Difficult for us to appreciate these days, but once upon a time, there was a movie theatre in most every neighborhood and the films changed three times a week; you could go to the same theatre on Monday, Thursday and Saturday and see a completely different show, with a feature, newsreel, cartoon and various entertaining or educational short subjects. As a way of keeping audiences coming back (“I loved tonight’s Louise Fazenda movie but that Lupino Lane picture that opens this weekend looks like a bubke, Cuthbert!”) film producers turned to a popular sales promotion from newspapers and magazines: the serial.
From What Happened to Mary? in 1912 and for nearly fifty years after, serials (also called chapterplays) adorned movie screens every week across America. In 1914, the most famous silent serial, The Perils of Pauline, was produced, and created the first serial movie star, Pearl White. One of the most overused endings of the time featured the beautiful young star tossed over a cliff, where she would be found at the beginning of the next episode hanging from a bush. Because of this, chapterplays became popularly known as “cliffhangers.” A staple of a full theatrical program or simply extra fodder for kiddie matinees, serials lasted through the mid-1950s, when they were finally killed off by their successor: television. Several examples of the format have been released on Blu-rays by different companies, including Panther Girl of the Kongo and Commando Cody, Sky Marshall of the Universe by Olive, The Mystery Trooper by Grapevine, and Daredevils of the Red Circle by Kino, and now Kino gives us what many people consider the best serial ever made (if they've forgotten about Flash Gordon); The Adventures of Captain Marvel.
Quick recap for you non-comic-book-nerds: Superman burst on the scene in 1938 and Fawcett Publications quickly conjured up a rival, Captain Marvel, in the pages of rival Whiz Comics. Republic's attempt to bring the Man of Steel to the big screen in 1940 was rebuffed (National Comics didn't like the script) and so Republic turned to the Captain for live-action adventure instead. Marvel was actually young newsboy Billy Batson, who - by reciting the magic word SHAZAM (which stood for something, but we don't have time to tell you just now) - became the Big Red Cheese, and vice versa.
Frank Coghlan, Jr., who'd been around since the silent film days (he was 25 when he filmed this) is Billy, Tom Tyler (who'd just played The Mummy and would go on to play The Phantom) is the Cap'n, Louise Currie is The Girl, and Billy Benedict is the kid sidekick, an oddity for a hero who's actually a "kid" himself. "?" is the mysterious Scorpion, out to conquer the world with ancient Egyptian technology.
Comic book purists insist that in the early days of the Cap's comic books, he actually is as dangerous and violent as shown in this serial, but I've seen some of those books and I highly doubt it (he throws bad guys off the roof of a tall building and uses a machine gun on others, for two things) yet this truly is one of the best of all serials, mainly thanks to David Sharpe's peerless stuntwork and a story that actually keeps things moving through the entire serial, a rarity. It was a hit, and Republic turned out a serial we like even better, Spy Smasher (also from Whiz Comics) the next year. Meanwhile, this was re-released as The Return of Captain Marvel in the 1950s.
The Blu-ray from Kino ("remastered from a 4K scan from Paramount Pictures archives" they tell us, Paramount controlling much of the Republic output these days) looks and sounds terrific, and a mad group of commentators dragged in for various chapters, including Jerry Beck, Boyd Magers, Leonard Maltin, Tom Weaver and others.
Highly recommended, but watch a chapter a week - play the game right or don't play it. Shazam!