Considered by some to be the greatest serial ever made!
Off the border of Siam lies the Valley of Tombs. In the year 1941, the Malcolm Archeological Expedition arrived. Their goal: to enter the tomb of the Scorpion King. There is one catch: any white man who enters the tomb will die from the curse of the Scorpion.
Billy Batson, being one of the few who wouldn't enter the tomb, is greeted by the spirit Shazam. He explains that Billy has been chosen to be the protector of the Scorpion now that the tomb has been invaded. By shouting out "SHAZAM!," Batson will transform into Captain Marvel, a man of superpowers.
Meanwhile, a villain using the guise of "The Scorpion" has one thing in mind: a set of five lenses that when set to the sun's rays can unleash powers unheard of by man. With the aid of Rahman Bar and various henchmen, he will stop at nothing to claim the lenses as his own.
I have always been a fan of the old-time serials. The first serial I remember seeing was Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, a prime example. The unique format (the chapter format rather than a conventional narrative) and the cliffhanger endings kept me in my seat from start to finish. By the end, I knew I had seen something unique and special. My godfather was responsible for my appreciation of serials. Whenever I visit, if it isn't wrestling we're watching, it's always a serial. We've sat through some good ones (The Green Hornet) and some real stinkers (Captain America, a Republic serial that doesn't hold up as well as it must have in 1941).
The Adventures of Captain Marvel began life in 1941 as an intended adaptation of Superman. It got as far as the planning stages when National Periodical Publications (the predecessor to DC Comics), Superman's publisher, denied the rights to the property to Republic. Those screen rights were sold to Paramount Pictures, who assigned a reluctant Max Fleischer to create an animated series of shorts. The debut animated short reached screens later in 1941. (By the way, two Superman serials were made and released by Columbia Pictures: Superman in 1948 and Atom Man vs Superman in 1950, both starring Kirk Alyn as the Man of Steel. Anyone who has copies of these serials, please contact me.)
Republic then contacted Fawcett Comics, who held the rights for the Captain Marvel comic series. They happily accepted Republic's offer and pre-production began. The budget was set at $100,000, making it one of the most expensive serials then produced. William Witney (Master of the World) and John English were hired to direct it. The Lydecker brothers, Howard and Theodore, were hired to handle the visual effects. A fitting cast—including Tom Tyler, Frank Coughlan, Jr., William Benedict, Louise Currie, and George Pembroke—was hired. The ingredients were set for the serial to end all serials.
The performances are all fine. Let's start with some information about our two stars. Tom Tyler, born Vincent Markowski, was a star in many B Westerns of the time and had worked with John Ford on several of his key films before being tapped to play Captain Marvel. His performance is excellent, avoiding overacting and hamming it up for the screen. He understood that it was a comic book character but that by playing it straight, it would have a more realistic feel. He became a mainstay in many Republic serials until rheumatoid arthritis cut his acting career short.
Frank Coghlan, Jr. began his career as a child star and was signed by MGM as a contract player. He appeared in several two reelers featuring an extremely young Shirley Temple, the best of these being Merrily Yours and Pardon My Pups. Coghlan appeared in several MGM films, the most famous of which was as a soldier in Gone with the Wind. After appearing in our serial, Coghlan joined the military and served in World War II. He retired from acting after returning from his wartime duties, but has made an appearance here and there on TV and films. As Billy Batson, he has a freshness and innocence the role requires to really work. Watch his work here and you'll see why the '70s Filmmation TV show Shazam! was such a failure.
The serial is tremendous fun from start to finish. It is not only a joy to watch a comic book adaptation done right, but it is also a suspenseful piece of work. Directors Witney and English drain every ounce of suspense from their basic story, and there are moments you will want to pause and take a breather. Despite the long running time of almost four hours, you will not be bored at any point through the serial. The visual effects may be hokey by today's standards, but considering the time, they are excellent and efficient.
All twelve chapters are presented complete and uncut on a dual-layered disc. Since this was a theatrical feature, the chapters will be rated on a scale of zero to four stars.
"Chapter 1: Curse of the Scorpion"
"Chapter 2: The Guillotine"
"Chapter 3: Time Bomb"
"Chapter 4: Death Takes the Wheel"
"Chapter 5: The Scorpion Strikes"
"Chapter 6: Lens of Death"
"Chapter 7: Human Targets"
"Chapter 8: Boomerang"
"Chapter 9: Dead Man's Trap"
"Chapter 10: Doom Ship"
"Chapter 11: Valley of Death"
"Chapter 12: Captain Marvel's Secret"
If the descriptions are somewhat sparse, it's because I don't want to spoil too much. There are plenty of events I have left out since the success of this serial is reliant on the element of surprise.
The disc contains the usual Artisan full frame transfer, but the 1.33:1 aspect ratio retains the original dimensions of the photography. The transfer was culled from the out-of-print Republic laserdisc. No additional restoration was done for the transition to DVD as the scratches, specks, light grain, and various print defects prove. That said, Artisan's disc is the best print you can purchase to date. It looks much better than the public domain VHS copies I've seen for sale. Also, considering this was a low budget serial, you have to be more forgiving of its flaws. However, I would like to see this serial restored to its original glory some day, perhaps in a Special Edition of some sort.
Audio is in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. A mono mix is appropriate since stereo sound was rarely used, if at all, in the early forties. It sounds good overall. There are some problem spots such as hiss and crackling here and there but again, considering the age and budget, it's fine. You will not have to crank up the sound system repeatedly.
The only extra is a theatrical trailer, which is unique considering few serial trailers even exist anymore. It looks awful, with lots of defects and dirt, but it's invaluable as history.
Affordably priced at $14.95 and many stores offering it for $12.99 or less, I can recommend this disc as a blind buy. Serials take some patience on the first viewing but once you get into it, you will not regret purchasing this disc.
The disc, as a whole, is found not guilty.
Artisan is given a stiff fine for not bothering to do any restoration work, however.
Bailiff, bring up the next defendant.
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Scales of Justice
• Theatrical Trailer
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