My notes on the serial – written before Cap’s big-screen revival.While DC’s characters – well, at least Batman and Superman – were seen in animated cartoons, film serials and live-action TV shows well before they became big cinema franchises, the characters who would become staples of Marvel’s superhero universe were less fortunate. Until some 1960s limited animation cartoons, this serial was the only major showing for the company’s golden age comic book characters – no Sub-Mariner, no Human Torch, even no Bucky or the Red Skull. The most famous of the flag-draped patriot heroes of the 1940s, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Cap had a distinctive military background tied into WWII – but the strip was closer to horror, since the heroes were as often fighting zombies as Nazis and even their chief German villain (the Red Skull) looked like a silent movie fiend.
When Republic made this serial, they put stolid leading man Dick Purcell in what looks like a scratchy wool version of the stars-and-stripes comic book uniform but took nothing else from the source (no shield, no head-wings). This Captain isn’t even infantryman Steve Rogers, but crusading District Attourney Grant Gardner – and the only tiny reference to the war is a ‘don’t spread rumours’ poster seen in a factory. We don’t get an origin story (indeed, we never really have a sense of what the hero’s capabilities are), but are told Captain America has helped fight crime in the city before and turns up to ‘help out’ Gardner in battling the forces of a mystery super-villain known as the Scarab. Though it made sense that Steve Rogers would don a patriotic identity since he was taking part in a super-soldier experiment as part of the war effort, but the name and costume seem odd for a character who is just a two-fisted (and gun-toting) crime fighter in the Batman mold (Batman, in his 1943 serial, did fight the Japanese). There seems little to no reason for the secret identity, since Gardner is a heroic crime-fighter in his own right (even the villain deduces who’s under the mask and at the end everyone is in the know). Just as Steve Rogers managed to keep his identity secret even though his masked sidekick used his own name (!), Gardner/Cap is partnered by the D.A.’s devoted assistant Gail Richards (Lorna Grey). She’s nothing like a love interest (no pauses for banter) and requires rescuing in a cliffhanger or two (stuck in a pit in an exploding barn, flying a plane with a bomb) but is otherwise admirably ungirly and intrepid (frankly, she’s a better character than Bucky) and refreshingly in on the action (few 1940s heroes let their girlfriends know their secret, let alone relied on them in their crusade). When captured, she uses an elementary code to tip off Gardner about the villain’s identity (‘Rodlam Baracs is Maldor Scarab spelled backwards!’). It’s a shame that there wasn’t room for more character scenes between Grey and Purcell, since they’re lightly likeable but don’t really get much to do.
Dr Maldor (Lionel Atwill) is the Scarab, embittered because he didn’t get the credit he thinks he deserves after a Mayan expedition, and prone to sending battalions of thugs in hats to murder his old colleagues and steal the various inventions (in various disciplines) they’ve come up with. In the first chapter, the Scarab uses a Fu Manchu-like ‘purple death’ flower which makes victims open to hypnotic suggestion that they kill themselves, and the mcguffins at stake include a weapon hilariously called ‘the vibrator’ (cue many funny lines: ‘The vibrator! If it isn’t shut off, the building will collapse!’), a process which can bring a dog (and a minion) back to life, a species of zap gun, a Mayan ‘Singali blow-pipe’ and tablets which reveal the location of an emerald-studded secret temple (that we never see). Atwill doesn’t even get a Scarab mask, and just contents himself with glowering through pince-nez and issuing orders to familiar scurvy, but insanely loyal goons (George J. Lewis, John Davidson). He does relish a few evil lines, though: ‘I’m afraid the District Attorney will hardly recognise Miss Richards when he finds her a withered mummy.’ For matinee kids in the 1940s, this was probably value for money: there are a lot of spectacular explosions (very good miniatures) and the Captain is cheerfully homicidal, with a special line in tossing goons out of high windows (he survives his own fall in the chapter after the one entitled ‘Skyscraper Plunge’). Watched in a lump, it gets a tad mind-numbing: the all-action format means that a fight or some destruction is never more than a minute away, and the one-damn-thing-after-another series of events never remotely feel like an overall storyline. The last scene is unusual – almost suggesting that Atwill didn’t stick around to finish the job: the Scarab is captured offscreen and sent to the electric chair at midnight, as signalled by ‘the toll of doom’ (a stock shot of Big Ben), while the heroes have a matey chat in their office.
Of course, Reb Brown and Matt Salenger were scarcely better.
The whole serial is on youtube – here’s episode one. Here’s the whole thing.
David Hodson It could be argued that even then Timely (Marvel) comics characters weren’t as one dimensional as National (DC) comics characters were. It’d be hard to see an Android or a part human character with a (then) mildish resentment to surface humans really catching on with wartime viewers, whereas Batman and Superman were more straightforward.
John Jarrold Hulk smash…
David Flint I’ve had this for a while but never quite got round to watching it. Your description does make it sound pretty action packed, so perhaps I’ll give it a go – in bite-sized chunks of course.
I think you’re right about Captain America though. I suspect he’d only really work for non-American audiences if he was the pawn (or willing thug) of a fascist USA.
David Smith Marvel Comics were superb in the 60s and 70s – real three-dimensional characters whose personal lives were as important as the super-villains. Spider-Man, Warlock, The Avengers, Swamp Thing, Black Panther, Shang-Chi – all wonderful.
Stephen Dedman There is one unexpectedly good moment in the 1990 Captain America movie: he’s revived in the 90s and finds himself in Alaska – in a VW with a Japanese radio, being shot at with Berettas. Naturally, he assumes the Allies lost.
Haven’t seen the 1944 version, except for the clips they used in J-Men Forever.
Marc Kandel I enjoyed some quick references to The Human Torch and Sub Mariner in the 90’s version. There’ s also the cool moment where Cap hits a motorcycle with his shield which crashes the cycle, which actually happened; the director told Salinger to “throw the shield as close to the cycle as you can get it”, he hit the wheel dead on, the bike crashed and the stuntman went flying. It doesn’t make up for the awful dialogue, the terrible acting, and the ‘soundtrack’ that sounds like bad softcore porn music, but credit where credit is due.