Here's an example of creative recycling. This essay was originally intended to herald the re-issue of The Adventures of Captain Marvel on Artisan DVD. Parts of it were canniballed into The Legendary Lydecker Brothers book, which was released in August 2010. (Available from Originally considered as the "Captain Marvel" chapter of the book, unfortunately it lacked vital special effects info. So it is presented here, as a Lost Chapter, and an introduction to this 1941 classic serial, from the Thrill Factory known as Republic Studios.

Hope you enjoy it.


OK, I know I have a tendency to go on and on about the 60s. Some of my friends have bitched at me about my predilection for this time period of four decades gone. But what the hey, it was when I was coming up in the world, and part of my coming up was those Saturday matinees at the old Oriental Theater in the heart of Hollywood.

The first time my mother dropped me off in front of the old movie palace was in 1956. Armed with the whopping fortune of 75 cents, I was assured of a two hot dog lunch (at the Sunset Grill next door) and three hours of rock-um-sock-um all-American entertainment. With Red Dye No. 2 confections and a soda bubbling in my gut, I approached the box office and for a quarter gained admittance to the then twenty-one-year-old cinema. The kindly middle-aged lady handed me a Bugs Bunny card with a stamp on the first of twelve lines, to signify my attendance. (Attend 11 shows in a row and get in free for the 12th - that was the hustle back then.) The Bugs Bunny card was handed out at the start of each new serial. Some cards had 15 or 13 chapters, depending upon the duration of the chapter play.

Through the big wooden doors I went, after a quick stop at the snack bar to load up on sweets and popcorn so my blood sugar didn't drop during the show. Oh, the days when one could tolerate indigestion of the imagination! Down the aisle I shuffled, over the fake antique carpet riddled with candy, soda, and cigarette stains. The theater was illuminated by neon lights with dark orange and greed lighting gels over the tubes, rendering the house in a sort of jungle twilight. There were kids of all ages bouncing up and down on rickety theater seats bolted to the concrete floor, which had been bathed in oceans of sticky soft drinks that somehow missed the patrons' throats. Not a good place to lose a new sneaker!

I planted my butt in a creaky seat circa 1935, as the lights grew even lower, the curtains parted, the screen began to flicker, and the titles of Zorro's Black Whip, Chapter One burned a hole in the eggshell minds of the audience. This was my first serial experience, which made a lasting impression that remains 53 years later. The years rolled by at the Oriental Theater, and after seeing all the Dick Tracy serials, King of the Rocketmen, Radar Med From the Moon, and such Columbia cheapie chapter plays as The Lost Planet, Captain Video, and the unbelievable serial Great Adventures of Captain Kidd, I settled into one of the ancient seats for an experience in serial history that would be beyond my wildest dreams, The Adventures of Captain Marvel.

Now during the early 60s, these old movie serials were a time portal to a bygone age, while in present time the price of comic books leapt from ten cents to twelve cents (an astronomical increase for a kid's allowance), and even though The Adventures of Superman was still on in reruns, its star's death had broken kids' hearts all across the planet. As the curtains of the theater parted, I sat glued to the screen as the sound of a celestial harp announced the vision of Captain Marvel flying straight into my face. I would have been knocked out of my seat if the show had been in 3D. I couldn't believe the flying effect; it was totally realistic, in natural light, and blew the slats off the Superman TV show. Not to put down the TV show, but this was and still is an amazing piece of fantastic cinema, and that day I and a lot of kids found a new hero to take the place of poor departed George Reeves - a no nonsense, no B.S. super mortal who took no quarter! What we didn't know was the serial's star was long dead by the time we saw Chapter One of Captain Marvel on that endless afternoon back in the early 60s. The truth was, Tom Tyler died on May 3, 1954, a year after the serial was re-released as The Return of Captain Marvel, from the autoimmune disease Scleroderma, which caused his heart to fail. Tragically, he was only fifty years old.

The character was nicknamed "The Big Red Cheese" in the comic books, but in the serial there wasn't a hint of cheese to be found. The fact of the matter is, this super-duper hero dealt rough justice to the extreme - turning his enemies' machine gun on them and mowing them down; pulling an escaping crook up an elevator shaft, throwing one gangster off a roof and then beaning his partner with a truck engine. This geezer thought nothing of throwing henchmen into lakes, tree trunks, over bridges, and flying into them and horseback and breaking their rifles over his knee. he could fly, bullets bounced off him, he had super strength - but no X-ray vision or super hearing, and green glowing rocks didn't faze him at all.

For the kids at the Oriental Theater Saturday matinee that day, we discovered a hero to take the place of our fallen hero, George Reeves. We attended every Saturday for the next eleven weeks to get our fix of the new Man of Steel, completely unaware of the relationship between Superman and Captain Marvel, and the backstage intrigue involved in the production of the serial. (Sadly for me, I was shipped away to summer camp before the showing of the last chapter, and didn't see the conclusion of the serial 'til a dozen years later.)

In 1940, Republic Pictures was in talks with National Comics to bring Superman to the screen as a fifteen chapter adventure. Talks broke down and the script was scrubbed and remolded into 1940's Mysterious Dr. Satan, featuring a robot from the Crash Corrigan serial The Undersea Kingdom. Republic then successfully closed a deal for what many in the know considered a Superman rip-off, Captain Marvel. Star Tom Tyler, a known Western star, was the perfect Captain Marvel. His double, Dave Sharpe, was paid the same weekly salary ($250) as Tyler to provide believable acrobatics effects in keeping with a man who could fly through the air. For the Captain's alter-ego, Billy Batson, boy radio reporter, veteran child actor Frank Coghlan, Jr. was cast. His uncanny resemblance to the comic book character made his portrayal all the more believable.

In the comic book debut Billy Batson is a homeless waif, living in subway tunnel selling newspapers. He is led deeper into the subway by a mysterious phantom, where he meets the ancient Shazam, who bestows the power of Captain Marvel upon him. This plot line was obviously too convoluted for a celluloid serial, and Billy Batson encounters Shazam in a tomb in Siam. Republic changed and improved comic book plots of not only Captain Marvel, but Captain America and Spy Smasher. In the later comic magazine adventures of Captain Marvel he was endowed with a sense of humor, which Republic wisely avoided, and the serial was virtually sequel-proof.

Rounding out the cast was Billy Benedict, who in his long career made over a thousand appearances in film and television, and built miniature props for television. While his character, Whitey (he was Whitey in many of the Bowery Boys pictures) was not in comic books, his comedic antics add to the effectiveness of the show.

A serial would be nothing without a heroine to save, and Captain Marvel was no exception. The part of Betty Wallace (another non-comic character) was competently handled by Louise Currie. Currie had encountered the villainy of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Peter Lorre in the Kay Kyser horror musical comedy You'll Find Out a year before his Captain Marvel assignment. She was terrified twice more by Bela Lugosi in The Ape Man and Voodoo Man. She co-starred as Alice Hamilton in Republic's original character serial The Masked Marvel no relation to the Captain). She was also on hand for Roland Winters' first Charlie Chan film, The Chinese Ring in 1947.

Ordinarily I would launch into a profile of the villain, but this article is "The Secret of Shazam," and some secrets must be discovered by the reader him or herself. The villain is the hood-wearing Scorpion, and the story involves an archeological expedition that discovers a magical device that uses lenses to turn materials into gold, or as a deadly destructive weapon. Hint: The Scorpion's voice was the same actor who narrated the first three episodes of The Lone Ranger television show in 1949.

If you've seen this serial, you're probably laughing your head off at this silly essay, but if you haven't seen this two hundred sixteen minute, twelve episode epic, maybe you might be inclined to check out the exploits of "The World's Mightiest Mortal" (as he was known back then). Filmed between December of 1940 and January of 1941, The Adventures of Captain Marvel encountered a lawsuit from National Comics (who now owns the character) prior to its release. Directed by William Witney and John English at a breakneck pace, Witney recalled in his autobiography In a Door, Into a Fight, Out a Door, Into a Chase (Moviemaking Remembered by the Guy at the Door), McFarland 1996, that he was deposed for the lawsuit and told that in his opinion, both Superman and Captain Marvel infringed on Popeye the Sailor Man. I wonder if the super duper ones ever ate spinach when they felt tired.

Adventures of Captain Marvel has been released on videotape, laser disc, and DVD. The video and laser disc are out of print, so maybe the reader would do well to try,, or eBay to obtain a copy of the DVD. Could the secret of Shazam be the Lydecker Brothers' special effects; the stellar performances of Tom Tyler, Frank Coghlan, Jr., Louise Currie, William Benedict, Dave Sharpe and the Scorpion; or the brilliant direction of Witney and English; or the fact that through lawsuits, next-to-nothing budgets, and endless hours of harder than hard work, the greatest serial of all time was made sixty-eight years ago! You decide!

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