|Captain Video - Master of the Stratosphere|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 30 August 2005|
Serials vary widely—and wildly—in quality; some are still exciting, lively entertainment, undemanding but fun to watch. Relatively few display the unfortunate aspects often spoofed in later years—but “Captain Video” bristles with them.
The story is so simple as to be nearly invisible. Captain Video (Judd Holdren) and Video Ranger (Larry Stewart) are facing the menace of the planet Atoma, ruled by the paunchy Vultura (Gene Roth). His planet wanders irresponsibly around the solar system and he’s clearly trying to do something very evil, mean, wicked, bad and nasty. Just what isn’t clear for some time, although we do see him try to invade another planet in the solar system that our astronomers never noticed. Like Atoma, it’s inhabited by English-speaking human beings; on Theros, Vultura’s initial target, the inhabitants dress in vaguely Arabian garb. On Atoma, they dress in leather, chain mail and spiked helmets. Vultura himself has a substantial paunch.
On Earth, the evil turncoat scientist Dr. Tobor (George Eldredge), whose name no one ever spells backward, is working with Vultura in hopes of cashing in on the dictator’s planned invasion of Earth. Tobor eventually intends to betray Vultura, who suspects something all along. But Captain Video doesn’t. Until around chapter 12, he thinks Tobor is a good, honest scientist, a little inclined to destructive mishaps, maybe, but to be trusted anyway.
This vaporous intrigue involves several rocket trips from Earth to Atoma and Theros. You can tell them apart because in a burst of creativity, all the scenes on Atoma are tinted hot pink, all those on Theros a bilious green. Earth is standard black and white. Cute little animated cartoons are used to maneuver the rockets, and one stray flying saucer, back and forth between worlds. Vultura tries to invade Earth early on with a team of silly-looking robots called Electronic Men that resemble blank-faced men in top hats. These aluminum costumes were originally made for a musical number in the 1930s, then turned up occasionally, mostly in serials, in the years thereafter.
One of the aspects of “Captain Video” (or to give it the full title, “Captain Video, Master of the Stratosphere”) that will seem the most delirious to today’s viewers is the abundance, nay the sheer plethora, of inventions Captain Video and the others employ. Most of them show up once, others get thorough use. There’s the Supersonic Sound Barrier, the Opticon Skillometer, Cosmic Vibrator (one of Video’s favorite weapons), Electronic Wave Detector, Negative Beam, Detectorgraph, Presure Guns, Atmospheric Locator, Astro Viewer, Radionic Directional Guide, Cosmograph, Insulted Audiograph, Sub-Zero Stratifyier, Thermoid Transmitter, Gravitational Decelerator, Ozonator, Hydrogenic Radiations, Infra-X Projector, Rhombic Materializer, etc. etc., on and on. There are also Vultura’s Space Platforms. These are thick discs about six feet across, with a chair, a small console and an antenna. They seem to be able to maneuver vertically, even out in space, but that’s about it. However, they are used several times. When Dr. Tobor employs his Atomic Eye, you almost sigh with relief at such a simple, direct name. All this kind of thing came from the TV series which was aimed at younger kids than most serials were.
Serials, of course, are broken into chapters; each chapter ends with a cliffhanger with the hero (or sidekick) in danger; the next chapter gets him or them out of danger. There’s a variety of cliffhangers in “Captain Video,” some reasonable, some idiotic, as when in the resolution, we see that everything we thought happen did happen—only no one was hurt. In one chapter, and only one, Vultura has two accomplices turned into duplicates of Captain Video and Video Ranger. You can imagine how that chapter ends. For one of the most visually impressive cliffhangers (I haven’t forgotten the image in 55 years), Video and Ranger are frozen solid, with ice crystals appearing all over them. Very nice—but for the resolution, an assistant simply thaws them out at long distance. The most shameless cheat is when, at the end of one chapter set on Atoma, we see flames sweeping over Captain Video and the Ranger. In the next chapter, they remark how on Atoma, flames don’t hurt, and they simply walk away. Boo hiss.
You don’t turn to serials for good acting, but actually they often did feature pretty good emoting, usually by the bad guys. Here, it’s all too easy to see why Judd Holdren starred in a few serials, but nothing else. He’s very handsome—he was a male model—but reads all his lines in the same manner, a slightly urgent monotone. On the other hand, Larry Stewart, who went on to a career as a television director, isn’t bad at all, and is given the serial’s one good line. While puzzling over why some bad guys did something that had bad results, Ranger mutters “maybe they’re just stupid.” Sounds like an ad lib to me. Maybe so was the single reference to Atoma as a synthetic planet, since that opens vast cosmological doors a little show like this isn’t prepared to enter.
Serials often had a handful of writers and a couple of directors, though how the directors divided up the scenes varied; some had one for the exteriors—and there are usually lots in a serial, since they’re cheap—and another for the interiors. Here, the exterior scenes are a lot livelier than the interiors, which usually involve a lot of dialog with actors standing close to one another to deliver long sentences full of clumsy technical-sounding words.
Don’t try to puzzle out in what organization Video holds the rank of captain. He dresses in a tidy, nicely-fitting uniform and always wears what looks like a football helmet with goggles. His operation is well-financed; there are lots of rangers, and he has a great scientist on duty 24/7 at his personal headquarters. He also tends to use up speedy little sports cars at a destructive clip. However, there’s a clue that Vultura is that classic menace of the early 1950s, a Communist: he’s once referred to as the “Red Dictator of Atoma.”
Gradually, more and more serials are turning up on DVD; both of the Batman serials are now out, and supposedly the two Superman serials will be released next year to coincide with the release of the new Superman movies. But those are Columbia, like “Captain Video,” and generally Columbia’s serials were far inferior to those of Republic. And that studio’s serials are only very slowly turning up on home video. VCI’s pair of DVD discs present the movie in crisp, nearly-flawless condition. Dopey it may be, but if you want it, here it is in good shape.