By Philip Schweier
Dec 2, 2014 - 10:53
the Thanksgiving weekend, while Mrs. Wife was out pursuing the Black Friday
deals, I indulged in a little binge watching of old serials. They aren’t her
particular cup of hot chocolate, so it’s not as if I denied her any enjoyment.
Tom Tyler as Captain Marvel
First on the list was the Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), the very
first portrayal of a super-human hero on film. Doing so presented a challenge:
How do you put your hero in danger when your hero is pretty much
Adventures of Captain Marvel is about as good as it gets when it comes
to serials. It’s entertaining in the good old-fashioned pulp style of the era
in which it was produced. Much of the credit goes to directors John English and
William Witney, who were film editors before assuming the director’s chair(s).
As such, they shoot with an eye toward the final edit.
Another dilemma facing the production was how to depict the super-human
abilities. Feats of strength and invulnerability are easy to convey, but flying
posed a greater challenge. Special effects technicians rigged up a dummy in
costume, maneuvering it along a near-invisible fishing line type of
contraption. In other sequences, Tom Tyler, as Captain Marvel, hung suspended
in front of a rear-projected sky or other backdrop.
Tyler began his screen career in numerous cowboy films of the 1920s and early
‘30s. However, the advent of talkies brought with it a new breed of actor.
Suddenly looking good on screen wasn’t good enough, and Tyler began losing
parts to stiffer competition. He continued in smaller roles in such films as Stagecoach
(1939) and Gone With the Wind (1939), but soon found himself being
featured in serials. However, in the mid-1940s, his health took a sudden
downturn. He passed away in 1954 from heart failure.
His co-star in the Adventures of Captain Marvel was Frank Coghlan Jr,
who played Captain Marvel’s alter ego, Billy Batson. Though 25 years old at the
time, he plays much younger, thanks to his higher voice. Coghlan grew up on
screen. His earliest screen credit on the IMDB is from when he was only 4 years
old, followed by steady work as a successful child star. However, the
combination of sound and adolescence proved lethal to his career, leading to
smaller parts in lesser productions.
Coghlan eventually retired from acting in 1946, but returned for
sporadic TV appearances throughout the 1960s. His last guest appearance,
perhaps not so ironically, was on the Saturday morning live action program, Shazam,
in the mid-1970s. In the ‘80s, he was featured in a handful of commercial for
Curtis Mathes televisions. He passed away in 2009.
Frank Coghlan Jr. as Billy Batson
In the serial, young Billy Batson accompanies an archaeological expedition to
Siam (present-day Thailand) in search of clues to the mystic Scorpion dynasty.
They unearth a tomb safeguarded by local tribesmen, who look more Arabian than
Siamese. Despite the warnings of tribal leader Rahman Bar (Reed Hadley), the
arrogant Americans choose to invade the tomb and explore its secrets – all in
the name of science, of course.
Billy chooses not to take part in grave robbing, and instead goes to collect
other artifacts at the site. But when a nearby volcano begins to erupt, the
roof of the tomb collapses, trapping the expedition inside. Billy is confronted
by an ancient wizard, Shazam (Nigel de Brulier), who endows him with the powers
of Captain Marvel. As the World’s Mightiest Mortal, he rescues the other
members of the expedition.
The eruption also uncovers a scorpion idol of immense power. In each of its
claws is a lens, and when the lenses are aligned they turn sunlight into a beam
of energy capable of changing base metals into gold. To prevent the power of
the idol from being abused, each member of the expedition is given a lens.
However, upon their return to the United States, the mysterious
Scorpion begins eliminating members of the expedition one by one, so he can
have the power of the idol for himself. He is a classic serial villain,
prowling around in a hooded robe, sending his henchmen to do his bidding. It
later becomes clear that the Scorpion is a member of the expedition.
Leading these forces are Billy and his alter ego, Captain Marvel, and Billy’s
pal Whitey (William Benedict) and the expedition secretary, Betty Wallace
(Louise Currie). Together, they not only foil the plans of the Scorpion, but
also provide enough thrills and narrow escapes when someone NOT
super-human needs to be threatened.
The script was written by Ronald Davidson, Norman S. Hall, Arch Heath, Joseph
F. Poland and Sol Shor. Several of them joined Witney on a later project, Spy
Both Spy Smasher and Captain Marvel comic books
were originally published by Fawcett, until the company got out of the comic
book business and sold its stable of characters to National Periodical
Publications, which later became DC Comics.
Spy Smasher, as his name implies, is committed to wiping out the spies and
saboteurs who would destroy our America. In his civilian identity, Alan Armstrong
faked his death that he might operate behind enemy lines. However, when he is
captured in German-occupied France, he is sentenced to death by firing squad.
Fortunately, a sympathetic Frenchman foils Armstrong’s execution and smuggles
him out of the country.
Meanwhile, the Nazis are up to no good, intending to flood the United States
with counterfeit currency to undermine America’s economy. Aboard a train, the
Nazi agent asks for a light from the wrong man – Spy Smasher himself, Alan
Armstrong! A fight ensues, and Armstrong is almost thrown from the train, if
not for the timely intervention of… Spy Smasher?
After defeating the enemy agent, it is revealed that the two Armstrongs are in
fact twin brothers, and a more sedate family reunion I’ve never seen. You’d
think that brother Jack, after learning his supposedly dead brother Alan has
returned from the grave, would be much more joyous. Instead, it’s as if he’s
merely home from college for the holidays.
The Brothers Armstrong are portrayed by Kane Richmond, who was a
common face among the B features of the 1930s and ‘40s. In Spy Smasher, he
pulls double duty as both Alan and Jack, and makes each pretty much
interchangeable for the other. Usually, clothing is the only clue to separate
the two twins.
William Witney's trick photography allowed Kane Richmond to appear as both Amrstrong twins
To his credit, director William Witney makes deft use of camera trickery,
featuring both brothers in the same scene. This essentially required such
scenes to be shot twice, featuring Richmond as each brother. Creative editing
allows for cutting back and forth from Jack and Alan, and Richmond’s double. In
some instances, keeping the double’s features obscured enough to maintain the
illusion comes easy enough to make it seem effortless.
Spy Smasher is on the trail of a Nazi spy leader known as the Mask. Needless to
say, no one can readily identify him because he always wears a mask. But rather
than he be one of a number of suspects drawn from a common pool, he is instead
a Nazi agent hidden somewhere in the United States. When his attempt to
destabilize American currency is blocked, he follows it up with a new Nazi
weapon, an advanced airplane that the Americans must have. This plot line is
later replaced by another until the final chapter when, to no great surprise,
Spy Smasher is victorious.
But you pretty much know that from the opening of the first
chapter. The four opening notes of Beethoven’s 5th is echoed by the 4
tones for V in Morse code: three short, one long. Then the searchlights in the
background freeze, to form the V for Victory symbol. Beethoven’s music is then
adapted throughout the serial’s 12 chapters.
Kane Richmond as Spy Smasher
It should be noted that the production was launched prior to America’s entry
into World War II. Nevertheless, German agents are clearly the villains of the
piece, rather than a politically sensitive approach of not naming the country
Like Adventures of Captain America, Spy Smasher is a fun romp with all
the thrills and excitement you come to expect from a quality Republic serial.
Director William Witney delivers the goods, even offering a plug for another of
his productions, Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. Witney would go on to successful
career in television, helming episodes of many TV westerns such as Bonanza,
Frontier Doctor, The Virginian, and Wagon Train.
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