While discussing Howard the Duck last time, I mentioned that the only Marvel Comics character to make it to the big screen previously was Captain America. Given the current release of the latest (and one might even say “Ultimate”) Marvel movie, Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, it might be a good time to revisit the original.
Created in 1941 for Timely Comics by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, Captain America was Steve Rogers, a scrawny fellow deemed 4-F by the draft board, making him unsuitable for military service (it may seem hard to believe nowadays, when obesity is a major concern, but in the early 40’s, with much of the population rural and just coming out of the Great Depression, the Army’s big problem was finding guys who weren’t underweight). He is given a special serum which turns him into a muscular super-soldier. Given a distinctive stars-and-stripes uniform and a special shield, he fought Nazi menaces like the Red Skull.
So now that we know all about Captain America, let’s sit back and enjoy the serial. Produced in 1944 by Republic, the studio that produced The Adventures of Captain Marvel, Captain America was the studio’s biggest budget serial (and therefore probably the biggest ever, since Republic had better budgets than Columbia or Universal). And speaking of Captain Marvel, the opening credits look awfully familiar, right down to that creepy-looking guy on the right.
Chapter 1, “The Purple Death,” opens with a man holding a mysterious jeweled scarab as he drives his car. A voice tells him to drive off the road, which he does. His car plunges down a cliff. Next, we see another man, holding an identical scarab, ordered by the voice to jump out his window, which he does. A third man is ordered by the scarab voice to shoot himself in the head.
The radio announcer describes these as the “Purple Death” murders, although he never explains where the name comes from. Maybe the scarabs were purple. One thing the victims all had in common was that they had been members of an archaological expedition to some Mayan ruins, though unlike Captain Marvel, that’s not central to the story.
Next we see crusading D.A. Grant Gardner (Dick Purcell) meeting with the police commissioner. Gardner is a short, no-nonsense kind of guy who says he has a plan to catch the Scarab.
What this has to do with 4-F Steve Rogers taking a super-serum to fight Nazis is beyond me, though it is mentioned that Captain America has helped Gardner catch crooks before. And by this point, it should be obvious that there is no Steve Rogers, no super-serum, no Red Skull. What Republic has done is take their basic “crusading crime-fighter vs. masked villain” storyline and put a Captain America suit on it. No shield, no Bucky, no World War II, no justification for the “Captain” designation. Just a hero with a costume fighting a villain with a gimmick, a villain whose identity we’ll probably spend 15 chapters trying to guess.
Cut to the Drummond Museum of Arts and Sciences, where we find Dr. Maldor meeting with Professor Lyman, two of the dwindling number of survivors of the ill-fated Mayan expedition.
Dr. Maldor on the left with the badass monocle is played by old veteran Lionel Atwill, who appeared in five of Universal’s Frankenstein movies. His career was destroyed on a morals charge over a rape that occurred during a wild party in his home, and he spent his remaining few years doing serials like this and low-budget quickies. Professor Lyman on the right is played by Frank Reicher, who will forever be known as Captain Englehorn in the original King Kong and Son of Kong.
Unfortunately for Lyman, that cigar is drugged with a substance that makes him highly suggestible. Dr. Maldor is the Scarab, you see, and he wants the plans for Lyman’s Dynamic Vibrator. So much for guessing games. Lyman gives Maldor the combination to his safe, then is sent off to his doom. So long, Captain Englehorn.
Maldor’s sends his thugs to Lyman’s house to steal the plans. He gives them a box of Purple Death bombs, just in case. Wait, the Purple Death is actually a thing? Luckily, before I can think too much about it, the thugs are breaking into the safe in Lyman’s study, where they are confronted by Captain America.
The suit is actually pretty close to the comic book costume. He doesn’t have wings on his head, and the big buccaneer boots are missing along with the shield, but if you look closely, you’ll see the image of the shield on his belt buckle.
There’s a struggle, and Maldor’s chief henchman runs for it as Captain America wrestles with the other henchman for a pistol. It goes off, killing the thug. Captain America calls the commissioner, who calls Gardner’s office and speaks to his hot assistant Gail Richards, who then radios Gardner, who is in fact Captain America.
Captain America has the Purple Death liquid analyzed. It’s an extract from a rare orchid that causes purple blotches on the skin when it kills, hence the name “Purple Death.” Wait, I’m confused. The Purple Death is a purple poison, but the victims in the so-called “Purple Death Murders” died by car crash, jumping out a window, and self-inflicted gunshot wound. Where the hell did the name come from? Seriously, crusading D.A., villain named The Scarab, cursed achaeological expedition, hypnotic gimmicks, truth drugs, death gas… It’s like the script writers cut up a bunch of old scripts and put ’em on refrigerator magnets then rearranged them. This makes no sense.
So Gail goes around to florist shops to see if anyone recognizes the stuff. Gail finds a shop where the florist takes a step back as soon as he sees the bottle. He gets the drop on her before she can get her gun out of her purse, though. He and his accomplice (one of the thugs from Captain Marvel) plan to kill her with Purple Death juice, but Gardner shows up and gets the drop on the two. Thug Two grabs Thug One and tries to use him as a hostage, so Gardner shoots him. Thug Two then holds up a beaker of the Purple Death. “Drop that gun or we’ll all die!”
So Gardner plugs him while shoving Gail out the door. He runs out before the gas can kill him. Damn, Gardner’s ruthless.
Now that he has the plans, Dr. Maldor needs to make sure no one else knows the secrets of the Dynamic Vibrator, which means he has to destroy the working model Lyman built with his colleague, Professor Dodge. But first, he has an informant call in a tip to the D.A. to make sure Captain America can’t interfere.
When Captain America shows up to the meeting place, another thug tries to shoot him. He’s played by an uncredited Jay Novello, who went on to a long career in television playing mostly comic roles. He looks pretty tough here, though.
But the moment Captain America waves a fist in his direction, he breaks and confesses that he is just a distraction while the Scarab’s men destroy Dodge’s Dynamic Vibrator. Meanwhile, Gail is at Dodge’s lab, having been sent there to observe Dodge’s demonstration. Apparently, Gardner thought that vibrators were more in her bailiwick.
And by the way, self-pleasuring technology in the 40’s was just a bit unwieldy. This thing fills an entire wall.
As Dodge is demonstrating the vibrator, the Scarab’s thugs enter and lock the group in the vault before they set the vibrator to destroy the building, destroying the vibrator itself in the process. The head thug leaves his henchmen to set the controls, but before they can leave the building, Captain America arrives. In an unintentionally hilarious moment, the two are supposed to say “Captain America” in unison, but one guy obviously forgets his line and mumbles it a second later.
There’s a furious fight. Capain America knocks one guy out the window to his death and knocks out the other before freeing the prisoners from the vault. By this time, the building is shaking pretty fiercely. Captain America says he’ll try to turn off the vibrator (and it looks like he walks over the unconscious thug’s body on the way to the door). But as Cap enters the other room, the building starts to collapse.
And that’s it for Chapter One. The Body Count stands at Scarab: 4 and Captain America: 5. Join us next week for more chapters.