Apart from some chronic bouts of concentrated cliffhanger enthusiasm in visits with the pioneering Texas cartoonist-turned-fine artist Frank Stack, I haven’t paid a great deal of attention in recent years to the extinct form of Hollywood filmmaking known as serials, or chapter-plays.
I’ve overcome that neglectful tendency lately with an assignment to deliver a foreword for IDW Publishing’s The Complete Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, Vol. 4 (due in print by March 25), which covers a stretch of 1936–1937 and thus coincides with the early-1937 release of the first Dick Tracy serial by Republic Pictures Corp. George E. Turner and I had covered the Republic Tracy in our initial volume of the Forgotten Horrors books – but a great deal of information has come to light during the nine years since that book’s last expanded edition.
The transplanting of Tracy from the newspapers’ comics pages to the big screen figures in an earlier installment of this ComicMix column. So no point in re-hashing all that here, or in spilling any fresher insights that will appear in the IDW Tracy edition.
Anyhow, I had expected that these strictly-research refresher screenings of Republic’s Dick Tracy and Dick Tracy Returns and so forth would bring on an attack of Serial Burnout Syndrome – but no such. If anything, the resurrected Tracy cliffhangers have stoked a level of interest that I hadn’t experienced since I had been granted my first looks at the Republic serials via teevee in 1966. (Those attractions were feature-lengther condensations, roughly half or less the running time of a theatrical serial, prepared expressly for broadcast syndication, and re-titled to compound the confusion: 1936’s The Undersea Kingdom, for example, hit the tube as Sharad of Atlantis.)
I had wondered aloud while comparing notes recently with Frank Stack, whose lifelong fondness for the serials influences his own approach to storytelling, as to how Dick Tracy in particular could have adapted so brightly to movie-serial form – given that Republic’s adaptation had altered many key elements of Chester Gould’s comic strip. Frank’s lucid reply:
“Yes, I think Gould was the greatest popular master [outside the movie business] of the serial cliff-hanger … He said his technique was to kill his character first and then start cudgeling his brains about how to get him out of the scrape. The particularly original cliffhanger quirk … was to treat the villains … with the same concern that [Gould] had for his heroes. And sometimes, villains, or marginal characters, really did buy the farm. You might remember also that [Alley Oop author–artist] V.T. Hamlin’s dictum was: ‘Shoot your character in the first chapter. Then get him out of it.’”
Like I said: Chronic bouts of concentrated cliffhanger enthusiasm.
In this light, it might seem that the comics-based serials would hold up more effectively than those taken from original-screenplay conceptions. Republic Pictures’ Adventures of Captain Marvelbolsters an argument in this direction, but a fresh look at Columbia Pictures’ Batman serials suggests otherwise. Producer Sam Katzman’s Superman serials, also for Columbia, exert a peculiar charm quite apart from their offering neither a particularly sharp interpretation of the character nor any advancement of the serialized storytelling idiom.
The two serials I’m rediscovering just now are Columbia’s The Monster and the Ape (1945), with some persuasive acting from Ralph Morgan and George Macready and a scary if hardly realistic gorilla impersonation from Ray Corrigan; and Republic’sAdventures of Captain Marvel (1941). And inasmuch as Marvel is a comics-based serial and this venue is, after all, ComicMix, I figure that film must call for the greater attention:
Adventures of Captain Marvel ranks among the more polished and relentlessly entertaining of Republic’s serials, though hardly in a class with Universal’s splendid Flash Gordon adaptations. TheMarvel project came about by default when an attempt to adaptSuperman to live-action cinema fell through in pre-production. Republic’s switch can only have exacerbated a war of nerves between the characters’ respective publishers, whose lawyers sniped at one another for years over the simplistic accusation that Captain Marvel represented an infringement upon Superman. The Superman camp finally won – a feeble victory, after all that saber-rattling – by gaining control of Captain Marvel’s trademarks and then neglecting to do anything constructive with the properties until many years after the fact. (A current resurgence of the Captain, under Jeff Smith, bears mentioning.)
Of course, all the comic-book superheroes, from whatever publishing companies, were imitations of one character or another. Superman merely claimed pride-of-place as an inventive takeoff upon heroic legends dating from antiquity and pop-literary world-beaters of times more recent. Captain Marvel’s great originality is that his first-generation stories packed an overriding sense of humor – principal creator C.C. Beck was a master of childlike drollery and absurdities.
An aftertaste of Republic’s abortive Superman serial found its way into Adventures of Captain Marvel. Veteran Western star Tom Tyler, who landed the title role, was quite the image of a funnybook superhero – but leaner and sterner than Beck’s version of Captain Marvel. This Marvel’s ruthlessness in dealing with criminals can be quite scary, and Tyler’s clipped line-delivery is calculated to intimidate. And what a grim Superman Tyler would have made!
The story retells the familiar fantasy about an urchin named Billy Batson (Frank Coghlan, Jr.), who is granted the ability to transform himself into “the world’s mightiest mortal,” Captain Marvel, upon speaking the name of an ancient wizard, Shazam. In the film’s closest resemblance to the comic-book yarns, Nigel de Brulier looks as though he might have stepped directly from one of Beck’s drawings of Shazam.
The tale concerns a forbidden expedition into a burial ground along the Burmese borderlands, where a simmering volcano, a long-dormant curse involving the secrets of alchemy, and the mixed blessing of Shazam’s gift lie in wait. The otherworldly thrills become gradually more attuned to modern-day civilization as the serial progresses, what with a cloaked badman called the Scorpion on a rampage, Billy Batson’s chums in near-constant peril, and Billy/Marvel himself subjected to explosions, falling blades, floods of lava, electrocution, bombs, machine-gun barrages, and the like.
Any pretense at plot is beside the point: The interest lies in the pageantry of gee-whiz visual effects, the stirring musical cues that lend dramatic momentum where there is no actual “drama” of which to speak, and the breathless pacing that kept the kids of 1941 – and of 1953, when a full-scale reissue took place – coming back for each week’s new chapter.
The masked villain known as the Scorpion only looks hokey. His voice, supplied by Gerald Mohr, is appropriately menacing, and his murderous devices bring out the best in Republic’s crackerjack special-effects team. The props by brothers Howard and Theodore Lydecker including an astonishingly realistic mannequin, which represents Captain Marvel in flight. The action-stunting by Dave Sharpe includes numerous bone-rattling drops and leaps: Such organic, real-time effects and stunts still pack a greater wallop than anything in the realm of CGI. Republic was especially attentive to realism in the effects-and-stunts department, lest any one youngster in the audience holler, “Fake!” and trigger a massed outcry.
Later on in 1941, Superman fared impressively well with the start of a series of animated cartoons, launched by the Fleischer Bros.’ studios for Paramount Pictures. The Katzman-at-Columbia Superman serials, from 1948 and 1950, represent good ol’ Sam Katzman’s cheesemaking skills more effectively than they represent the Superman franchise.