Hurry up and get in here! Be careful you don’t trip walking down the aisle — the lights have already gone down and they’ll be ready to start any minute. You’re late, but still in luck, because there’s one last seat left, over there on the right — see it? Now that we’re all in our places with bright shining faces, we’re ready for our story’s finale. Sit tight because here it comes — The Adventures of Captain Marvel, last chapter: “Captain Marvel’s Secret.”
Three title cards semi-coherently sum up last week’s action. “Captain Marvel — Rescues the Malcolm Expedition from a trap set by the Scorpion.” “Billy Batson — Refuses to enter the tomb to get Dr. Lang’s lens.” “Rahman Bar — Plans to arouse the natives against the expedition.” And now, for the final time, let’s shout together the mystic syllables that will bring down the magic lightning bolt and transform you into one of the greatest of all superheroes, Captain Marvel — Shazam!
Returning to the conclusion of last week’s chapter, Malcolm and Bentley, having recovered the hidden lens, stand outside the tomb chamber where Betty and Whitey are trapped, while Billy and Tal Chotali dither outside the tomb itself. The whole place is being shaken to pieces due to the eruption of the volcanic mountain Scorpio. “Scorpio is angry because unbelievers have entered the tomb,” Tal Chotali tells Billy. Actually, we know that Rahman Bar has caused the eruption by diverting a river into the crater, which, as everyone knows, acts as a volcano emetic.
As the shaking increases in intensity, Billy tries to run into the tomb to help his friends inside, but is held back by Tal Chotali. Everyone in the tomb — Malcolm, Bentley, Betty, Whitey — is doomed, hopelessly doomed!
And then… the next thing we see is Billy, standing in a shower, looking over his shoulder at us, coyly smiling, while Whitey sits up in bed, fuzzily shaking his head. The whole serial — the Malcolm Expedition, the golden scorpion, the lenses, Captain Marvel, volcanoes, native tribesmen, all of it — never happened. It was just Whitey’s dream! Really.
If that doesn’t satisfy you (and take it from me, it didn’t satisfy anyone watching Dallas in 1986), then read on — but be warned; this is your last chance to exit before encountering the biggest spoiler of all, because in just a few minutes, you will at last come face-to-face with the Scorpion unmasked!
Inside the chamber where they are trapped, Betty and Whitey find some protection in a side alcove; crouching there, they are momentarily shielded from the huge chunks of stone that are falling from the collapsing walls and ceiling. Outside the chamber, Malcolm and Bentley don’t even make a pretense of trying to get back in to help their two imperiled friends. Betty is a good secretary certainly, but if you lose a good secretary you can always get another, and as for Whitey — don’t make me laugh!
As this is happening, in the hills just beyond the tomb a turbaned tribesman repeatedly bangs an enormous gong. “Do you hear that?” Tal Chotali asks, which is a rather silly question, as the reverberations sound like twenty cats in heat, having a spirited disagreement in a tin shed full of galvanized garbage cans.
“What is it?” Billy asks, and Tal Chotali replies, “It’s the tribal signal for the natives to gather. This volcano is sacred to them; it’s eruption will arouse them to kill all foreigners.”
This seems like an ominous development to Billy. (It’s easy to infer his thought process: “Hey! I’m a foreigner!”) He pleads with the only turban-wearing individual that he knows personally: “They’re your people, Tal Chotali — you must be able to make them understand!” Tal Chotali promises to try, and while he goes to do that, Billy will attempt to get the others out of the tomb and away from the area.
Once inside the tomb, Billy tries to clear the stone-blocked doorway to the chamber where Betty and Whitey are buried, but ectomorphic broadcasters usually aren’t very good at shifting two-ton stone blocks, so after a minute or two, he yields to the inevitable and pronounces the magic word. “Shazam!”
Captain Marvel magically appears and gets to work. He tosses the blocks aside as if they aren’t really made of stone at all, but are instead merely some lightweight substance that has been painted to look as if it were stone. That’s how powerful the World’s Mightiest Mortal is! Our hero rapidly clears the doorway and starts carrying Betty and Whitey (who are unconscious but otherwise unhurt) out to safety.
Meanwhile, Malcolm and Bentley have found a side passage that promises to lead out of the tomb by a back way. As Malcolm heads towards the exit, Bentley looms ominously behind him, and then brings the expedition leader up short with a startling statement. “That’s the way out,” he says, “but only for one of us.” His voice no longer carries the clipped, impatient shoe-clerk timbre that we’ve come to expect from Professor Luther Bentley, but instead swells with the deep, leisurely, cold-syrup arrogance that we’ve heard time and time again, oozing from behind the hood of… the Scorpion! (One last time, kudos to actor Gerald Mohr, who, without ever actually appearing in the serial, stamped his wonderfully sinister presence on every chapter, using only his voice.)
Malcolm spins around to find the former Luther Bentley, now revealed as the Scorpion, pointing a gun at him. “You? The Scorpion?!” the doddering old fool gasps.
“Yes,” the Scorpion answers. “No one else shall ever know,” the villain continues, a trifle optimistically, as we shall see.
Malcolm, having blithely pried into secrets no man should know, and thus being at least partially responsible for several deaths, a native uprising, one road closure, a couple of landslides, a volcanic eruption, and the unspeakable abomination that is Whitey, now has a chance to at least partially atone for his hubris by facing his own end with courage and dignity. Instead, he almost wets himself with fear. “No! Please don’t! No one will ever know! I won’t tell!” he shrieks, backing away from the coolly advancing Scorpion.
The mastermind could listen to this sort of thing all day, but time’s a-wasting. One squeeze of the trigger, and John Malcolm topples to the ground dead, ending his lifelong dream of appearing on the cover of National Geographic, to say nothing of marrying his secretary. The Scorpion takes the lens out of Malcolm’s pocket and heads out of the passage.
The next shot shows him emerging into daylight, not in the pith helmet, tweed jacket, and beige Jodhpurs he had on when he killed Malcolm, but in his Scorpion outfit, which poses the question, not of why he even feels such a change to be necessary now, but of where the hell he keeps this costume. Under his hat, maybe? It doesn’t matter much at this point, I suppose, but even after all these years it still bothers me.
In any case, the Scorpion comes out a short distance from the front entrance to the tomb, from which he sees Captain Marvel emerge, carrying Betty and Whitey. The villain observes from behind a bounder as the Big Red Cheese lays the two on the ground and then vanishes in a puff of smoke, to be replaced by Billy Batson! The mastermind is too far away to see that this was accomplished by just speaking a word. Suddenly, the golden scorpion atom smasher doesn’t seem like the coolest toy in the neighborhood any more. The Scorpion dashes off, furiously contemplating this unexpected turn of events.
Some distance away, Rahman Bar has assembled the tribe in a large cave. (The local Moose Hall had already been booked by a bodypiercing convention.) Tal Chotali is there too, trying to persuade them to abandon their violent intentions. Rahman Bar tells the group that the volcano has spoken and settled the matter; the unruly mountain has ordered “death to every white infidel who has entered the sacred tomb of the Shaga-Tal!”
They’re ready to take a voice vote on massacre when Tal Chotali calls a point of order. Yes, everyone knows that the volcano speaks for the Scorpion, but “it is also known that the volcano will erupt if water is turned into it!” At this, Rahman Bar looks like a man who realizes that he’s just gone through an entire job interview with his fly open. Tal Chotali takes advantage of Bar’s discomfiture to press his point. “Is it not possible that some evildoer may have caused this eruption to serve his own ends?” The man’s faith in the ability of reason and common sense to calm ethnic and religious passions shines forth like a beacon. Tal Chotali always was a chump.
At this, Hamid the Wise Man (Armand Cortes) gives his opinion (in an extremely goofy, out-of-left-field accent that effectively dilutes the persuasiveness of his pronouncements): “Tal Chotali has spoken with the voice of wisdom. We are not savages who kill without reason; we only act if it is the will of the Scorpion. He surely will send us a further message if it is his desire. Until then, let us wait.”
The Scorpion knows his cue when he hears it. “You have not long to wait,” the villain says, stepping into the chamber. “I am your leader and I have come here to command. The white men must be destroyed!”
The tribesmen break into spear-waving cheering at this; if they have to get up early on a weekend, they at least want to get some fun out of it. Even now, Tal Chotali tries to salvage the situation. (He’s just happy to discover that he’s not the Scorpion.) “Wait — wait!” he says. “This man is not the Scorpion; he is a false prophet hiding behind the sacred mask! I’ll show you!” he shouts, striding towards the hooded figure.
It’s not going to be that easy, unfortunately. “Seize him!” the Scorpion orders, and Rahman Bar and his followers grab Tal Chotali and, for good measure, Hamid the Wise Man. The tribesmen drag their prisoners over to the center of the cave and chain them to upright posts that are waiting there for just such an eventuality and that they plan to use for horseshoe pitching later.
The Scorpion is feeling pretty good right about now; soon no one will be left to stand in the way of his referring to himself in the third person. “The Scorpion has triumphed and all the white infidels shall be sacrificed to celebrate the victory — even the mighty Captain Marvel,” he boasts. And in addition to infidel sacrifices, there will be streamers, hors d’oeuvres, drinks, door prizes, and a catered bar-b-que chicken dinner, with a disc jockey and a limbo contest. No expense will be spared, for this celebration will be a party worthy of… the Scorpion!
Rahman Bar, remembering his grade-school classmates the World’s Mightiest Mortal machine-gunned in the back in the first chapter, says, “Captain Marvel! Is he still alive?”
“Yes,” the mastermind admits, “but we need fear him no longer — for he is only… Billy Batson!” Bar, foolishly thinking that things have to make sense, asks how such a thing is possible. “Perhaps it’s a powerful drug,” the Scorpion muses, “or some other device which Batson uses to transform himself to Captain Marvel.” Whatever it is, “I must learn the secret of his transformation.” The robe and hood are comfortable but they do nothing for his figure, and the Scorpion is already wondering how he would look in a certain red and gold outfit. To further this nefarious end of getting a costume that will better match the purse he stole from Betty a couple of chapters back, the villain dispatches Rahman Bar to capture Billy and the others alive and bring them to the cave.
Back at the tomb, Billy sends the now recovered Betty and Whitey ahead in one car and promises to follow them once he has found Malcolm (ha!) and Bentley (double ha!) and brought them out of the the tomb. All this is observed by Rahman Bar and his men. The tribal leader sends his followers off on horseback to cut off Betty and Whitey while he and one confederate sneak into the tomb by the rear entrance to take care of Billy. As Batson walks through the chambers calling out for Bentley and Malcolm, Rahman Bar comes up behind him and knocks him out with the hilt of his dagger. The chieftain and his assistant tie and gag Billy and convey him back to the cave.
On the road, Betty and Whitey soon realize that they’re being pursued. Whitey (yes, I know, they let him drive again) takes the car off-road to avoid capture and quickly comes to a twenty-foot chasm. “Hang on — we’ve got to jump!” Whitey hollers at Betty, and before the prim secretary can think of an appropriate obscenity to shout back at him, he floors the accelerator and sends the car hurtling over the gap to land on the other side. It’s not the best special effect in the serial (a miniature was used), but I guarantee that it will elicit a yelp from you one way or another.
The tribesmen, knowing the country better than these interlopers do, take a shortcut and corner Whitey and Betty anyway, leap or no leap. (So the car’s upholstery was ruined for nothing.) “Well, that’s that,” Whitey says as they are taken into captivity. By a strange coincidence, those were also the last words of one George Armstrong Custer.
Once back in the cave, Billy, Betty, and Whitey join Tal Chotali and Hamid the Wise Man on the posts. Now the Scorpion can begin his demonstration. (He knows from his days selling time-shares that it’s no use starting your pitch until everyone has arrived.) “The symbol of your ancient faith is finally restored,” he intones. “These are the last of the lenses.” So saying, the villain moves the arms of the scorpion, aligning the lenses to project a beam that disintegrates a small statue that he probably shoplifted from Chan Lal’s back in chapter four. Now how much would you pay?
The megalomaniac mastermind is on a roll now. “You have seen the ability of this machine to smash atoms and transmute metals; you will now see what it does to a human body!” At the Scorpion’s direction, Hamid the Wise Guy… er, Man, is dragged over and shoved into the path of the beam. He explodes in a puff of smoke, leaving behind nothing but what must be a really awful smell.
Apparently still chafing over their disastrous date, the Scorpion says, “You see — it is a very efficient method of execution, Miss Wallace; you are next.” (Maybe instead of shooting him, Betty should have just given him a bogus phone number.) His minions unchain the secretary and drag her over to the zone of death. The tribesmen hold her there while their boss strides over to the chained — and still gagged — Billy.
“Only you can save her,” the Scorpion tells the boy broadcaster. “I’ve learned of your ability to change yourself into Captain Marvel. Tell me the secret and Miss Wallace goes free. Well?”
Billy doesn’t respond. While Whitey struggles against his bonds (if he had known that fifteen years later he’d be reduced to a twenty-second walk on in Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster, he probably would have begged to be disintegrated), the Scorpion walks back over to the golden, lens-holding idol and prepares to align the lenses for Betty’s evaporation.
“Mmphh! Uhhh uhnnh, aghh!” Billy says (I’ll bet Frank Coghlan Jr. was up all night working on those lines) and the villain stops and tells his henchmen to remove the gag, but “don’t untie his hands.” (At this point in 1941, the anticipatory squirming in theatre seats all across the land reached seismic proportions.)
After his stooges comply, the Scorpion says to the now ungagged Billy, “Are you ready to tell me?”
I’m sure you can write Billy’s answer yourself. “Yeah,” he replies. “I’ll not only tell you how, I’ll show you how it’s done.” And then, right along with Billy, from tens of thousands of throats from San Diego to Bangor, from Miami to Minneapolis, came the shouted name — “Shazam!”
Captain Marvel snaps the chains that bind him and leaps over to knock out Rahman Bar with one punch before the tribal leader can activate the atom smasher. Then he grabs the Scorpion. “Now I’ll give a demonstration,” the World’s Mightiest Mortal declares. “I’m going to show you how you’ve been misled by an imposter,” and so saying, he pulls off the Scorpion’s hood to reveal a decidedly uncomfortable-looking Bentley. This gets the tribesmen into a real lather; they were wrong after all! “Justice will be done to him,” our hero assures them. “He committed many crimes in his own country and he’ll be returned there for punishment.”
That is of course the Scorpion’s signal to make one last, desperate move. He breaks away from Captain Marvel and, pulling a gun from under his robe, grabs Betty. “One move from any of you and she dies,” he says, and starts to back out of the cave with the secretary in his grip, proving his seriousness by shooting a tribesman who tries to intercept him.
But he doesn’t see that Rahman Bar, who by this time has recovered from Captain Marvel’s punch, has gotten to the golden scorpion and has aligned the lenses to produce the deadly beam — just in time for the mastermind to back into it! A flash of light, a crackling sound, a puff of smoke… and the Scorpion and all his evil schemes are no more. Except for that smell.
With the natives gathered around, Captain Marvel launches into his peroration. “This scorpion is a symbol of power that could have helped to build a world beyond man’s greatest hopes,” he says, holding the idol aloft, “a world of freedom, equality, and justice for all men. But in the greedy hands of men like Bentley, it would have become a symbol of death and destruction. Then, until such time when there’s a better understanding among men, may the fiery lava of Scorpio burn the memory of this from their minds!”
Doing what Frodo couldn’t, he casts the golden scorpion into the volcano’s lava. As the idol disappears, the voice of the unseen Wizard himself is heard echoing through the cavern, speaking the mystic word of summoning and dismissal — “Shazam!” — and suddenly, Captain Marvel is gone, and only Billy Batson remains.
“I can explain it, Billy,” Tal Chotali says. “As Captain Marvel you were the protector of the scorpion; now that it’s destroyed, your protection is no longer needed, and the power of Captain Marvel is at an end.” Captain Marvel had no problem throwing away a world beyond our wildest hopes, with freedom, equality, and justice for all men, but I’ll bet he didn’t know that he was also trashing his own job security. So farewell and thank you to Tom Tyler; Laurence Olivier he wasn’t, but he made a fine, energetic superhero fit for many a Saturday afternoon daydream.
Now that the buttery-rich, silky-smooth voice of the Scorpion has been forever stilled, we’ll have to be satisfied with the second-best larynx in the serial for our moral. The melted-caramel notes of Tal Chotali seep (rather than resound) through the cavern: “And you, my countrymen,” he says, “understand now that these people, though strangers, are our friends, and that Billy Batson has done you a great service by delivering you from the hands of a man who was not only your enemy, but the enemy of all mankind.” And just forget that tomb-defiling stuff, ok?
“Even though you return to your own land,” Tal Chotali concludes, “you shall ever remain with us — in our hearts.” Thank goodness! That beats remaining with them in those filthy little cages out back, which is probably where the white interlopers were half-expecting to spend the next several years.
“Gee — that means we can go home?” Whitey asks, and Billy replies, “Sure does, Whitey — and let’s get started!” Then Billy, Betty, and Whitey — the last living members of the Malcolm Scientific Expedition — link arms and, to the cheers of their new native friends, walk smilingly out of the cave into the sunshine of what will surely be lives of triumphant adventure. Fade out… lights up. The end.
It is perhaps a characteristic of the hothouse nature of our times that whole art forms can spring up, flourish, and die within a very few years. While the epic poem and verse drama held sway for over twenty centuries, silent film lasted barely two decades, and the golden age of radio comedy and drama not much more than that.
The first sound cliffhanger serial was made in 1929, and after thriving during the late 30’s and through the 40’s, the form was essentially dead by 1955. Cliffhanger serials didn’t operate on the exalted plane of The Aeneid or Antigone, of course, or even on the level of serious but popular silent films like The Crowd or City Lights, but the form was, within its limits, vigorous and inventive. Serials brought enjoyment and diversion to millions (not all of them eleven-year-olds, either) during times in our national life when such pure entertainment was greatly needed.
Their value was hardly exhausted in those hard times of depression and war; they have left their mark in the extended storylines that have become common in today’s television and, watching the best of these cliffhangers today, creaky as they are in many ways, you can still be swept along by their reckless energy, good humor, optimism, and sense of surprising possibility. It is surely these timeless qualities that Stephen Spielberg was paying tribute to in the serials’ best-known descendants, the Indiana Jones movies. With some allowances made for their age, many cliffhangers are still worthwhile viewing even now, seventy or eighty years after they were made.
Thank you for coming along with me on this journey through one of the best serials of all time, The Adventures of Captain Marvel. I hope you enjoyed it, and that it leads you to explore the many other wonderful serials that are available inexpensively on video or for free online. Try to watch them as they were originally intended to be viewed — week by week, one episode at a time. If you do, I think you’ll find yourself looking forward to the thrills, perils, and yes, absurdities of each new chapter, and will be eager to start another exciting story when the tale is completed.
Those who love this form have many viewing choices, because the world of the cliffhanger serial is as varied as American storytelling itself. For fans of pulp science fiction, there are the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials with Buster Crabbe; lovers of the jungle genre will enjoy The Perils of Nyoka and Jungle Girl; and for superhero devotees there are the Superman, Batman, Captain America, and Green Hornet serials. There are countless western, crime, and secret agent cliffhangers, and even one that delightfully parodies the serial form itself, Columbia’s The Green Archer. (You have to love a story where the hero is a two-fisted insurance investigator.) And if you just want a dose of the incredibly weird, steel yourself for the strange and terrible saga of 1935’s The Lost City. You’ve never seen anything like it — I promise.
And now, as we file out of the theater, we take with us into the mundane world memories of dangers faced, battles won, friends rescued, evil defeated, and truth and justice upheld. You can’t do better than that at any price.
Oh, and one last thing — Shazam!