Saturday, 29 May 2010

1940's Super-Hero Movie Serials

We've all watched Super Hero TV Shows, and love them or hate them they are here to stay (with a new one soon to be aired too).

NOW I won't be covering non-costumed Hero's, so there will be no mention of Buffy, Angel, Heroes, or Mutant X here (though I might cover them at a later date) - but there is STILL a lot to cover!

I'm actually going to start today with the Super Hero Movie Serials of the 40's, the reason is simple - they are the origins of the Super Hero TV Shows - in fact most have seen their way onto TV at some point anyway, and I like them LoL! Everything is rated in "POWS" 1 being the lowest score, 5 being the highest.

The earliest Costumed Hero that appeared in a Serial (that I am aware of and have seen) was Captain Marvel.

The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941)



The Adventures of Captain Marvel debuted in 1941, it was a twelve chapter serial produced by Republic Pictures, and adapted from the popular Fawcett Comics Captain Marvel Character.

It was directed by John English & William Witney, and starred Tom Tyler (who later played The Phantom in the Columbia Pictures serial) as Captain Marvel & Frank Coghlan Jr. as Billy Batson (Captain Marvels alter ego).

The serial featured an adaptation of the Comic Superhero, placed within an original story in which he fights a mysterious masked criminal mastermind, known only as "The Scorpion", who is hell-bent on gaining total control of a figurine of a magical gold scorpion . In actuality it is actually a disguised optical weapon of incredible power (including, but not limited to, melting rock via a projected death ray).

Billy Batson is an assistant radio operator with the Malcolm archaeological expedition to "the Valley of the Tombs" in Siam. The expedition is attacked by natives but Tal Chotali parleys with Rahman Bar. A sacred legend states no desecration will occur until the volcano, Scorpio, is active again. At the tombs, Billy refuses to enter the inner tomb as it would desecrate the religious beliefs of others. Instead he goes to pack pottery in another tunnel. In the inner tomb, Tal Chotali, Prof Malcolm, Prof Luthor Bentley, Dwight Fisher, and Dr Stephen Lang, find the Golden Scorpion. A ray from the Scorpion collapses the entrance to the tombs and opens a hidden passage between Billy and the ancient wizard Shazam. Shazam grants him the ability to change into Captain Marvel in order to prevent the Golden Scorpion from falling into the wrong hands. It is his "duty to see that the curse of the Scorpion is not visited on innocent people."

The lenses from the Golden Scorpion are divided among the five scientists. Scorpio then erupts which triggers a native attack. However, the masked mystery villain the Scorpion is orchestrating it, stealing one of the lenses during the hostilities. The expedition is rescued by cavalry from Fort Mooltan. Captain Marvel then flies to a group of natives with a machine gun, knocks them out by throwing one at the other, and takes over the gun. Marvel then throws aside the gun and attacks with his bare fists. Marvel learns he is invulnerable as bullets bounce off his chest.

The expedition then returns to the United States, where the Scorpion attempts to acquire all of the lenses and the Scorpion device for his own power. Several expedition members are killed in his quest despite Captain Marvel's continual efforts to thwart the villain. Billy Batson soon decides that the man behind the Scorpion's mask is one of the team.

Eventually a second expedition sets out because it has been learned that Long had actually hidden his lens in the tomb. The Scorpion witnesses Billy's change during this and captures him - tying him up and gagging him. The Scorpion interrogates Billy for the secret. When Billy agrees to tell him, The Scorpion removes the gag and Billy says "Shazam", which transforms him into Captain Marvel.

The Scorpion is then revealed to be Bentley. He is killed by the disillusioned native chief, Rahman Bar, who uses the Scorpion in death ray mode. Shazam himself is heard to say the magic word and Captain Marvel is transformed back into Billy Batson.

The Republic writers replaced the wit and humor of the original comics with "serious, dedicated professionalism" - which between you and me (for the most part) means "it was all a little dull".

They simply could not use any standard fistfights with Captain Marvel, because his superpowers (compared to the standard bad-guys) left the Good Captain clearly at a HUGE advantage, which meant they had to go for plot and characterization - which although luadible, makes me wonder why bother having a Super-Hero in a story where none was really needed.

Its still good fun though, HOWEVER - the writers should have AT LEAST put a Super-Powered Henchman in for Captain Marvel to battle.

Though enjoyable, it could have been better - more fun and more battles. In taking away the wit, you detract from the character a little, and not using the Captains powers fully is a waste IMHO.

The Phantom (1943)



The Phantom is a classic 1943 Columbia Pictures cliffhanger serial starring Tom Tyler. The serial is based on Lee Falk's comic strip of the same name, and also features Jeanne Bates as the Phantom's main squeeze Diana Palmer, and Ace the Wonder Dog (you have to LOVE the way Hollywood named its Animals in the 40's LoL) as the Phantom's trusty German shepherd Devil (Devil is actually a wolf in the original comic).

The plot (as it was in a lot of these Serials) was a relatively convoluted one - Professor Davidson (played by Frank Shannon) has planned an expedition to find the Lost City of Zoloz.

The location of the city is held on seven pieces of ivory, three of which Davidson already possesses.

Doctor Bremmer, however, intends to find the lost city and use it as a secret airbase for his unnamed country. To remove him as an obstacle, he kills The Phantom, only for his recently returned son, Geoffrey Prescott, to inherit the family identity and take over the mantle of The Phantom.

Three of the remaining pieces of ivory are owned by Singapore Smith, who initially steals Davidson's pieces. The seventh, and most important, piece is missing at first but turns up in the possession of Tarter - which The Phantom acquires by wrestling Tarter's pet gorilla (an FANTASTICALLY cheesy scene - but great fun LoL).

Like almost all of these Serials, it had a relatively low Budget - most of the serial was filmed in the Hollywood hills, which doubled as the African jungle. A lot of the time the Actors who starred in them did so because it was part of a "bundle" deal with a Studio - so their paycheques wouldn't exactly be as healthy as they might.

Only one real "beef" with the Phantom Serial (and its not a big one) - in the serial, the Phantom's secret identity is Geoffrey Prescott, but in the comic he is known as Kit Walker in "civvy street".

In spite of the budgetry restrictions, its a good fun romp - I heartily recommend it.

With the popularity of such Serials now proved, the Dark Knight made an appearance too . . . . .

Batman (1943)



Batman (1943) 15-chapter serial released in 1943 (15 Episodes was now becoming the norm for the medium) by Columbia Pictures.

The serial starred Lewis Wilson as Batman and Douglas Croft as Robin.

J. Carrol Naish was WOEFULLY miscast as the Japanese villain, an original character - the evil Mastermind Dr. Daka.

The Supporting cast consited of - Shirley Patterson as Linda Page (Bruce Wayne's love interest), and the wonderful William Austin as Alfred.

The plot is based on Batman, a US government agent, attempting to defeat the Japanese agent Dr. Daka, at the height of World War II.

The film is notable for being the first appearance of Batman in celluloid AND for adding two important elements to the Batman mythos.

"The Bat's Cave" and the Grandfather clock entrance first appeared in this serial, and quickly became staples of the comics but the name was changed to the Batcave (thankfully LoL).

William Austin who played Alfred had a trim physique and sported a pencil moustache. In the comics of the time Alfred was portrayed as being overweight and clean-shaven! After the serials release - the comic version of Alfred was altered to match the appearence of William Austins.

For those of a "delicate" disposition I should warn you this Serial was produced at the height of World War II, and like all popular American fiction at that time it contains anti-German and anti-Japanese ethnic slurs and comments!

In one scene, one of Daka's henchmen turns on him, saying, "That's the kind of answer that fits the color of your skin" for example.

Suffering from the usual low budget - no attempt was made to create anactual Batmobile, so a black Cadillac was used! The ODDEST thing is that Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson - as well as Batman and Robin were chauffeured around by Alfred!?!?!?!

This serial fared better than most however, despite Batman being a government Agent and there being no Batmobile - it is tightly shot and acted. The only weak point really is Robin, who only seems to be there to get the living crap kicked out of him by Daka's Henchmen!

This serial also received a bigger publicity budget than most, which probably added to its popularity at the time - with more of the general Movie going public being aware of its existence.

All in all a great offering from Columbia, and even though I've watched it a few times now - I never tire of it!

Captain America (1944)



Republic pictures responded in kind, with the release of Captain America in 1944.

Not only was it not a brilliant commercial success, it was also the last Republic serial ever made about a superhero; and has the distinction of being the most expensive serial that Republic ever made.

Captain America, really District Attorney Grant Gardner (What! No Steve Rogers? - trying to thwart the plans of The Scarab, who is really museum curator Dr. Cyrus Maldor - in his attempts to acquire the "Dynamic Vibrator" (I kid you not LoL) and "Electronic Firebolt" - devices that could be used as super-weapons.

In a rare plot element for a Republic production - the secret identity of the villain is known to the audience from the very beginning! The Republics usual approach was to use a "Mystery Villain" who was generally only revealed as one of the other supporting characters in the very last chapter.

A rash of suspicious suicides among scientists and businessmen, all found holding a small scarab, gets the attention of Mayor Randolph. He demands that Police Commissioner Dryden and District Attorney Grant Gardner get to the bottom of the case, while openly wishing that Captain America, a masked man who has helped defeat crime in the past, were around to solve the mystery.

All of the suicides were members of an expedition to some Mayan ruins. One of the few remaining survivors, Professor Lyman, turns to his friend Dr Maldor for support. Dr Maldor, however, reveals that he is the man responsible for the deaths. He wants revenge because he planned and organised the expedition but everyone else claimed the fame and fortune. However, Lyman has developed the "Dynamic Vibrator" - a device intended for mining operations but one that can be amplified into a devastating weapon. Using his "Purple Death", a hypnotic chemical responsible for the suicides, Dr Maldor forces Lyman to disclose the location of his plans.

Captain America intervenes as the Scarab's heavies attempt to steal the plans and this leads to a sequence of plots by the Scarab to acquire a working version, as well as other devices, while trying to eliminate the interfering Captain before he succeeds in discovering Dr Maldor's true identity or defeats him.

Now - its all good Superhero fare, right? I admit that, but why in Zeus's name did they NOT do a War Story. Its Captain America FFS, its 1944 - its OBVIOUS!

This Serial pretty much only got made because 1943's Batman was such a success - so why not cash in on that and have an insidious Nazi or Japanese Villain for Captain AMERICA (good lord, its there in his name LoL).

Not only did they completely screw up the plot, they went over budget by over $40,000 dollars!

So, with a whimper - rather than a bang - Superhero Serials at Republic dissapeared over night.

Captain America is OK, its no great shakes - it has some nice moments. The reveal of Doctor Maldor as the Villaneous Scarab is nicely done, but thats about it. Again the Hero was underused, and in the case of suitability to the story - Captain America didn't "sit " too well.

OK, onto my last review of Today - The Dark Knight returns to the silver screen.

Batman & Robin (1949)



Robert Lowery replaced Lewis Wilson as Batman, while Johnny Duncan was the new Robin (logic dictates Douglas Croft was to old now).

The rest of the Cast included Jane Adams as Vicki Vale and veteran character actor Lyle Talbot as Commissioner Gordon. Eric Wilton appeared as Alfred Pennyworth, though like William Austin (who I can't understand why was replaced) he was uncredited for his performance.

Wilton was an austere ALfred, and lacked the moustache too - he was an odd choice at best.

Once again a 15 part serial, the plot dealt with the Dynamic Duo facing off against "The Wizard", a hooded villain whose identity remains a mystery throughout the serial until the end (as it should be!).

The low budget showed everywhere in the Serial. The Batman costume had a REALLY badly designed cowl, and the Robin costume had added pink tights to cover the hairy-legs of both the actor and stuntman - unfortunately, it looked like the tights were community property - they didn't fit that well.

Once again the Batmobile is missing - but instead of a limousine as was used in the first serial, the Dynamic-Duo drive around in a 1949 Mercury!

Several mistakes and flaws of logic occur in the serial.

One prime example is that we actually get to see the Batsignal working in strong daylight!?!?!

Another cracker is that despite the fact that the heroes' utility belts had been replaced by normal belts for the serial - and (as you can imaging) there are no pockets or pouches on the Costumes - Batman, in order to escape from a vault, manages to pull a full-size blowtorch from his belt!!! (at least I hope its his belt).

It had a higher budget than the 1943 Batman Serial, but looked cheaper - and the acting of the Stars was more wooden IMHO.

Its a shame really, it had potential - but did nothing with it!

NEXT - Superhero TV!

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