Congratulations on squeezing a dime out of your notoriously stingy dad, and successfully ditching your twerpy kid brother on the way to the show. You’ve proven your worthiness and can now lean back and enjoy today’s chapter of The Adventures of Captain Marvel, “Lens of Death.” (You can’t put your feet up, not just because you’d get in trouble with the ushers, but because the floor is so sticky you’d leave your shoes behind if you tried.)
By this point, mid-way through the serial, the filmmakers know that attention spans are waning, so we’re down to a mere two title cards to catch up those who dozed through last week’s episode (which we covered here). “The Scorpion – Forces Owens to lead Billy Batson into the Harrison mine tunnel.” “Captain Marvel – Unmasks the Scorpion and finds a loud speaker concealed in a dummy.” Now say the magic name and gain the fabulous power of forgetting all the chores that are waiting for you at home!
A flashback to last week’s searing cliffhanger shows an increasingly agitated Captain Marvel trying to find a way out of the Harrison mine as the Scorpion and his stooges turn the power of the lenses on the entrance, melting the rock and sending a river of steaming lava gushing through the tunnels. Trapped, the World’s Mightiest Mortal backs against a wall, a look of dismay on his face. (Our hero certainly can’t be frightened – he just knows that it’ll be a big pain getting that tight-fisted old Shazam to pop for the bill if this costume needs to be dry-cleaned.)
At the last moment, Marvel providentially looks up and sees a nice, large opening right over his head, leading to one of the mine’s (until now unhinted at) upper levels. A super leap and he’s safely out of harm’s way.
While Captain Marvel is dodging molten rock, the Scorpion and his boys pile into their black Chrysler and head home. It’s been a long day. “Now that Captain Marvel is out of the way, we should have no difficulty in getting the rest of the lenses,” the villain confides to Barnett as they sit in the back seat; he’s feeling especially close to his chief henchman right now and a wistful note creeps into his voice.
The hooded mastermind has a plan to discover the location of the remaining lenses; he also has a scheme to convince Malcolm and the rest that he is not one of them. “No one will ever suspect that I was one of the Malcolm expedition when the lenses were found in the tomb of the scorpion.” He’s always like this just after roasting someone to death – brimming with ideas and good cheer. Barnett should take advantage of the Scorpion’s relaxed mood to ask for a raise, but he hesitates and the moment passes. No initiative – just one more reason he’ll always be a henchman.
By the time Captain Marvel finds his way out of the mine, his enemies are gone. He changes back to Billy and starts the drive back to Malcolm’s, where the group has gathered to… yes. You guessed it – have a meeting. They must be getting desperate, too – this time they’ve invited Whitey.
Billy hasn’t arrived yet, but everyone else sits agape, staring at Betty, not just because she’s the only woman in the serial, but because she’s on the phone… with the Scorpion! No, wait a minute – it’s someone speaking for the Scorpion. After trying and failing to sell Malcolm energy-saving double-paned windows, the mysterious caller tells them all to “tune in on shortwave band sixteen at four o’clock.”
“Why, it’s almost that now,” Malcolm says. “See if you can get that band, Whitey.”
Whitey can (successfully twiddling the dial is his greatest personal triumph in the serial so far) and the rich, buttery tones of the Scorpion ooze from the speaker and puddle on the floor. “This is the Scorpion, speaking to the members of the Malcolm scientific expedition. I am now reporting that I have obtained all the lenses I seek but one.”
Bentley declares, “The Scorpion must have stolen all those lenses from where they were hidden!” The group is agitated and baffled by this news (it never occurs to them that the Scorpion is a big fat liar), but Fisher knows just what to do: “I suggest we each examine the places where we hid our lenses and search for clues.”
“A good idea – let’s start at once,” Bentley agrees (my goodness, these people are easy marks) and they all march out of the room, except for Whitey and Betty. Whitey seems crestfallen; the meeting broke up before the entertainment portion, and he never got to play “Chattanooga Choo Choo” on the spoons, like Malcolm promised him. As Fisher drives away from Malcolm’s house, two Scorpion thugs tail him. All too easy…
Some time later, Billy finally arrives and Whitey and Betty fill him in on what has happened. Billy is perplexed by the radio message. “I don’t understand it – I’m sure the Scorpion is one of this group,” Billy mutters. “That must be a trick of some kind.”
Of course, none of them saw what we did – Barnett with broadcasting equipment, playing the Scorpion’s message on a phonograph record! (Ask your phone what that is, kids.) You would think that of all people, radio reporter Batson would figure the deceptive method out pretty quickly, but no. However, if that pitch blurs by Billy, he connects solidly on the next one – “The Scorpion sent that message so the men would rush right to the place their lenses were hidden… that was a trick to make them reveal the hiding places!”
Having figured out the Scorpion’s scheme, Billy and Whitey leap into action. Billy heads over to Bentley’s house and Whitey starts for Fisher’s. Betty stays at Malcolm’s to clean the kitchen or straighten up the conference room or fold Malcolm’s underwear or something.
At Bentley’s, the nervous professor enters his living room, surprising his butler Hawks (Ken Terrell), who is just finishing the day’s dusting. The punctilious manservant takes Bentley’s hat and coat and leaves the room, presumably to put them away after riffling the pockets. Bentley quickly locks the front door and goes to a large bookcase against the far wall.
Just as he’s about to pluck a volume off the shelf, the two Scorpion men who’ve been tailing him burst in through the window and club him unconscious. Ignoring the possibility that Bentley was just looking for something to read while he went to the bathroom, the thugs start going through the books, looking for the hidden lens. It’s not long before they find it in a hollowed out book, whereupon the butler comes back in.
Western history and literature are full of epic battles and desperate contests that resound through the ages. Achilles and Hector outside the walls of Troy, Kennedy and Nixon dueling in Chicago, Ali and Frazier fighting a Thrilla in Manilla… they all pale to mere playground pushing matches next to the Butler vs. the Two Scorpion Thugs in chapter six of The Adventures of Captain Marvel.
I will not attempt a blow-by-blow account of the fight (to do so would far exceed my powers of description; after all, I’m not Homer), but will just say that this man gets very upset when people mess up a room he’s just dusted. After belting the first thug into what had been a nice curio cabinet, the war is on, with no quarter asked or given.
After a few minutes of flinging, flipping, flopping, punching, rolling, smashing, slamming, and gouging, the thugs momentarily get the upper hand and club the two-fisted valet into submission with a chair leg. Then, lens in hand, they skip out through the window just before Captain Marvel breaks down the front door. (Billy has arrived by this time, and changes to his alter-ego when he finds the door locked.)
“They got Mr. Bentley’s lens,” Hawks gasps, rising up and looking at the shambles of the room and all the extra work he’s made for himself. No Tuesday off this week.
Captain Marvel flies out the window and runs along the rooftops, trailing the thugs as they flee the scene. When they stop for a moment to examine the lens, he jumps down and clobbers them, knocking them out and recovering the stolen item, after which he flies back to Bentley’s, leaving the crooks unconscious on the sidewalk.
Considering the superhero’s record, they should be grateful that he doesn’t stuff them in an industrial clothes dryer or roll a Buick on top of them or otherwise express his displeasure with their loose lifestyle. By the time he gets back though, Bentley has recovered from his pistol whipping and has left, so Captain Marvel gives the lens to the butler. “I know he trusts you – see that he gets his lens when he returns. I’ve got to get to Mr. Fisher’s.” The powerful artifact will obviously be safer with this man than with anyone else around, Bruce Willis not being born yet.
Meanwhile, Whitey pulls up outside Fisher’s house. By this time, the hour is far advanced and it has become a literal “dark and stormy night.” What the inclement weather adds except atmosphere, I don’t know, except maybe to show once again that Whitey’s always a day late and a dollar short. Inside the house, the Scorpion is holding a gun on Fisher, while one of his henchmen watches the door.
“Might as well tell me where your lens is hidden, Fisher,” he coos, while Fisher slumps in a chair, looking no more morose or sullen than he does at any other time. Having carefully weighed the advantages of being shot versus not being shot, the choleric professor says, “Very well – I’ll show you,” and, rising from his seat, he strides over to a secret switch hidden behind the drapes. It causes a wall panel to slide open, revealing his lens. The Scorpion orders his stooge to get the artifact, but when the man reaches into the recess to retrieve it, he’s killed by a spark-spitting electric shock.
The Scorpion is not happy. It’s getting troublesome having to call up so many replacement thugs from the farm team – there’s the uniforms, the bus fare, the meal allowances; it all adds up. But never let it be said that the Scorpion doesn’t give credit where credit is due. “Clever device, Fisher – throw that current off.”
Fisher complies, throwing another switch behind the drapes. The mastermind is through playing games: “Get that lens for me; if anyone else is killed, it’s going to be you.”
As Fisher moves to the recess, we see that Whitey has been watching through a window. He smashes the glass and levels a revolver at the archvillain. “Drop that gun!” The hooded figure raises his hands and lets his pistol fall to the floor. Whitey has gotten the drop on the Scorpion! If only the serial could have ended here…
Whitey climbs through the window, and then stands there watching as the Scorpion edges his way over to the light switch, which he flicks off with his elbow, plunging the room into darkness. Everyone dives for the floor and crawls behind furniture, prefatory to Whitey and the Scorpion trading shots across the shadowy room.
In the midst of all the confusion, Fisher tries to creep up behind their foe, but the mastermind sees him and shoots him dead, making everyone who was betting that the ill-mannered professor was the Scorpion (probably a majority of the serial’s viewers) a loser. So… Fisher wasn’t an evil, murdering megalomaniac after all; he was just a surly, bad-tempered jerk. What a relief!
The Scorpion runs out of bullets (he should have no complaints – he gets off seven shots with a gun that only holds six) and proceeds to further humiliate Whitey by sneaking all the way around the room, completely unnoticed, to come up behind the porkpie-hatted boob, who gets off lightly with a mere conk on the head.
Having taken care of Whitey, the Scorpion walks over to get the lens, but before he can reach it, Captain Marvel arrives. Standing on the porch outside, our hero calls, “Whitey? Whitey?” The Scorpion abandons the lens and quickly ducks behind the drapes – where the switches are. Captain Marvel breaks down the door and, after ascertaining that Whitey is alive and Fisher is dead (being diplomatic, he gives no indication of how he feels about either event), spots the lens.
He walks over to secure it; as he reaches to take it, the Scorpion throws the switch, activating the electric current. A crackle, an explosion of sparks, and Captain Marvel slumps to the ground!
Has Captain Marvel finally met his end? If Fisher wasn’t the Scorpion, who is? Is Whitey finally going to be sent down to the minors? Where can I get a cool house with a secret alcove?
The answers to (some of) these and other questions will be found in next week’s exciting chapter, “Human Targets.” 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.