A seat in the balcony today? Good choice — the view is great from up here, and during the slow stretches that are inevitable in any Bette Davis picture (you know, all that kissing), there’s always the fun of candy-bombing your friends down below. But before we get to any of that, there’s this week’s edge-of-your-seat installment in The Adventures of Captain Marvel, “Dead Man’s Trap.”
Three title cards will remind us of the situation at the end of the previous chapter. “Billy Batson — And Whitey accuse Doctor Lang of being the Scorpion.” “Doctor Lang — Tries to take Billy to a place of safety in his car.” “The Scorpion’s men follow in Billy’s car which has been mined.” Now for the amazing acronym that will transport you to realms of action and adventure far beyond the ken of classmates who couldn’t scare up the price of admission! Shazam!
Recapping last week’s conclusion, Lang and the unconscious Billy hurtle down the road, closely pursued by two Scorpion thugs. The goons are blissfully unaware that there’s a bomb under their hood that will detonate when they exceed fifty miles per hour. As this is going on, back at Lang’s house the gate guard (a Scorpion stooge — damn that temp service) calls the Scorpion’s head henchman, Barnett, and tells him that Lang and Batson have driven out on the Mill Valley Road; Barnett jumps in a car with two other goons to head them off.
Meanwhile, the first two thugs speed up to pull alongside Lang’s car. Just as they do, the bomb goes off, blowing the baddies and their stolen vehicle to atoms. (First his plane, and now his car — he may save the world, but it’s going to be almost impossible for Billy to get insurance when this is over.) Despite its nearness, the large explosion doesn’t destroy or even visibly damage Lang’s car — the shaken doctor just pulls off to the side of the road. This looks like a cheat, but arguably isn’t; these cars, after all, were built like the Queen Mary. (They probably handled like it, too.)
As Lang gathers himself and checks on Billy, who’s still out like a light, Barnett and his helpers pull up. “There’s been an accident,” Lang vaguely tells them, as he quickly tries to think of what kind of “accident” would cause a Buick to explode. The doc tells the Scorpionites that he’s unhurt, but adds, “My companion — he’s unconscious.”
“We’ll be glad to take him along too,” Barnett says and, going over to Lang’s car, sees who the passenger is. “Our orders were to get Lang,” Barnett chortles, but like the thrifty shopper who clips every coupon and always takes advantage of buy one, get one free sales, “The Scorpion will be glad to get Batson too.”
After his goons toss Billy in the back seat of their vehicle, Barnett pulls a gun and forces Lang in. The doctor is beginning to wonder about the motives of these helpful motorists…
Once they arrive back at the Scorpion’s place, the still unconscious Batson is hauled out of the car (when Benson gasses you, you stay gassed) and Lang is marched into the mastermind’s living room. Lang starts to suspect that he may be in trouble when he spots the golden scorpion in its alcove. He knows he’s in trouble when a secret door opens and the Scorpion himself strides into the room.
“It’s a pleasure to see you here — please be seated,” the villain suavely says, trying to put Lang at ease. The Scorpion is a lonely man; he’s tried to have friends over for cards or a movie, but what with making death threats, refining instruments of torture, and people’s demanding schedules, it never works out. Maybe if he offered to pay for a babysitter…
Barnett “helps” Lang into a chair, then tells his boss that they have Batson too – he’s been handcuffed and is now “downstairs under guard.” Of course Barnett has a man on duty ideally suited for the task — you know, a guy who leans back in his chair and pulls his hat down over his eyes.
Before he can relax and give his full attention to The Bourne Identity or a game of Pinochle, Lang wants to get a couple of business questions settled, like, “Are you going to kill me?” That’s a question that has to be worked up to, though, so the nervous doctor starts with, “What do you want of me?”
I’m sure that by this time, you can guess that answer to that question, even if Lang can’t. “Your lens, to help complete the golden scorpion atom smasher,” the hooded villain replies, taking care to distinguish his instrument of death and destruction from the commoner and far less chic brass woodchuck atom smasher that you can pick up at Wal-Mart.
“That’s something I… I’ll never give you,” Lang says, trying — and failing — to put up a brave front. Ever the soul of reasonableness, the Scorpion answers, “I think I can change your mind — Barnett, prepare to loosen Doctor Lang’s tongue.”
Nodding, Barnett briefly walks off-camera and returns pulling a spiked, iron maiden looking thing that’s apparently suspended from a track in the ceiling. (Forget my earlier remark — if you have one of those, why would you need a babysitter?) Curtained artifact alcoves, secret doors, iron maidens — the Scorpion’s pad was clearly the inspiration for Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.
Just as Barnett persuades Lang to try out this interesting device (great for the lower back), Billy finally comes to down in the basement. He continues to feign unconsciousness, however. Back upstairs, it has taken only a few minutes in the cage to make Lang decide that he doesn’t really give a flip about the lenses — his or anyone else’s. (We don’t actually see him in the iron maiden, only his squirming shadow on the wall, a bit of restraint that disappointed millions of eager children from coast to coast.) To the Scorpion’s query, “Are you ready to talk now, Doctor Lang?” the unhesitating reply is, “Yes! Yes — anything you wish!” And the mastermind wonders why no one wants to come over and hang out…
Barnett takes Lang out of the cage and the Scorpion gets right to the point. (Oooh — sorry, Doc.) “Where’s your lens?”
“In my library — there’s a painting; behind the painting there’s a safe.” Lang writes down the combination — with his bandaged right hand. Hold on, now… Betty shot the mastermind in the right hand and at last week’s meeting, Malcolm, Bentley, and Tal Chotali all flourished unbandaged right hands — but one of them has to be the villain because, despite his bandage, Lang obviously isn’t the Scorpion. (We never find out just what he did to his hand, either; I’m not sure I want to know.)
The Adventures of Captain Marvel plays things pretty honestly as serials go, but there’s no getting around it — this is an enormous cheat, and I know there were plenty of ten and eleven year olds in 1941 who flung their popcorn boxes at the screen and hollered out, “Hey — wait a minute!” I did it myself, and I had to pause the DVD and wipe down my television screen with Windex.
Before going to Lang’s to get the lens, Barnett heads downstairs to fetch Billy; the Scorpion wants to deal with the troublesome kid himself, and who can blame him? When Barnett enters the basement, Billy is still playing dead. The chief henchman and the guard go out of the room to get some water to “bring him out of it.” Billy immediately hops up and says, “Shazam!” A puff of smoke and he’s replaced by Captain Marvel — who’s still in handcuffs.
This serial is full of recondite ontological puzzles, and here’s one more. It makes you wonder — if Billy’s underwear rides up, does Captain Marvel get a wedgie? The issue wan’t resolved until 1949, during Jean-Paul Sartre’s legendary run writing Captain Marvel Jr. I don’t have time to deal with it here, but send me a stamped, self-addressed envelope and five dollars and I’ll rush (rush!) the answer to you by return post.
Mere handcuffs are no problem for the World’s Mightiest Mortal, of course; he snaps them in a jiffy. Just then, the guard walks back in the room, a pitcher of water in his hand. Instantly recognizing that while he has the perfect weapon to use against the Wicked Witch of the West, it’s not going to be of much use against Captain Marvel, he drops the water and pulls a gun.
The impulse is understandable, but really! A few ineffectual shots and our hero gets that endearing “I love being shot in the chest and now you’re going to die” look in his eyes that we’ve come to know and love. He begins to advance on the gunman, and the nameless thug does something that makes him my second-favorite character in the entire serial (after Betty).
His eyes get as big as whiffle balls and he lets loose with a scream of pure, pitiful fear, the kind that you heard every day on the playground in elementary school, issuing from the lips of scrawny, bookish kids as they were dragged into the restroom by other kids who were neither scrawny nor bookish.
Give the man points for doing the only logical thing. Unfortunately, it works about as well here as it did in elementary school. Captain Marvel grabs him by the lapels and slaps the gun out of his hand. The pistol hits the wall behind the quailing goon and goes off, shooting him in the back. Chalk up another one for Captain Marvel, who looks genuinely puzzled by this turn of events. Not remorseful — just puzzled. Never one to waste time on vain regrets, Cap heads up the stairs.
He barges in on the Scorpion, who’s whiling away the time by terrorizing Lang with a revolver. “Captain Marvel!” the surprised villain blurts. “Yes — now I’ll learn who you really are, and that gun of yours isn’t going to stop me!” the superhero replies, and takes a step forward. Lang is between the two adversaries, and as Captain Marvel advances, the doctor, who’s been scowling all through the previous eight chapters, finally relaxes and smiles. Doesn’t he know that’s as fatal as pulling out a picture of your girl back home in a war movie?
The Scorpion grabs Lang and sticks the gun in his back. “Doctor Lang will die if you come one step closer,” he snaps. As Captain Marvel weighs the pros and cons, mastermind and hostage back towards the wall, where the Scorpion activates the secret door; he ducks through it and it closes before Captain Marvel can react. After wasting a moment looking for the activating switch, Marvel just barrels through the door. He starts searching for his foe in the branching corridors behind the wall, while Lang looks on with an expression that says, “So that’s what happened to my garage door!”
Now that he’s alone, Doctor Lang decides to get revenge on the madman who tortured him by running up the Scorpion’s telephone bill. He calls Betty and, when she informs him that Malcolm is out of town, gives her the combination to his safe, telling her to go to his house and retrieve the contents before the Scorpion’s men get there. And while you’re out, pick up a birthday present for my wife…
Captain Marvel’s pursuit of the Scorpion proves fruitless, as the megalomaniac leads our hero a merry chase in the caverns underneath the house. But as the Scorpion races through the tunnels, his hood gets snagged on a projecting rock; he can’t retrieve it, though — Captain Marvel is too close behind. Before Cap can catch up with him, the villain slips out through another secret door, this one leading out of the tunnels and back into the house.
Just as Lang is verifying the safe combination for Betty and begins to tell her, “There’s something I must warn you about; there’s a death trap in the — ” the unhooded Scorpion enters. (Need I say that in the shots of the Scorpion without his headgear, the angle is always such that you can’t tell who he is?)
“You are the Scorpion?!” Lang says. The answer is two bullets. It’s beginning to look like desecrating the tomb of the Scorpion Dynasty really was a bad idea.
The mastermind grabs the golden scorpion and its lenses and flees, just before Captain Marvel, having heard the shots down below, comes back into the room. After making sure that the Scorpion is really gone (first things first), Cap kneels by the dying Lang. (It looked like the villain plugged Lang in the thighs, but let’s not be picky.) The doctor gasps out his last words. “Betty… save her… going to my house… ”
“Why?” Marvel asks. “Lens in my safe… there’s a death trap… save her… ” Now cracks a noble heart. (There are more drawn-out death scenes in The Adventures of Captain Marvel than there are in Hamlet.) Lang dies with only one regret — he didn’t get to stick the Scorpion with a bunch of calls to 900 numbers.
Captain Marvel takes to the air in an attempt to reach Lang’s place before Betty. (If he had been thinking — admittedly not his strong suit — he would have flown to the Hall of Records to find out who owns the Scorpion’s house.) The Scorpion’s men beat them both, however. While the corrupt gate guard pulls out a rifle and conceals himself in the bushes near the front of the residence, Barnett and two other henchmen go into the house to snatch the lens. Lang has half a dozen pictures hanging in his library, but Barnett quickly locates the right one — an enormous portrait that swings away from the wall on a hinge, revealing a paneled alcove. When the Scorpion’s men slide the panels open, they discover the safe.
There’s just one thing. When they move the panels to expose the safe, another, larger panel opens in the wall behind them. What’s in the recess behind this panel? Two swivel-mounted tommy guns that will spray anyone in front of the safe with bullets. Lang and the Scorpion seem to have had the same architects — the firm of Frank Lloyd Wright and John Dillinger.
No one notices the guns trained on them, and as Barnett reads off the combination, one of the thugs turns the safe dial. Outside, Betty and Captain Marvel arrive at the same time. The secretary gets out of the car to open the gate as the hidden guard takes aim at her with his rifle. Before he can fire, the Big Red Cheese lands behind him and, taking a running jump, lands on him.
Then, in a moment right out of a Frank Tashlin or Jerry Lewis movie, Cap belts the baddie, who lands flat on his back and then plows up the ground as he skids to a stop ten feet away. The only thing missing is a headstone and flowers popping up at the end. As if that weren’t enough, Cap breaks the rifle over his knee for good measure.
By this time Betty has opened the gate and is driving up to the house. Captain Marvel’s pathological fear of being around the secretary takes hold and he changes back to Billy. He runs to catch up to Betty as she gets out of the car.
Inside, Barnett and the others hear Billy and Betty outside; they put everything back and hide themselves; the machine guns drop back and their concealing panel slides into place without anyone even being aware that they were there.
Before entering, Betty gives Billy Lang’s safe combination. “But he talked about some danger,” she tells the boy broadcaster. “A matter of life or death, he said.” Billy assumes Lang was talking about the rifle-wielding gatekeeper, and tells Betty that threat has “been well taken care of.”
The pair go right to the proper painting, open the panels to reveal the safe, and begin turning the dial to gain access to the lens — without realizing that they’ve activated Doctor Lang’s handy-dandy machine gun home security system. (It would have been cheaper just to get one of those fake “this house is protected by” signs to stick in the lawn.) A helpful hint: looking behind you now and then is a good idea, even if you’re not playing for life-or-death stakes against a sadistic, ruthless mastermind.
As Betty reads the last number to Billy, the camera zooms in on the tommy guns; after the briefest of pauses, they start firing, spewing hot lead at a space we know is occupied by our heroes!
Have Billy and Betty been cut down in their prime? Will the Scorpion get his hands on the last lens? Does the evil mastermind have a replacement hood somewhere, or will he have to have one custom made — and how long does that take? What’s Whitey doing on his day off — trying to get a tan?
The answers to (some of) these and other questions will be found in next week’s exciting chapter, “Doom Ship.” See you then!