Today, before the lights go down and our show begins, we have a brief public sevice message. No, it’s not about the YMCA car wash or the Friends of the Library book sale. It’s about where you can find The Adventures of Captain Marvel for your own viewing.
The serial was last released on DVD in 2003, but is now only available used — the Amazon marketplace has several copies available. They can be a bit pricey, however; the serial was ten dollars ten years ago, when I bought mine new, but now the cheapest copies on Amazon are twice that.
A true hero never despairs, though, and there’s good news for those who want to experience serial thrills first hand, instead of just hacking their way through my breathless prose descriptions. The Adventures of Captain Marvel is available to watch on YouTube, along with many other classic (and not so classic) serials. It’s a great place to get acquainted — or reacquainted — with this kind of storytelling.
If online serial watching whets your appetite for more Saturday matinee thrills, I enthusiastically direct you to the Serial Squadron, a great group of people who seek out and restore serials — many of them rare or even thought to be lost. You can visit them at www.serialsquadron.com. They make remastered copies (often with plenty of great extras) for sale on DVD and also make them available for free viewing on their own YouTube channel, www.youtube.com/user/serialsquadron.
Now, sit back and let the wizard Shazam transport you to a world of action and excitement where evil keeps things interesting but justice is bound to prevail!
This week’s title cards will catch up those who missed last week’s action while they were standing in line for Milk Duds.
“The Scorpion — Captures Carlyle and demands his lens as ransom for his life.”
“Betty — Leaves a dummy package at the Elm Street Bridge.”
“Billy Batson — And Whitey fail to trap the Scorpion’s men.”
“Captain Marvel — Arrives at Barnett’s apartment as Carlyle is about to be guillotined.”
As is customary, the catch up cards are followed by the last minute or two from last week’s cliffhanger conclusion. As Barnett and Carlyle trade shots across the room, the unconscious Captain Marvel is carried under the guillotine by the conveyor belt. The razor-sharp blade drops and… shatters like an eggshell against our hero’s invulnerable neck! This serves only to revive Captain Marvel; as he sits up, he has a queasy expression on his face, almost as if he expects to find a disheveled, makeup-less Wonder Woman sleeping beside him. But that’s a story for another serial…
Captain Marvel disengages himself from the wreckage of the guillotine just in time to see Barnett shoot Carlyle. Marvel runs over to help the stricken archaeologist as Barnett and his henchmen flee. Never having been in a serial before and thinking he has all the time in the world, Carlyle gasps, “The Scorpion! I think… I think I know… who he is…” Having reached the end of his allowed word count, Carlyle dies without saying the one word he needed to.
Later, at Malcolm’s house, Billy walks in on Betty. She tells him that she’s on her way to Oak Mountain Lodge, to retrieve Carlyle’s lens from his safe; he had previously given her the combination. (He probably also told her not to touch the stack of Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang that’s behind the lens.) Again, Billy is suspicious of this set-up. He tells Betty to take his car, because “It has a two-way radio in it — if anything goes wrong you can talk directly to me and I’ll keep it tuned to that wavelength.”
As Betty agrees to this scheme, they hear a muffled sound behind a door and see the knob moving slightly. Billy jerks the door open to reveal Tal Chotali, who has clearly been eavesdropping. The sage is flustered, apparently being reminded of that time his mother unexpectedly walked in on him in the bathroom. Tal Chotali makes a face-saving excuse (easy to do when most of your head is wrapped in a turban) and leaves with Betty. Billy then calls Whitey and asks him to trail Betty as she goes to the lodge. He obviously — and correctly — expects trouble and this is verified when we see the feet of someone who is lurking outside the door. Billy is still being spied on. (It’s hard for shoes to look menacing, but the wearer of these wingtips really brings it off.)
Meanwhile, at Chez Scorpion, the sinister mastermind is boasting to Barnett. “My friends think they can keep me from getting Carlyle’s lens — they do not realize the power of the Scorpion!” It’s a point in his favor that he still considers these people friends, though he does tell Barnett to intercept Betty and get the safe’s combination from her. Friends or no friends, he wants that lens.
We next see Whitey sitting in his car, waiting for Betty to drive by. After a moment, she passes and Whitey pulls out to follow. A few seconds later, Betty is stopped by a detour sign. (The Scorpion is truly a fiend — kidnapping, murder, disrupting the traffic flow on public roadways with fake detour signs – is there no outrage he won’t commit?)
Following the sign, Betty finds herself in a narrow alley where she is blocked by Scorpion thugs and forced to drive her car up into a large moving van. The grinning lackeys close the back and drive off with the helpless secretary, who has never yet gotten a chance to show off her shorthand skills. By the time Whitey arrives in the alley, Betty has vanished. Whitey is baffled, as usual.
Sitting in her car in the back of the van, Betty thinks quickly. She switches on the two-way radio, so everything said will be heard by Billy. One of her hijackers sneers, “Looks like your boyfriend lost track of you. Alright, hand over that combination!” He grabs her purse and after a quick search finds what he’s looking for. (Locating something in a purse after a mere five second search is by far the most wildly improbable thing in the whole twelve episode serial.)
Showing admirable self-control (She almost certainly wanted to shriek, “He’s not my boyfriend!”), the ever-dutiful Betty says, “You can’t get away with this — the police will soon know what the Acme Storage Company are using their trucks for.” Betty has a lot on the ball; maybe she should have been in charge of the expedition and Malcolm and the rest could have brought her coffee. In any case, on the other end of the radio, Billy has heard enough. Shazam!
In the van, the purse-snatching thug ties Betty to her steering wheel and moves up in front with the driver. Then a panel in the top of the truck opens and gas comes out, knocking Betty out. (Just what did the Acme Storage Company transport in this truck — rabid weasels?) As this happens, a convertible from the Scorpion motor pool pulls up alongside and, without stopping either vehicle, the kidnappers jump into it and speed away, leaving the van driverless. It starts to weave dangerously back and forth, just as Captain Marvel flies up.
The shot of Captain Marvel pursuing the van is one of the most striking and memorable in the whole serial. As the driverless van careens along a mountain road, with a cliff wall on the left and a sheer drop on the right, Captain Marvel (in the form of the life-size flying model constructed for these sequences) zooms along behind it, and we see Captain Marvel’s shadow following right along behind him and speeding across the cliff face. We know we’re seeing a dummy, of course (though its range of emotion is just about as good as Tom Tyler’s), but the effect is so audacious and well-executed that you want to applaud. Because the model is a real object in real space, we’re more ready to accept the special effects lie than we often are with even the most seamless modern CGI.
Captain Marvel catches the van, gets into the cab, and pulls the vehicle over. He gets Betty out of the back and (you know it’s coming) transforms back into Billy before she fully revives. She exclaims, “Billy! How did you get here?” Knowing that the breakneck serial pace means that he just has to get to the next scene for the question to be forever forgotten, Billy replies, “Well, never mind that — we’ve got more important things to worry about.” Works every time.
When Betty tells him that the Scorpion’s men have the combination to Carlyle’s safe and are on their way to get the lens, Billy has an inspiration. “I can get to the lodge ahead of them in my plane.” Betty wants to go with him, but Billy won’t hear of it. “After what you’ve been through, you need a rest — I’ll drop you off at Malcolm’s on my way to the airport.” And brew up some fresh coffee, sweetheart.
Back at Malcolm’s house, Betty fills the group in on recent events and details Billy’s plan. She tells them that the intrepid young broadcaster is at that moment on his way to the airport. Never one to avoid the obvious, Malcolm declares that Betty’s story is “startling proof that we are menaced by a master criminal.”
The others are blase. Let Batson handle it. Tal Chotali does want confirmation of one point, however. “You say Billy is taking his own plane?” “Yes — why?” Betty answers. “Nothing,” Tal Chotali replies. “Mere curiosity.” This is followed by a series of rapid, luridly lit reaction shots of Malcolm, Tal Chotali, Bentley, Lang, and Fischer, in which each man vies with the others for the gold medal in the Shifty Look Olympics, again reminding us that the Scorpion is one of these men — as if we could possibly forget.
The meeting breaks up and Betty goes into the next room to get her coat. As she’s walking out, she notices that the phone is off the hook. She picks it up and overhears the Scorpion giving orders to a henchman to plant an “atmospheric exploder” in Billy’s plane. The bomb will be set for 8:00 “with a one minute fuse.” The funny thing is, unlike Betty, we don’t just hear the Scorpion give these orders — we see him do it, standing in a darkened room, in his evil mastermind robe and hood. So… he left the meeting and in the space of what could have only been one or two minutes, got to a secluded room, and got into his Scorpion outfit — to make a phone call?
All those who aspire to supervillainy, take note. This is the kind of dedication and attention to detail that entitles you the have “the” before your name.
As Billy pulls up at the airport, the Scorpion’s stooge sneaks away from Billy’s plane, his sabotage accomplished. Back at Malcolm’s, Betty calls Whitey at the radio station (she wakes him up, in fact) and tells him about the bomb. Whitey gets on the radio and tries to call Billy and tell him about the danger, but to no avail. By this time, Billy is in the air and we see why Whitey can’t get through to him — the plane’s radio wires have been cut. As Whitey frantically pleads into the microphone, the clock hands on the plane’s instrument panel approach 8:00… pass it… reach 8:01… and the plane explodes in mid-air.
Is this the end of Billy Batson? Will the Scorpion at last get Carlyle’s lens? Does Captain Marvel have a Class B driver’s liscense? Is Tal Chotali ever going to learn to lock the door? The answers to (some of) these and other questions will be found in next week’s exciting chapter, “Death Takes the Wheel.” 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.