Okay boys and girls, settle down. Before watching newsreel footage of Winston Churchill walking through the ruins of London or thrilling to the terrifying spectacle of Lon Chaney Jr. changing into a human Scottish Terrier in The Wolf Man, let’s Join Billy, Betty, the Scorpion, and the rest for this week’s chapter of The Adventures of Captain Marvel, “Human Targets.”
We begin with two terse title cards that will bring everyone up to date. “The Scorpion — Tricks Bentley and Fisher into revealing the hiding place of their lenses.” “Captain Marvel — Saves Bentley’s lens and hurries to Fisher’s estate.” Now speak the wizard’s name and let his arcane arts give you powers so great that you need never fear for your lunch money again!
In a flashback to last week’s episode, we see Captain Marvel arrive at Fisher’s “estate” (to me it just looks like a big house that needs painting and must be hard to heat) and break down the door as the Scorpion hides behind the drapes. When he grabs the lens, the World’s Mightiest Mortal is knocked out by Fisher’s electrical protection apparatus. He drops to the floor, joining the unconscious Whitey and the dead Fisher.
The Scorpion pries the lens out of Captain Marvel’s hand and hightails it out of there. (Only the most cynical child would say that the fabulous artifact of the lost Scorpion Dynasty looks like a painted wooden dowel with shiny stickers stuck on each end.)
Coming to, our hero rouses Whitey and tells him that Fisher is dead and the lens is gone. “It was the Scorpion — that’s the second lens he’s stolen,” Whitey pointlessly says, and then, showing more cheek than even the serial’s top villain himself, adds, “What are we gonna do to stop him?” We? We? Captain Marvel has thrown people off roofs for lesser impertinences.
Showing rare self-control, he replies “Nothing right now; you must tell Malcolm and the others to take some drastic action to protect the rest of the lenses.” So saying, Marvel exits with Whitey in tow, leaving Fisher’s corpse for the lady that comes in to do a little cleaning twice a week.
Once back at HQ, Whitey tells his sad tale to Malcolm, Tal Chotali, Bentley, and Lang. (It’s becoming harder for this bunch to get a quorum together, what with everyone getting killed and all.) Malcolm disconsolately sighs, “We certainly need Captain Marvel’s help more than ever now.” If he’s waiting for someone to pat him on the back and chime in with a declaration of continued confidence in his leadership, he has a long wait.
Instead, Bentley is wondering about Captain Marvel. “He always seems to know when and where the Scorpion will strike next.” (That’s it! Captain Marvel is the Scorpion! Oh… wait a minute… )
“Where does he get his information?” Tal Chotali wonders — and how did Whitey know to go to Fisher’s house in the first place? A little quizzing reveals that Whitey knew of Fisher’s danger because Billy told him, and Billy knew because Betty told him.
Tal Chotali is outraged. “Our meetings must be held in strict confidence! Our lives depend upon it!” Leaks, leaks, leaks! There are two ways they could deal with these breaches of security — they could assemble a covert group of leak-stopping “plumbers” who would intimidate witnesses, make payoffs with illegally obtained hush money, and break into offices to steal files and wiretap phones… or, they could chew out Betty. Perfect gentlemen that they are, they decide on the latter course.
Trying to regain the authority that has been slipping away from him since the first chapter, Malcom declares, “I shall warn Betty not to repeat a thing she hears at these meetings!” There — that should take care of all their problems.
While the Malcolm group has a meeting to complain about Billy and Betty, the Scorpion and Barnett are at the mastermind’s pad, indulging in their favorite activity: standing in front of the golden scorpion and complaining about Captain Marvel. (These men all really have so much in common — if only they could set aside their differences and combine their forces, there’s no limit to what their complaining might accomplish.)
The Scorpion doesn’t just gripe, however; he gripes and acts, which puts him one up on the good guys. Today, he has a plan to get to Billy through Betty, a plan that will expose Captain Marvel to “a destructive force that no living being could withstand.” Stop me if you’ve heard this one…
The nefarious scheme lurches into motion; as Betty kills time chatting with Whitey, she gets a call from a member of the Scorpion gang. The Scorpion minion doesn’t let on who he works for, of course, though it probably wouldn’t have made any difference if he had; anything is preferable to being stuck making small talk with Whitey. “Certainly — I’ll bring them right down,” Betty says, hanging up. “The broadcasting studio wants Billy’s notes for his next program,” she explains to Whitey, who’s been hanging around on the million-to-one chance that he could do something useful.
He offers to go with her. Not a chance. “Mr. Malcolm wants you to stay here.” (This might rate as the only good decision Malcolm has made in the whole serial.)
“Now I gotta play nursemaid to a telephone all afternoon!” Whitey snarls, taking out his frustrations by flinging his hat to the floor. He does this knowing that he can be reasonably sure that his hat won’t sneak up behind him and hit him on the noggin or turn out the lights or otherwise humiliate him — other than by sitting on his head, which is embarrassment enough for man and hat both.
Losing no time, Betty hops in her coupe and drives down a deserted rural road to deliver the notes. By the way, just where the hell is this broadcasting studio? Where is anything in this serial? Whenever anyone goes anywhere, the destination can only be reached by driving down a deserted rural road; it’s like the whole place was purposely laid out to facilitate hijacking and kidnapping. The sinister tentacles of the Scorpion have apparently penetrated even into the hallowed halls of the City Planning Department! (Tentacles? Scorpions don’t have tentacles… oh, well, you know what I mean.)
As Betty’s car speeds towards its destination, the trunk slowly opens and a Scorpion thug leans out, pistol in hand, and shoots out one of the rear tires. (This was a very hazardous stunt — if the actor had lost his grip and fallen out of the trunk, he could have easily barked his shin on the process screen.)
Barely managing to keep control of the car, Betty pulls over to the side of the road. When she gets out to look at the tire, the thug jumps out of the trunk. “Take it easy,” he says, pointing the gun at her as two more goons pull up. “You’ve got a date with the Scorpion, lady.” He doesn’t know that Betty went to her high school prom with Mitchell Finster, president of the chess club, so a date with the Scorpion holds no terrors for her. The baddies make her get in their car and then they drive off.
Meanwhile, at Malcolm’s house, Billy walks in on Whitey, asleep in a chair, with his feet up on the desk. Billy wakes him by easing up his pant leg and pulling a hair out of his calf. That’s not a joke, folks. That’s really what happens; some things are too serious to kid about. Whitey tells Billy that Betty has gone to deliver his notes. Billy recognizes this as a ruse and runs out to catch up with Betty, leaving Whitey behind. (Poor Whitey — ditched by both Billy and Betty in the same day. He’d be even more upset if he knew that when Betty left him behind he missed his chance at a date with the Scorpion.) After a while on the road, Billy spots Betty’s abandoned car — now he’s sure something is amiss.
As for Betty, she knows better than to wait to be rescued by her idiot friends; once on the road with the Scorpion men, she comes up with a plan of her own. Since she’s sitting in the front seat beside the driver, she’s able to quickly reach over and turn the ignition key, shutting off the engine, and then pull the key out and pretend to fling it out the window. (She really still has it hidden in her hand.) The thugs get out of the car to look for the keys and order Betty out to help them, which suits her just fine.
Once the goons are engrossed in their search, Betty takes off running. Two thugs give chase and at that moment Billy pulls up, unnoticed by everyone in all of the commotion. He speaks the wizard’s name and Captain Marvel appears in a flash of lightening, ready to join in the fun. He flies over to the henchman who remained behind and drops on him from a height of at least fifteen feet, landing on the goon like the proverbial ton of bricks. (I hope stuntman Davy Sharpe got paid well for his work, but I doubt he was — this was a Republic production, after all.)
Roughly dragging the stooge to his feet, our hero barks the line that he has primed and ready to go in every episode: “Where’s Miss Wallace?” Instinctively choosing the wrong response, the thug shakily says, “I don’t know,” whereupon Captain Marvel dishes out a quite brutal backhand slap that lays the bad guy out flat. Let’s try this again. Up, shake, glower, growl, “I said, where’s Miss Wallace?” One way or another, this will be the thug’s final answer, so he had better make it good. “She… she ran into the woods — that way.”
Captain Marvel drops the man and heads for those woods, but this guy’s boxer shorts are still unsoiled, so he figures he has some work left to do; he pulls out a revolver and takes a shot at the departing superhero. Captain Marvel turns around with a decidedly unpleasant expression on his face and starts back. Quickly checking his underwear, the thug knows that now his job is done and frantically tries to scramble away, but Cap catches him and knocks him out with a punch to the jaw.
All this time, Betty has been running from the two pursuing hoods. Staying ahead of them, she comes to a dry creek bed and hides by ducking under a small wooden bridge; one thug crosses the bridge while the other veers off to search by a nearby lake. When they pass, Betty emerges from concealment and heads off in a different direction.
Captain Marvel spots the goon by the lake and, shrugging off a bullet the chap uselessly fires at him (I guess the guy didn’t read the union newsletter), hurls the crook off the bluff, forty feet down into the lake below. I wonder if he could swim…
Meanwhile, the second thug sights Betty and resumes the chase, pursuing her across the top of a dam. Captain Marvel sees them and flies over to give the harried secretary his aid. The shots of Captain Marvel (using the life-size mannequin) flying down to the dam and then behind the thug as he closes in on Betty are among the very best in the serial.
Landing on the top of the dam, the Big Red Cheese advances on the now panicky bad guy, who’s expending bullets as if they’re going out of style; each slug that bounces off Cap’s chest only seems to make the hero’s grin bigger and his eyes colder. As the henchman empties his gun and backs away, he loses his footing and falls over the edge of the dam — not the side filled with water, unfortunately for him. The other side. It’s only a sheer drop of about seventy feet to the ground, so the Scorpionite has nothing to worry about… not after he hits, anyway. Marvel scoops a woozy Betty up in his arms and flies her back to the car.
Thus ends one of the most amazing sequences in all of film history. What’s so amazing about it? Think about it — a woman, fleeing from imminent danger, spends about three minutes of screen time running… and does so without ever losing a shoe and falling face down on the ground. From D.W. Griffith to Quentin Tarantino, I can think of no more startling passage on celluloid.
Back at the road, the fellow that Captain Marvel thugslapped regains consciousness and sees Marvel and Betty returning; he recovers his gun and hides behind the car, crouching on the driver’s side running board. (Remember, these were big cars.) Betty starts to get in the vehicle (on the passenger side, as her bad luck would have it) but as she does she asks Captain Marvel how he knew she needed help. He tells her that Billy told him that she might have been led into a trap. (Those damn leaks again!)
Can Billy get in touch with him? Oh yes — “I keep my radio receiver tuned to a sixteen wavelength — a broadcast on that length will always reach me.” Ah, the golden age of radio — drama with Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater, comedy from Fred Allen and Jack Benny, and the fate of the world being decided by the Scorpion and Captain Marvel trading cryptic messages on oddball wavelengths.
Betty drives off with the unnoticed thug clinging to the side of the car, and Captain Marvel says “Shazam!” and changes back to Billy. Once Betty’s car is down the road, the thug opens the door and jumps in beside her. “Move over sister. I’ll do the driving now.” This is precisely the dispute that has ruined so many family vacations…
Once at the Scorpion’s, the thug makes his report to the boss while Betty cools her heels in a waiting room. “And Billy Batson also knows the wavelength that will contact Captain Marvel,” the goon proudly says. “Hmmm… very interesting,” the Scorpion replies, thoughtfully stroking his chin, not realizing how goofy that looks when you’re wearing a hood. He probably wouldn’t mind even if he knew — chin stroking is synonymous with deep thinking, and the Scorpion is always coming up with these really great ideas where a lesser bad guy would just, you know, shoot Billy and Betty in the head when they were helpless, as they’ve been about nine times each so far.
His idea this time is sure to be a winner. “Now you’ll have to get Batson, and take him along with the girl to the shack on the bombing range.” The plan is to dispose of Billy and Betty while also using them to lure Captain Marvel to his destruction. Barnett asks, “Do we come back here and call Captain Marvel?”
“No, he might be suspicious unless the girl calls,” the mastermind says. “Install a broadcasting set in the shack; she can operate it.” Barnett isn’t sure — “But suppose she doesn’t call him?” The Scorpion knows that nothing could possibly go wrong with such an intricate plan. “I think she will,” he says. “Bring her in.”
A henchman opens the door and motions Betty in. She enters as if the Scorpion were her dentist and she expects the kind of teeth cleaning you get when you haven’t shown up for an appointment for a year and a half. She stands in front of the Scorpion’s desk, with a thug on each side. Turning on the charm, the Scorpion says, “There’s no need to be frightened, Miss Wallace — yet. That is, if I have your cooperation… ” Betty cuts him off. “You’ll never have my help,” she says. As the Scorpion resumes his appeal, Betty snatches a gun that the thug on her right has carelessly left hanging out of his pocket and, before the thugs can get it away from her, gets off a shot that grazes the Scorpion’s right hand. Betty could chuck it all right now and move away to become a librarian in Providence, Rhode Island, and she would still be worth ten of anyone else in this serial.
The villain downplays the whole thing. “It’s nothing,” he says, then undercuts this a little by telling Betty that she has just forfeited her life. If this is how a typical date with the Scorpion goes, it’s no wonder he’s single. “Go ahead with our plans,” he instructs Barnett. “Pick Batson up at his office and get both of them out to the shack at once.” The goons take Betty and obediently march out. The whole thing was a bust for the intrepid secretary; she didn’t even get a free toothbrush.
Once at the radio station, the Scorpionites lie in wait in Billy’s office and knock him in the head when he enters. Billy comes to in the shack, on a cot, bound and gagged. Betty is there too, tied to a chair — but not gagged. (Why is Billy always being gagged, when his enemies know nothing about the power of his magic word? Maybe they’ve just listened to his radio show — he does have an extremely annoying voice.) Barnett and another goon are there too, listening to the Scorpion’s instructions on the radio set. “The plane is taking off and will drop the demolition bombs on the shack in a few minutes. Leave the shack immediately!”
The bad guys exit, leaving the radio, knowing that Betty will use it to call Captain Marvel. So, the “destructive force that no living being can withstand,” and that the Scorpion expects to settle Captain Marvel’s hash, is a high explosive bomb dropped from a plane? Well… okay; fair enough. The Scorpion must have been watching those March of Time newsreels and seen some footage of the London Blitz. It’s at least a big step up from the stuff he’s tried so far, and give him credit for keeping up with current events.
Once she sees that Barnett and his stooge have gone, Betty says, “Billy, I’m going to call Captain Marvel — he can get us out of here!” She hops her chair over to the radio set and turns it on with her elbow, unintentionally upstaging Whitey yet again — he needed two hands to do the same thing only last episode. “Calling Captain Marvel — Calling Captain Marvel — it’s Betty Wallace speaking; Billy and I are tied up in a shack on the bombing range. Please help us.” Cool as a cucumber, Betty. Billy, on the other hand, is thrashing around as if he were covered with that itching powder they sell in the back of comic books, so frantically is he trying to slip his gag and work out of his bonds. He seems to know something that Betty doesn’t…
Hearing the plane overhead, Betty repeats her request for help, a tad less calmly now, but still with admirable self–control. “Captain Marvel! Captain Marvel! I can hear the plane coming! Captain Marvel! Captain Marvel!” And here come the bombs. The shack is shaken with a couple of near misses, and an overhead beam falls and hits Betty a glancing blow on the head, knocking her out. Billy is no closer to freeing himself, and the next bombs are sure to hit… as Billy winces and turns his head away, the explosives hit and the shack is blown to smithereens!
Is there any way Billy and Betty can survive such an explosion? Who will protect the lenses now? Will Whitey ever get treatment for his narcolepsy? Will the Scorpion ever learn that the best way to have a successful date is to take the lady to a nice, cheerful restaurant, be a good listener, and avoid topics like forfeiting your life?
The answers to (some of) these and other questions will be found in next week’s exciting chapter, “Boomerang.” See you then!