Reed Hadley

Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941, William Witney and John English)

About seventy percent of Adventures of Captain Marvel is narratively useless. Nothing occurring in chapters two through ten has an effect on how the story actually turns out. The serial has a great first chapter involving a tomb robbing archeological expedition in Thailand. Radio journalist Frank Coghlan Jr. is along, presumably to do a story but mostly just to do grunt work. He refuses to participate in the most egregious tomb robbing. Good move as native tribes (on horseback on the great Thailand tundra) attack the expedition.

Turns out only Coghlan can save them; an old wizard has just given him the magic word and now Coghlan can “Shazam” himself into a superhero. Tom Tyler plays the superhero, Captain Marvel. It’s unclear why, if he’s the defender of Thai relics, he’s a white guy. It’s also unclear why his name is Captain Marvel instead of something Thai.

Adventures of Captain Marvel raises a lot of questions about its superhero, in particular why Coghlan so rarely uses the magic word–is it budget or the screenwriters or some kind of screen time obligation to Coghlan. The five screenwriters have very little interest in the superhero story. It’s essential so Tyler can have big action sequences, but there’s no time spent on Tyler’s “character.”

It turns out to be the right move, as Tyler’s acting is far more effective when he’s viciously superheroing than when he’s speaking.

Back to the narrative relevancy imbalance. If every chapter of Captain Marvel were great, it wouldn’t matter. Then the narrative moves back to the United States in the second chapter and drags things down so much, the only way for Captain Marvel to end is to take the action back to Thailand. Sure, the cast is smaller–because Captain Marvel has become a “masked villain you work with” thriller and has been shedding suspects–but no one’s bringing anything new on the return. It’s not like Coghlan’s a better superhero now. Or they have any idea how the masked villain, The Scorpion, operates. Everyone’s the same, there are just less everyones.

If Adventures of Captain Marvel had a good finish, maybe the time it wasted getting to that finish wouldn’t matter so much. But it doesn’t have a good finish. While the serial doesn’t get cheap in the middle portion, it does get a lot less grandiose. Especially considering the big scale of the first and final chapters. Most of the action in the middle section takes place in expedition leader Robert Strange’s house. There he meets with the expedition as the unknown Scorpion kills them off, one-by-one. Coghlan is just hanging around, saving the day (either himself or Tyler), and getting crap about it from Strange and company. The only people concerned about the safety of the expedition members are Coghlan, Louise Currie, and William ‘Billy’ Benedict. Currie is Strange’s secretary, Benedict is some kind of gopher for the expedition. Coghlan, Currie, and Benedict are pals. It’s this odd win for Captain Marvel how well the trio works together.

Shame Coghlan doesn’t tell Currie or Benedict about his superhero side. It leads to some really strange scenes with Tyler interacting with Currie or Benedict. Well, usually Tyler’s saving Currie. The serial will occasionally–and literally–tell Currie to sit out the action, but otherwise she’s just ending up in trouble. Sometimes it’s Coghlan who saves her, sometimes it’s Tyler. If it’s Tyler and he has time, he’ll turn back to Coghlan so… Coghlan can take the credit for the superheroics. The reasoning behind when and why Coghlan says the magic word–and how he doesn’t seem to realize it’d be better to fly as Captain Marvel than to take your plane–it perplexes to say the least.

Or it would perplex, if it didn’t just seem like disinterest from the screenwriters. It doesn’t matter though, because Adventures of Captain Marvel is all about its special effects and action sequences and they usually deliver. The special effects always deliver, the stunt work always delivers, the action delivers just so long as it isn’t too close to the cliffhanger edge. Adventures of Captain Marvel has got some weak cliffhangers. Especially since they often involve Tyler doing something stupid and being in danger for it.

Tyler does a lot of stupid things. Coghlan does them too but those are more grand gestures. Coghlan full of daring do and lets it cloud his rational judgement. Tyler will just do something completely idiotic, usually something where his superpowers could easily resolve it, and then get slapped down. He’s not slapped down as character development, just to end of the chapter. Tyler is–and not in a bad way–a golem in Captain Marvel. None of Coghlan’s exuberance or personality “carries” to Tyler after the magic word. When Tyler finally does get to say something, it’s a shock. It’s a few chapters in and, until then, it wasn’t even clear Tyler would talk other than to say the magic word.

Tyler’s likable though. The bad guys are bad in Adventures of Captain Marvel and there’s a visceral thrill to bulletproof Tyler tossing a bad guy in the air. William Nobles’s photography is good enough it only looks like a dummy every throw. Everyone works hard to integrate the special effects (including superhero stunts). The serial showcases them, careful never to let the “reality” come through too much. Flying Captain Marvel is a dummy on wires himself, which both is and isn’t obvious when watching. Empirically it’s obvious, but during one of the Adventures? Empirical doesn’t matter so much. Raw technical expertise wins out.

There’s some good acting throughout. George Pembroke as one of the suspects. Kenne Duncan is the Scorpion’s top henchmen stateside and he’s a good bad guy. Not a great part, but Duncan brings presence. Currie is fine. She has very little to do and the occasional bad scene, but she’s fine. Benedict has less to do than Currie but gets to be more active in those scenes. He’s fun.

And Coghlan’s a solid lead. He’s not great, but he’s solid.

If Captain Marvel were just Coghlan carrying it until Tyler shows up and then the special effects take over, it might be able to work up enough momentum to get through. Even with the closed loop narrative. But it’s not just Coghlan. It’s the scheming Scorpion and the petty expedition members and so on. Somehow–regardless not just of billing, but also screen time–it feels like Coghlan and Tyler have the least to do in Captain Marvel. Once the action beat is over, Tyler says the magic word and disappears into Coghlan and Coghlan disappears into the background.

It’s unfortunate Captain Marvel doesn’t work out. It’s not disappointing as its clear a few chapters in the serial isn’t coming together.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by John English and William Witney; screenplay by Ronald Davidson, Norman S. Hall, Arch Heath, Joseph F. Poland, and Sol Shor, based on the Fawcett comic book by C.C. Beck and Bill Parker; director of photography, William Nobles; edited by William P. Thompson and Edward Todd; music by Cy Feuer; released by Republic Pictures.

Starring Frank Coghlan Jr. (Billy Batson), Tom Tyler (Captain Marvel), William ‘Billy’ Benedict (Whitey Murphy), Louise Currie (Betty Wallace), Robert Strange (John Malcolm), Harry Worth (Prof. Luther Bentley), Bryant Washburn (Henry Carlyle), John Davidson (Tal Chotali), George Pembroke (Dr. Stephen Lang), George Lynn (Prof. Dwight Fisher), Reed Hadley (Rahman Bar), Jack Mulhall (James Howell), and Nigel De Brulier (Shazam).


Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941, William Witney and John English), Chapter 12: Captain Marvel’s Secret

Captain Marvel’s Secret opens with yet another lackluster cliffhanger resolve. No reason to change it up at the end, apparently.

The chapter has a lot to do in sixteen minutes. It’s got to reveal the evil Scorpion’s identity, stop the Scorpion’s evil plan, and maybe do something regarding Frank Coghlan Jr. and Tom Tyler’s Captain Marvel.

Secret drags out the Scorpion identity reveal–with William Nobles’s photography showing off how much he can keep two actors’ faces in shadow when there shouldn’t be one–while putting William ‘Billy’ Benedict and Louise Currie on the run. Their attempt to escape from the Scorpion’s thugs has an awesome special effect–thugs on horseback, good guys in car. It almost seems like Captain Marvel is going to up the ante as it winds down.

But no.

Not even when it gets around to the final transformation from Coghlan to Tyler, even though events are perfect for something entertaining.

Tyler gets a lot of lines before the chapter’s over, his most of the serial. In context, he’s fine. But it’s probably good he didn’t get a lot of pontificating throughout.

All those lines are at Coghlan’s expense. When he’s not Shazamed up, Coghlan’s either preparing to say the magic word or he’s literally gagged.

The finish, after Secret takes care of outstanding business, is abrupt and inadequate.

Set design is real nice though.

CREDITS

Directed by John English and William Witney; screenplay by Ronald Davidson, Norman S. Hall, Arch Heath, Joseph F. Poland, and Sol Shor, based on the comic book by C.C. Beck and Bill Parker; director of photography, William Nobles; edited by William P. Thompson and Edward Todd; music by Cy Feuer; released by Republic Pictures.

Starring Frank Coghlan Jr. (Billy Batson), Tom Tyler (Captain Marvel), William ‘Billy’ Benedict (Whitey Murphy), Louise Currie (Betty Wallace), Kenne Duncan (Barnett), Robert Strange (John Malcolm), Harry Worth (Prof. Luther Bentley), John Davidson (Tal Chotali), and Reed Hadley (Rahman Bar).


Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941, William Witney and John English), Chapter 11: Valley of Death

Valley of Death is the penultimate chapter of Adventures of Captain Marvel. It’s in a rush to finish. The cliffhanger resolution is boring, though leads to some decent effects shots. The cast ends up in a hotel somewhere, planning to return to Thailand and the tombs from the first chapter.

Villain Reed Hadley, who made an impression so long ago, returns for Valley of Death. The Scorpion, his identity still a mystery, shows up to send a falcon with a message to Hadley and the rest of the bad guys. They’re bad guys because they don’t want the Americans digging up the tombs. The Scorpion, on the other hand, wants to be turn materials into gold and be rich beyond compare.

Tom Tyler gets a bunch of heroics to do while the Americans are en route to the tombs. Like picking up a fallen tree trunk. Only Louise Currie seems surprised to see him in Thailand. Everyone else just shrugs it off.

Once they’re back to the tombs–and Valley is splitting its time between the expedition and the bad guys–Frank Coghlan Jr. gets to take over a bit. Most of the time is spent either on the bad guys or the bad guys’ plan. They cause a volcano to erupt. Some great effects and nice editing on the sequence.

Unfortunately, there’s no drama to it. Not even when a tomb is threatening to collapse on the supporting cast.

There’s some excellent music this chapter (from Cy Feuer) but it’s not priming Adventures for a strong finish.

CREDITS

Directed by John English and William Witney; screenplay by Ronald Davidson, Norman S. Hall, Arch Heath, Joseph F. Poland, and Sol Shor, based on the comic book by C.C. Beck and Bill Parker; director of photography, William Nobles; edited by William P. Thompson and Edward Todd; music by Cy Feuer; released by Republic Pictures.

Starring Frank Coghlan Jr. (Billy Batson), Tom Tyler (Captain Marvel), William ‘Billy’ Benedict (Whitey Murphy), Louise Currie (Betty Wallace), Kenne Duncan (Barnett), Robert Strange (John Malcolm), Harry Worth (Prof. Luther Bentley), John Davidson (Tal Chotali), and Reed Hadley (Rahman Bar).


Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941, William Witney and John English), Chapter 10: Doom Ship

There’s nothing nice to say about Doom Ship’s opening cliffhanger resolution other than it’s short and leads into an energetic fight scene for Frank Coghlan Jr. More than ever, Coghlan’s got the wrong timing for turning into Tom Tyler’s Captain Marvel this chapter. Unlike the times when Coghlan’s been over his head, in Doom Ship he gets to play the hero to good result.

The action quickly moves aboard the titular Doom Ship. The remaining archaeologists discover they need to go back to Thailand and since no one trusts one another, they all head back. They set sail same day. Ocean transport is very convenient, apparently.

The ship sequence is probably the serial’s best lengthy action stuff so far. There’s a storm going and the ship crashes into a reef. Can Coghlan and company get off before it sinks?

Lots of action, lots of tension, lots of good effects. And Louise Currie not just getting to be damsel in distress, but entirely unconscious damsel in distress. Far be it for Doom Ship not to fall into at least one Captain Marvel trope.

The excellent special effects and tight pacing make Doom Ship a fine chapter. Although it does seem to be an aside, an exercise in filmmaking competence, rather than a ambition ramp up for the serial’s finale.

CREDITS

Directed by John English and William Witney; screenplay by Ronald Davidson, Norman S. Hall, Arch Heath, Joseph F. Poland, and Sol Shor, based on the comic book by C.C. Beck and Bill Parker; director of photography, William Nobles; edited by William P. Thompson and Edward Todd; music by Cy Feuer; released by Republic Pictures.

Starring Frank Coghlan Jr. (Billy Batson), Tom Tyler (Captain Marvel), William ‘Billy’ Benedict (Whitey Murphy), Louise Currie (Betty Wallace), Kenne Duncan (Barnett), Robert Strange (John Malcolm), Harry Worth (Prof. Luther Bentley), and John Davidson (Tal Chotali).


Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941, William Witney and John English), Chapter 9: Dead Man’s Trap

Dead Man’s Trap is, I guess, a bridging chapter. It depends on what’s next. Otherwise it’s a treading water chapter.

It picks up from the previous chapter’s “cliffhanger” (quotations because it’s more of a “beware the cliff 150 meters away” than anything else) and gives George Pembroke quite a bit to do for a while. He’s good, the regular guy captured by the Scorpion and then tortured until he talks. Pembroke’s pure joy at Tom Tyler coming to his rescue is one of Captain Marvel’s most honest moments.

There’s some convoluted machinations to get Louise Currie in danger and to give Frank Coghlan Jr. a chance to Captain Marvel out. But there’s no tension. It’s weird, coming off a strong chapter, to see the serial just go back to business as usual.

The cliffhanger’s kind of cool, but there’s no chance it’ll have a good resolution so who cares.

Three quarters done, it’s still impossible to guess how Captain Marvel is going to wrap up, quality-wise. The actors are fine, usually likable (though Currie’s a little dense here), but the serial itself spins its wheels too much.

CREDITS

Directed by John English and William Witney; screenplay by Ronald Davidson, Norman S. Hall, Arch Heath, Joseph F. Poland, and Sol Shor, based on the comic book by C.C. Beck and Bill Parker; director of photography, William Nobles; edited by William P. Thompson and Edward Todd; music by Cy Feuer; released by Republic Pictures.

Starring Frank Coghlan Jr. (Billy Batson), Tom Tyler (Captain Marvel), William ‘Billy’ Benedict (Whitey Murphy), Louise Currie (Betty Wallace), Kenne Duncan (Barnett), Robert Strange (John Malcolm), Harry Worth (Prof. Luther Bentley), John Davidson (Tal Chotali), and George Pembroke (Dr. Stephen Lang).


Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941, William Witney and John English), Chapter 8: Boomerang

Boomerang is the best chapter of Captain Marvel yet. Not because of Captain Marvel action–there’s some, but it’s perfunctory–rather it’s the plotting. Boomerang springboards off something in the previous chapter (unrelated to the cliffhanger), sort of narratively hopping over something. That something being the predictable, tedious, though visually interesting cliffhanger resolution. Boomerang then assumes a traditional three act structure, which the serial hasn’t been doing to this point. It’s kind of strange, but also excellent.

The good guys have a plan, they learn something, they execute their plan, things go wrong, resolution, second resolution. It’s exciting, but without any big effects sequences. Frank Coghlan Jr. only says the magic word to get out of immediate trouble. It’s a thankless role for Tom Tyler. He gets to have a little fun–albeit cruel fun–and fun is long overdo. It makes him more sympathetic, even though his part is still a mess.

Coghlan’s amateur sleuths–William ‘Billy’ Benedict and Louise Currie–both get some decent moments. Their characters have to interact in a way the actors get to define the characters. They’re not solely around to be functional in Boomerang. They get to show personality.

Good supporting work from George Pembroke this chapter too.

It’s not really a bridging chapter because it never resolves its opening problem. Coghlan and company thought they’d discovered something big, only for its veracity to get delayed… presumably until next chapter. Boomerang’s something though. It’s breathtaking in its pragmatism.

CREDITS

Directed by John English and William Witney; screenplay by Ronald Davidson, Norman S. Hall, Arch Heath, Joseph F. Poland, and Sol Shor, based on the comic book by C.C. Beck and Bill Parker; director of photography, William Nobles; edited by William P. Thompson and Edward Todd; music by Cy Feuer; released by Republic Pictures.

Starring Frank Coghlan Jr. (Billy Batson), Tom Tyler (Captain Marvel), William ‘Billy’ Benedict (Whitey Murphy), Louise Currie (Betty Wallace), Kenne Duncan (Barnett), Robert Strange (John Malcolm), Harry Worth (Prof. Luther Bentley), John Davidson (Tal Chotali), and George Pembroke (Dr. Stephen Lang).


Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941, William Witney and John English), Chapter 7: Human Targets

Starting Human Targets, I couldn’t remember what cliffhanger needed to be resolved. It’s not a good one. More of the “Tom Tyler is bad at being a superhero” same. Once it gets resolved, with William ‘Billy’ Benedict shooting the breeze with Tyler and asking zero questions about why Tyler’s trying to save him, the action moves back to the archaeologists’ meeting.

It’s never clear why they meet so often. They’re not working on anything. This time they get mad about Frank Coghlan Jr. knowing their business and trying to, you know, save their lives. But since the Scorpion is secretly a member of the archaeologist club, he’s really just setting a trap to rid himself of Coghlan.

The Scorpion uses Louise Currie as the bait. She gets kidnapped, rescued, then kidnapped again. The second kidnapping is, you guessed it, because Tyler’s bad at being a superhero. When Currie does get to the Scorpion’s lair, she has the best moment in Captain Marvel to date. It’s just a second of agency, but it’s more than I’d ever expected for her to get; it’s a great second of agency too.

There’s some great special effects, particularly of Tyler taking down a gunsel on a dam. The cliffhanger at the end seems dire, but I’m sure Captain Marvel will come up with a lackluster way to get out of it.

Still, good chapter. Marvel works better when it’s Coghlan, Currie, and Benedict. They’ve got all the energy.

CREDITS

Directed by John English and William Witney; screenplay by Ronald Davidson, Norman S. Hall, Arch Heath, Joseph F. Poland, and Sol Shor, based on the comic book by C.C. Beck and Bill Parker; director of photography, William Nobles; edited by William P. Thompson and Edward Todd; music by Cy Feuer; released by Republic Pictures.

Starring Frank Coghlan Jr. (Billy Batson), Tom Tyler (Captain Marvel), William ‘Billy’ Benedict (Whitey Murphy), Louise Currie (Betty Wallace), Kenne Duncan (Barnett), Robert Strange (John Malcolm), Harry Worth (Prof. Luther Bentley), John Davidson (Tal Chotali), and George Pembroke (Dr. Stephen Lang).


Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941, William Witney and John English), Chapter 6: Lens of Death

Lens of Death has great fistfight in the middle. Sadly, it’s not Captain Marvel fighting, but this guy’s butler. The place is being robbed and the butler takes on the two crooks and keeps them busy until Captain Marvel does arrive. There’s no great fight scene Captain Marvel Tom Tyler, though he does get a fairly neat rooftop chase scene. He’s on the rooftop, chasing people on the ground. William P. Thompson and Edward Todd edit the heck out of the sequence, as Tyler’s stunt double looks nothing like him, so they’re cutting on movement and trying to match. It’s cool.

Unfortunately, it’s the middle of the chapter and there’s no more cool after it. Death opens with another lackluster cliffhanger resolve. The only reason for the cliffhanger, it turns out, is because Tyler’s not good at making himself aware of his surroundings. The time he wasted let the bad guy get away.

Then, thanks to the radio, the bad guy outwits all the archaeologist types. Frank Coghlan Jr. and William ‘Billy’ Benedict are the only ones who can save the day. They split up, but eventually Tyler has to go to save Benedict. And he manages to get himself in another easily avoidable predicament.

Coghlan always come across as pretty smart. It’s unclear why once he becomes Tyler, the character makes really poor choices.

CREDITS

Directed by John English and William Witney; screenplay by Ronald Davidson, Norman S. Hall, Arch Heath, Joseph F. Poland, and Sol Shor, based on the comic book by C.C. Beck and Bill Parker; director of photography, William Nobles; edited by William P. Thompson and Edward Todd; music by Cy Feuer; released by Republic Pictures.

Starring Frank Coghlan Jr. (Billy Batson), Tom Tyler (Captain Marvel), William ‘Billy’ Benedict (Whitey Murphy), Louise Currie (Betty Wallace), Kenne Duncan (Barnett), Robert Strange (John Malcolm), Harry Worth (Prof. Luther Bentley), John Davidson (Tal Chotali), and George Pembroke (Dr. Stephen Lang).


Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941, William Witney and John English), Chapter 5: The Scorpion Strikes

The cliffhanger resolution at the beginning of The Scorpion Strikes quickly gives way to a fine Captain Marvel action sequence. Tom Tyler gets lots of dialogue as he threatens punks; he even throws one off a building.

He captures the last thug left ambulatory and takes him in for questioning. Only it’s not Tyler who takes him in, it’s alter ego Frank Coghlan Jr. Apparently the thug saw him transform? It’s unclear. Also unclear why the presence of Captain Marvel isn’t impressing anyone. Louise Currie gets a scene with Tyler and has zero reaction.

Coghlan’s scheme doesn’t quite work out and then he finds himself trapped by the mysterious Scorpion in a mine. The cliffhanger has the Scorpion melting away the surrounding mountain to flood the mine with molten rock. The cliffhanger setup is just Tyler panicking at not being able to escape. Pretty cool; hopefully they have a decent resolution.

There’s some excellent process shots–the rock melting and flooding. Some good stunts, including a very obvious stunt man, and a good pace keep Strikes moving.

Captain Marvel has almost entirely given up on subplots by now; in fact, it’s hard to remember it ever had them. But it’s still all right.

CREDITS

Directed by John English and William Witney; screenplay by Ronald Davidson, Norman S. Hall, Arch Heath, Joseph F. Poland, and Sol Shor, based on the comic book by C.C. Beck and Bill Parker; director of photography, William Nobles; edited by William P. Thompson and Edward Todd; music by Cy Feuer; released by Republic Pictures.

Starring Frank Coghlan Jr. (Billy Batson), Tom Tyler (Captain Marvel), William ‘Billy’ Benedict (Whitey Murphy), Louise Currie (Betty Wallace), Kenne Duncan (Barnett), Robert Strange (John Malcolm), Harry Worth (Prof. Luther Bentley), John Davidson (Tal Chotali), and George Pembroke (Dr. Stephen Lang).


Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941, William Witney and John English), Chapter 4: Death Takes the Wheel

Death Takes the Wheel sadly does not have a Death character driving. It does have a lazy cliffhanger resolution at the open, which will probably echo in the next chapter’s cliffhanger resolution too. The screenwriters have established their cliffhanger resolution pattern. It’s not a good one, that pattern.

The chapter has Frank Coghlan Jr. and Louise Currie doing some investigating. The evil Scorpion has set up Coghlan because he’s apparently more dangerous than Captain Marvel. The bad guys luck into kidnapping Currie too.

There’s some dialogue between the masked Scorpion and henchman Kenne Duncan about Captain Marvel. So everyone seems to know Captain Marvel exists, they just don’t care. Apparently flying supermen aren’t a big deal. Not when Coghlan’s out there.

Of course, it’s not like Coghlan’s actions make any sense. He doesn’t foil the bad guys’ first plan, even though he’s in Captain Marvel guise and ought to be able to get to them in time.

The expedition team all acts very suspicious before sending Coghlan off to a trap. Someone even tries to kill Coghlan and Currie with a flower pot. Coghlan and Currie are concerned about one of the group being a murderer, but not enough they delay trying to solve the Scorpion mystery.

The end’s got good action. Coghlan and Currie are likable. It’s not bad. It’s not great, but it’s not a bad chapter. Tom Tyler actually gets lines (as Captain Marvel) and he’s solid enough. The script just isn’t doing anything right now. Maybe it’s a bridging chapter? It’s very early for one.

CREDITS

Directed by John English and William Witney; screenplay by Ronald Davidson, Norman S. Hall, Arch Heath, Joseph F. Poland, and Sol Shor, based on the comic book by C.C. Beck and Bill Parker; director of photography, William Nobles; edited by William P. Thompson and Edward Todd; music by Cy Feuer; released by Republic Pictures.

Starring Frank Coghlan Jr. (Billy Batson), Tom Tyler (Captain Marvel), William ‘Billy’ Benedict (Whitey Murphy), Louise Currie (Betty Wallace), Kenne Duncan (Barnett), Robert Strange (John Malcolm), Harry Worth (Prof. Luther Bentley), John Davidson (Tal Chotali), George Pembroke (Dr. Stephen Lang), George Lynn (Prof. Dwight Fisher), and Tetsu Komai (Chan Lai).


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