Captain Video: Master of the Stratosphere

If you were a kid during the late 1940s or early ’50s and you lived within reach of the DuMont TV network, it’s a safe bet that Captain Video was part of your life. 

Although television was still in its infancy, extremely low-budget live broadcasting was beamed out to noncritical audiences who were hungry for home entertainment. If adults were undiscerning, you can imagine what kind of dreck was foisted on unsuspecting kids.

It’s doubtful that anyone at DuMont anticipated the popularity of Captain Video. It was carried by more than two dozen stations on the fledgling DuMont network and at its peak was seen by more than 3 million viewers.

The heroes, villains and gadgets all became part of kid-culture in those bygone, innocent times. Tobor the Robot, Dr. Pauli and the opticon scillometer, whatever it was supposed to be, all became staples of popular culture almost overnight. It didn’t matter that special effects were virtually non-existent (rocket ship sets were literally painted on backdrops). The talk was full of techno-babble, too. But as long as the characters sounded like they knew what they were talking about, the kids bought it hook, line and scillometer. It was just a matter of time before Captain Video made the journey to the big screen.

A Serial is Born

In 1951, Columbia Pictures signed a contract to film a 15-chapter serial based on DuMont’s characters. It was the first time a TV-based character had ever made such an inter-stellar journey to the big screen. Unfortunately, the two actors associated with the roles (Al Hodge and Don Hastings) were tied down to an arduous broadcast schedule in New York.

Columbia Pictures needed to move quickly, and they took the bold (and economical) step of using relatively unknown actors in the two lead roles. To gain audience acceptance, Columbia offered something in trade. If kids would buy into the new faces, the serial would offer a much bigger budget, more lavish sets and some color tinting here and there to make the wee ones think they were watching a real technicolor extravaganza.

In other ways, the serial remained fairly true to its television source. There was Captain Video’s secret mountain hideout, an interplanetary villain and a lot of techno-speak. If this sounds like a one-way ticket to glory, keep in mind the following:
— This serial was made by Columbia Pictures. The man in charge of the serial unit was Sam Katzman, a notoriously tight-fisted producer who was no friend of the genre.
— By 1951, serials were no longer in their golden era. Indeed, some would say they had begun their descent into extinction, a sad journey that would take another five years to complete.

But enough of the doom and gloom. It’s 1951, and Columbia had just released its 15-chapter big-screen version of Captain Video: Master of the Stratosphere. It’s Saturday afternoon, so let’s slip into our neighborhood theatre as inconspicuously as possible, settle into a Cracker-Jack-encrusted seat and see what this long-awaited event looks like.

Watching Captain Video

Wow! Nice titles! After some rousing military-sounding music, there are our heroes, looking right into the camera shooting their rays guns at us. Both of these guys look pretty good, even if they aren’t Al Hodge and Don Hastings. Yeah, we’ll get used to them. Oooooh! There’s a rocket ship with real sparks coming out the back! We never saw that on TV. This really is a movie!

Listen to all those scientific words! What’s that Captain Video just said — something about a sonic barrier? A jetmobile? Oh boy, the opticon scillometer! I’m starting to feel at home.

There’s more! An electronic wave detector! A paralysis ray gun! A cyclomatic weapon! And there’s Dr. Pauli’s cloak of invisibility! This is definitely the real thing. But who are these bad guys? This big one, Vultura, wants to be “supreme dictator of the universe.” He’s kind of fat to be a dictator, isn’t he? I guess they eat pretty well on his planet. And isn’t Vultura a girl’s name? Wasn’t there an evil princess or something named Vultura in Perils of Nyoka? Yeah, I think my older brother told me about that. That was back in 1942 before I was watching serials. I guess they re-use names in these things, but it’s still weird to see everyone scared of a fat guy with a girl’s name.

Hey, who’s this Earth man who’s in cahoots with Vultura? And how come he’s wearing that gangster suit? What’s his name, Dr. Tobor? Tobor! Wait a minute, Tobor was a robot in the TV show a year ago. How come he’s a guy now?

I never noticed it before, but these heroes are kind of like Batman and Robin, don’t you think? The Video Ranger even looks like the Boy Wonder, and Captain Video talks real serious all the time, just like Batman. I keep waiting for the Ranger to say, “Holy Vultura, Batman!”

Hey, I just thought of something. This is supposed to be 25th century earth. That’s what they say on the TV show. So how come most of the cars look like the ones I see outside? The jetmobile is cool, but it’s chasing a 1950 Ford just like my Aunt Susie drives. And there’s my Uncle Ernie’s ’51 Mercury. Yeah, and when they showed that warehouse fire a minute ago, those trucks looked real old. Hmm.

Film Quirks

Enough of the narrative — let’s get to some details about the serial. The evil Dr. Tobor borrows Dr. Pauli’s cloak of invisibility in Chapter 8, and we get several chapters worth of the usual low-budget invisibility shtick — “Hey, who’s there? Who just shoved me? Look! That door just closed!”

When Captain Video gets thrown off a space platform in Chapter 8, his assistant just alters the earth’s gravitational pull to bring him back down for a soft landing in a haystack. How come these guys can turn a dial and change the earth’s gravity, but they can’t round up a laptop computer or a decent-looking telephone?

In Chapter 13, Captain Video takes possession of the Witney Eye, a powerful high-tech lens that penetrates outer space. The Captain gives his order to beam it toward the heavens. Instead of making some precision adjustment in its coordinates, two of his helpers scurry over and prop some bricks under the front of it.

But the best low-tech moment is when Captain Video exacts a confession from Dr. Tobor. Unfortunately, the whole plan falls apart because the evil scientist’s pen runs out of ink.

Here are a few other items of note. Four of the adorable tin men from Mascot’s The Phantom Empire (1935) were resurrected for this serial. It had been more than 15 years since anybody dusted them off, but producer Sam Katzman made Mascot (now Republic) an offer the company couldn’t refuse. So out came the cute tin guys with cowboy-looking hats. They were pretty laughable prancing around Murania back in 1935. Imagine how they look here when Vultura starts making noises about dominating the earth with them! Even Knox Manning’s voice-overs don’t help. He calls them “strange mechanical monsters,” a line plainly delivered while not looking at the screen.

There is some surprisingly good dialogue at the end of Chapter 14 when Tobor realizes that Vultura no longer needs him and is prepared to destroy him, along with Captain Video, by using a flying saucer weapon to bring down their plane. What isn’t so good is the silly cartoon of a flying saucer that descends on their airplane. This is pure Katzman. There is no attempt at reality here. As he did on the original Superman serial (1948), Katzman merely inserts cartoons rather than invest in special effects. In fact, the same shoddy, flat animated saucers we see here had previously appeared in Katzman’s 1950 Atom Man vs. Superman serial and would actually reappear in 1953’s The Lost Planet, considered by some to be the worst serial ever made.

Drawings can be highly engaging, as the Disney Studio has repeatedly proven. But these cartoon saucers aren’t even credible renderings.
The spaceships painted on the DuMont studio walls were probably more realistic. The actors react to the cartoon footage like it’s real, but every 12-year-old in the audience knew better. The fact that the audience is subjected to it again two years later just underscored Katzman’s contempt for his product, as well as his audience.

Line, Please

The acting is serviceable at best. Judd Holdren is appropriately wooden and grimly serious as Captain Video, a role that calls for little else. Despite a rash of science-fiction appearances in the 1950s, Holdren’s acting career never really took off, and he committed suicide in 1974.

Larry Stewart is full of aw-shucks innocence as the Video Ranger. If Robin the Boy Wonder ever went down in combat, Stewart could have moved into the part without missing a beat. As it was, Stewart made one more serial (Blackhawk, 1952) before retiring to the other side of the camera, where he became a successful TV director.

George Eldredge is credible as the great scientist, Dr. Tobor, although his freaky assistant Retner, played by Skelton Knaggs, makes more of an impression in a much smaller role.

Gene Roth, taking time away from his usual gig in the Three Stooges comedies, is as good as anyone could have been in the role of Vultura. The actor, whose film career began in 1922, appeared in at least 16 serials, as well as such deathless classics as Earth vs. the Spider and Attack of the Giant Leeches. Roth was killed in 1976 while crossing the street. He was 73 years old.

Critically Speaking

Contemporary critics generally have not been kind to the Captain Video serial. In Science Fiction Serials (www.mcfarlandpub.com), author Roy Kinnard calls Captain Video one of Columbia’s dullest serial efforts,” concluding with, “It was a sad day when serial producers went begging to their most successful rival [referring to television] for new material.”
 
I disagree with Kinnard. First, borrowing a TV character seems no sadder than borrowing from comic strips or radio. Second, despite all its shortcomings, Captain Video remains an enjoyable serial. Palpably silly, innocent and earnest, it is still by far the best of Columbia’s three science-fiction serials. (Admittedly, Brick Bradford and The Lost Planet don’t offer too much competition.)

But one thing you can say about Captain Video is that it often looks and sounds like a vintage Republic serial. The sci-fi elements interspersed with the cheap thugs and vintage cars could almost make you forget this is a Columbia/Katzman product.

The new DVD package issued by VCI (www.vcientertainment.com) is first-rate. An excellent quality print (courtesy of Fred Shay), combined with a lot of extras, makes this a must-have for serial fans.

Hank Davis is the author of "Classic Cliffhangers: Vol. I," available soon from Midnight Marquee Press.

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Captain Video: Master of the Stratosphere

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