Sunday, October 15, 2017

Tonight's Movie: Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941) - A Kino Lorber Blu-ray Review

This has been a good year for fans of Republic Pictures serials, with Blu-ray and DVD releases of DAREDEVILS OF THE RED CIRCLE (1939) from Kino Lorber and PANTHER GIRL OF THE KONGO (1955) from Olive Films.

Now comes the highly regarded ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL (1941), recently released on Blu-ray and DVD by Kino Lorber.

The new Blu-ray was my first exposure to Captain Marvel -- who I was interested to learn has nothing to do with Marvel's Captain Marvel! I thought ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL was the best of the three serials I've seen to date, with a more interesting storyline and characters, plus really good special effects.

Frank Coghlan Jr. plays Billy Batson, a young man who finds himself in a tomb face to face with a wizard. (It's a long story...) As long as the "Golden Scorpion" is threatened, which has lenses which can turn rocks to gold, Billy has only to say "Shazam!" and he turns into Captain Marvel.

Captain Marvel, played by Tom Tyler, is more mature (a dozen or so years older than Coghlan) -- and more importantly, he's a superhero who can fly! The square-jawed Captain Marvel is a pretty tough customer, not hesitating to turn a machine gun on the bad guys when needed.

The hooded villain of the piece, billed as "The Scorpion" alongside actors' names in the opening credits, of course wants to get his hands on all those magic lenses, but Captain America stands in his way, throughout 12 action-packed chapters. Along with Billy and Captain Marvel, our other intrepid heroes are plucky secretary Betty (Louise Currie) and Billy's loyal friend Whitey (William "Billy" Benedict).

The good guys and gal face no end of disasters and dangers in the film, from a conveyor belt headed toward a guillotine, to numerous sequences with driverless cars, to trip-wired machine guns and a sinking ship.

That said, while in DAREDEVILS OF THE RED CIRCLE I felt the characters were mere cogs to go through the serial disaster grinder, here the characters are more personable and livelier, and the problems they face feel more integral to the story rather than simply being gimmicks.

I also like that the escapes from "disaster" aren't as pat as one might expect. For instance, there's a scary shot where Captain Marvel is guillotined -- I was amused to see how he got out of that one!

Bullets also deflect off his superhero costume -- which did make me wonder why they didn't aim for his head, but maybe bullets would bounce back from there too...!

ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL is distinguished by particularly good special effects for the era. The "Shazam" changes from Billy to Captain Marvel look good, there's effective use of miniatures here and there, and the flying sequences are impressively staged. (Stuntman David Sharpe, who acted in DAREDEVILS OF RED CIRCLE, took care of the takeoffs and landings.) Sure, you can see some wires or, for instance, tell it's a dummy that's launched into the camp in Episode 1, but the overall effects are strong, especially when it comes to the flying; meanwhile those effects which are weaker lend a sort of charming quaintness to the whole thing.

Although I couldn't spread out watching the 12 chapters, which total 216 minutes (!), over a dozen days, I did watch a few chapters at a time, hoping to more closely mimic the effect of seeing them in the theater.

ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL was codirected by William Witney and John English. According to the commentary track, they would trade days, with one prepping for the next day while the other directed; they were said to accomplish as many as a hundred setups in a day, which sounds like a near-impossible feat.

The Blu-ray print looks good throughout, save for slightly scratchier opening credits. The black and white filming by William Nobles is nothing flashy, but it's a nice crisp print. The movie mixes lots of filming at Southern California locations like good ol' Iverson Ranch with stock footage shot up north in Lone Pine's Alabama Hills.

There's an elaborate, informative commentary track with 10 participants, with one to three people at a time speaking during different chapters. Commentators include cartoon historian Jerry Beck, film historian Leonard Maltin, Western historian Boyd Magers, and director William Witney's son J.D., plus six additional participants: Chris Eberle, Shane Kelly, Adam Murdough, Constantine Nasr, Donnie Waddell, and Tom Weaver. I liked the different perspectives contributed over the many chapters and thought handling the commentary in that fashion was a great idea. I especially enjoyed Maltin, whose love for CAPTAIN MARVEL is contagious, and Witney; codirector English was his godfather!

There's also a colorful illustrated booklet with an essay by Matt Singer. As an additional plus, the cover art can be removed from the Blu-ray case and flipped over to a different illustration; the two options may be seen at the top and bottom of this review.

Those who are interested might also want to check out Leonard Maltin's post on this set.

I had a good time watching ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL, and fans of serials will be especially thrilled with Kino Lorber's presentation. The company has been doing some top-quality releases, and this is another terrific example.

Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray.


Blogger john k said...

A great review Laura,and it's great that you are previewing Kino releases.
I was knocked out by this package especially the very informative commentaries.
I loved the fact that one commentary is dedicated to the doyen of all stuntpersons
David Sharpe.
I loved the bit in Witney's son's chapter where he points out a "blink & you miss it"
scene where the prop-man wanders into the shot-something that missed the editor's eagle-eye.

I must say Tom Tyler is an incredibly violent super-hero throwing baddies off buildings
and dams. I also love him smiling with sadistic glee as bullets bounce off him.

In hindsight I would rather Billy Batson had been a homeless orphan newsboy as in the original comic.

Hopefully Kino will unearth other great serials in time.

6:06 AM  
Blogger Bill O said...

Cap Marvel comics have a Hollywood influence - Cap was modeled on Fred MacMurray, his sister Mary on Judy Garland. DC Comics owns the original Cap, but lost the TM title and name to Marvel.

7:44 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks much for your feedback, John and Bill!

John, that moment during Witney's commentary where the head pops around the rock in the background, then darts back, might have been my favorite moment in the whole set LOL!

Best wishes,

9:13 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Freddy Grayson was a homeless orphan boy, not Billy Batson. Billy said or shouted Shazam, but Freddie shouted the name Captain Marvel, and became Captain Marvel, Jr.

12:50 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Correction: Freddy Freeman, not Grayson.

1:01 PM  

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