One of the Best Serials Ever Made: The Adventures of Captain Marvel, Chapter Two: The Guillotine

One of the Best Serials Ever Made: The Adventures of Captain Marvel, Chapter Two: The Guillotine

Captain Marvel Episode 2  Lobby card-smallHave you found your seats? Are you sufficiently equipped with licorice whips, popcorn, and Nehi Soda? Then let the lights dim and settle in for Republic Pictures’ 1941 serial, The Adventures of Captain Marvel. We opened last week with Curse of the Scorpion. Today, Chapter Two: “The Guillotine.”

Our chapter  opens with helpful title cards summarizing events for those who couldn’t scare up a dime last Saturday. “Rahman Bar – Attacks the camp of the Malcom Expedition in reprisal for the theft of the Golden Scorpion.” “Billy Batson – Radios for troops from Fort Mooltan.” “Malcolm – And the rest of the party try to escape with the lenses.” “Captain Marvel – Tries to warn them that the bridge across the gorge is mined.” There – all caught up. Now say the mystic word and be transformed!

We now get a quick two minutes from last week’s cliffhanger ending. We see Whitey and Betty stuck on the bridge as the dynamite explodes and the bridge collapses. The car tumbles into the river, taking the helpless occupants with it. Observing from a boulder where he has just landed, Captain Marvel executes a very nice high dive and, swimming to the not-quite-yet submerged station wagon, pulls the unconscious Whitey and Betty to the safety of the river bank.

By the way, as cliffhanger resolutions go, this is quite honest. All serials did some cheating in their cliffhangers (the looney Undersea Kingdom with Ray “Crash” Corrigan might be the worst offender in this regard), but The Adventures of Captain Marvel usually plays it fairly straight.

[Click on any of the images for bigger versions.]

Captain Marvel Episode 2 - Title Card-smallBefore Whitey and Betty fully revive, Captain Marvel says “Shazam!” and changes back into Billy. A short time later, the three calmly stroll over to Malcolm and the others, who managed to get across the gorge before the bridge blew. Malcolm exclaims, “Why it’s Billy and Betty – with Whitey! How on Earth did you three ever – ” Billy quickly cuts him off. “I’ll tell you about that later, Mr. Malcolm. We’d better get away from here!”

(All this time, the British troops have been settling the hash of the discontented tribesmen, but who knows how many more may be hiding under the bed.) Malcolm decides they should head for Fort Mooltan, because “You can rest there, Betty.” Despite the carnage of the previous episode, Billy seems most delighted at having a great story to broadcast once they get back to the states.

Which is exactly where we next find the group, after fifteen seconds of stock footage of sailing steamships. Billy and Whitey are at the radio station and Billy is just finishing his broadcast. “The expedition reached the ship without further difficulty. All the scientists are enthusiastic over their discoveries and they’re very thankful to be back in this country again, out of reach of the Scorpion.” When you tempt fate like that, you know what you get, and so…

Cut to the Scorpion, turning off his radio, which holds a prominent place in a living room furnished in quiet good taste, with a lot of dark woods and paintings of nature scenes on the walls. (The Scorpion could have been exposed much sooner if only Billy and the others had enlisted the services of a forensic decorator.)

It’s an hour until Little Orphan Annie comes on, so the evil mastermind passes the time by showing his nice new Golden Scorpion to his chief henchman, Barnett (Keene Duncan). Doubtless he had to work tirelessly with the realtor to find a house with a curtained alcove that’s exactly the right size for a priceless artifact of the Scorpion Dynasty.

Captain Marvel Episode 2 -Scorpion-smallThe Scorpion laments the absence of the crystal lenses that make the Golden Scorpion more than just a conversation piece, explaining to Barnett, “With the lenses in place the sun’s rays can be used to change inert material into powerful explosives and to turn base metals into gold. Whoever controls this device will have power such as men have dreamed of since the beginning of time.” If that’s true, one wonders why the Scorpion Dynasty fell; perhaps they got tied up in expensive litigation, like Captain Marvel himself.

The Scorpion dispatches Barnett to get the first of the lenses, the one in the possession of Henry Carlyle. (It is also reemphasized here that the Scorpion is, unbeknownst to our heroes,  himself one of the archaeological party – but which one? ) The scene immediately shifts to a meeting of the party at Malcolm’s home, where Betty tells the assembled group that Carlyle will be slightly delayed, but is on his way.

Don’t speak too soon, Betty; as Carlyle drives to the meeting (along a completely deserted road, of course), two Scorpion thugs pull up alongside him and one leaps into the backseat of his car and, pulling a gun, tells Carlyle to do as he’s told. The moral: when you’re pitted against a sinister genius in a high stakes battle for the control of the world, don’t drive a convertible, or at least keep the top up.

The thugs and Carlyle arrive at a sort of thug sub-headquarters (the interior decorating is far below the Scorpion’s high standard) where Barnett snarls, “The Scorpion wants your lens.” Carlyle manfully refuses to cooperate, whereupon Barnett directs his attention to one side of the room where a conveyor belt leads up to a guillotine. Like the relic-ready alcove in the Scorpion’s lair, it’s very difficult to find houses that have one of these; rumpus rooms or walk-in closets, yes; guillotines, no. (If you do find one, don’t think you’re going to get it with a low bid.)

Captain Marvel Episode 2 Guillotine-smallBarnett helpfully explains how the grim death machine works. “Those electric eyes are throwing a beam that will knock out anyone who gets between them, and at the same time – wait, I’ll show you!” The thug chief then tosses a chair onto the conveyor belt. The beam is activated in a shower of sparks and the belt starts moving. The unconscious chair moves slowly toward its doom, and when it’s directly under the guillotine, the blade drops and smashes it into kindling, along with Carlyle’s once-steely resolve. The quailing archaeologist writes a letter to Malcolm and the others begging them to give his lens to the Scorpion.

The letter is delivered and after a brief debate, the group agrees to surrender the lens. They decide to send Betty with it (chivalry really is dead) to the drop off site, the Elm Street Bridge. Billy doesn’t like this set up, though; he pulls Betty aside after the others leave the room (it was a dull meeting, and refreshments weren’t even served.) He has a plan…

We now see Betty driving to the middle of the bridge. She stops the car, gets out, and after placing a small box on the bridge railing, gets back in the car and drives off. She has been watched from some bushes by the side of the road, and after she pulls ways, a Scorpion thug emerges and retrieves the box. Betty hasn’t gone far, though; a short distance down the road, she slows the car and Billy and Whitey pop out of the backseat. They awkwardly jump out of the still-moving car (you can’t much blame Betty for being reluctant to stop) and head back toward the bridge, to keep an eye on the pick-up man and see where he goes. So…Billy can change with a word into a flying superhuman powerhouse, and this was his plan?

As Billy and Whitey sneak up on the thug, two more Scorpion henchmen sneak up behind them. “Get your hands up, both of you!” Outnumbered three to two with guns trained on them…for serial good guys, these are excellent odds, and as they’re being frisked, Billy and Whitey attack. (Billy evidences a decent right cross for a whiny-voiced radio broadcaster.) Fisticuffs ensue. You get the idea that there wasn’t much “fight coordinating” in these old serials; the directors probably just gave some general directions and then told the boys to mix it up for a few minutes. Actually, this gives some of these awkward, flailing fights a more realistic feel than many much slicker brawls in current movies. After a great deal of give-and-take, Billy takes out one minion by falling through the bridge railing with him. As Whitey slowly loses ground (he is one against two, after all), Billy finally says the magic word and the World’s Mightiest Mortal makes his appearance.

Captain Marvel Episode 2 - MeetingCaptain Marvel jumps up to the bridge, a leap of about fifteen or sixteen feet. It looks like stuntman Davy Sharpe leaped backwards off the bridge (fifteen or sixteen feet!) and then the film was reversed – or perhaps wires were used. In any case, it’s a nice effect. Once up there, Captain Marvel runs to Whitey’s aid. He grabs one unfortunate Scorpion employee and tosses him headfirst off the bridge. The other chap pulls a gun and shoots the grinning, slowly advancing hero. Since that has no effect and throwing his gun at his adversary would really be pointless (this guy is a veritable genius among henchmen) he briefly uses Whitey as a shield to get to his car, then jumps in and speeds away. Captain Marvel flies overhead for a bit, then drops onto the roof of the vehicle. The driver doesn’t hear Captain Marvel thump onto the roof; perhaps he was listening to Hoagy Carmichael and had the radio turned up too loud.

Pulling up at the hideout where Carlyle is being held, the thug bursts in and proudly presents Barnett with the box containing the lens…except the box is empty. No lens. Carlyle pleads ignorance when confronted with this trick, and Barnett snaps, “If you can’t figure out some way to get that lens, you’ll go under the knife.” Talk about invasive surgery!

The bad guys start dragging Carlyle to the guillotine in order to speed up his thought process. At this moment, Captain Marvel bursts through a window and bullets and people start flying. As slugs bounce off Captain Marvel and thugs bounce off walls (our hero really likes to throw people), Barnett belts the Captain with a chair. Maybe he thinks that American colonial furniture is Marvel’s secret weakness. It doesn’t hurt Cap any more than bullets do, but it does knock him off balance; he stumbles back…into the electric eye! A loud crackle, an explosion of sparks, and Captain Marvel is knocked out cold. In the meantime, Carlyle has snatched up a gun and while he and Barnett crouch behind cheap furniture and trade shots, the conveyor belt starts moving, and the supine form of the Big Red Cheese slowly inches toward the merciless blade of the guillotine. Closer… closer… and… the blade drops! (Why we should be worried about a big knife blade when we’ve already seen dozens of bullets bounce off our hero is left unstated. The folks who made these things clearly did not have a high regard for the analytical skills of their jujube-addled audience.)

Is Captain Marvel doomed? (Of course not – don’t be silly.)  Will Carlyle survive his shoot out with Barnett? Can Betty build a meaningful life among men who don’t respect her, who use her and treat her like a slave and then just… ooops. Sorry. Got carried away there. Does the Scorpion ever have any trouble with the city planning commission or the homeowner’s association? The answers to (some of) these and other questions will be found in next week’s exciting chapter, “Time Bomb.” See you then!

Thomas Parker is a native Southern Californian and a lifelong science fiction, fantasy, and mystery fan. When not corrupting the next generation as a fourth grade teacher, he collects Roger Corman movies, Silver Age comic books, Ace doubles, and despairing looks from his wife.

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[…] Are Whitey and Betty doomed? Will Malcolm and his colleagues get the lenses back to the states? Does Tal Chotali have any hair under that turban? Will Captain Marvel become a spokesman for the NRA? The answers to (some of) these and other questions will be found in next week’s exciting chapter, “The Guillotine.” […]

Aonghus Fallon

Been watching these on YouTube. They’re pretty good.

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