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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"Adventures of Captain Africa"; Columbia, 1955

With the summer turning into another long stream of remakes, reworkings, and in the case of Tim Burton's Willy Wonka “reimagining, I thought I might take a look at a serial that started out to be a sequel and ended up a reimagining. I am talking about that imfamous serial from the last dark days of the genre, Adventures of Captain Africa (1955), made at a time when serials were all but dead. The story goes that Sam Katzman planned a sequel to Columbia's earlier success The Phantom (1943) and had the entire serial already filmed when he learned that the studio no longer held the rights to the character anymore. Now here it gets a little hazy, but either King Features wouldn't license the rights to Columbia due to a proposed TV show or Katzman felt they were asking for too much money. What ever the case was, the ultra cheap producer came up with the bright idea of changing the costume, tossing out a large portion of the footage from The Phantom they had planned on using and padding out the new story with footage from the serials Jungle Menace (1937) and The Desert Hawk (1944). The result is one of the most convoluted plots ever devised for a serial (and when you think about some of the whoppers Mascot put out, that is really saying something).

In the Near East (no I'm not really sure where that is either, suffice it to say that it is somewhere between the desert and the jungle in Africa) famed wild animal trapper Nat Coleman (perennial western bad guy Bud Osborne) is loading a shipment of jungle cats for delivery to zoos when an accident causes one of the cages to break open, releasing a nasty tempered leopard. Nat uses his phenomenal skills to get the animal back into it's cage before anyone is hurt. It is then that he notices his Arabian assistant Omar (perennial gangster bad guy Ben Weldon) running away with another man (Rick Vallin) in pursuit. Nat follows them both to a house down a side street where the man is questioning Omar about why he ran away from the accident.

Nat demands to know the other man's business. The other man says his name is Ted Arnold and that he saw Omar running away from the scene of the accident and thought he must be responsible. Omar claims that he was not the cause, but the proposed victim. When Omar refuses to say anymore, Nat sends him back to his compound, where he will have safe from whoever is gunning for him. Nat and Ted go to a cafe and discuss things.

Nat tells Ted how he came to employ Omar. It was while he was capturing leopards in the jungle that he came upon Omar running toward him. Omar told Nat how he was on the run from some dangerous men and was almost killed by a leopard when he was saved by the sudden appearance of the masked mystery man of the jungle Captain Africa (John Hart), who is dedicated to protecting the jungle natives and keeping peace in the jungle (but is not The Phantom despite appearing on a stone throne in a puff of smoke). Nat was sympathetic to the man's plight and gave him a job, ostensibly putting him under the animal trainer's personal protection. Since that day Nat's business has been plague by a series of mysterious accidents.

Nat asks Ted what his interest is in the affair. Ted hesitates and says he can't tell Nat just yet. The two men agree to meet later that night at a swanky night club to discuss things further. After looking the place over, the two men decided to go to a nearby wharf bar, where after watching a bar fight, Ted reveals that he belongs to a super secret government agency who's name apparently cannot be revealed to the audience. Ted wants to help find out the deal with Omar and Nat says that he can stay at his compound so that he can keep an eye on the man. Ted readily agrees.

A few days later Ted spots Omar sneaking out of the compound at night and follows him. Ted is lead to a cave in the jungle that is guarded by a group of Arabs. Knocking out one of the guards, Ted takes the man's burnoose and sneaks closer to the cave where he overhears Omar meeting the Caliph Hamid (Paul Marion) and the Princess Rhoda (June Howard). Ted learns that Hamid has been exiled from his country by a man who is passing himself off as Hamid, due to his uncanny resemblance to the Caliph. The imposter is aligning himself with a foreign group of subversives (commies!) who will enslave their people unless Hamid can be reestablished on the thrown.

Just then Ted is discovered and chased into the cave. Believing Ted to be an agent for the imposter, Hamid has oil poured into the cave and set on fire. Ted is trapped in the back of the cave. Finding a loose rock in the back wall, Ted pushes it out and discovers a hole big enough for him to crawl out through to safety. Ted returns to the compound and tells Nat what happened. The two comrades decide to look for the cave in the morning.

Omar is making his way back to the compound the next day when he is captured by the leaders of the subversives Boris (Lee Roberts) and Greg (Terry Frost). They capture Omar but he is rescued by Captain Africa, who has been trailing the men for some time.

Omar and Captain Africa run into Nat and Ted. The mystery man of the jungle sends them all back to the compound. He has sensed a lion tracking them and decides to lead it away from the others. Captain Africa leaves an obvious trail for the lion to follow, but the cat proves faster than he had counted on when it attacks him. It looks the end of the mystery man when the timely arrival of Balu (Ed Coch), a native ally of Captain Africa, comes out of the jungle and kills the lion with his spear.

Balu tells Captain Africa that a group of men have stolen a supply gun powder. Captain Africa tracks the thieves down and blows up the gun powder.

Back at the compound Boris and Greg sneak inside to release the caged animals and set the huts on fire. During the confusion they grab Omar. Nat and Ted start to follow them but are stopped by the newly arrived Captain Africa, who says they are more needed to fight the fire, he will go after the kidnappers. Captain Africa tracks the enemy agents to an old well where he gets pinned down by gun fire. One of the gunmen tosses a hand grenade at him but he manages to flip it into the well, where it explodes harmlessly, and get away into the jungle.

After a treacherous trek through the jungle, Captain Africa manages to rescue Omar and take him to the village he operates from. Balu is dispatched to bring Ted and Nat. When everyone is together, Captain Africa uses a crystal ball to demonstrate to Omar that he knows the Arab's secret and that he can trust them for help. Just then Captain Africa gets a message that Boris and Greg are trying to smuggle guns to to some of the tribes. The costumed hero leaves the other three men in the natives care while he goes to take care of this.

While making his way to the munition store house he blunders into quicksand. Trying to pull himself out he is stopped by the approach of an alligator. Boris and Greg come upon the scene and inexplicably shoot the reptile, then leave assuming Captain Africa will simply sink into the quicksand. After they leave Captain Africa simply pulls himself out and continues on to the warehouse where he blows it up with a hand grenade.

Returning to the native village, Captain Africa learns that Omar has decided to trust them and will take Ted and Captain Africa to his Caliph. Nat unfortunately has to return to his compound. After meeting with the Caliph, who gratefully accepts their aid, Ted and Omar are dispatched to return to his country and find out how things stand. Captain Africa unfortunately must attend to matters in the jungle, but he will come whenever they have need of him.

Reading over this plot synopsis of the first five chapters you might notice it's a little sparse in some areas, like the fact I dispose of Chapter Two in about two short paragraphs. There is a very good reason for that, and it is reflective of the problems serials were facing at this time, the excessive overuse of stock footage due to ever decreasing budgets. Most of Chapter Two is made up of generic footage from earlier jungle films. Nat and Ted are shown walking through the jungle toward the cave, when they stop and watch a police boat stop a gang of rubber smugglers and get into a shoot out, then later they stop again to watch two tigers battle in a clearing. Both times the older footage is intercut with shots of the two actors looking into the camera with slight interest by Vallin and outright boredom by Osborne.

Things like this happen throughout the serial. Chapter One contains at least three different instances where instead of having the main characters do anything, someone will instead fill them in on things that have happened before the serial started, which will lead to footage from either Jungle Menace in the case of Nat, or The Desert Hawk for Omar. This continues for about the first six chapters and then the serial makers do something even more infuriating, making at least four economy chapters. Chapters Eight, Nine, Eleven, and Thirteen all have scenes where the characters sit around and discuss earlier actions they took so that they can flash back to previous chapters. Chapter Eight is the most ironic in that they flashback to the characters flashing back, in essence double dipping the stock footage. Combine this with the massive amount of footage reused for most of the main action and you realize just how little original footage was filmed for this production, mostly just dialogue and reaction shots.

The film makers are able to do this by making the title character little more than a side kick. Like Columbia's earlier serials The Green Archer (1940) and Chick Carter, Detective (1946), the person we think is going to be the main character is really only secondary to someone else, in this case Rick Vallin's secret agent. In the first chapter, the one that is suppose to introduce everyone and set everything up, Captain Africa barely gets five minutes of screen time, and unlike say Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941) or The Secret Code (1942), the costumed character doesn't have an alter ego to get in on the action with, he just simply isn't around.

Starting in Chapter Two he meets up with the rest of the good guys and starts to take a more central role until Chapter Six. When Ted and Omar head into the desert, Captain Africa goes back to being just a blip on the serial's radar. The reasons for his subsequent appearances after this become more and more convoluted as the serial progresses. Either he sends for Ted because he needs help, despite having an entire tribe of natives to assist him, or Ted will send for him despite having a loyal band of rebels at his disposal. Each meeting has the same set up. The one who was sent for will ask what has happened since they last saw each other, allowing the film to slip into a seemingly endless series of flash back stock footage.

The serial has other problems as well. Ted tells Nat that he works for a huge government agency, but never says what that agency is. Boris and Greg work for some nebulous enemy that is never identified. Even Captain Africa reveals that he is really a secret agent, but never says what agency he works for, or even his real name. All he says is that he put together his guise to strike fear in the minds of natives and evil doers a like. Most damaging to the serial is that the evil imposter who is constantly mentioned, is never shown. Not once do we get a scene of him ordering his men to kill Ted or stop Captain Africa. His comeuppance at the end is merely a mention at the close of the final chapter.

Without these little tidbits it makes the serial just a long string of unrelated incidents with good guys and bad guys fighting each other for no other reason than they are good guys and bad guys. I know that all serials are just good guys versus bad guys, but without any motivating background the project is just mindless action that becomes monotonous for the viewer who needs a better reason to get involved in the onscreen antics than just because the film makers say they should.

And then there is the Captain Africa costume. I don't know about you but a guy in a mask running around the jungle dressed in a turtle neck, calvary riding pants and an aviator cap isn't exactly going to make anyone drop a load in their pants. This is not to say that Tom Tyler's running around the jungle in purple tights in The Phantom isn't any less silly, the entire idea of costumed superheroes has always been a goofy concept that requires a major suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer. Which is why film makers have to treat the subject with complete seriousness. Tyler works as The Phantom because he takes the character seriously, as do the film makers who are trying to make a good product for the audience. Captain Africa doesn't work because his costume and serial are cobbled together for no other reason than to make a quick buck.

The acting in the serial is almost nonexistent. This is no surprise as the actors seem to be shuffled from scene to unconnected scene with almost no idea what is going on. Rick Vallin gives it a try, but it is difficult to work up a good head of steam when you seem to do little more than sit on a horse, point off camera and say “Hey look at that!”. Bud Osborne acts like he's trying to get his scenes over with as quick as possible so he can get off camera. I've never heard him whip out lines at such a fast pace, he's got an almost rat-a-tat-tat delivery.

Heroine June Howard isn't onscreen enough to tell if she can act or not. She pops up every few chapters to look concerned and voice how worried she is about Ted, but with the exception of being kidnapped in Chapter Seven, has almost nothing to do with what is going on. Conversely Ben Weldon seems to be immensely enjoying his only turn as a good guy. Who knew the guy who continually menaced The Bowery Boys could play a good guy? But there he is smiling continuously, even during the fights and chases, just so darn happy to be a good guy. He also gives one of the few actual performances during the early chapters, showing real conflict on his face at wanting to trust the good guys but having to obey his oath of loyalty to his Caliph.

As for the default villains played by Lee Roberts and Terry Frost, since they have little to go on for characterization than being bad guys, they mostly stand around and sneer a lot. What few lines of dialogue they are given are snapped out in snarls, even when they are discussing their skimpy plans with each other. Meanness begets meanness I guess.

And that brings us to the title character. John Hart has expressed his disgust with the project in interviews, and you can't blame him. He had gone from playing a popular and known character to portraying a cheap knock off in a story that barely uses him. He brings little life to the part, saying his lines flatly and just going through the motions during what few action sequences he actually participates in. Compare this performance with the colorless but energetic one he gave in Jack Armstrong (1947) and you'll realize just how disenfranchised he must have been during filming.

Adventures of Captain Africa is a sad entry to the genre, a clear sign that Columbia should have stopped making serials. But some executives have to learn the hard way, as they unbelievably made two more serials after this.

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