by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I showed the first two episodes of the 1944 Republic serial Captain America, which I recently downloaded from archive.org (the downloads crashed so often I ended up having to do each episode one at a time, and though episode one ran normally episode two had an annoying gap of about a second or so between picture and sound, a glitch we’ve encountered in at least two other recent archive.org downloads), and which turned out to be a fun superhero romp even though it had its drawbacks: the special effects seem laughable by current standards (though the disintegration of a model skyscraper at the end of episode one still packs a punch) and Dick Purcell, playing Captain America’s secret identity — crusading district attorney Grant Gardner — looks considerably beefier, shall we say, than the stunt person actually wearing the Captain America suit.
Anyone familiar with the Captain America mythos as originally created by Marvel Comics (or whatever it was called pre-1950) in the World War II years will immediately note that this Captain America is not the comic-book Captain America; just as Republic’s writers changed Dick Tracy from a Chicago Police Department detective to an FBI agent, they junked the original backstory of Captain America and invented their own. In the comics, Captain America was Steve Rogers, whose general puniness rendered him 4-F in the World War II-era draft but who was subject to an experiment that filled out his frame and gave him artificially induced strength. The inventor of this process intended to create entire armies of artificially strengthened men but was killed before he could expose anyone but Steve to the process — and of course, this being a comic book, the secret of how he did it died with him.
Republic rejected all that and took away Captain America’s artificially enhanced strength (so in this reading he’s a Batman-style hero, an ordinary human who has willed himself to superhero status) along with his cape and the shield that was his principal weapon in the comics (I still remember the lyrics from the theme song to the 1960’s cartoon adaptation: “When Captain America throws his mighty shield/All those who chose to oppose his shield must yield”), and changed the basic color of his costume from white to black — so instead of being red, white and blue he’s red, black and blue in the film. But the serial is still a lot of fun, partly due to the casting of spunky Lorna Gray as Grant Gardner’s secretary, assistant and (it’s hinted) love interest — Republic’s serials always featured stronger, more feminist women than other studios’ — and especially Lionel Atwill as the villain of the piece, Dr. Cyrus Maldor (“from Mordor,” I mentally joked).
The first lines of the serial are Atwill’s voice, hypnotically inducing someone to commit suicide by driving his car off a cliff — which he promptly does — he’s taken on the nom de crime of “The Scarab” and has extracted a chemical from a rare orchid that allows him to take over the mind of anyone he can expose to it, to the point where they obediently divulge their secret information and then kill themselves when he tells them to. It’s nice for once to be watching a serial that lets us know who the villain is from the get-go instead of doing the hackneyed “who-is-it?” suspense number and withholding his (or her) identity until the last episode (and sometimes, given how cavalier the usual relationship of serial writers to the concept of continuity was, the character revealed as the villain in the final episode was often someone who’d been shown in the same frame as the villain earlier on!) — and Atwill, who had played virtually the same character as Professor Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon two years earlier, is in utterly superb form even though, after his marvelous turn as the criminologist hero of Lady in the Death House, it’s a bit disappointing to see him relegated to villainy in this serial and the PRC film Crime, Inc. the following year.
The serial is full of high-tech gimmicks and well-done action scenes (though Republic doesn’t seem to have been able to get the top tier of stunt people this time; the fight scenes feature some of the most obvious punch-pulling I’ve ever seen in a movie), including one of the most outrageous cliffhangers in serial history — the bad guys (minions of the Scarab) decide to destroy the good guys en masse by heading for the building where a disintegrator ray is being demonstrated, forcing the good guys into a vault, then ramping up the power on the disintegrator until the entire building collapses and takes all the good guys out with it. It also has several unintentionally funny lines, including an interview with one scientist who announces that he’s invented a vibrating machine that can destroy matter and the person talking to him says, “Tell me about your vibrator … ” — 6/24/11
Relishing the comparison between a new superhero movie and an old one, I ran chapters three and four of the Republic serial Captain America, which is a perfectly acceptable actioner and is about as arbitrarily plotted as any superhero action movie today (contrary to David Thomson, there have always been genres of cinema where spectacle has been more important than narrative coherence) — we got these as a download from archive.org and they were afflicted with the same annoying synchronization problems as episode two (the sound is about a second ahead of the picture — Charles’ player has a setting to make minor adjustments in synch, but this couldn’t adjust it enough to fix the problem). The Captain America serial is typical Republic product, with well-staged fight scenes (if you can accept the obvious punch-pulling by the participants), relentless action, a surprisingly feminist take (in one scene the female lead, Lorna Gray, actually gets to shoot down one of the bad guys — in other studios’ serials the women were just there to be damsels in distress, but in Republic serials they frequently got to participate in the action and help good triumph over evil), and an especially compelling villain performance by Lionel Atwill.
I read his biography page on imdb.com and was startled that his career had been derailed by a scandal in 1944 — he was caught hosting a party at his home at which pornographic films were being shown and, according to some reports, orgies and even rapes were taking place; he refused to testify before the grand jury to shield his friends from exposure; he served six months and then was released when the prosecutors decided there was nothing to prosecute, but this killed his employability at the major studios and only Republic and PRC would still give him work (and in fact he died in the middle of shooting a serial, Lost City of the Jungle, in 1946 and the company just hired someone else to finish the role — a major studio producing a feature would handle the death of a supporting actor by recasting and reshooting the entire role, but that’s now how things got done on Poverty Row). He’s as good as ever, playing a part called Dr. Maldor (“of Mordor,” I couldn’t help but joke) — imdb.com’s page on the serial gives the character’s first name as “Cyrus” but I don’t recall him or anyone else actually using that name for him in the film itself. — 6/26/11
I ran chapter five of the Captain America serial, which was pretty much more of the same — the setting for the big action set-piece this time was a cardboard box company and the villain, Lionel Atwill as The Scarab a.k.a. “Professor Maldor,” and his minions threatened to decapitate heroine Gail Richards (Lorna Gray) with a guillotine-like machine for cutting large numbers of cardboard pieces at once. Captain America has all the virtues of Republic serials — acceptable acting (except for Atwill, who’s quite a bit better than “acceptable”: he’s as chillingly effective as ever in a role that quite obviously owes a lot to his portrayal of Professor Moriarty opposite Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon two years earlier), a proto-feminist heroine who can take care of herself in the action sequences, well staged action scenes and a relentless pace from co-directors Elmer Clifton and John English that makes the exposition sequences between the action highlights far less dull than usual.
Unfortunately it has all the flaws of a Republic serial: glitchy plotting, bizarre contrivances (in the opening scene Atwill as the Scarab is keeping track of his robot-controlled explosive truck from a camera located behind it — impossible because the shot we see could only have come from a camera in another vehicle following the truck, and the only vehicle following the truck belongs to the good guys … the sequence would be believable if it had been established that the good guys were following in a video-equipped truck and Atwill had hacked into their signal, but that’s probably not something a 1944 screenwriter would have thought of), an overall air of sloppiness, a lack of imagination (in their quite different ways, the 1934 Return of Chandu and 1943 Columbia Batman showed it was possible for a serial to be very imaginative indeed and still deliver the thrills its audience would expect), a sameness in the perils our hero and heroine are put through, and a rewrite of the basic source material to take out the compelling central premise of the original (Captain America as the product of a wartime experiment in taking a 90-pound weakling and artificially turning him into a superman through scientific means) and substitute something pretty flat and ordinary (Captain America as a D.A. who, like Batman and the Green Hornet, is a normal human being who fights crime in a provocative costume — and whose stunt double is quite obviously slimmer and hunkier than Dick Purcell, who plays him in D.A. drag). — 6/30/11
Charles and I watched episode six of the Captain America serial, “Vault of Vengeance” (I suspect someone on the writing committee had fun with these titles; they seem to have ramped up the usual unwitting campiness of these things to something that seemed deliberate), and it was O.K. even though the cliffhanger by which Captain America’s secretary/girlfriend Gail Richards (Lorna Gray) was saved from having her head chopped off by the guillotine-like cardboard box cutter was a bit of a cheat. — 7/2/11
I ran episodes seven and eight of the Captain America serial, both of which benefited from quite spectacular cliffhangers — the one at the end of episode six placed Captain America at the bottom of a mineshaft with a huge bucket of slag plummeting down at him (though slowly enough that he was able to roll away from it in time), and the one at the end of episode seven, “Wholesale Destruction,” featured an entire oil refinery blowing up because its owner, J. C. Henley (Tom Chatterton), had resisted the extortion demands of the Scarab (Lionel Atwill), first refusing to pay him and then paying him off but marking the bill numbers first and actually publishing them in the newspapers (which seemed dumb to me: why not mark the bills but not tell anybody you’re doing that, so whenever one of the marked bills shows up in a transaction it can be traced?), though once again Captain America simply rolled himself out of danger before the building (clearly a model, but a quite effective and convincing one by Republic’s special-effects maestros, brothers Howard and Theodore Lydecker) exploded.
Charles pointed out that the writers of this serial seemed quite unconcerned about the amount of collateral damage the villains were causing — as long as the principals escaped unscathed, it was O.K. if hundreds of other people died or millions of dollars’ worth of property were destroyed — though bear in mind that this serial was made in 1944, in the middle of World War II, when bombing raids targeting civilians were commonplace and being indulged in by both sides. The episode eight cliffhanger also looks like a lulu: called “Cremation in the Skies,” it features Captain America’s a.k.a. Grant Gardner’s secretary/assistant/girlfriend, Gail Richards (Lorna Gray), taking off in a small plane to visit the grandson of one of the now-deceased members of the Mayan expedition (still annoyingly pronounced “MAY-an” instead of the correct “MY-un”) to see if he can give a clue as to the provenance of the blow gun used in an attempted murder of Henley after his factory was blown up — and the villains, using a shoe-shine boy as their spy (the kid overhears Gardner and Gray talking about their plans), target the plane because if the grandson remembers where his now-dead granddad got the gun, it will “out” respected Dr. Maldor (Lionel Atwill) as the villainous Scarab.
We’re still having synch problems with the episodes in this serial — seven seemed as much as five to 10 seconds off and eight was closer but still annoyingly unsynchronized — but one of the most entertaining parts of it is the sheer visual presence of Lionel Atwill: he’s so good being bad, even though his part here is so derivative of his role as Professor Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon two years earlier, he tries to kill Henley with an air gun, albeit a considerably lower-tech weapon than the one in the Sherlock Holmes stories! — 7/15/11
I ran chapters nine and 10 of the 1944 Captain America serial for Republic on the eve of the premiere of the new big-budget movie of the real Captain America (preserving the origin story in Marvel Comics that the Republic people, probably for budgetary reasons, removed: as the serial stands, there doesn’t seem to be any reason why a tough district attorney on the trail of a serial killer should don a suit with a motif based on the U.S. flag, call himself “Captain America” and appear inside the suit as a considerably thinner, trimmer and more buff stunt double). This one had some real lulus in the cliffhangers: episode eight, “Cremation in the Clouds” (even for a serial this has some quite dire chapter titles), ends with a plane presumably being flown by Captain America’s assistant, Gail Richards (Lorna Gray), blowing up in the sky, courtesy of a time bomb planted there by the baddies — only in the opening scenes of episode nine we find out that Captain America got away from the baddies who were going after him long enough to radio Gail and tell her to bail out of the plane, and of course she just happened to be wearing a parachute — at least that’s what we assume was in the clunky backpack she had on — only the crash utterly destroyed the Mayan blow-gun Gail was supposed to be flying to the grandson of the professor who originally discovered it on the ill-fated expedition whose members are being knocked off, one by one, by Professor Maldor (Lionel Atwill), a.k.a. The Scarab.
Undaunted, the good guys make up a fake blow gun and put out the word that it’s from a plaster casting of the original — the guy who constructed it jokes that the Scarab’s men will have a lot of fun trying to decipher the fake Mayan hieroglyphics with which he adorned it (I joked that it would turn out to be the Mayan for, “There was an old man from Nantucket … ”) — which the Scarab’s men go after, and the end of chapter nine, “Triple Tragedy,” is as bonkers as the end of chapter eight: Gail traces the baddies to their lair but just happens to be standing over a trap door, whose lever the bad guys pull so she disappears into a hole under the floor of their hideout, which turns out to be an old barn full of powder (we see large black canisters helpfully labeled “POWDER”) which the baddies blow up, hoping to take out Captain America and Dale — they survive, of course, but the barn blows up and with it more potential evidence identifying the Scarab (who, somewhat off the norm for a serial, we’ve known from the get-go is really Maldor but none of the characters — at least the good ones — have).
Captain America is a pretty mediocre superhero serial, with well-staged action scenes by directors John English and Elmer Clifton (the latter a former star for D. W. Griffith: he was Phil Stoneman in The Birth of a Nation and the “Rhapsode” in Intolerance) but a singularly unimaginative script from the writing committee and Republic’s typically slapdash and “cheating” chapter endings: the sort of Republic serial that led me to joke that anyone who’d seen one of these movies could have figured out how to do a sequel to Thelma and Louise: just before the car went over the cliff, they jumped out of it … — 7/21/11
I ran chapters 11 and 12 of the 1944 Captain America serial with the idea that we’ll finish the piece and then go out to see the newly released Marvel/Disney version, also set in the 1940’s, directed by Joe Johnston (a promising sign giving his success with the lovely, pastoral October Sky) with Chris Evans (who’s already appeared in the Marvel Universe as the Human Torch in the two Fantastic Four movies — which rank among my favorite recent superhero films because they are blessedly free of the forced seriousness Christopher Nolan and Sam Raimi brought to the Batman and Spider-Man franchises, respectively — and while Raimi’s presence and Andrew Garfield’s casting in the next Spider-Man promise a great deal, the fact that Nolan is helming the next Superman movie makes me disinclined to see it even though Christopher Meloni has supposedly signed up for a major role, though what major role I don’t know: are they going to have him shave his head and play Luthor?).
The conceit in this one is that Dr. Clinton Lyman (Robert Frazer) has invented a machine that can restore a dead person to life — provided that the dead person in question hasn’t been dead very long — only the writing committee does precious little with that provocative premise: they have the villain, Dr. Maldor a.k.a. The Scarab (Lionel Atwill), kidnap Dr. Lyman right after Maldor’s henchman Bart Matson (George J. Lewis) dies in a gun battle with the good guys (the good guys hope to keep him alive to pump him for information, including the Scarab’s true identity, but he croaks before that can happen), and the thing is powered by something that looks like an open door to the inferno but which I think was supposed to be a nuclear reactor (it’s hard to think of anything else that could generate a million volts and yet be located inside an ordinary-sized office in an ordinary-sized office building) and Captain America and Matson get into a fight in front of the open door to the inferno as one of the chapter cliffhangers, and guess which one comes out alive (though actually I think they both do).
The episode titles were “The Dead Man Returns” (episode 10 had been called “The Avenging Corpse,” though when Matson is actually revived it doesn’t seem like he’s after vengeance; it’s more like he just wants to get back to work at his job as the Scarab’s assistant and a minor little detail like he was killed and then brought back to life in a science-fictional machine that is the one element in this serial that isn’t physically possible simply doesn’t interest or bother him in the slightest) and “Horror on the Highway,” and of course the titular horror on the highway is a car tipping over in the middle of a chase sequence … though no doubt the writing committee will figure out some cop-out way that Our Hero and Our Heroine (one good thing about this movie is that, like in a lot of Republic serials, the heroine is as spunky, brave and intimately involved in the action as the hero; though she doesn’t get to don a cool costume, Lorna Gray as Captain America’s girlfriend/assistant/secretary Gail Richards is quite feisty and butch in the best tradition of Republic’s serial heroines) will get out of danger! — 7/23/11
Charles and I decided to finish the 1944 Republic serial Captain America, largely to “clear the decks” before we see the new version that was released last Thursday for one special screening here in downtown San Diego and then generally last Friday. The serial had a larger than usual writing committee — Royal K. Cole, Harry L. Fraser, and Joseph F. Poland, script, plus additional credits to Ronald Davidson, Basil Dickey, Jesse Duffy and Grant Nelson — and overall, while it isn’t a bad movie and certainly “delivers the goods” to the serial audience — a lot of well-staged if not especially creative action scenes, and decent if not truly exciting cliffhangers (the one at the end of episode 12 showed Captain America’s car going off the side of the road and down a cliff, and the beginning of episode 13 revealed that he used the all-time favorite Republic escape mechanism: just before the car went over the cliff, he opened the door and jumped out of it — Republic used this one so often that when Charles and I watched Zombies of the Stratosphere, during the later episodes as the cliffhanger scene unreeled, we’d both call out to the screen, “Jump! Jump!”), just as the audience for the modern-day Captain America will no doubt be waiting for the big action scenes, 3-D effects and spectacular computer-generated imagery.
The focus of the last three episodes was the so-called Temple of the Emeralds, a jewel-encrusted (or possibly completely constructed of precious gems) building the Mayans (the “MAY-ans,” as they’ve been referred to all serial) supposedly left behind when they … well, when whatever happened to them happened. They left an engraved bronze map in two parts, concealed inside two stone tablets, and as it turned out the ill-fated MAY-an expedition on which Dr. Maldor (Lionel Atwill) was a participant, and whose other members he has been systematically knocking off in his guise as the arch-villain The Scarab, recovered both of them: Maldor had one and Professor Hillman (John Hamilton) had the other, and Hamilton discovered it when his clay tablet accidentally broke and revealed the flat sheet of bronze beneath it.
Thanks to his network of spies in and around the offices of district attorney Grant Gardner (Dick Purcell), who’s also at least nominally Captain America (a few close-ups show Purcell in Captain America drag but virtually all the long shots of Cap are of a shorter, lighter and considerably more agile stunt double) — and also to an electromagnetic wire recorder, an esoteric enough gadget in 1944 that the serial stopped for exposition to explain to the audience just what it was (and the electronics technician who made it for the Scarab is played by Kenne “Horsecock” Duncan, later a semi-regular in Ed Wood’s movies) — the Scarab, a.k.a. Professor Maldor, learns that the other half of the bronze treasure map has been concealed in the clay tablet he had all along, and so he sends his gang to break into Hamilton’s home (his men have no particular trouble evading the police guard Gardner posted there, who for sheer incompetence make the Keystone Kops look like Dirty Harry by comparison), steal the tablet and also kidnap Hillman because he knows how to read MAY-an and Maldor doesn’t.
In a performance by Atwill that owes so much to his role as Professor Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon two years earlier, it really puts the capstone on things that the final episodes of this serial even track Secret Weapon plotwise; in that film, you’ll recall, Holmes and Moriarty were racing each other over London for the four parts of a state secret, all of which had to be assembled for the message to be readable. Eventually Maldor realizes Captain America’s secret identity as Grant Gardner; Gardner and his assistant/secretary/girlfriend Gail Richards (Lorna Gray) realize Maldor’s secret identity as the Scarab; the police raid the Scarab’s headquarters at the Drummond antiquities museum — and there’s a real surprise that the villain of a serial is taken alive at the end, which hardly ever happened. There’s also a denouement that gave rise to a “Goofs” posting on imdb.com: the successful capture of the Scarab and the end of his “reign of terror” (though unless you had been accompanying him on that expedition to the MAY-an territory in Mexico, you seemed pretty safe) is hailed on the soundtrack by the tolling of bells and on screen by a shot of … Big Ben, in London, in a film that until that last shot (which quite frankly looked like the same shot that Alexander Korda used as the logo for his company, London Films) has taken place entirely within the United States.
In the power of the action scenes, the slovenliness of the exposition, the welcome spunkiness of the leading female character (for all Republic president Herbert Yates’ fabled conservatism, he put strong women on the screen as action heroines while the major studios generally used them in action films, if at all, only as helpless damsels in distress to be rescued by the butch male hero in the final reel!) and the overall spirit that overcomes the cheapness and the silliness, Captain America is a typical Republic serial even though it doesn’t do justice to the original conception of the character by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon (they developed him in 1942 as a war-themed superhero and he was the earliest hero in what’s become known as the Marvel Universe) and would no doubt have been a much better movie if it had — as it is, there’s no particular reason for a district attorney to don a flamboyant costume just to chase after the crooks he’s seeking to prosecute in his other identity! — 7/24/11