Retro Review: Captain America (1944)
Captain America eclipsed nearly every super hero movie this month with Civil War, which is currently rushing to 1 billion dollars world wide. Things are going great for the Star Spangled Avenger…but things weren’t always so rosy. Except for the Hulk, no hero has had more false starts and dashed hopes. Many people remember the disastrous 1990 straight to VHS release (you know the one where Cap had rubber ears since they didn’t cut holes in his mask for real ears!) but few remember that Captain America has starred in at least 4 botched features. There is a pair of television films from 1979, but his first outing was way back in 1944. Back then Marvel was known as Timely Comics, and their flagship character was famous for shooting Nazis and punching Hitler. Republic Serials, famous for The Adventures of Captain Marvel, was hunting for a new hero, and stumbled upon Captain America. Unfortunately for Timely/Marvel, they had already built a story about a district attorney who fought crime as a masked vigilante, and they slotted Cap into the role. The result, a 15 part serial, is by no means The First Avengers finest hour.
Captain America (1944)
Grant Gardner is the district attorney for a major metropolis who moonlights as a masked vigilante known as Captain America. The mayor and police commissioner trust Gardner and Cap, though they are in the dark about their linked identity. When a series of violent murder/suicides targets a group of influential scientists and researchers attached to an excavation of an ancient Mayan ruins, they call in Cap to solve the crimes. Mostly by murdering the prime suspects and failing at every turn to stop the villain, known as The Scarab, from using increasingly daffy “science” to destroy buildings and blow up landmarks.
The Good Guy?
Right away we get a very different Captain America. The costume is pretty authentic (although his trademark mask wings only show up on the movie posters) but this avenger is seriously dark. Our first shot of him in action is a room destroying brawl which ends with him shooting one crook after a lengthy attempt to pummel him into submission, and letting the second one escape. This is pretty much par for the course. Cap tries his best not to murder, but since he apparently hits like a fly-weight and cannot subdue anyone with his fisticuffmanship, it almost always devolves into one or more henchman dying in increasingly bizarre “accidents.” Guys are punched out of high-rise buildings, shot by their own team, or in one case skewered by a pitchfork. Cap it really lousy at bringing the criminals to justice this side of the grave. Grant Gardner is even worse. Cap accidentally kills guys, but Gardner straight up murders them. After we see his alter ego unfortunately shoot a guy, Gardner goes to follow a lead and shoots two suspects with little provocation. His body count is probably double Captain America’s. Fortunately, the police seem to love it, and the mayor is constantly congratulating them both for their…zeal.
Edge of your Patience
Cap’s pathetic fists of justice lead to a recurring plot device that made watching this serial a chore. The episodes almost always end with some terror machine just about to strike and Captain America failing to defuse the situation because he’s taking ten minutes trying to knock out two guys who resolutely refuse to go down. The series insists that nobody can be knocked out by less than a three punch combo, but Cap can’t land two in succession until it’s already too late to stop whatever peril he is in. At about the halfway point, I was rooting for Cap to just pull a Gardner and shoot the mugs as soon as he sees them. They’re going to die anyway, why not just skip the foreplay? Instead of carrying a gun, this Avenger should have packed brass knuckles. It would have solved literally all of his problems.
As anemic as our hero’s punching power is, he sure does it a lot. There is a major brawl at least twice an episode, and those episodes are only 15 minutes long. The action is pretty well done, too. This is no Adam West Batman: our hero jumps over desks, ducks flying chairs, throws guys around the room (and gets thrown around the room) and trades punches that look pretty realistic. There was concerns that Dick Purcell, who plays both Cap and Gardner, was overweight and out of shape, but he’s pretty energetic on screen. Unfortunately he died of a heart attack a year after making this series, so perhaps he should really have shot first and asked questions later.
Is this series any good? Well, as an artifact of the masked vigilante radio serials, its pretty standard. The villain is a monocle wearing elitist who uses kooky “science” to pull of his crimes. The hero pretty much a clone of other vigilantes from the era like The Phantom, The Shadow, and even Batman himself. The episodes whizz by at a watchable pace, but are full of cornball cliffhangers of the kind that Adam West’s Batman went on to lampoon to great effect. As a crime fighter serial, this one is just bog standard.
As a Captain America series…this is pretty much not Captain America. There’s no Steve Rogers, no Super Soldier Serum, no shield and no Nazi’s. In 1944. That’s inexcusable. America was prime for a guy who would punch Nazis, and Republic didn’t deliver. Timely/Marvel was apoplectic about how their property was being used, but Republic’s deal absolved them from having to get any of the facts right. They clearly were hoping to cash in on a current trend and just plugged a notable hero into the project for name recognition. Unless you are a big fan of radio serial style vigilantes, there’s nothing here for you, especially for fans of Captain America.