Adventures of Captain Marvel, Chapter 1: Curse of the Scorpion
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Adventures of Captain Marvel is a 1941 American 12-chapter black-and-white movie serial from Republic Pictures, produced by Hiram S. Brown, Jr., directed by John English and William Witney, that stars Tom Tyler in the title role of Captain Marvel and Frank Coghlan, Jr. as his alter ego, Billy Batson. The serial was adapted from the popular Captain Marvel comic book character then appearing in Fawcett Comics publications Whiz Comics and Captain Marvel Adventures.
Adventures of Captain Marvel was the 21st of 66 film serials produced by Republic and their first comic book character adaptation (not counting comic strips). The serial featured the Fawcett Comics superhero, placed within an original screen story. Captain Marvel fights a masked criminal mastermind called the Scorpion, who is determined to gain control of an ancient weapon. It is made in the form of a large metallic scorpion with adjustable legs, tail, and removable lenses that must be properly aligned in order to activate its powerful ray.
During an archaeological expedition to Siam‘s volcanic Valley of the Tombs to find the lost secret of the Scorpion Kingdom, a device of great power, the Golden Scorpion, is discovered hidden inside a sealed crypt. While examining it, the device’s quartz lenses are aligned and powerful energy beam erupts, causing an explosion, resealing the crypt. This allows young radio broadcaster and expedition member Billy Batson, who obeyed the warning on the crypt’s seal not to enter, to be chosen by the ancient wizard Shazam. The wizard grants Billy the powers of Captain Marvel whenever he repeats the wizard’s name. Captain Marvel’s powers can be used only to protect those in danger from the curse of the Golden Scorpion. The crypt’s entrance is quickly cleared, then Captain Marvel utters “Shazam!” and quickly resumes his Billy Batson alter ego.
The Golden Scorpion’s power lenses are divided among the scientists of the Malcolm Archaeological Expedition so that its power can only be used by agreement of the entire group, who then return to the U. S. after their discovery. An all-black-garbed-and-hooded criminal mastermind, calling himself the Scorpion, steals the ancient device after their return and sets about acquiring the distributed lenses. Several expedition members are killed in the Scorpion’s quest, despite Captain Marvel’s continual efforts to thwart his plan. Deducing that the Scorpion always seems to know what happens during the scientists’ meetings, Billy later confides to his friends, Betty Wallace and Whitey Murphy, his suspicion that the Scorpion may be one of the Malcolm archaeological team.
Discovering that one of the Golden Scorpion’s power lenses was purposely left behind, cleverly hidden in the very crypt where it was first discovered, Billy Batson and the surviving scientists agree it must be retrieved. They return by cargo ship to Siam where, near landfall, they barely survive a typhoon before finally being rescued by Captain Marvel. They eventually retrieve the hidden lens, but it is stolen by the Scorpion. By accident, from a distance, the Scorpion observes Captain Marvel transforming back into Billy Batson. Capturing Billy and gagging him, the Scorpion interrogates him about his secret. Billy’s tape gag is removed when he agrees to talk. “Shazam”! is his only response, and he transforms in a flash of light and smoke into Captain Marvel. The Scorpion’s identity is then revealed to be one of the last surviving scientists, who is killed by a Siamese native who turns the idol’s ray on him, vaporizing him.
Captain Marvel tosses the Golden Scorpion and its power lenses into a volcano’s molten lava to prevent them from ever being used for evil. Upon its destruction, Captain Marvel is instantly transformed back into Billy Batson forever, the danger from the device’s curse having now been eliminated.
- “Curse of the Scorpion” (30 min.)
- “The Guillotine” (16 min.)
- “Time Bomb” (17 min.)
- “Death Takes the Wheel” (16 min.)
- “The Scorpion Strikes” (16 min.)
- “Lens of Death” (16 min.)
- “Human Targets” (17 min.)
- “Boomerang” (17 min.)
- “Dead Man’s Trap” (16 min.)
- “Doom Ship” (16 min.)
- “Valley of Death” (16 min.)
- “Captain Marvel’s Secret” (16 min.)
- Tom Tyler as Captain Marvel
- Frank Coghlan, Jr. as Billy Batson
- William Benedict as Whitey Murphy
- Louise Currie as Betty Wallace
- Robert Strange as John Malcolm
- Harry J. Worth as Prof Luther Bentley
- Bryant Washburn as Harry Carlyle
- John Davidson as Tal Chotali
- George Pembroke as Dr. Stephen Lang
- Peter George Lynn as Prof Dwight Fisher
- Reed Hadley as Rahman Bar
- Jack Mulhall as Howell
- Kenneth Duncan as Barnett
- Nigel De Brulier as Shazam
- Tetsu Komai as Chan Lai
- Stanley Price as Owens
- Gerald Mohr as The Voice of The Scorpion (uncredited)
- Ken Terrell as Bentley’s Butler (uncredited)
Adventures of Captain Marvel was budgeted at $135,553, although the final negative cost was $145,588 (a $10,035, or 7.4%, overspend). It was filmed between December 23, 1940, and January 30, 1941, under the working title Captain Marvel. The serial’s production number was 1098.
The serial was the outgrowth of Republic’s lengthy failed attempt at licensing National Periodical Publications’ (DC Comics today) Superman character. Paramount Pictures successfully tied up all the character’s theatrical exhibition rights for its series of color Superman animated cartoons, produced for them by Fleischer Studios. The license that National Comics had provided to Paramount was exclusive and prevented other film companies from using the Superman character, even in a non-animated production. Undaunted, Republic’s completed script was reworked with various changes; it now had an original masked hero, the Copperhead, standing in for Superman, subsequently becoming the Mysterious Doctor Satan serial. The studio then approached Fawcett Comics about filming their most popular superhero, and they agreed. Director William Witney, however, was skeptical about trying to adapt Captain Marvel after the problems encountered with Superman. In spite of this, Adventures of Captain Marvel became the first superhero film adaptation of a comic book character.
National attempted legal action to prevent Republic from developing their arch rival’s most successful character, citing Republic’s failure at adapting a Superman serial. Their attempt was unsuccessful, however, and Captain Marvel went into production. Writing in his autobiography of the period, William Witney revealed that in his court deposition he had claimed that both Superman and Captain Marvel were derivatives of Popeye. About a decade later, following an ongoing legal battle with National and a declining comics market, Fawcett ceased publication of all its comic book titles. In the 1970s the dormant Captain Marvel family of characters was licensed and revived by DC Comics, which they ultimately wound up purchasing, adding a final chapter to the Fawcett/DC saga.
The opening military scenes in the serial were reused footage lifted from Republic’s 1938 film Storm Over Bengal.
Adventures of Captain Marvel‘s official release date was March 28, 1941, although this is actually the date the sixth chapter was made available to film exchanges. The serial was re-released on April 15, 1953, under the title Return of Captain Marvel, between the first runs of Jungle Drums of Africa and Canadian Mounties vs. Atomic Invaders. Due to the superhero nostalgia craze in the U. S. during the spring of 1966, resulting from the hit Batman television series, the serial was quickly re-released again, this time as a complete, nearly four-hour-long feature film. All 12 chapters were just strung together, each opening with the prior chapter’s ending scenes and a plot synopsis. Audiences were forced to sit through a summation of what they had just watched in the previous chapter.
Authors Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut claim that Adventures of Captain Marvel is “unquestionably one of the finest movie serials ever made, possibly the best with the exception of the three Flash Gordon epics”. Author William C. Cline describes this as one of the most outstanding of all serials and Republic’s “masterpiece”. He writes that Tyler’s “striking performance…remains in thousands of minds as the most memorable serial hero of all time – bar none”.
The characters of Betty Wallace, Whitey Murphy, and John Malcolm all appeared in the Fawcett comics in the 1940s, beginning with “Capt. Marvel And The Temple Of Itzalotahui” (Whiz Comics #22, Oct. 3, 1941) featuring Murphy and Malcolm; Murphy made several appearances in the 1970s DC Comics incarnation of Captain Marvel, as featured in the comic series Shazam! and World’s Finest Comics.
Fawcett also published a sequel to the 1941 serial. Titled The Return of the Scorpion, it was one of the four releases in its Dime Action Books series, which imitated the format of the popular Big Little Books. The book is notable for reusing several characters from the serial and for being Otto Binder‘s first writing assignment at Fawcett; he went on to be a prolific comics writer for the company.
In 1994 comic book writer/artist Jerry Ordway wrote and painted a graphic novel, The Power of Shazam!, and an ongoing comic book series spin-off, which ran from 1995 to 1999. Ordway used the Republic serial as his initial inspiration in his handling of the Captain Marvel characters.