Retro Review: Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941).
Shazam! makes his action-packed debut in a 12 part serial that still thrills 80 years later.
With Shazam! taking the modern box office by storm, it’s easy to think of the big red lug as a recent addition to the super hero landscape. Many would be surprised to learn that Captain Marvel/Shazam! was the very first comic book hero to get a live action movie! Republic Pictures, the folks behind the questionable adaptation of Captain America in 1944, jumped into the super hero biz with both feet in the 1940’s. When plans to make Superman into a live action serial fell through, they toyed with a few anonymous caped crusaders before adapting Captain Marvel for the big screen. Starring Tom Tyler as Captain Marvel and Frank Coghlan Jr. as Billy Batson, Shazam!’s first outing was a two-fisted action flick that featured a surprisingly tense story line and some fantastic practical effects.
Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941.)
The Malcolm Expedition heads into the forbidden Valley of Tombs in Burma to explore the lost temple of the Scorpion Empire. Inside is a weapon of terrible power, a golden scorpion that can harness the rays of the sun through six lenses to destroy matter at the atomic level. A fanatical cult guards the tomb, and a hidden adversary who wishes to assume the mantle of The Scorpion has infiltrated the expedition. When tragedy strikes the group inside the tombs, an ancient wizard appears to young Billy Batson, the group’s radio operator. As Billy has shown himself to be brave, honest, and respectful of the local people, he is transformed into Captain Marvel by the power of the wizard, Shazam!, in order to save his friends and prevent The Scorpion from assembling the weapon.
The pacing and plotting of Adventures of Captain Marvel are pretty solid. Each 15 minute segment advances the story and contains its own big action sequence. The action can range from Captain Marvel beating up thugs and rescuing the hapless members of the expedition from the machinations of The Scorpion, to giant battle scenes where he takes on the cult en masse. The Scorpion’s plot is rather straightforward, but his schemes are clever and often involve reversals and twists that take place not only across the whole serial but inside the individual episodes. The decision to keep his identity secret right up to the last episode sometimes leads to obvious red herrings, but I was actually surprised by which remaining crew member finally revealed himself to be the baddie.
A modern cut of the film joins the episodes seamlessly, which is key. An earlier theatrical release just ran all 12 in a row, meaning you had to sit through 12 openings, 12 credits, and 12 recaps. Definitely seek out the cut version on Youtube, as the visuals and sound are fairly pristine (the work is in the public domain, so you’re not hurting anyone here by taking the cheap way out!)
The action sequences in this film delight, even 80 years later. Stuntman David Sharpe really goes all out to sell his scenes. He leaps like a high-diver each time Captain Marvel flies, in ways that seem downright suicidal. In the first episode, he does a spectacular back flip that kicks two cult fighters at the same time, which was incredible.
Tom Tyler adds some physicality to the role as a champion body builder. When he picks guys up and tosses them, you feel bad for the stunt guys cause he gets some air on them. The fist fights, which were awful in Captain America, are great here (allegedly, Tom Tyler was a bit too enthusiastic, resulting in some actual punches landing). Everyone gets to fight, even the comic relief side-kick and the leading lady, Betty (Louise Currie), who plays her character in the vein of a headstrong and capable Lois Lane. Even Billy Batson shows his martial prowess, choosing to wallop baddies in his human form instead of changing to Shazam!
The serial runs the gamut in terms of set pieces: we get car chases, horse chases, airplane stunts, plenty of shoot outs, and even an episode on a sinking steamer ship…though some times all of the genre-crossed fodder feels tacked on for cheap thrills. The car chases are breathless, with several sequences that feel illegal due to inherent danger! A bit of it can come across as campy and cartoony (people really didn’t understand how concussions worked, as evidenced by how often our leading lady and man get conked), but they almost always thrill.
The practical effects for Captain Marvel hold up well. A dummy on a zipline is used for the long flight scenes, and only a few scenes draw attention to the fake. Tom Tyler poses in front of a film stock background for close ups, and they work well enough. Some model work for car chases, the steamer ship, and a volcanic eruption look tacky. That being said, there’s a scene where The Scorpion melts a tunnel using the doomsday weapon that has a fantastic blend of model work, practical effects, and double exposure to create a really engaging sequence.
Adventures of Captain Marvel is a rousing and well made serial. It has some of the campy elements that Adam West would go on to spoof so famously in Batman, but for the time it threaded the needle between the super violent detective crime stories and the fluffy adventure serials of the day. The story rarely runs out of steam – I never wanted to hit the pause button during the nearly 3 hour film. The characters are a bit stereotypical of the genre, but well played, especially Frank Coghlan Jr. as Billy and Louise Currie as Betty. While it does mash Shazam! into the serial format somewhat, it keeps quite a bit of his mythos and character roster in tact.
What really astonished me was how good the action and adventure elements of Captain Marvel were. Even after 80 years of exploding budgets and super hero flicks pushing the bar on technical wizardry, this film still felt exciting. Republic Pictures really went all out on there first comic book adaptation, and it showed. I would highly recommend this to fans of super hero films, and to those who may be interested in the forgotten joy of serial films.