Adventures of Captain Africa

Captain Africa--titles
Columbia, 15 Chapters, 1955. Starring John Hart, Rick Vallin, Ben Welden, June Howard, Paul Marion, Bud Osborne, Lee Roberts.

Subversive foreign agents have overthrown Hamid (Paul Marion) the caliph of a North African nation, and replaced him with a tyrannical impostor; world-peacekeeper Ted Arnold (Rick Vallin) joins forces with the deposed caliph, his kinswoman Princess Rhoda (June Howard), and his chief partisan Omar (Ben Welden) in an attempt to restore justice to the ruler’s desert kingdom. In their clashes with the tyrant’s men and the foreign subversives, they’re assisted by animal trader Nat Coleman (Bud Osborne) and by Captain Africa (John Hart), a mysterious figure who’s revered by the natives and maintains law and order in the nearby jungles.

Adventures of Captain Africa was originally conceived (and at least partially filmed) as a sequel to Columbia’s 1943 serial The Phantom, and was hastily reworked once its producer Sam Katzman learned that Columbia had lost the screen rights to the Phantom comic strip. This planned sequel would undoubtedly have been built around enormous, barely-disguised portions of stock footage from the original Phantom chapterplay; the Katzman-Columbia serial that preceded it and the two that followed it were similarly composed almost entirely of recycled scenes. However, the abandoned Phantom follow-up would almost certainly not have been as dreadful as the slapdash outing that took its place on the production schedule; Captain Africa is a strong contender for the title of worst Columbia serial.

Writer George Plympton concocted a storyline for Captain Africa that still allowed for occasional reuse of Phantom stock footage, but the serial draws far more heavily on Jungle Menace and–most frequently–The Desert Hawk for action scenes. Plympton tries gamely to tie all this stock footage into a single coherent story, but the medieval Arabian milieu of Desert Hawk keeps that serial’s excellent action sequences from fitting very comfortably into Captain Africa’s Cold War narrative. The absence of firearms during battles and duels was perfectly logical in Hawk, but when these old-fashioned combats are transposed to Africa’s modern setting, they deal our suspension of disbelief a crippling blow by asking us to believe in the existence of a 1950s Third World country that’s big enough to disturb the peace of the world if misgoverned (as the good guys repeatedly and solemnly assert)–yet so backwards that not even its soldiers possess guns of any kind (as Omar offhandedly states at one point).

Captain Africa--desert hawk battle stock
Above: The soldiery and outlawry of Hamid’s unknown country engage in impressive but outdated battle, courtesy of Desert Hawk footage.

The stock from Desert Hawk is not only incongruously anachronistic in Captain Africa, but is also incorporated into the new serial in clumsy and remarkably dull fashion; the same goes for the Jungle Menace stock. Many of the stock-footage scenes (like the Menace shipboard sequence and the Hawk balcony swordfight) are presented as recollections of events that occurred before the serial began, with the new characters providing a running narration that replaces the soundtracks of the old sequences; the various narrators describe the clearly visible action in such needlessly descriptive detail that they start to sound rather like play-by-play sports announcers. These lengthy and often pointless reminiscences repeatedly interrupt the main story, but the stock footage that’s introduced as current action is often just as disconnected from said story as the flashbacks are. Many of the recycled scenes–among them the bar brawl and riverboat hijacking from Menace, and the battle between the Caliph’s guards and the outlaws from Hawk–are merely introduced as irrelevant incidents for Africa’s major characters to stare blankly at from a safe distance.

Captain Africa--sudden reckless move
Above: “But he had still another trick to show them; using his dagger, he escaped from the trap by a sudden reckless move…” Captain Africa’s long-winded narration for the Desert Hawk stuntwork shown above–narration that takes longer than the stunt itself. 

Even the stock-footage action scenes in which Captain Africa’s heroes pretend to participate are often less than exciting; as in other serials from Columbia’s final 1954-1956 production era, the production crew make little attempt to create the impression that the new characters are actually present in the old action. There’s none of the process-screen work and very little of the thorough intercutting that Republic and Universal used to tie stock footage into their serials; reused Desert Hawk long shots, in which the actors are indistinguishable, dominate the action scenes (like the attack on the caravan or the climactic throne-room battle), with only occasional close-ups of Africa’s protagonists sprinkled in. For stock-matching and cost-saving purposes, we never get to see the faces of any of the good guys’ supposed opponents during these sequences, and thus never really get the feeling that our heroes are actually battling anyone; for example, the tyrannical usurper is fought and killed by Hamid in the final action scene while keeping his back turned resolutely to the camera (incidentally, this dialogue-free scene is the only one in the serial during which this much-discussed villain actually appears in the flesh).

Similarly, when Captain Africa makes an attack on munitions-smugglers from The Phantom, or when Nat Coleman intervenes in a tiger attack lifted from Jungle Menace, the new heroes are not shown directly interacting with even reasonable facsimiles of the stock-footage menaces; the intercutting in these and other scenes is so choppy that the action will look disjointed and awkward even to those unfamiliar with the sources of the stock (particularly when the tiger-attack victim is not even shown getting up on-screen, but instead proclaims that he’s OK via an off-camera voiceover). The necessity to make the story fit the stock footage also frequently forces the characters to behave absurdly; for instance, when Ted Arnold and Captain Africa discover a villainous hideout, the Captain says that they can’t capture it alone, and that he’ll go get help–then returns to Hamid’s camp, tells Hamid that urgent business calls him back to the jungle, and assigns only one man (Omar) to go help Ted. This maneuver allows Omar and Ted to match up properly with Desert Hawk footage in the next sequence, but also makes Captain Africa appear irresponsible, cowardly, or possibly both.

Captain Africa--tiger 1 Captain Africa--tiger 2
Above: Bud Osborne pokes a pole at a tiger, but can’t even get it into the same frame as the cat–since the tiger is really in Jungle Menace, not Captain Africa.

Captain Africa’s lack of any central villain is even more damaging to its narrative than the sloppy and contrived handling of the stock footage. There are no scenes of heavies concocting schemes or gloating menacingly over the success of their plans; as mentioned, the usurping caliph is never heard or seen, while the foreign agent Boris makes fewer than half-a-dozen appearances during Africa’s fifteen chapters. Without any recurring villains on hand, the long series of skirmishes between the heroes and their antagonist lose whatever interest they might have held; instead of a series of duels between clearly-drawn adversaries, we’re left with interminable scenes of heroes battling faceless and nameless heavies that are largely derived from stock footage–that is, when said heroes aren’t painstakingly discussing their strategies or recounting prior events.

Old directorial warhorse Spencer Bennet does manage to make Africa’s handful of new action scenes look respectable enough; the fight with the gorilla in Chapter Twelve  and the fight by the rocks in Chapter Thirteen are particularly good. Stuntman Lennie Geer takes part in the latter fight and presumably handles a portion of the action chores for the stars in other scenes–though most of the fights are so brief and unelaborate that they probably were performed by the actors themselves. Cliffhangers are almost entirely pulled from earlier serials, many of them (like the clash with the savage dogs from Desert Hawk) losing some impact once taken out of context and forced into Africa’s action with a minimum of buildup. Captain Africa’s throttling by the gorilla–a decent cliffhanger–is one of the few new chapter endings in the serial, though it uses a few stock shots from a similar scene in The Phantom. The quicksand/alligator cliffhanger of Chapter Four also makes use of Phantom footage–and features one of the most inexplicable resolutions in serial history; the villains, after witnessing the hero’s plight, shoot his reptilian adversary and plod offstage, offering no explanation for this uncharacteristic and counterproductive action (a pang of conscience? temporary insanity? an uncontrollable hatred for alligators?).

Captain Africa--outdoor fight Captain Africa--gorilla fight
Above left: John Hart sends Lennie Geer flying. Above right: John Hart faces off with a gorilla (I’m not sure of the ape’s portrayer; the suit is not the familiar Ray Corrigan/Steve Calvert one).

Captain Africa’s massive amounts of stock footage saved Katzman and Bennet from doing much location shooting, although the serial does feature a couple of scenes filmed at the Corriganville ranch. Columbia’s backlot provides all the other exteriors and interiors needed–including some jungle soundstages, the studio’s medieval-street set, and its cave set; one of the few positive things about Africa is the fact that the frequent use of the Columbia caves gives the serial a slightly better balance of indoor and outdoor visuals than most other late Katzman efforts–which made elaborate and frequently strained attempts to keep all the action outside.

The cast of Captain Africa is pretty small, and its members are unable to do much to salvage the shoddy production. John Hart, as the title character, is not only forced to make embarrassingly unconvincing excuses for his many sudden departures (as aforementioned), but is also saddled with one of the most risible costumed-avenger outfits in any chapterplay. His character stalks through the jungle in a mask, a leather aviator’s cap, a gray sweater, a gun-belt, and baggy riding-breeches–an unimpressive if strikingly bizarre getup designed to make him look enough like the Phantom to match long-distance stock shots, but un-Phantom-like enough to avoid lawsuits. The origins of his character are left extremely vague; unlike the Phantom, we never learn his real name or background, and are only told that he works for an unspecified official organization and that he distinguished himself in Burma during World War 2–details that don’t explain his apparently magical ability to appear in a puff of smoke before his native worshippers, or his supernatural habit of using a crystal ball to conjure up visions of scenes from Desert Hawk. It’s to Hart’s credit that he manages to give a tough authoritativeness and even a degree of conviction to this impossible role; one wishes he’d been given an opportunity to play the real Phantom instead of this ludicrous pretender.

Captain Africa--John Hart
Above: John Hart as the “fabulous Captain Africa, mystery man of the jungle, a strange being whom the natives fear, yet worship.” I don’t know about the worship part, but I’d definitely fear this strange being if I encountered him myself–since one look at his outfit shows that he’s both armed and insane.

Rick Vallin, equipped with a moustache and a pair of bushy eyebrows that give him a surprisingly strong resemblance to Desert Hawk star Gilbert Roland, has a lot more screen time than Hart does, and comes off much less ridiculously than his co-star does, thanks to a less absurd costume (Roland’s old Desert Hawk duds) and a better-defined character–comparatively speaking, that is; we never do learn just what world peacekeeping organization Vallin’s Ted Arnold represents, just as we never are told who’s behind Hart’s character. Vallin, as usual, handles his lines capably and assuredly, although he seems more than a bit stiff and uncomfortable in his occasional romantic scenes with June Howard’s Princess Rhoda.

Captain Africa--Osborne and Vallin
Above: Rick Vallin (right) and Bud Osborne pretend to look at stock footage.

Howard herself is a pleasant-looking but very amateurish actress who doesn’t look or sound remotely Arabian, and who delivers a rather poor performance; she’s usually either excessively chipper or forcedly over-emotional. As her royal relative Prince Hamid, Paul Marion is horribly miscast; the nasal voice and sneery face that served him well in many hoodlum roles is utterly unsuited to the part of a noble ruler. Additionally, the placid way in which his character sits in a tent and lets others do all the dangerous work needed to restore him to his throne makes him come off as decidedly unsympathetic.

Captain Africa---Marion, Howard, Welden
Above, left to right: Paul Marion, June Howard, Ben Welden.

Ben Welden, who played the sidekick in Desert Hawk and was obviously hired to provide Africa with a handy link to that serial’s stock footage, is also miscast as Marion’s captain-of-the-guards Omar. His urban accent and amusingly shady demeanor were appropriate to the role of a streetwise comic beggar in Hawk, but he can’t pull off the serious and responsible warrior character he’s handed here. Apparently hoping to seem grave and dignified, he adopts a painfully unctuous manner that only succeeds in making him seem oily instead, and also makes him very irritating to watch after awhile.

Old reliable Bud Osborne is enjoyable as Frank Buck impersonator Nat Coleman, his easygoing and genial approach to his role providing welcome relief from the general gravity of his co-stars; unfortunately, he drops out of the serial a third of the way through, after the Jungle Menace stock footage has been given a sufficient workout. Lee Roberts makes several brief token appearances as the crypto-Communist agent Boris, snarling and sneering professionally but not particularly enthusiastically; Terry Frost has even less screen time as Roberts’ occasional cohort. Ed Coch dons John Bagni’s native costume from The Phantom to serve as Captain Africa’s aide, Michael Fox puts on a white beard to play a venerable prime minister (and match stock shots of Georges Renavent from Desert Hawk), and Lennie Geer (previously referenced) pops up as a henchman. There are a few other unfamiliar incidental players in the serial (like the outlaw leader who appears in Chapter Nine), but Captain Africa is pretty short on even minor speaking parts overall.

Adventures of Captain Africa is not a disaster because it makes wide use of stock footage; it’s a disaster because its stock-footage interpolations are handled so poorly. The pace-killing flashbacks, the breaks for the major characters to watch immaterial stock action scenes, and the generally fake-looking way in which the old and new footage is blended together combine to wreck the serial–aided and abetted by the ill-advised attempt to shoehorn Desert Hawk’s Arabian-Nights action into a contemporary storyline, and by the laughable ersatz Phantom who serves as the title character.

Captain Africa--last

3 thoughts on “Adventures of Captain Africa

  1. Jerry, look at it this way, imagine if it was directed by Derwin Abrahams, who helmed Columbia’s three 1946 disasters, HOP HARRIGAN, CHICK CARTER DETECTIVE, and SON OF THE GUARDSMAN. Think even worse than YOUNG EAGLES or QUEEN OF THE JUNGLE.

    • Your review overlooks what in my opinion is one of the silliest moments in the entire serial. When John Hart is attacked by the gorilla he has two .45 automatics on his belt. You might think he would shoot the beast and be done with it. But not good old Captain Africa. He keeps his weapons holstered and fights the gorilla hand to hand! Sheesh!!!!!!!

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