Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Captain Video in the Movies

Long before Star Trek skyrocketed from a hit television series to the big screen, another pioneer sci-fi series had successfully navigated the transition.

While the advent of 1950s television was triggering the demise of the cliffhanging movie serials, Columbia Pictures was busy repurposing a popular late-forties live-television series called Captain Video into an exciting 15-chapter theatrical serial.

To further inform you on this early pop culture sensation we are simulposting today with Bijou friend and colleague John McElwee. John first wrote about Captain Video a few years ago on his endlessly engaging Greenbriar Picture Shows site. At that time, John was unable to locate Captain Video TV shows to view online.

Here we reprint John McElwee’s 2006 article titled Captain Video in the Movies. At long last several episodes of the original Captain Video TV shows have surfaced and right now over at Greenbriar Picture Shows John expands on this original article with his reflections on finally catching up with the television versions.

Captain Video in the Movies

I wish I’d been ten years old around 1954 so I could look at shows like Captain Video, Rocky Jones - Space Ranger, and Space Patrol on a primitive black-and-white television with one of those peculiar roundish screens. By the appearance of (few) surviving episodes today, it must have been like watching animated cave drawings. These were puppet shows with people instead of socks. Guys would sit for thirty minutes in front of a "control panel" and talk endlessly about whatever galaxy they happened to be passing through, but we never saw anything other than painted backdrops. They say Captain Video’s TV adventures were filmed largely on an upstairs floor at a Manhattan hotel. Virtually all were unceremoniously dumped into New York harbor over forty-five years ago, so I’m unable to offer anything other than anecdotal evidence as to what Captain Video might have been like on TV, but I can tell you that Columbia’s serial spin-off is great.

They shot it late in 1951 after two years of popularity generated on the twenty-four nationwide DuMont network affiliates (we didn’t have one in North Carolina). DuMont claimed it was the first television series adapted for the movies, forgetting the previous year’s The Goldbergs, and perhaps one or two others as well. Each hand washed the other, as theatres were encouraged to promote the Captain Video series in their lobbies (broadcast Monday-Friday), while DuMont followed TV episodes with a slide announcing Columbia’s serial.

Determined to sample early TV sci-fi, I put on a DVD of some Rocky Jones – Space Ranger shows. Within ten minutes, I was slipping in and out of consciousness to the reassuring monotonic recitation of various scientific principles as they apply to space travel and quelling interstellar despots. It was like that relaxing sensation you get when you’re lying in bed and it’s raining outside. Rocky’s adventures evoked a gentle downpour on a tin roof for me -- who needs Ambien when you’ve got a sleep aid like this? Anyway, it was as close as I could get to a real Captain Video episode, but if the Videos were as economical as the Rockys, then I’ll have to say this Columbia serial, cheap as it is, looks like Intolerance beside them.

There’s the usual combination of rocket ships and 40’s sedans, each racing thither and yon to no discernable purpose, and the special effects have a way of reaffirming their determination to be as unconvincing as possible with each succeeding chapter. Animation is used to depict flights through space in much the same manner as Superman "flew" in those two Columbia serial monstrosities that preceded Captain Video. There are no women in this serial -- not one that I recall -- so you need not worry about mushy stuff, though I did ponder as to how the Captain’s youthful sidekick, "Video Ranger," could be expected to develop necessary social skills amidst such a total deprivation of feminine association, but perhaps I take these things too seriously.

The inspired use of Cinecolor allows us to view the various outlaw planets in a pleasing mosaic of tinted hues, as you can see here in captured frames. This really livened up the serial for me, even though each and all of those planets looked very much like terrain that had hosted Tim McCoy, Charles Starrett, Gene Autry, and maybe even The Three Stooges.

Speaking of Autry, there is an "army" of robots (I counted three) whose service record went all the way back to The Phantom Empire in 1935 -- and even beyond that -- having made their initial screen appearance opposite Joan Crawford in a deleted musical number from Dancing Lady (1933)!

Judd Holdren is Captain Video, or should I say Judd Holdren is Captain Video. Anyway, he's the titular character, and as it turned out, this would be one of Judd's few leads. Others have accused him of abominable thesping, as though he were reading lines off-camera not seen hitherto. Again, I don’t like to be hard on actors. Holdren is not a Gielgud. His resume did not likely include seasons at the Old Vic, and yet he’s perfect here amidst the cut-rate trappings of a Columbia 50’s serial, and so I doff my hat to his memory, and Larry (youthful woman-deprived Video Ranger) Stewart’s as well.

Captain Video delivered sockeroo coin and quickly took pride of place at the very top of Columbia’s serial grosser charts, ranking all time third highest behind Superman (domestic rentals of $856,000) and Atom Man vs. Superman ($528,000) with a tidy haul of $398,000, mighty healthy numbers for a serial in those declining years. Columbia really got behind the product too, as you’ll see from numerous tie-ins shown here.

Those Post cereals were no doubt consumed on camera during the TV show -- intergalactic warriors frequently hawked mail-in premiums and bric-a-brac.

I like that very stylish Captain Video playsuit -- I shouldn’t think a child would be remiss in wearing it to Sunday School -- sans holster, of course, though I’ve no doubt dress codes were somewhat more rigid in 1951. The Captain Video wallet probably lasted about as long as my cousin’s Famous Monsters Of Filmland billfold, which is to say no more than a month or so, though I still envied him that colorful accessory. Imagine a 1951 exhibitor ordering these comic books by the hundreds for two and a half cents apiece. What an annuity those would be today! Forward thinking showmen could build a place in Florida for what they're no doubt worth.

Major studios weren't above using Captain Video to promote their own theatrical product. Here he is selling The Rocket Man, a 1954 sci-fi comedy from Fox.

If I had the smarts to learn "Captain Video Talk," I’d probably chuck this site and apply to medical school. The serial is awash with technical mumbo-jumbo that would stump Stephen Hawking -- believe me, the words shown here are the easy ones.

The Captain Video club card was a given for any serial -- theatres would issue one to each child with the first chapter, then punch out numbers as they returned for succeeding shows -- the payoff would be a free admission for the conclusion of the chapterplay. Exhibitors were also encouraged to "invite local scientists" to a screening of the first chapter, after which they would be interviewed as to the remarkable "harbingers of future triumphs" on view in Captain Video. Those future triumphs would include but a few more Columbia serials, as the company would throw in the towel five years later with the final chapterplay of them all, Blazing The Overland Trail

The complete 1951 Captain Video serial on DVD can be purchased at Movies Unlimited. Four episodes from the classic television series are available on DVD at Amazon.com. You can watch the first ten minutes of the theatrical serial Captain Video - Chapter 1 on YouTube, And you can enjoy a typical Captain Video TV show, complete with original Post Cereal commercials, right here on our Bijou Blog screen.

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