Continuing our look back at Captain America’s first screen appearance, the 1944 Republic serial Captain America. At the end of Chapter One, “The Purple Death,” Captain America (also known as crusading district attorney Grant Gardner) was trapped in a building being shaken to death by Professor Dodge’s Dynamic Vibrator.
In Chapter 2, “Mechanical Executioner,” Captain America says he’ll try to shut down the controls, but as he runs into the room, the building starts coming down so he jumps out the window. Luckily, there’s another building about three feet away with a rooftop right at the level of the floor Captain America is on.
So the building collapses, killing Gail and Professor Dodge since the building is at least 15 stories tall and we see the entire thing come down 25 seconds after Gail and others board the elevator. No way they got out in time.
But the story’s going to say they did, so okay. The mayor and police commissioner think the danger is over with the destruction of the plans for the vibrator with the building collapse (which doesn’t make sense–the Scarab already had a separate set of plans in Chapter 1–but remember, this script has not been written, merely assembled, so the Vibrator is forever forgotten after this).
Gardner, though, tells them that Dodge’s other papers were taken, including plans to the Electronic Firebolt, a device that can cut through steel. But the plans are in code, and only Dodge can decipher it.
Scarab’s got that covered, though. Doctor Maldor uses a ring with a hypno-drug needle to hypnotize Gail, who tells him where Dodge is being held. Maldor sends a couple of guys there to grab the Professor, but they’ll have to hurry, because Gardner and Gail are also headed that way (Gail having just emerged from the trance with no memory of the Scarab).
Gardner leaves Gail outside and goes in to see Dodge, but a gunman gets the drop on him. The guy takes Gardner’s gun and says it’s going to look like suicide, because he’ll have been shot with his own gun.
Of course, the town has already seen a string of suicides that everyone immediately knew were murders, but whatever. The icing on the cake of this extraordinarily improbable plan is that the dude then backs up across the room and shoots him from at least ten feet away with the gun at waist height, probably hitting Gardner in the gut. You know, the way you would shoot yourself if you were committing suicide.
Gardner falls, so the thug puts the gun in his hand. But Gardner’s playing possum. “The first cartridge in my gun is always a blank, to be fired as a warning shot,” he says after getting the drop on the thug. Which sounds neat, but we’ll see if that ever comes up again, won’t we?
Gardner kills the dude after a brief gunfight, then gets the operator to tell him the address of the number the guy called. He leaves Gail to sort out the mess while he races to Wilson’s Feed Barn.
The Scarab’s head thug Matson wants the code key, but Dodge refuses. So Matson has his buddy start a tractor and drive it toward the bound and helpless Dodge as Matson throuws various obstacles in the tractor’s way. It crushes them all spectaularly, which convinces Dodge to cooperate before the tractor gets to him.
Gardner arrives at the barn, but stays outside to change into his Captain America costume, which gives Dodge time to finish telling the thugs the key to the code. Then Captain America enters and attacks the thugs, and we can start to see just why this serial was so expensive. This barn set is huge, so that they have to pan the camera back and forth to keep track of the fight raging across it.
Matson throws a pitchfork, but Captain America spins the other thug around so that he gets it. Credit half a kill to each side. Meanwhile, Professor Dodge has been scooting his chair across the barn to grab a pistol dropped on a hay bale. Just as Matson manages to knock Captain America out, Dodge gets the pistol and starts firing wildly with his arm still tied to the chair.
Matson starts the tractor rolling again and runs out. There’s a nice tracking shot of the tractor rolling toward Captain America’s head. DHOOM!
Welcome to Chapter 3, “Scarlet Shroud.”Captain America wakes up just in time and rolls out of the way. Yawn.
Some time later, the Scarab has been a busy boy, using the Firebolt to rob vaults of priceless treasures all over town. But Gardner has Professor Dodge working on a machine to track the Firebolt when it is used again, and it only needs some special tubes to be fully operational. Gardner will take the control unit to get the tubes installed. But the Scarab has somebody rig his car with some substance that will make his car overheat and then explode when it gets too hot.
Gail spots the guy through the window and races out to warn Gardner. By the time she gets outside, though, Gardner has driven away and the thug has gotten out of his car to grab her or something. But third time’s the charm, as they say. Although the thugs stopped her the last two times she tried this, she pulls her pistol from her purse and plugs the guy.
Damn, girl! Gail takes the thug’s car and tries to catch Gardner.
Gardner spots the tail, though, so he radios the highway patrol to stop the car following him. There’s a bit of rigamarole with the cop stopping Gail then having to DRIVE BACK TO THE ROADSIDE PHONE to get the message radioed to Gardner, but he gets the message in time and dives out of his car just before it goes off a cliff and explodes in mid-air. Pretty cool effect, actually.
So Gardner’s not dead and the control unit’s not destroyed, but the Scarab doesn’t know that. Gardner fakes an article that he was killed in the explosion to lure the Scarab into using the Firebolt, the same way we saw Superman and Batman do all the time. Man, journalists in the serials have absolutely no regard for the truth, huh? Kind of like the mainstream media today.
The Scarab sends his men to rob the vault at the National Platinum Company, where we see that the Firebolt is pretty much a standard carbon arc spotlight with a custom housing and some tubes attached.
Professor Dodge tracks the Firebolt by means of a map of the city that has some contact points attached. He drags a nail across the points until one sets off a light, and Gardner is off.
At the platinum company, the thugs have burned their way into the vault and are taking out boxes helpfully labeled “Platinum.” Captain America sneaks in, and once again, this is a huge set, with a catwalk that he can ambush the thugs from.
There’s another big fight, with the camera panning back and forth across the set. The fight moves up onto the catwalk, and Captain America falls into a big wooden crate with one of the thugs. Matson uses the Firebolt on the crate, and this incredible weapon that can burn through several inches of steel doesn’t penetrate the wood, but does set it on fire.
Before we continue to the next chapter, “Preview of Murder,” let’s pause for a couple of comments. Number one, what exactly was the title “Scarlet Shroud” referring to? The burning crate or the fact that Gardner faked his death? Also please note that either Purcell or the guy doubling him (legendary stuntman Dale Van Sickel) is really paunchy, like 5 months’ pregnant paunchy.
This is not the first scene in the serial that makes it obvious, nor will it be the last.
So okay, Captain America is trapped in the burning crate, but he uses the unconscious thug’s gun to shoot out some corner braces so he can knock down one wall of the thing and get out. Matson gets away, but without the Firebolt or platinum or the Scarab’s robot truck.
Scarab really wants the robot truck back, but first, the reading of Professor Lyman’s will. Professor Dodge gets Lyman’s house, while Dr. Maldor gets Lyman’s share of the Drummond Museum, minus the Mayan Crown Jewels, which Drummond is to sell to finance a new Mayan expedition to find some lost city or other. Maldor’s not happy; he gets to keep something he already has, while losing the most valuable part of the museum’s collection. So he plans to kill Dodge, right after he gets his robot truck back.
Gardner plans to make that easy by sending away the police guards and hiding in the robot van in order to bait a trap for the Scarab. But the Scarab is watching from a TV camera parked inconspicuously a couple of feet away (actually, they claim it’s in the roof of the van, but that’s obviously not the angle the camera is shooting from–sorry, pet peeve), so he orders his men to be ready for Gardner when he arrives. They tie him up, then load the van with high explosive in order to blow Lyman up.
By the time the van is on its way, Gardner has managed to escape his ropes. He jumps one of the thugs, who pulls his pistol. Gardner throws a bucket of something that knocks the guy’s arm aside so he kills his buddy instead. Half a point each again…
There’s a furious fight in the garage, and Van Sickel must have his hat strapped down really tightly, because he gets knocked down, dodges flying tires, gets back up, knocked down again and nearly gets brained with a chair, and the hat never moves. Finally, the guy manages to grab his dropped pistol, with which he is shot while wrestling with Gardner.
Gardner strips off his suit, steals…um…”commandeers” a nearby motorcycle, and races off in pursuit of the robot truck bomb. And is that robot truck the same type that was used as the armored car in the two Batman serials from Columbia?
No, actually, not even close. Oh well, Captain America rides ahead of the truck, jumps on the roof and gets into the cab. Just as the truck is about to run into the Lyman mansion, Cap smashes the control unit and steers down the side driveway, where the truck crashes into the detached garage. There’s a huge explosion.
Which brings us to Chapter 5, “Blade of Wrath,” where we see that, of course, Captain America jumped out of the truck a moment before it exploded. The next day, Dodge calls Maldor to say he’s leaving for South America right away to get away from the Scarab. He needs the crown jewels tomorrow before the boat leaves so he can hand them off to his dealer.
Maldor comes up with a “simple” plan involving someone named Agent M-32, who will book passage on the steamship and have the company pick up his trunk before departure. The next day, Maldor arrives with the jewels, and something extra: Matson hiding in the trunk of his car. After Maldor has handed the jewels over to Dodge, the steamship truck arrives to pick up Dodge’s baggage. While Maldor’s leaving and Gardner is supervising the delivery men in picking up Dodge’s bags, Matson kills Dodge, takes the jewels, and hides in the empty trunk on the truck.
The plan actually works, at least long enough for Matson to escape before Gardner can stop the truck after discovering the murder. So Gardner and Gail start tracking “John Taylor,” the man who shipped the trunk. He turns out to be Lefty Harper, a small-time crook who has just been found dead. But the trail leads to a box company, where Gail runs into Matson. And once again, she gets her purse grabbed before she can get her gun out. She really needs a holster or something.
Matson threatens to cut off her head with a guillotine paper cutter unless she tells him Captain America’s true identity. Lorna Gray does a good job of looking like she’s suddenly reconsidering her entire career path. And there’s a stylish shot with Matson’s shadow on the blade that looks like the kind of thing Spielberg did in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Wonder if this is one of the serials he specifically watched for inspiration?
Luckily for Gail, she had just called Gardner on the box company’s phone and left a pencil stub under the receiver so the connection stayed open when she hung up. Rather low-tech bug, I must say. But Matson spends so much time demonstrating the guillotine that Captain America is able to arrive before they kill Gail with it.
Unfortunately, during the fight (on another huge set), the guillotine is activated, so Gail watches the blade rise as the fight rages.
Doesn’t look good for her. Be here next week for the next five chapters. Oh yeah, and final body count this week: Team Scarab 3 (counting Dodge, the two henchman half-kills and the dude who is found dead off-screen), Team America 5 (counting the two half-kills and the dude Gail plugged). Captain America will ultimately win this war through attrition, apparently.