Captain America Gets Serial
(originally published in the Winter, 2004 issue of Once Upon A Dime)

I was at a Comic Con in Los Angeles and happened across a DVD of the 1944 Republic serials of Captain America. It includes 15 chapters totalling about four hours of glorious black and white patriotic pugilism. Except this is not super-soldier Steve Rogers. Instead Dick Purcell plays Grant Gardner the District Attorney. Sure he suits up in a pretty familiar red, white and blue spandex suit but there are other differences. The mask has no wings at the ears. This Cap never carries a shield. And for the very picky; his red and white stripes are only on the front not the back. His assistant Gail Richards (Lorna Gray) knows his secret identity and calls both Cap and Grant on his car radio with tips and warnings. Although Cap rides a motorcycle in the opening credits of each chapter in his actual adventures he drives a run of the mill sedan.

The most disturbing deviation from the comic book Captain has to be that this Captain American uses a gun. Several guns. Routinely. Very often Cap enters a room with a pistol drawn. He explains later that his first shot is alway a blank to serve as a warning. And sure the bad guys typically swat the gun away so we can get into the fisticuffs. None-the-less the image of Cap shooting common thugs cold-dead, while perhaps very 1940's, doesn't seem very...Captian America.

In the first of these serials Cap is on the trail of The Scarab. The Scarab is basically a code name since this villain dresses in ordinary street clothes and possesses no super powers (beyond his intellect). The Scarab has mastered a method of hypnosis and is using it to obtain a powerful weapon called the Dynamic Vibrator. (I'm not kidding. If my memory serves the pretty Gail Richards actually says "if that vibrator gets into the wrong hands..." Ah the innocence of the golden age.)

Like most serials each episode ends with a cliff hanger. Cap or someone dear to him is about to meet their end and...fade out. Each installment begins by replaying the fight scene from the last chapter before adavncing the plot. These monochromatic treasures were directed by John English, also the director of the Captain marvel serials, and Elmer Clifton.


The series had no less than nine writers. And they give Cap such straight faced dialogue as "It's curtains for you!" Although to be fair maybe in 1944 that line was not yet a hackneyed cliche. Also a seemingly tired plot point is actually (in a pre-Keanu Reeves Speed world) pioneering. Cap finds out his car has been tampered with when a motorcycle cop pulls over to a roadside call box to break the news. Cap must not reach a certain speed or else the car will explode.

The series was the first of the Timely Comics heroes on the silver screen. And he beat Superman to live-action by four years. (Captain Marvel gets to stand as the first live-action superhero -- his Republic serial, also directed John English, debuted in 1941, the same year as an animated Superman).

The Superman serials were more true to their comic book roots for some reason. But I suppose we need not worry too much about the depiction of Cap and his crime fighting because the credits clearly warn us that the characters and events are fictional. Phew!

-- Daniel DeFabio


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