Captain Video, Master of the Stratosphere (1951)

This is probably the best serial Sam Katzman made during his time at Columbia.

Okay, that isn’t saying much, but as cheap as it may look to us, his other serials looked even cheaper.  The plot is a bit less meandering than usual, we don’t have the usual criminal gang thrown in to complicate things (as in Mysterious Island and Brick Bradford!), and there’s a relatively cool “Jet car” which may have been someone’s kit body on a stock chassis, yes, but looks quite good, even if it has no visible jets.  We have a big rocket, a few flying scenes, and even a few effects, although, as in his Superman serial, they are actually cel animated, not model work.

Now the irony is that, no matter how chintzy those sets and gadgets look to us, they looked bigger and more impressive than what the kids of the era saw on the TV version of Captain Video.  This serial has the somewhat dubious distinction of being the only movie serial based on a TV series.  The original series was shot live on an absurd budget, with only a handful of actors in the earliest episodes.  In fact, when the Captain came up with yet another super-scientific invention to fight the bad guys, they actually had to run downstairs to the Department store in the building below and raid the hardware section for whatever they could find — usually minutes before they went on the air.

Now, if you aren’t familiar with the movie serial, it might help if you checked out my review of Mysterious Island where I discuss it at length.  They were classic kiddie Matinee fare, running a chapter at a time with cliffhangers.  As you might expect, if you are familiar with them, we see our villains plan new mayhem each week, or our heroes devise some new scheme to stop them, and this plays out with a few fistfights, explosions and car wrecks, only to end on a cliffhanger and start again next week more or less where they’d started.  Captain Video was no exception to this, although the story is varied a bit by trips into space to two different planets (which, in the original prints, but not those surviving, the black and white film was tinted red or green).

Vultura, the alien leader is a dues-paying member of the Ming the Merciless school of scenery chewing villains.  I suppose that Gene Roth had to overact, once you put him in the suit with the riveted armor, furs, and Mongol-style pointy armored hat.  However, we also have a classic evil scientist type on Earth (complete with a gang of henchmen, yes) named Tobor (which no one ever notices is Robot spelled backward) whom it takes Video episode after episode to realize that maybe, just maybe, he’s the one behind some of these events.

You’d think that beard alone would be a giveaway.

While the early show had only three Rangers — Video, his scientific genius Gallagher, and the teen-aged Video Ranger (who has no other name), the serial also had a few other Rangers running around in various scenes.  I think some of them might even have been given names.  None of them stick around, but it does give you the impression that there might actually be a bigger organization out there.

Mind you, the serial’s Video Ranger was Twenty-one and definitely does not look teenaged.  I’m not even sure he looks as young as Twenty-one.

None of the Rangers have much character — although Video himself is particularly blank.  I suppose Tobor may be just as poorly defined, but he does at least have a sinister looking lab assistant, and a more complex story arc, as he ultimately plans to supplant Vultura and rule the universe.

Sharp eyed viewers will recognize that Video and the Ranger sport the same guns the Mercurians used in Mysterious Island — and that the robots who show up in two chapters are borrowed from The Phantom Empire.  As a kid, watching these films late night on PBS, I always wondered why no one reused these robots.  However, as an adult it became very obvious to me just how minimal these suits were — even Republic’s classic hot water heater robots look better.  Actually, they were a rental (!) and were probably first used for a Robot dance scene in Joan Crawford’s Dancing Lady.

Which does explain those top hats.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was that the animated rocket effects are actually fairly effective.  It is obvious that they are just a cartoon, but they move with a grace and fluidity — and a wider range of motion — than we saw in most model effects of the day.  I particularly like the flying disk which shows up in a later chapter, which is spinning, but keeps its one-eyed “face” on its target.  They do actually work well enough, even if they don’t exactly match the “real” props.

But then, let’s face it, that often is true with special effects.

The space platform used by Vultura’ men deserves a comment.  It is clearly meant to be flying saucer-ish, but is small enough (and has conveniently located pipes) that it could be hoisted on set with a crane.  When we first see it, Vultura’s men ride on this open platform in space suits which one can accept even if it might not make a lot of sense in the perils of space where a pebble going fast enough can kill you.  However, before the end, we have people riding on it without suits or even helmets and not even being uncomfortable.  Video himself even gets dumped out in space halfway to Vultura’s home world without a suit and with no ill effects.

Oh, well.  I guess he had a gadget for that they didn’t bother mentioning.

This is one of those films which may appeal more to kids than most adults, although those who love the old time movie serials will want to see it.  It isn’t brilliant and like most serials goes on a bit long, but it definitely has its moments, particularly if you watch it one chapter at a time, the way it was meant to be seen.  Yes, they are silly moments, but then it wouldn’t be a movie serial if they weren’t!

Just go with it, have fun, and make sure you wear your official Captain Video space helmet…

(Watch Complete Serial here, in separate chapters)

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And check out our new Feature (Updated May 16, 2019):

The Rivets Zone:  The Best SF Movies You’ve Never Seen!

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