So since the big movie opening this weekend is Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I thought it might be fun to revisit an earlier big-screen incarnation of the good captain, namely the 1944 Captain America serial, produced by Republic pictures.
This is actually another item that I covered back when I was writing Professor Damien’s Public Domain Treasure Chest, back when the first of the modern Cap movies, Captain America: The First Avenger was being released, and here’s what I wrote about it then:
So pretty much anybody that’s been to a theater this summer or watched any kind of television has at least an idea of who Captain America is. The trailer for the new flick lays it out pretty well, and if you’ve actually seen the movie, well, then you’re steps ahead of the game here. Steve Rogers, a scrawny 78 pound weakling who has a big heart but is too stupid to know when to give up in a fight wants desperately to join the army so that he can join his bestest ever friend James “Bucky” Barnes in getting his face shot off in World War II. Repeatedly rejected by the military despite continuously trying and lying about who he is on his enlistment papers, this sad sack is finally spotted by an ex-nazi scientist who wants to continue his experiments in creating the master race of soldiers over here (experiments that the government and military apparently have no problem not only approving but financing, which should really come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the phrase “The Tuskegee Experiment”) and is taken back to a secret laboratory where he is shot chock full of super-steroids and irradiated until he finally becomes enough of a beefcake that the army decides he will, if not win the war single-handedly, at least be useful for some great propaganda films and USO tours.
Yeah, well, forget all of that, at least for today, because that’s not Captain America. At least not in this 1944 Republic serial.
Nope, instead Captain America is in reality crusading district Attorney Grant Gardner. Is he the subject of a secret super soldier program? Well, if so, it’s never mentioned, nor is any connection to the military. (And since poor Dick Purcell who plays Gardner/Cap passed away of a heart attack not long after the filming of the serial, it seems a bit disrespectful to point out that he looks rather more Adam West than Chris Evans, but there you go.) Does Cap spend his time fighting Nazis in Europe and rescuing P.O.W.s? Nope. How about fighting his arch-nemesis the Red Skull? Umm… no, but there is some guy called the Scarab (whose “secret identity” we actually find out in the first chapter, though it takes Cap a little longer). He at least has mind controlling powers. Well, ok, not powers exactly, but he’s got a mind controlling gas that he’s using to make people commit suicide. Bucky? Surely his sidekick Bucky is here in some form, either as a kid sidekick like in the comics or a contemporary and inspiration for Steve, oh, I mean Grant, to keep fighting the good fight? Not unless Grant’s secretary Gail Richards has a nickname that we’re not made privy to.
“Oh, well”, I hear you say, “at least he’s still got the shield. After all, no matter what other changes they might make to the character, as long as he’s got that shield to throw around and bounce off of bad guys, there’s no doubt he’s the real Captain America, no matter what civilian guise he may be under.”
Yeah, kids, sorry. No shield here. Just a regular old revolver.
So what happened? How did Republic wind up making a Captain America serial that really doesn’t appear to have anything at all in common with the comic book character (or any other portrayal of the character) except for a fairly decent version of the costume? (And even it’s missing those little wings on the sides of his mask.)
Well, that appears to be a good question. There is internal paperwork that suggests that Republic began work on the serial going on only a few sketches that the Timely/Marvel Comics company sent over, none of which showed any kind of a military setting or a shield, and by the time protests were made they were simply too far along to change things about. The most common theory, however is that the studio simply took a a script which they already had on hand, but was written for another character (perhaps The Copperhead from 1940’s The Mysterious Doctor Satan or Fawcett comics Mr. Scarlet, whose secret identity actually was “crusading district attorney” Brian Butler) and made enough changes in it to turn it into a Captain America script instead.
Nonetheless, whatever the behind-the-scenes reasons, this is what audiences in 1944 got, and the truth is, once you get past all the changes and simply let the serial unfurl, it’s not a bad piece of work. There’s plenty of action, the villain is nicely played by no less than Lionel Atwill, and the cliffhangers do leave you looking forward to the next chapter.
And it’s certainly more entertaining than the two Reb Brown starring TV movies made in the 70s, and they did have a character named Steve Rogers and super-steroids and a shield. So there is that.
At that point in the original post, I included a chapter of the serial to give my readers a taste of what the serial was like. However, because I love you folks so much, this time around I went ahead and threw together a playlist that will allow you to watch the entire serial, one chapter after the other, along with some bonus material at the end. Here ya go.
By the way, I’ll just mention that if you like watching these serials, you really should click on the Public Domain Treasure Chest link above and take a look, because I used to do a regular Sunday Serial feature there. Also, let me know in the comments below, because if there’s enough interest I might consider reviving it as a regular feature here.
Until next time, as always, Happy Viewing!
- Captain America (1944) (silverinahaystack.wordpress.com)
- Why the Shield Is Round & 6 Other Surprising Parts of Captain America’s 74-Year Comic Book History (weminoredinfilm.com)