Todd Gault's Movie Serial Experience

Todd Gault's Film Serial Experience: Movie serials, cliffhangers and reviews. A gallery of movie serial stars.
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"Captain Video"; Columbia, 1951

There were a great many signs that the serials were not long for the world of Saturday Matinees. Universal stopping production of new serials after 1946 was one. Republic and Columbia both scaling back production from four to three new serials a year, and then to two a year was another sign. But if anything really tolled the death knell of the serial it was Columbia’s release of “Captain Video” (1951), an adaptation of a popular TV show. Never before had an older medium given such validity to a newer medium as if it were passing the torch of action/adventure entertainment to the upstart that was quickly taking away it’s loyal audience.

In the mountain retreat of Captain Video (Judd Holdren), the Captain and his lab assistant Gallagher (Don C. Harvey) receive a distress call from the Video Ranger (Larry Stewart). Using the Optic Schilometer, Gallagher sees that the Ranger is rushing back toward headquarters while being pursued by a car load of thugs. Viewing the road ahead he also sees a load of explosives being planted to blow up the Ranger’s car when he passes over it.

Video jumps into his Jet Car to race to the spot before the Ranger and sets off the explosion early with a ray gun. The Ranger stops his car to thank Video and then jumps into the Jet Car to pursue the man who set the trap. They quickly catch the escaping vehicle and the Ranger engages the would be killer in a fight, eventually subduing him with a blast from his Sonic Vibrator.

Taking their prisoner back to headquarters Video and the Ranger start to question the miscreant when Gallagher notices that a signal has been picked up broadcasting from their blindfolded prisoner. Video uses an Electronic Detector and discovers the man has a microphone hidden in the lapel of his jacket. Announcing that they will take their prisoner into town and turn him over to the police, Video sets a trap to catch the man’s confederates.

Video and his prisoner are stopped at a roadblock. Three gun men (Rusty Westcott, Zon Murray, and Lee Roberts) jump out of the bushes and try to take the prisoner away. The Ranger pops out of the car’s trunk and hits the men with a Paralysis Ray. Out of sight is a van containing hood Aker (Jack Ingram). He over hears Video and the Ranger prepare to question the immobile henchmen. He teleports the three men back to the van and then hits Video’s car with a huge electric charge before hightailing it out of there.

Luckily Video and the Ranger got away from the car in time. Their not so lucky prisoner is killed from the blast. After taking the body to the authorities, Video and the Ranger return to headquarters where the Ranger makes his overdue report to the Captain. The Ranger was chased to prevent him from telling Video about a number of magnetic rays that have affected weather patterns around the world, causing major disasters.

After checking with other members of his organization to get coordinates for the waves, Video uses triangulation to calculate the source point. They lead to the lab of famous scientist Dr. Tobor (George Eldredge), who’s hobby just happens to be studying weather patterns. Video and the Ranger visit the scientist who tells them that not only is he not responsible for the magnetic waves, he has actually been working on trying to stop them. Video isn’t so easily convinced and puts a watch on Tobor’s lab.

Tobor uses an Interplanetary Communication Devise to contact Vultura (Gene Roth), ruler of the mobile planet Atoma. The scientist is in league with the world conqueror to take over Earth. After berating the scientist for allowing himself to be suspected by Captain Video, Vultura orders Tobor to use his rocket ship to come to Atoma.

When the rocket ship blasts off from Tobor’s lab, Video is alerted. Rushing over the lab, Video and the Ranger find the lab in disarray and Tobor’s assistant Retner (Skelton Knaggs) unconscious. Using the Reviving Ray, Retner is brought back to consciousness and tells them that strangely garbed men broke into the lab and forced Dr. Tobor into his own rocket and flew it away.

When the rocket first blasted off Gallagher tracked it’s trajectory, which was to a planet that entered the outskirts of the solar system some ten years earlier. Video and the Ranger rush over to their launching pad and prepare their own rocket ship to follow Dr. Tobor.

Tobor arrives on Atoma where Vultura, after showing the Earthman some of his awesomely incredible inventions (by 1950 standards), explains why he wanted Tobor to leave Earth. Vultura has been waging what he calls a “War of Liberation” (i.e. taking over by force) on the nearby planet of Tharos. A peaceful planet that has never known fighting, Tharos was a quick conquest. But there are still small pockets of resistance and Vultura wants Tobor to go to Tharos and take charge in crushing the feeble rebels.

A guard calls Vultura’s attention to a rocket ship heading their way from Earth. Surmising that it must be that do gooding Captain Video, Vultura uses one his fantastic inventions to take control of two floating asteroids and turn them into comets on a collision course with Video’s ship. He then dispatches Tobor to Tharos.

Video spots the deadly comets coming at him from opposite directions and tries to cross their paths before they hit. Seeing it won’t work, he and the Ranger hop into the safety compartment in the back of the rocket and jettison it before the comets destroy the rocket. The compartment doesn’t have a propulsion system of it’s own and the two heroes float aimlessly in space for a while before coming near enough to a planet to be pulled into it’s gravity belt. Releasing parachutes, the compartment lands safely, and after checking to make sure the planet’s atmosphere can sustain them, the two men go exploring.

Coming upon a group of men who are obviously held against their will, Video and the Ranger leap into action and quickly overpower the spear carrying/ray gun wielding (?) villains. Questioning the captives Video discovers that they have rescued Alpha (William Fawcett), leader of the planet Tharos which is under attack from the planet Atoma. They have tried to resist the invasion, but since they have no experience with fighting, it has been slow going. Video asks that if they could get weapons for themselves could they fight, and Alpha says to just try them.

Alpha describes a supply base a couple of miles away. Video and the Ranger dress in the clothes of the captured guards and take Alpha and his men to the base as if they were delivering prisoners. The ruse works and after subduing the guards in front of the weapons room, Alpha and his men empty the room of everything they can carry while Video and the Ranger proceed to the control room.

They are surprised to find Tobor there. Thinking quickly, the renegade scientists claims he was brought there by force in an attempt to use his scientific knowledge against the people of Tharos. Video buys the story for the moment and takes Tobor with him back to their escape pod, where they can contact Galagher to send a robot controlled rescue ship.

Tobor secretly turns on a signal devise so that Vultura’s men can follow them and leaves with Captain Video. Video starts to notice that they are being followed and leaves the Ranger behind to deal with it. Needless to say the Ranger is quickly caught and taken back to the control room for questioning.

Video and Tobor make it back to the pod and Video sends a message to Gallagher. When the Ranger doesn’t return, Video heads back to see what the trouble is. Soon after he leaves, Tobor heads back to the control room himself. Video is waylaid by some Atoma soldiers but is saved by Alpha who has quickly learned how to use a ray gun. They break into the control room and free the Ranger.

Video hears Vultura speak to him over the Interplanetary Communication Devise. After taunting the idol of every boy, Vultura bombards the area around the control room with a deadly shower of Cosmic Rays. Things look bad for our heroes until the quick thinking Video cobbles together a Power Wave Devise coupled with a Cosmic Booster that stops the Cosmic Rays and then sends them back toward Atoma.

After they leave, Tobor makes it into the control room and contacts Vultura. The damage to Atoma was not too bad, but Vultura is pretty pissed about the whole thing. He tells Tobor to return to Video with specific instructions on what to do once they are on their way back to Earth.

Since he can’t get back to the pod before Video, Tobor stages a capture and escape from Atoma soldiers that Video hears and rushes to the rescue. After “saving” Tobor, the rescue ship arrives and the three of them start the return journey to Earth.

Once out in space, Tobor feigns Space Sickness and goes into the back of the ship to lie down. Putting on an oxygen mask, Tobor turns off the air supply to the front of the ship. Video and the Ranger start to black out. Once it is apparent that the ship is flying out of control, Vultura uses his Robot Control Ray to take over the rocket and bring it Atoma.

Before completely passing out, Video hits the Automatic Distress Signal, which is picked up by Gallagher back on Earth. Spotting the trouble with Video’s ship on the Optic Schilometer, he tries to take control and discovers interference. Boosting the power on his own Robot Control Ray, Gallagher manages to get control of Video’s ship and bring it to Earth. Once in their home planet’s atmosphere, the two men are quickly revived and can take over control of the ship to land it. Realizing the plan failed, Tobor quickly turns the air back on and pretends to have passed out so that he won’t be suspected.

Returning to headquarters, Video is alerted to a new wave of mysterious disasters happening all over the planet. Leaving Tobor in Gallagher’s care, Video goes to investigate and discovers that the destruction is a wave of sabotage being perpetrated by Vultura’s latest invention, an army of indestructible robots.

Like so many serials Columbia put out in the latter days of the serial era, this one gets right into the action with very little set up. After narrator Knox Manning gives a two sentence break down on who Captain Video is, we are off and running with so much stuff going on that the viewer has little time to actually think about what is happening on the screen. Which is a good thing because the serial is very silly, and an obvious influence on the camp craze of the sixties (especially the “Batman” TV show).

The goofiness starts right from the beginning as Captain Video is able to pull out a seemingly unlimited number of ten syllable titled devises from a utility belt that puts Harpo Marx’s similarly magical top coat to shame. No matter what the situation, Captain Video will just happen to be carrying the very devise needed to save himself. A perfect example is in Chapter Seven when a bomb goes off at headquarters. The next episode reveals that Video was able to pull out his handy dandy Anti-Detonation Devise just in the nick of time. Besides the ones mentioned in the plot synopsis other devises include the Isotopic Radiation Curtain, the Radionic Directional Beam with Radionic Guide, the Mu Ray Camera, the Miniature Door Hinge Recorder, the Inertia Light, and the Psychosomatic Weapon. Columbia prop man Wes Mortan must have put in a lot of overtime building these things; with the exception of the robot costumes, which were the same ones used in Mascot’s sci-fi/musical western starring Gene Autry, “Phantom Empire” (1935).

Adding to the silliness are the unbelievable cliffhanger resolutions that don’t involve Video using any gadgets. Chapter Five has Video and the Ranger attempting to sneak into Vultura’s stronghold on Atoma by climbing down a ventilation shaft and setting off the shaft’s defense mechanism, a huge gout of flame that fills the shaft. The next chapter reveals that the heroes aren’t dead because the flames are cold instead of hot (What?). But by far the most laugh out loud moment is the beginning of Chapter Seven. The previous episode had Video and the Ranger stuck in a runaway rocket that was going to crash. To save themselves they simply jump out of the wildly careening ship and land in a haystack they just happened to be passing over. The serial makers were so enamored of this ancient chestnut of a plot devise that they used the footage again in a recap chapter.

If you’ve ever seen the two Superman serials Columbia put out then you know what kind of special effects to expect here. All scenes of the rockets flying are done with animation. And when I say all, I mean all. Though there are full size props that the actors enter and exit; blast offs, landings, flying in space, being attacked by comets, cosmic ray attacks, even the haystack incident are done with ultra cheap animation. To be fair, though totally unconvincing, the animation does allow the serial to contain a pretense of epic scale that the budget wouldn’t otherwise be able to attain.

The best effects in the serial are unfortunately unable to be seen by anyone who buys a video copy from a private dealer. Taking a page from “Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars” (1938), whenever Video and the Ranger would travel to another planet the footage would be tinted a different color. Atoma turned out to be pink and Tharos was green. Apparently only straight black and white footage exists anymore.

The acting is pretty decent for the most part, as the serial is filled with trusty dependable actors like Jack Ingram and Rusty Westcott as Earth henchmen. Sharp eyed viewers will catch Universal horror alumnus Skelton Knaggs giving one of his patented creepy sidekick performances as Eldredge’s assistant. Eldredge himself is pretty good if you like wishy washy secondary villains.

Hero Judd Holdren is his usual stalwart self, not a lot of emoting in his performance, but he has certain earnestness that is ingratiating. Don C. Harvey seems to be thoroughly enjoying himself as the man who runs the headquarters as he is constantly shown twisting knobs, flipping switches, and tuning in dials while in the background of the main actors. He is so entertaining to watch that he steals most of the headquarter scenes from Holdren and Larry Stewart. Stewart himself is not much of an actor and his being cast is a bit of a mystery. You don’t think it could have anything to do with his being the casting director’s son do you? Hmmmm?

The best performance in the serial has to go hands down to Gene Roth. Though his husky build is ill suited to the tights he is costumed in and the addition of a helmet with chain mail doesn’t help to make him look very menacing, the actor does something very intelligent. Since he looks rather ridiculous, Roth apparently decided not to play the part straight and instead hams it up mercilessly. Why just simply issue a threat to Video when he can unnecessarily elongate words randomly and inject a fiendish chuckle right in the middle of a sentence that never makes it past the third ha. Though no Ming the Merciless or Killer Kane, Roth’s Vultura is so over the top that he manages to supply some honest entertainment throughout an otherwise lackluster film.

Looking at it from today’s point of view, “Captain Video” must seem a cheap and sad little film. How could anyone have actually paid money to watch this in a theater? What you have to understand is that while it is a low budget bit of nonsense, the TV show it is based on was even cheaper and sillier. A child of the fifties must have thought that the serial version had a million dollar budget when held up next to the TV version. Personally speaking, I have always been attracted to the silliness of camp; be it the Adam West version of Batman or James Colburn as Derek Flint. For me “Captain Video” is an entertaining and fun film that can be enjoyed for what it is, a simple film made for children to enjoy.

A last little tidbit of information for people who like to collect useless bits of trivia (i.e. people like me). The headquarters set in this serial later turned up as the headquarters set for the TV show “Captain Midnight” that starred Richard Webb, Sid Melton, and Olan Soule.

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