Adventures of Captain Marvel is often called the best serial ever made; it’s certainly my all-time favorite. I had a great time revisiting all 12 chapters on the beautiful new 4K scan Blu-ray from Kino Lorber and listening to commentary tracks by a variety of contributors. I am one of them; in fact, I don’t think anyone turned down super-buff Tom Weaver when he approached various “experts” to talk about this milestone serial. Captain Marvel was the first comic-book superhero to come to the big screen; the first Max Fleischer Superman cartoon followed later in 1941. He made a major impact on kids of that generation and kids-at-heart in the years to follow.
Film historian Weaver discusses the extra-length Chapter One with a little help from Western Clippings editor-publisher Boyd Magers. This is where we meet all-American boy Billy Batson (played by Frank Coghlan, Jr.), who strays from the archeological Malcolm Expedition in a sealed crypt and encounters an ancient shaman called Shazam. He bestows upon Billy the ability to acquire extraordinary powers just by speaking his name. With a puff of smoke, the boyish Billy becomes the beefy, caped Captain Marvel (a perfectly-cast Tom Tyler). Boyd explains how Republic Pictures’ special effects wizards, the Lydecker Brothers, used their wizardry to create his flying scenes, with a little help from ace stuntman David Sharpe.
Subsequent chapters offer more information about the serial’s actors and creators. You’ll hear Jerry Beck, Constantine Nasr, and Donnie Waddell (reading the recollections of ultra-fan Bob Burns, who knew Dave Sharpe and other Republic stalwarts). Chris Eberle, Shane Kelly, and Adam Murdough from Comic Geeks Speak provide interesting background fodder about the comic book that spawned this serial—including the fact that it outsold Superman in the early 1940s. I quote from my interviews with actor Frank Coghlan Jr. and co-director William Witney, while Jay Dee Witney offers first-hand memories his father shared with him. An accompanying booklet features an essay by Matt Singer, editor in chief of ScreenCrush.com.
I also recount how I came to see Adventures of Captain Marvel for the first time on a theater screen in New York City when I was a teenager. The Batman TV series with Adam West and Burt Ward was such a pop-culture phenomenon that Columbia Pictures dug out its 1943 Batman serial from the vault and played it theatrically, to great success. Republic followed suit with Captain Marvel, screening all four hours in one giant gulp. It’s a day I will never forget.
If you’ve never seen a vintage serial it’s important to know that these films were shown at Saturday matinees and aimed at kids—boys, to be specific. The storytelling is straightforward and simple in the extreme, but the team at Republic knew how to make their action-packed twenty-minute chapters exciting and fun. Adventures of Captain Marvel has all the emblematic ingredients for a film of this genre: an intrepid hero, a masked villain (The Scorpion) whose identity is a mystery, replete with red herrings, a powerful device that all the suspicious characters want to control, and of course a cave. Every chapter ends with a cliffhanger which is resolved in the opening minutes of the subsequent installment.
To enjoy a serial you have to summon your inner child. I am transported back to my boyhood in New Jersey, where one local theater (the Linwood in Fort Lee) still showed a serial every Saturday. Another (the Fox in Hackensack) gave out membership cards one summer and punched them every week. If you saw every chapter you were admitted to the final show for free. Unfortunately, both theaters ran cheesy Columbia serials like The Lost Planet, which couldn’t compare to the Republic studio fare.
In later years I sought out those Republic chapter-plays and was lucky enough to meet some of the people who made them. The folks who worked at this B-movie factory enjoyed a genuine feeling of camaraderie and were happy to talk about their experiences. It was a kick to meet Junior Coghlan (as he was billed early on) and his real-life pal Billy Benedict, who played Whitey in Adventures of Captain Marvel. Director William Witney, who worked in tandem with John English, spent twenty years at the studio and had many stories to tell. I never dreamt that I would ever have a chance to spend time with people like this. Yet somehow, knowing all I’ve learned about the way these pictures were made hasn’t diminished my pleasure in watching them. I’ve even shown Zorro’s Fighting Legion—another gem—to my class at USC.
Perhaps you have to have seen these serials when you were a kid to truly love them; that’s how George Lucas got hooked, watching them on local television in the 1960s. This ultimately led to Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Serials are part of a continuum in Hollywood, which is one more reason it’s worth getting to know them…and there’s no better place to start than with Adventures of Captain Marvel.
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