Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Shazam: Serial Part 1 and 2

I am a comic book reader and a degreed historian, and being in a Shazam mood (both the new movie and a favorite comic), I thought I'd take a look at the 1941 Shazam serial, The Adventures of Captain Marvel. It's a 12-part serial, all available on YouTube (here's the first episode). From what you can read on the internet, this serial by Republic Pictures was the high-water mark of the form and serves as the first live-action depiction of a super-hero.

Far-Off Mysteries in a Smaller World

The story starts in the Valley of the Tombs in Siam. An expedition by white men (and one woman, Betty) is posed to open the ancient tomb. The natives do not want this to happen and attack. The expedition fends off the attack with the agreement to leave the area at once. Naturally, they don't.

They strike into the tomb and uncover the Golden Scorpion inside a sealed crypt. Young Billy Batson (twenty-five year old Frank Coghlan, Jr.) heeds the warning and leaves. That act of propriety earns Billy a visit from the Shazam wizard. Like he does in every incarnation of the character, the wizard imparts his powers to Billy as long as the lad can say the magic name: Shazam. But the old man has a warning: Billy must only use the power to help people.

Coghlan portrays young Billy with a lot of gee golly gosh youthful enthusiasm you'd later see in Jimmy Olsen in the Adventures of Superman TV show. But he's still a man of the times. He carries a gun and returns fire when the natives, led by Rahman Bar, again attack the expedition.

Captain Marvel comes to the rescue.

The 1941 Special Effects

Here in 2019, we are used to our super-heroes looking like real people even when they are CGI. Gollem was the first CGI character who was so good, you often forgot he wasn't really there. We've come a long way, just in my lifetime. Heck, just in the last eighteen years.

The movie makers in 1941 had none of that, but dang if they didn't work with what they had and make a pretty darn good convincing super-hero.

When Shazam (Tom Tyler) flies, the actor jumps, often diving into a bush or behind a rock. With a quick cut, you see what is in reality a paper mache mock-up of Shazam, ramrod straight, with the costume and flapping cape. The figure is attached to wires, allowing Captain Marvel to fly in the daytime. Then, with another quick edit, you see the actor again landing or smashing into fleeing bad guys. It was pretty good, at least giving the viewer the verisimilitude of watching a super-hero in action. Frankly, it's better than the 1950s TV Superman.

Similarly, when the bad guys shoot at Shazam, the bullets ping off the costume, leaving little pock marks that are, naturally, gone in the next scene.

When Billy and Captain Marvel say the magic word to transform back and forth, there is enough flash powder to mask what's really going on behind the smoke.

The Cliffhanger

This is a movie serial and it's designed to bring viewers back week after week. As such, when the bad guys dynamite the wooden bridge with one of the two cars containing members of the expedition fleeing, you want to know what happens. As soon as the car begins to fall, there's a title swipe and the admonition to come back next week for Chapter 2.

Knowing what I've seen in other serials, I expected to get a new scene of Shazam actually having flown up to the car, snatched out his two friends, and fly off to safety. Nope. The car crashes into the river below...and only then does Shazam save the day.

Later, after everyone has come back to America, the plot of the serial takes shape. A masked man, complete with a dark hood and robes with the scorpion symbol stitched on his clothes, is in command. He's the Scorpion. He directs standard-issue suited gangsters to start capturing the members of the expedition. You see, inside that crypt was a golden metal scorpion. In the legs of each were crystals that, if you line them up in a certain way, can turn stone to gold or create a weapon. The members of the Malcolm Expedition divvy up the crystals, dividing them so that only all of them in agreement can use the power of the scorpion.

Naturally, the Scorpion wants to collect the missing crystals. Boom! You've got your plot.

In Episode 2, the guillotine is introduced. It's a conveyor belt (natch) that electrically stuns a person who is then carried along to the guillotine. They introduced it early in the episode with a wooden chair being the victim as a threatening means to get one of the expedition members to cough up the location of his crystal. You know Captain Marvel's going to find himself on that belt.

He does. Right before the title swipe to remind viewers to come back next week for Chapter 3, "Time Bomb."

And I will. Might be a two-episodes per week thing, but I'm in, both for the historical nature of the serial, but the story is pretty good. It also easy to see how the 1966 Batman series--with its two-part episodes, the first ending with the Dynamic Duo in some elaborate trap--is indebted to the movie serials of the 1940s. Who knows? I'll likely watch the Batman serials this year, too.

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