With the recent death of Joe Simon, co-creator of Captain America, I thought we should see how Cap was doing in 1944. The link will take you to all fifteen episodes.
Hmm. Do I hear a loud "What!" coming from those of you familiar with the comic book character? What happened to Steve Rogers, super-soldier? Where's Bucky? Shouldn't Captain America have a shield? And where in hell are the Nazis, and where in flaming blue hell is World War II? Well, seems Republic Studios claimed not to know about any of those things when they bought the rights to make the serial from Timely Publications, the comic book company for which Simon and Jack Kirby created Captain America, and by the time Republic found out, gee, it was too late in the shooting to change. Yeah, I don't believe it either.
Most likely, Republic had a script but nothing to hang it on. Jim Harmon and Donald Glut have suggested that the script was originally written for a sequel to 1940's Mysterious Doctor Satan (a serial which shares a director with this one). More likely is Eric Stedman's theory that the script originally belong to a projected Mr. Scarlet serial, based on the Fawcett comic book hero who tanked on the news stands before a film could be made.
Whatever. Captain America is played here by a somewhat pudgy Dick Purcell, who usually played villains or he-men. Captain America is the alter ego of Grant Gardner, a fighting District Attorney from Unnamed City, U.S.A. His costume is just a bit off from the comic book character's, and he uses a gun -- not a shield -- to good (and deadly) effect. Gardner is investigating several supposed suicides of museum officials. (Possibly because of the strenuous role of Captain America, Purcell died of a heart attack before the film appeared; he was only 35.)
Helping Gardner is his plucky assistant, Gail Richards, played by eye candy Lorna Gray. Gray began her career at Columbia (which gave her her stage name -- she was born Virginia Pound), and moved to Republic around 1941. She may best most recognized for her appearances in some early Three Stooges shorts, though she became a mainstay in western and horror films. A year after appearing in Captain America, she changed her stage name to "Adrian Booth." Plucky assistant she may have been, but there were no on-screen sparks between her and her boss.
The criminal mastermind is Dr. Cyrus Malder, a. k. a. The Scarab, played by Lionel Atwill, a mainstay character actor with a strong background on both London and Broadway stages. Atwill had the distinction of appearing in five of the eight Universal Frankenstein movies, as well as playing Dr. Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon and The Hound of the Baskervilles. He also had a memorable role in To Be or Not To Be, the Jack Benny film. Atwill is easily recognizable for his many roles as mad scientists, doctors, and police officers. (Interestingly, his third wife was the former wife of General Douglas MacArthur; she divorced him a couple of years after he was brought up on morals charges stemming from one of his "wild parties" in 1940.) Dr. Malder is a museum curator who is killing off colleagues out of jealousy (and for money -- and because he's a mad villain, of course). As The Scarab, Malder is going after some superweapons: the "Dynamic Vibrator" (no, not something advertised on late night television) and the "Electronic Firebolt."
The Scarab's main henchman is played by George J. Lewis, best known as Zorro's father in the old Walt Disney series. Lewis was a staple in 1950s and 1960s television; IMDB lists 296 titles for Lewis in both films and television.
The two directors credited are Elmer Clifton and John English. Clifton directed over 90 films, and provided the story or screenplay to many of them. English appears to have gone on to direct (warning: hyperbole ahead) almost every television show of the Fifties and Sixties, and helmed such classic (?) serials as Zorro's Fighting Legion, Drums of Fu Manchu, Adventures of Captain Marvel, Dick Tracy's G-Men, and the above-mentioned Mysterious Doctor Satan.
General consensus appears to be that Republic serials began a twelve-year slide immediately after Captain America. Considering its budget and its format, the serial is a fast-moving, slambang, gee-whizzer with plenty of action, fights, and explosions. Is this enough to make up for screwing with a national icon? I guess you will have to decide.
For links to more of today's Overlooked Films, go to Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom.