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 America"; Republic, 1944

I donít think any other serial has ever caused as much arguing, or split serial fans into two very vocal camps as ďCaptain AmericaĒ (1944) does to this very day. On the one hand you have the fans that see it as one of Republics most action packed, exciting, and well acted serials the company ever produced. The other side only sees it as a complete travesty made one of the most popular comic book heroes of all time. After a brief plot synopsis of the first few chapters youíll see why.

In an unidentified city several bizarre suicides have been taking place. Prominent scientists and businessmen will hear a strange voice commanding them to kill themselves and they do it. Police find the dead men clutching a jeweled scarab in their hand and the presence of an unknown drug is in the dead manís system.

Commissioner Dryden (Charles Trowbridge) and District Attorney Grant Gardner (Dick Purcell) are called to task by Mayor Randolph (Russell Hicks) for not stopping these bizarre deaths. Grant considers them to be murder because each victim withdrew large sums of money from their banks right before dying. All of the victims were also members of a scientific expedition that explored Mayan ruins. The mayor wishes that the mysterious masked avenger Captain America, who helped stop earlier crime waves, was back in action. Grant is confident that the unknown hero will help out soon.

Professor Lyman (Frank Reicher), one of the members of that fated expedition, is scared and goes to see his good friend and curator of the Drummond Museum, Professor Maldor (Lionel Atwill). Maldor gives his friend a cigar, then calmly explains that he himself is the Scarab, the man responsible for the deaths of their associates. It was Maldor who came up with the idea of the expedition, did all the preparation for it, brought them all together, and then they repay him by stealing all the recognition, glory, and money that came from it, throwing him the measly bone of running someone elseís museum. Maldor wants revenge.

The cigar he gave Lyman was drugged with a hypnotic chemical he calls the Purple Death. Lyman is completely within his power. Maldor knows about his new invention, the Thermal Dynamic Vibrator, a machine that can cause vibrations in any solid object and make it fall apart. Though intended for useful purposes, like mining, the power can be stepped up and make it a weapon of mass destruction. Unable to help himself, Lyman gives over the combination to his safe where the plans for the Vibrator are kept.

Maldor has his number one thug Matson (George J. Lewis) get the plans while his scientific assistant Gruber (John Davidson) sees that Lyman has a tragic accident. Maldor and a red shirt (props to the Trekkers) henchman (Tom Steele) crack the safe and grab the plans, but are interrupted by the appearance of Captain America bursting into the room through a window with a gun in his hand. A fight breaks out and the henchman is gunned down by the trigger happy hero. Matson makes his escape with the plans but leaves behind a bunch of Purple Death bombs.

Captain America calls the police and then splits with the bombs. Changing back into his everyday guise of Grant Gardner, he takes the bombs to his office and has them analyzed. It is the same drug that was found in the murder victims, but now so concentrated that it is deadly. The drug is an extract from an extremely rare orchid. Grant comes up with an idea. He has two of the bombs emptied and filled with a harmless liquid. Then he and his secretary Gail Richards (Lorna Gray), the only other person who knows he is Captain America, will separate and visit all of the known exotic florists and see if any of them will give themselves away.

The search goes through many shops, but as they get to the end of their lists, Gail come upon the one shop where the people in it (Stanley Price and LeRoy Mason) refuse to even touch the glass bulb she shows them. But Gail over plays her hand and drops the bulb, causing the miscreants to grab her and take her in the back room to dispose of her.

Just then Grant shows up. They try to get rid of him but he notices the shattered bulb in the trash and pulls a gun. The bad guys grab a large vial of the Purple Death and threaten to drop it. Not caring for being in a Mexican stand off, Grant shoots both men and gets Gail out of the back room, leaving the two men to die from their own gas. After the gas has cleared out, Grant confiscates the plants and extract, eliminating the threat of any more mysterious suicides.

Maldor learns that Professor Dodge (Hugh Sothern), who worked with Lyman on the Vibrator, has constructed a working model and is planning to demonstrate it for the DA and the Government. Knowing he canít construct his own if there is another one in existence that could be used to counteract it, and that Lymanís plans donít show how to step up the power, but Dodgeís do, Maldor plans to have Dodgeís model destroyed. But first they have to make sure Captain America doesnít interfere. Maldor has noticed that the superhero seems to get information from the DAís office as he is always showing up at just the right time, before the police. Maldor proposes a plan to draw him into a trap.

Simms (Jay Novello) is dispatched to a local stool pigeon. He forces the man to call Grant and say he has information about the Scarab. After the phone call, Simms kills the man, then waits for Captain America to arrive. Cap is no fool. When he gets to the rooming house, he gradually opens the door to the room. Simms gets impatient and fires several rounds through the door. Cap falls through, apparently dead.

But he was only shamming, having really been behind the wall, not the door. Leaping to his feet, he easily disarms the startled Simms. When Simms refuses to talk, the Star Spangled Avenger gets tough. He checks to see how man bullets are in Simmsí gun, then starts pulling the trigger. If Simms doesnít talk, Cap will eventually hit a loaded chamber. Simms quickly comes across with the whole plan about stealing the other plans for the Vibrator. Cap ties up Simms and heads for the Dodge laboratories.

When he gets there, he finds that Matson and two henchman have already gotten the plans, locked Gail and the others in the vault, and turned on the working Vibrator full blast to destroy the building. With the place shaking apart around them, Cap engages the three men in a fist fight. After one of them is thrown out a window to his death, Matson runs for it with the plans. Cap shoots the third man and gets the others out of the vault. While they run for safety, Cap tries to disable the Vibrator. But it is hopeless and right before the building collapses he is able to leap out a window onto a nearby roof and get under cover.

Maldor is thrilled when he finds out that the papers Matson stole also contain plans for an Electronic Firebolt, a device that can burn through anything, until he discovers that Dodge has written them in an unbreakable code. There is nothing else to do but kidnap Dodge and force him to decode them. The only problem is that Dodge is under police protection and no one knows where he is. Maldor ďaccidentallyĒ runs into Gail and uses a trick ring when they shake hands to temporarily drug her. She tells him that Dodge is at Grantís apartment under guard. Grant will visit him later. When Gail comes out of her trance, she doesnít even remember having seen Maldor.

Maldor dispatches two men disguised as detectives to abduct Dodge. One stays behind to take care of Grant. When Grant walks in his front door, the thug gets the drop on Grant, using Grantís own gun, the man shoots Grant, then puts it back in his hand to make it look like suicide. Then the thug calls Matson to tell him that the job is done.

Grant jumps to his feet, gun at the ready, and explains that the first cartridge in his gun is a blank used for firing a warning shot. The two men duck behind furniture and shoot it out. Grant wins. Checking his apartment he finds the policemen he left on guard tied up in a closet, unconscious but alive. He calls the operator and has her trace the call just made from his phone. It was made to a feed barn outside of town.

Out at the barn Matson and the henchman of the moment slap Dodge around while he is tied to a chair. But the old codger is stubborn and wonít talk. Matson throws him to the ground and has his cohort start up a nearby tractor. They run it over a few crates, crushing them and tell Dodge heís next. Dodge relents and gives them the key to the code. Just then Captain America swoops down on them from the loft. Knocking their guns away, Cap begins beating the stuffing out of both men. Matson finally succeeds in knocking Cap unconscious. His confederate starts up the tractor and drives it toward Capís body.

Dodge manages to grab one of the discarded guns, though still tied in the chair, and starts shooting. Matson hits the road after the henchman is shot. The tractor, sans driver, keeps heading for Cap and Dodge canít get to him. Luckily Capís got a hard head and comes to just in time to roll out of the way.

Maldor builds the Firebolt and goes nuts breaking into every vault in the city. But he is worried that Dodge may have come up with a way to counteract the Firebolt. He has Matson tap the DAís phone. While listening in on all of the Grantís phone calls, he overhears a conversation detailing the construction of a Firebolt Detector that can track down the machine through itís distinctive radiation signature. The only thing left to do is have special Firetone tubes installed in the control unit. They have to be installed at a special lab. Grant will be taking the control unit there personally.

Matson has a man plant a bomb in Grantís car. While the thug is working on Grantís car, Gail spots him. She rushes out to warn Grant but he has already pulled away. The thug spots her trying to warn Grant and pulls out a gun, but Gail is quicker whipping hers out of her purse and guns him down. Jumping into her car she quickly catches up with Grant and tells him to get out of his car. Grant grabs the control unit and jumps out. His car goes over a cliff and explodes.

Grant decides to use this to his advantage and plants a story in the papers that the Detectorís control unit was destroyed in the crash. Dodge completes the Detector and they wait for the Scarabís next robbery. Matson and men use the Firebolt to open the vault at the Platinum Refinery. The Detector spots them immediately and Grant heads out to stop them.

Captain America burst in on the men as they are emptying the vault. Getting into another furious fist fight, the combatants destroy most of the roomís furniture before Cap is knocked into a crate over ten feet tall. Matson decides to get cute and turns the Firebolt on the crate, which sets it ablaze. Cap looks to be burned alive, but he thinks fast and whipping out his gun, he shoots out the bolts that hold the crate together. The walls separate and Cap leaps out, gun blazing. Matson is the only one left alive and he again runs for it. Cap turns off the Firebolt and chases after Matson, preventing his from getting into a truck. Matson grabs a car and speeds off.

Maldor is really ticked off. Not only did they lose the Firebolt, but now the police also have their Robot Controlled Truck. But he canít worry about it at the moment because he has to attend the reading of Lymanís will. Once again Maldor is screwed over by his ďfriendsĒ. Though he is bequeathed control of the Drummond Museum, the only item of real value in it, the Mayan Crown Jewels, are to be turned over to Dodge to finance a new expedition. Though he genially tells Dodge he will bring the jewels to him the next day at Lymanís house, which is also now Dodgeís, inside he is seething.

Returning to the museum Maldor decides to kill Dodge before he has to turn the jewels over. He has Gruber turn on the hidden camera in the Robot Controlled Truckís roof. He overhears Grant and the police technician talking. They know the truck is guided by remote control but havenít discovered the camera. Grant decides to dismiss the guards and hide in the truck. Then when the truck is taken heíll be able to get the jump on the Scarabís men, and maybe even capture the Scarab himself.

Once Grant is inside the truck, Gruber starts it up and drives it to the 10th Street Garage. Matson phones ahead and warns them about Grant being in the back of the truck. When it pulls in, the men capture Grant at gun point. Tying him up, they toss him in a corner. Grant sees them load the truck with explosives and overhears them say they are going to use it blow up Dodge in his new house. Grant finds a sharp metal edge on a crate and uses it to cut his bonds.

He frees himself too late to keep the truck from leaving, but he manages to grab a gun and kill the men in the garage without bothering to fire that warning shot he talked about earlier. Changing to Captain America, he grabs a handy motorcycle and chases after the truck. Boarding the truck he makes his way toward the cab. Gruber causes the truck to bob and weave in an effort to knock him off, but Cap is tenacious. He makes it to the truck cab but canít gain control of the steering.

The truck rams through the front gates and heads for the front door. Cap notices a glowing box under the dash board and puts his fist through it. Sparks fly and he now has control of the truck. Steering it away from the house, he aims it toward a nearby garage and leaps to safety. The truck crashes into the building and explodes in a huge fireball.

Needless to say Maldor is less then pleased with this turn of events. He is even less pleased when he gets a call from Dodge saying he is leaving the country by steamship and needs Maldor to give him the jewels in time to get them to a dealer before sailing. Maldor says he is more than happy to do this, then starts scheming.

The next day Maldor arrives at the estate and hands the jewels over to Dodge, getting a signed release form to make everything perfectly legal. While everyone is occupied in the house, Matson slips out of the trunk of Maldorís car and hides in the bushes. After Maldor leaves, Matson waits until Dodge is alone, then sneaks inside the house and stabs the man in the back. Grabbing the jewels, he then hides in one of the trunks for Dodgeís trip.

Grant arrives just as the steamship delivery men are loading the trunks on their truck. Grant discovers Dodgeís body. The guards say they didnít see anything. Realizing the killer must have gotten out in one of the trunks, Grant quickly chases down the truck and has it pull over. A quick check shows that Matson had already gotten away unseen.

From what youíve just read above, anyone familiar with the comic book character can tell that this ainít youíre Motherís Captain America. The differences include more than just changing the characterís secret identity, occupation, and dropping both the sidekick and war time theme (that last one is kind of ironic since we were still at war when the serial was made and you would think that with a name like Captain America, Republic would want to have him fighting Nazis like Spy Smasher had). Vast changes were also made to the characterís appearance. Gone was the shield, chain mail chest covering, the buccaneer boots, and the little wings on the side of the hood, though his gloves now had a big star on the back and his belt buckle had an American Eagle on the front. Probably the one change that makes most die hard fans maddest is his use of a gun, something the comic book character would have never used, preferring to bash people over the head with his shield.

When you get right down to it, the character in the serial isnít the character from the comic book at all. But then this is Hollywood, and some changes have to be made for one reason or another; sometimes what works in one medium wonít work in another, or they just donít have the money to do it (of course that doesnít explain the name change). The screen treatment, or mistreatment as some would say, of Oleí Wing Head has gotten some fans steamed for over sixty years. Iíve never quite understood that myself. Fans didnít seem too upset when The Lone Ranger was made a man with a secret identity in the first serial, many consider it one of the best versions ever done. Then there is The Saint. The most popular movies made about the character were the ones starring George Sanders as the Modern Day Robin Hood, but the films were really just a showcase for Sandersí popular personae of being totally bored with everything going around him rather than actually portraying Charterisís sleuth/thief as he was written (in fact the character never stole anything on film until Val Kilmerís updating, which held as much resemblance to the original character as this serial does the comic book original).

So if your someone who canít look past major changes done to a favorite character, I would suggest skipping this one over. If on the other hand you are like me and are able to put aside preconceived notions now and then if the product is good enough, then this serial will be right up your alley. It contains some of the best fights Republic ever put on film. Not a chapter goes by without a major donnybrook, and some times two, in which the hero fights not less than two and sometimes even three opponents. Co-director John English uses the techniques he helped pioneer with William Witney to inventively stage fights that will range over entire rooms, with combatants flaying backward over objects or leaping from great heights onto an opponent. Though the set destruction isnít as massive as it would become under Spencer Bennet, rooms do get constantly trashed.

The fights bring up a thought about this serial. Most serials will have minor henchmen getting shot up all the time. But this one has to take the award for most dead bodies piled up at the end of fifteen chapters. Everybody in the serial owns a gun and is not adverse to using it. If the hero isnít gunning someone down, his assistant is. If the henchmen are murdering someone, the main villain will be. Even minor characters will start plugging away at the drop of a hat. Itís so prevalent that when kindly characters played by Robert Frazer or John Hamilton are introduced you almost expect them to already have a gun out just in case.

The acting is above par for a serial. Raspy voiced hero Dick Purcell, a mainstay of low budget action films, is rock solid as the intense costumed avenger. This is a plus for the serial as his character is never given a reason for putting on a costume, and doesnít do anything in his regular guise that he doesnít do in costume. But Purcell manages to pull off making you root for a character who is clearly unstable. After all how many DAs forget skip over due process, preferring instead to engage in shootouts in their own homes without bothering to notify anyone afterwards?

George J. Lewis is his usual oily self here. A sneering presence he seems to contain a bit of sadism in his character. Not content with just beating a man to get information, he will torture him psychologically with the threat of what he plans to do, even showing them the devise in action. Sure most henchmen will do this, but none of them, not even the equally sadistic Anthony Warde, ever smiled with such pleasure and malice while doing it like Lewis does here.

Of course both are literally blown off the screen by Atwill, who could have walked through a role that was beneath him but instead invests his character with just enough angst to make him sympathetic when he complains about the way he is treated. He is helped by the screen writers who actually include scenes of him getting overlooked or shoved aside while in his supposed friendsí company. A great scene occurs when he has to hand over the jewels to Hugh Sothern. Sothern starts rhapsodizing about how they have tempted men to greatness or murder. Atwill momentarily rolls his eyes at the corny recitation before plastering a smile on his face and agreeing. This has to be one of the few times when the audience was torn between rooting for the hero and the villain, that is how sympathetic he is some scenes. Atwill was never better served by the serials.

Lorna Gray and John Davidson come up short with the characters they have. Gray, a good actress who could and has carried her own serials, is nothing but a standard damsel in distress. Sure she occasionally gets to shoot it out with a thug, but those moments are few and far between. Mostly she is caught, tied up, and thrown under a descending blade of some kind so that Captain America can rescue her. Davidson has it even worse. He spends almost the entire serial sitting in front of TV screen monitoring what is going on. His main occupation seems to be to hang out near Atwill and look sinister, which he is quite good at. Even when it looks like he is finally going to get in on the action during the climax, Davidson doesnít take two steps before getting shot and killed. Quite a quick come down for the man who just three years earlier was an almost co-villain with Ralph Morgan in ďDick Tracy vs. Crime Inc.Ē (1941). Such is Poverty Row in Hollywood.

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