Saturday, May 14, 2016

Captain Video - The Movie Serial!

Captain Video - Master of the Stratosphere is a late entry in Columbia Pictures' movie serial catalogue and not the greatest. But it does have some virtues. The serial is an adaptation of the then successful TV show from the now defunct DuMont TV Network. The show had been thrilling kids on weekday afternoons, so it was logical to assume it might do likewise on Saturday at the local cinema. So the movies embraced in this weird way the very medium which was killing them off.

The story is a very straightforward serial offering up Captain Video and his worldwide network of Video Rangers as the counter to world domination by an alien dictator from the roaming planet Atoma. Vultura (Gene Roth) is the dictator's name and he's less impressive than he ought to be. He is assisted by a turncoat Earth scientist named Tobor (George Eldredge) who is arguably more effective as a villain. One weird feature of this serial is that when Captain Video visits another planet that world gets a specific color tone to indicate it. Atoma gets a red tint and another planet much put upon by Vultura, the planet Theros gets a green tint. The Earth alas gets the default tone of gray. Columbia pictures too used animation to pull off a number of its special effects tricks and after any rocket ship launches it becomes a cartoon and spins through animated space.

This serial has a decent momentum, but does become a bit lackluster if only because the scrapes the Captain and his sidekick only known as Ranger (Larry Stewart) get out of, they rarely accomplish on their own, but instead in true Columbia serial fashion rely on other agents or slick editing to accomplish. Captain Video's talent should be smarts, and there are some, but not always.

One cool thing that does show up in most chapters is the Jetcar, a sleek specially designed roadster that supposedly gets the Captain and his partner around in high-speed fashion. The fact they almost never get this car on any actual asphalt but instead only on mountain roads limits its effectiveness. That's one of the weaknesses of this serial, the sameness of the set. Too much of the story unfolds across the expanse of the country backlot or the spires of the Vasquez Rocks, good enough for a western but oddly limiting for a sci-fi adventure. There needed to be some sense of an urban contrast to break up the visual monotony.

Also exceedingly strange is the Captain's pistol which is called a "Vibrator" and which despite that unfortunate name afflicts its victims with an unsightly spasmodic response. The Captain and Ranger stick the gun into the guts of their opponent and literally shake them to the ground unconscious. It's oddly violent in a novel way and disturbing when contrasted to tried and true movie fisticuffs. The show does feature some robots, but alas they dusted off the vintage robots from The Phantom Empire, a groundbreaking serial starring Gene Autry from the 30's. These hapless automatons work hard in a few chapters but reek of a simpler time not in keeping with the seemingly high-tech vibe Captain Video attempts to lay down.

Anther odd thing about this movie is the complete lack of women. There's not a dame on three planets who even shows up for a cameo in this movie. Not on Atoma, not on Theros, and nowhere on Earth does any girl or woman break up the masculine dream of sci-fi adventure.

There was never a sequel to Captain Video, at least not officially. But the Columbia serial The Lost Planet was apparently supposed to be. It features Judd Holdren as the hero and this time a girl does show up. There's much of the same planet hopping we're accustomed to, and the villainy is divided up again between an Earth scientist and a alien dictator (Gene Roth again). Similar but not the same.

All in all as a serial Captain Video was entertaining enough. Not great, but certainly diverting with more than a few above average riffs.

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