Continuing our recap of the very first onscreen appearance of a comic book superhero, Republic Pictures’ Adventures of Captain Marvel from 1941. As Chapter 1 ended, Betty and Whitey were in a car on a bridge that had been bombed. As with Superman, this is very often the cliffhangers’ solution to the problem of an invulnerable hero: put the supporting cast in danger.
But before we get to the rescue, there are two changes from the opening chapter. Number one, the cast members no longer get individual cameos during the opening credits, and two, we now get these artsy recap stills.
As Chapter 2, “The Guillotine,” begins, Betty and Whitey are still trapped in the car, which plunges into the river below. And rather than insert a shot of Captain Marvel saving them both before the car plunges, the serial actually plays it straight by having Captain Marvel save them after the car has fallen into the river. Then he runs out of sight and changes back to Billy as they’re coming to.
The three rejoin the rest of the party, which stopped to make sure they were all right. And just to make sure we know who the stars are, the line when they arrive is, “Why, it’s Billy and Betty! With Whitey!” Poor Whitey is even a guest star in his own life.
As the British army routs the attacking natives, the archaeologists decide to head for America. One quick steamship montage later, they’re home. But all is not well. As Billy is making his radio broadcast of the expedition’s adventures (yes, the serial did preserve one other element of the comics–they kept Billy Batson’s secret identity as a radio personality), the Scorpion is listening in, along with his chief henchman, Barnett.
Barnett is played by Kenneth Duncan, a veteran movie heavy whom I will always associate with this tidbit from Rudolph Grey’s biography of Ed Wood, Nightmare of Ecstasy. I quote: “Kenne Duncan’s nickname was ‘horsecock.'” More than you probably wanted to know, I’m sure.
Barnett’s discussion with the Scorpion reveals that the masked villain is one of the members of the archaeological expedition. So not only does he have the Golden Scorpion and the scroll, but he also has one lens already. He orders Barnett to kidnap one of the other members on his way to a meeting with the others.
So as Professor Carlyle is on his way to the meeting, Barnett’s assistant thug jumps into his convertible and draws a gun. Remember this, kids: convertibles are dangerous.
They force Carlyle to drive to their hideout, an office building with an odd accessory: a guillotine. No, not just a guillotine. An electric eye which fires a stun ray, which drops you onto a conveyor belt which carries you under a guillotine. Which just makes you ask, how and why?
I mean, most deathtraps are found items: You lock somebody in a garage with a running car, or you repurpose an incinerator used to burn trash for burning an inconvenient witness. Occasionally, you may build a dedicated piece of equipment that you install inside a room.
But this is different . They didn’t put a guillotine in a room; they built the room around the guillotine. Anyway, they threaten to throw Carlyle in, so he tells them where the lens is: in a safe to which only Betty has the combination. Barnett orders Carlyle to write Betty a note.
When presented with the note, the members of the expedition (that’s an awful lot to type out every time–I shall henceforth call them the Lensmen) unanimously vote to give the lens to the Scorpion to save Carlyle’s life. But after the group disperses, Billy tells Betty he has a plan.
The plan is for Betty to leave an empty box at the Elm Street Bridge for the thugs while Billy and Whitey sneak out of her car to watch for whomever picks the box up. Then they’ll follow the crook back to Carlyle (no idea how, since they have no car).
Doesn’t matter, because they get caught by three of the Scorpion’s men. And for a comedy relief sidekick, Whitey’s a scrapper. One of the men tries to run away, and Billy chases him down. They both crash through the flimsy railing off the bridge onto the dry creek bed below. The thug is knocked out, but Billy’s okay. He changes to Captain Marvel to mop up the other thugs.
And here’s something interesting: a little behind the scenes tidbit. In the Superman serial, when they showed bullets bouncing off his chest, they just added in cartoon bullets. In this one, they actually shoot Tom Tyler in the chest.
You can see that he’s wearing some sort of protective plate under his shirt. I’m not sure what they’re shooting him with: little pellets of talc, or maybe pieces of chalk, but they produce a small puff of smoke or dust when they strike. You can see traces of the dust behind Tyler’s head, and whatever they’ve shot him with is shown ricocheting away.
Moments later, after the thug throws his gun away and jumps in his car, we see the white marks left on Captain Marvel’s shirt from the fake bullets.
Captain Marvel flies after the car and rides on its roof to the the building where Carlyle is held. The thugs threaten Carlyle again when they discover the empty box, but Captain Marvel smashes in through a window and a fight breaks out.
He shrugs off a few more bullets, then throws some thugs around. Carlyle decides to join in the fight as well, tackling one thug and taking his pistol. Barnett whacks Captain Marvel with a chair, knocking him sideways into the guillotine corridor, where he is zapped and falls onto the conveyor, heading toward the deadly blade.
Leading us to Chapter 3, “Time Bomb!” As Barnett and Carlyle shoot it out (these professors don’t play), the guillotine falls on Captain Marvel. But unlike most serials where the hero rolls out of the way in the nick of time, the blade hits and breaks on his invulnerable chest.
On the plus side, it wakes him up, just in time to see Carlyle shot. Carlyle mumbles that he knows who the Scorpion is, then dies.
Later, Betty tells Billy that she’s going to retrieve Carlyle’s lens. The Lensmen believe the Scorpion would never suspect Betty (even though she’s the only one with the combination to the safe). Billy asks her to take his car with the two-way radio and calls Whitey to ask him to shadow Betty. The Scorpion listens in on Billy’s call from outside the door.
Whitey waits at Elm and Fourth (right next to a bridge, though not the same Elm Street Bridge we saw before). But Betty gets diverted through a fake detour. The thugs force her to drive up into a huge moving truck blocking the road and take off with her before Whitey can see what’s happening.
But Betty thinks quickly and turns on the two-way transmitter while talking to one of the thugs about where they are. Billy hears the conversation in his office. SHAZAM!
Captain Marvel flies out to find the moving truck, and just in time, because the thugs have knocked Betty out and jumped out of the truck to another car, leaving the truck to run off a cliff. And we can see one reason why Captain Marvel flies so well; he’s got these little hair wings on the sides of his head.
He spots the truck and takes off in pursuit, which leads to one of the best flying effects shots in the entire serial. Captain Marvel is shown flying after the truck in real time, with both of them on screen at once.
Captain Marvel saves Betty and changes to Billy Batson before she comes to. His new plan: to beat the thugs to the remote lodge where the safe is by flying there in his plane. Seriously: first a car with a built-in radio, and now a plane. Billy Batson has all the cool toys.
Betty, of course, tells the Lensmen about the plan, which means the Scorpion now knows. So he telephones his guy at the airport and orders him to install the “atmospheric exploder” on Billy’s plane.
Luckily, his henchman is very organized, though I can’t tell whether he has the device filed under “A” for “atmospheric exploder” or “B” for “bomb.”
However, Betty was listening in on the extension as the Scorpion made his call, so she calls Whitey and asks him to get in touch with Billy to warn him that the bomb will go off at a minute past eight. At just that moment, Billy is arriving at the airport and takes off in his pretty badass plane.
Whitey calls him on the radio. Unfortunately, our very organized hitman has cut the wires, so Billy doesn’t hear the call. The plane explodes.
Leading to Chapter Four, “Death Takes the Wheel.” Billy discovers the cut wires and splices them just in time to hear Whitey’s warning. He transforms to Captain Marvel and jumps out in the nick of time. We get a glimpse of visible wires in the rear projection shot.
So the Scorpion finally has Carlyle’s lens. But he’s unhappy that Batson has survived, so decides to set a trap for him. Billy finds a curious metal scorpion sculpture in Carlyle’s study, which he presents to the Lensmen. They determine that it had to have come from a specific curio shop and send Billy to investigate. The scene is written so that all four Lensmen participate in the decision; it is not obvious which one is the Scorpion (and it’s no good trying to identify his voice, because all of the Scorpions lines were dubbed in by radio actor Gerald Mohr).
So Billy heads for the curio shop of Orientalist Chan Lal. Hmmm, I wonder if he’s in any danger?
Chan Lal lures Billy down to the basement where the Scorpion’s thugs are waiting to knock him out and tie him up. Meanwhile, Betty is investigating the truck that was used to kidnap her. She traces it to a garage, where the owner tells her it was rented under a fake name and never returned. But as she’s leaving, she sees one of the thugs who kidnapped her pulling in, so she secretly follows him and listens in as they talk about capturing Batson.
And I know this is long, but just a brief side note: it’s sad that Louise Currie (originally from my hometown, Oklahoma City) is such a bad actress, because the part gives her some interesting things to do. But as played by Currie, Betty’s only interesting from the knees down; Currie had some nice calves.
Betty runs to the phone to call someone for help, but the bad guys catch her. So as Billy is changing to Captain Marvel and escaping, Barnett is ordering the guys at the parking garage to kill Betty and make it look like an accident. Captain Marvel beats up the thugs and threatens to impale Barnett on a bed of nails unless he tells where Betty is. And BTW, Tyler is a pretty strong guy, holding Kenne Duncan over his head while delivering dialogue.
The bad guys discuss using paint remover to knock Betty out, then load her in a car and send it down the ramp to crash. But Betty breaks free, jumps in the bad guys’ car and smashes through the wall of the secret room they’ve got her in. But the impact knocks her out.
So now she’s unconscious in a car speeding down the parking garage ramp, which is exactly what the bad guys planned to do to her. On the plus side, she saved them some paint remover.
Continued next week…