) are also good, but are seriously underused, dropping out of the serial after enjoying less than a full chapter’s worth of screen time. The little space-platforms–rather like airborne motorcycles–that Vultura’s minions use to hover in Earth’s atmosphere are interesting as well, but become a little absurd, even by fantasy standards, when characters start using the unenclosed platforms for lengthy interplanetary flights.

Captain Video--jet-mobile Captain Video--space platform Captain Video--rocket mock-up Captain Video--cartoon rocket
Above, top left: The “jetmobile” in action. Top right: I. Stanford Jolley prepares to take off on one of Vultura’s space platforms, as an unconscious Judd Holdren sprawls on the platform base (the scene is being viewed by Don Harvey through an “opticon scilometer,” hence the telescope ring around it). Bottom left: Larry Stewart and Judd Holdren climb into a mock-up of one of Vultura’s rockets (for an explanation of the red tinting, see below). Bottom right: The same rocket in “flight” through space, now transformed into a cartoon.

Video’s plot–with its treacherous Earthling scientist and outer-space dictator– is not much different in basic outline from that of the above-mentioned Radar Men and Zombies (or Flying Disc Man from Mars); theoretically, Video’s frequent changes of planetary locale should have made it more interesting than the largely earthbound Republics (even Radar Men didn’t have as much planet-hopping as Video), but neither Atoma nor Tharos are differentiated enough from Earth (or from each other) to keep the clashes that take place on them from seeming repetitive. Producer Sam Katzman did use Cinecolor tinting to try to make Tharos and Atoma look more other-worldly (all scenes set on Tharos are green-tinged, while all Atoma sequences are tinted red)–but, while this gimmick is certainly distinctive, it doesn’t really make the extremely similar caves that serve as the backdrop to most of the Atoma and Pharos scenes look like different worlds. The imposing Vasquez Rocks area is used to good effect as part of Tharos’ outdoor landscape in the earlier episodes, but the Earth segments of Video overall feature more outdoor photography than the cave-dominated Atoma and Tharos sequences; Iverson’s Ranch provides a background for many Earthly chase scenes, and a couple of apparently genuine industrial buildings figure into the terrestrial part of the storyline as well.

Captain Video--Tharos 1 Captain Video--Tharos 2
Above left: Vultura’s troops on “Tharos,” standing below Vasquez Rocks. Above right: A disguised Judd Holdren in one of the many outer-space caverns his character visits.

Directors Spencer Bennet and Wallace Grissell do manage to scatter several good fistfights throughout Video, despite the characters’ preference for technologizing themselves out of tight spots; the energetic fight in a cell in Chapter Six is particularly good, while the two brawls in Chapter Nine (one in front of a storage plant, one on the roadside by a hijacked truck) are pretty strong as well; frequent Katzman stuntmen George Robotham, Wally West, and Eddie Parker handle parts of these combats, assisted by the serial’s actors (who seem to be doing many of their own stunts). The serial features some short but fairly entertaining car chases as well, most of them involving the jetmobile; the Chapter Twelve chase sequence–which has a truck (driven by the heroes) dodging bombs dropped by an airplane–also starts out promisingly, but, like so many other pieces of action in the serial, is disappointingly curtailed when the heroes use another gadget to force down the bomber. The climactic “great battle” on Tharos is also disappointing; it consists of Video smugly watching the Tharosians casually zap about a dozen Atomans with a brand-new “psychometric ray” that makes the Atomans fall down and roll around like “idiots” (as the Tharosian leader puts it).

Captain Video--fight on Atoma Captain Video--fight on Earth
Above left: A shot from the Chapter Six fight in an Atoman dungeon. Above right: Judd Holdren (or his stunt double) sends a thug spinning into a stack of boxes during the first Chapter Nine fight, resulting in a brief bit of prop-toppling that must have gladdened the heart of director Bennet.

Cliffhanger sequences in Video are occasionally striking, more often abrupt (like the Chapter Nine truck explosion), and sometimes ridiculous-looking; even the best chapter endings are diminished by the fact that the audience knows the heroes will be mechanically saved through the quick deployment of a ray or other device next week. The heroes’ gradual freezing by one of Tobor’s gadgets at the end of Chapter Four is the serial’s single most memorable cliffhanger; Chapter Ten’s ending is another of the serial’s more effective ones, a sequence that has an unconscious Ranger endangered by radioactive ooze while radioactive mist engulfs the cave in which Video is battling the villains (don’t worry; Video and Ranger merely pop a couple of “anti-radiation pills” after being exposed to this threat). The Chapter One ending, which has Video’s spaceship hit by a pair of comets, is memorable despite the cheap animation used to depict the two fireballs–thanks to the fine head-on effects shot of the light from the comet illuminating the “windshield” of Video’s ship; the same can’t be said of the Chapter Twelve ending–which has an animated missile zooming towards the good guys in a medium shot that juxtaposes the live actors with the cartoon menace, and makes the latter look very silly.

Captain Video--freezing cliffhangerCaptain Video--missile cliffhanger
Above left: Frost forms on the bodies of Judd Holdren and Larry Stewart, in a memorable cliffhanger scene. Above right: Vultura’s deadly but cartoony missile zooms towards the good guys at the end of Chapter Twelve.

Judd Holdren is admirably dedicated and earnest in Captain Video’s title role–rattling off his techno-babble dialogue and some propagandistic lectures about the value of freedom with commanding energy and self-assurance. As in Zombies of the Stratosphere, he’s not terribly charismatic, but does manage to convey a sort of cheerful, low-key dash at intervals. Larry Stewart, later a TV producer, handles his lines competently in the role of the Ranger, but is pretty bland, as well as a bit miscast; he looks and sounds more like a Dead End Kid than an clean-cut young paramilitary officer–but lacks the liveliness and personality of a genuine Dead End Kid.

Captain Video--Stewart and Holdren
Above: Larry Stewart (left) and Judd Holdren on a dark and dangerous flight through space.

Stewart, however, is not as miscast as Gene Roth, whose laid-back drawl and lazily self-satisfied manner is completely wrong for a supposed power-mad tyrant; while he was quite good as an opportunistic businessman in Ghost of Zorro and a corrupt politico in Pirates of the High Seas, he lacks the drive, dignity, and aggressiveness needed to play a would-be interplanetary dictator. He makes a valiant effort to give the character a ferocious air at times, but is never really able seem more than irritable at best. Roth’s ridiculous appearance also works against his attempts to be menacing; the quasi-Mongol chest armor and the oversized belt that he wears throughout the serial combine to emphasize his substantial abdomen in the most unflattering manner possible.

Captain Video--Gene Roth
Above: Gene Roth tinkers with his robots.

As Dr. Tobor, the resonant-voiced George Eldredge makes a much more satisfactory villain than Roth does, delivering the serial’s best and most interesting performance. In fact, he outclasses Roth’s Vultura so much that it seems oddly wrong when that villain conclusively outsmarts him towards the end of the serial. He’s urbane and dignified when pretending to be Video’s ally, but always conveys an aloofness and smugness even in these scenes–a smugness that becomes quiet but palpable arrogance when he’s plotting villainous deeds; he creates the impression that Tobor has decided to betray his home planet due to intellectual egoism, in the belief that his and Vultura’s great scientific savvy gives them the right to rule “lesser” beings.

Captain Video--Eldredge and Knaggs
Above: George Eldredge (standing) and assistant Skelton Knaggs.

Perennial Katzman henchman portrayer Don Harvey is rather oddly cast as “good old Gallagher,” Captain Video’s unflappable scientific aide, but his against-type performance is quite entertaining in its way; he explains gadgets and flips switches with an exaggerated imperturbability and a deadpan cheerfulness that often makes him the most appealing member of the good guys’ team. The remarkably ugly and inimitably creepy-sounding Skelton Knaggs–a familiar face to most horror-film buffs–is wasted in the background role of Tobor’s villainous lab assistant Retner, but makes the most out of the minor part–congratulating his master with toadyish enthusiasm and peering nervously and furtively around whenever the heroes are near.

Captain Video--Don Harvey
Above: Don Harvey as Gallagher tries to contact Captain Video.

William Fawcett does a good job of conveying integrity and mournful war-weariness as Alpha, the beleaguered ruler of Tharos; a young actor named Jimmy Stark (who would have been a better choice for the Ranger role than Larry Stewart) is properly enthusiastic and perplexed as the subordinate ranger who serves as Don Harvey’s foil in several chapters, continually asking questions about Harvey’s various gizmos. Rick Vallin, Bruce Edwards, and Terry Frost also pop up as other members of Video’s ranger group; grave and gray-haired Selmer Jackson plays the “Commissioner of Public Safety” to whom Video himself reports.

Captain Video has no action heavy to speak of; Jack Ingram is the leader of the squad of Earth henchmen that periodically carries out Tobor’s instructions, but doesn’t have enough screen time or dialogue to qualify as more than a recurring bit player. Other members of this squad include Rusty Wescoatt, Lee Roberts, and Zon Murray–solid thugs one and all, but, like Ingram, very underused here. Frank Ellis and Frank Hagney have even smaller henchman roles, while Tommy Farrell, I. Stanford Jolley, and Pierce Lyden all appear as Atoman followers of Vultura’s. Fred Kelsey pops up as a security guard, and Tristram Coffin has a small role as an eminent scientist kidnapped by the villains.

Many other serials–the Flash Gordon trilogy, Republic’s rocket-man outings, Katzman’s own Superman serials–featured plenty of improbable science-fictional contraptions, but always spent some time introducing these contraptions before putting them to work, and–more importantly–never allowed them to control and overwhelm the narrative to the tedious extent that Captain Video’s writers do. Admittedly, Video’s parade of gadgetry does make the serial feel so eccentric that it never becomes completely tedious; the constant introductions of gadgets, silly as they are, give the chapterplay the colorfully quirky “make-it-up-as-we-go” atmosphere of a child’s game. However, this quirkiness is only mildly amusing at best, and scarcely makes Video a good serial–although it does make it relatively watchable, with the assistance of some fine fight scenes, a nice assortment of props, and an uneven but game cast.

Captain Video--lab
Above, left to right: Larry Stewart, Don Harvey, and Judd Holdren in Ranger headquarters.

5 thoughts on “Captain Video

  1. CAPTAIN VIDEO was the first Columbia I saw, and I did get a kick out of it. Chapters did get off to a great start with some really interesting credits. I am one of many serial fans that say this is a guilty pleasure, It is a real hoot. Did you notice that with all the driving around, not once is there a paved road? All scenes are on the same stretch of dirt road.

    Jerry, I can’t wait to read what you have to say about THE LOST PLANET. Now that was one weird serial.

  2. Captain Video was also my first experience watching a Columbia serial. I like it, it’s a good serial. It’s written well, tells an interesting story and the chapters flow along smoothly. Judd Holdren puts in a good performance as Captain Video. The supporting actors are good too, most enjoyable is Don Harvey as lab assistant Gallagher. Gene Roth makes for a good villain as Vultura. George Eldredge comes off a little bland as Dr. Tobor. Incidentally, Captain Video is the second Columbia serial with a character named Dr. Tobor. The other one is Hop Harrigan. Tobor is robot spelled backwards. LOL.

    Another thing about Captain Video, I’m pretty sure I’m correct about this, the serial is unique in the fact that it has an all male cast, there are no females seen anywhere throughout the entire serial.

    • Captain Video’s Jetmobile is a Sport Custom built by C. H. Peterson of California. I added more detailed info about the car in the “Trivia” section.

  3. I remember watching the “Captain Video” television episodes when I was four or five, but I’d never seen the serial until now. After reading some of your review comments (“never becomes completely tedious”, “less than enthralling”, a lead character with “no personality”), my expectations were pretty low, but I’m happy to say that I’m in the “Pa Stark” camp and found it to be a “guilty pleasure”.

    The serial has the usual drawback of many of the Katzman productions, namely cheapness on all levels. The use of animation instead of more sophisticated special effects is always distracting, as was the recycling of the primitive “Phantom Empire” robots, the somewhat distinctive (but totally worthless) scene tinting used to differentiate Atoma and Tharos, and the padding in the story necessary to fill out fifteen chapters. I lost track of all of the various pseudo-scientific devices that were used, but it must have been two dozen or more. Most didn’t make any sense, but they sure had some inventive names.

    The performances were generally ok, especially given the nonsensical nature of much of the plot line, and I thought Don Harvey and George Eldredge did especially well with their characters. I agree that Gene Roth came off as ridiculous in the warrior costume. If the writers were determined to reuse the “Vultura” name, I would have definitely preferred to see Lorna Gray instead of Roth. (Speaking of reuse, “platonite” even showed up, last seen in “Mandrake”). And as “Lee” pointed out, why there were no women in the cast is beyond me; even the most male-oriented serials had at least one or two female roles.

    It’s always fun to see the great Vasquez Rocks locations. We visited there several times when I was young, on our way out from LA to Palmdale and points north on Highway 14. It’s amazing how many films, tv shows and videos have used the area as a backdrop.

    Thanks as always for another entertaining review.

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