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Saturday, October 13, 2007

Captain Video

This wasn't a "feature film", but a serial shown before the feature films. I include it here since it was shown in theaters. Serials had been around almost as long as feature films, even back in the silent movie days. They typically had 12 or more "chapters", each ending with some sort of cliffhanger. In fact, the term "cliffhanger" came from the serials. They would usually end with some sort of suspenseful unresolved ending -- such as the hero dangling over the edge of a cliff -- to encourage audiences to come back to the theater next week to see if (or more likely how) the hero escaped.

Since serials were really a marketing tool to bring in repeat viewers, studios tried to spend as little on them as possible. Western serials were about the cheapest, whereas Flash Gordon was fairly pricey, for a serial but still very low-dollar stuff. For sci-fi serials, such as Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers and others, sparse sets, minimal special effects and basic costumes were the norm. Captain Video was one such ultra low-budget serial. The name and basic premise was based on a live TV series (1949-53), though it bore little outward resemblance beyond the name.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Being a serial, it was a rambling sort of plot. Captain Video is the leader of a cadre of Video Rangers -- a bit like ├╝ber policemen. The sinister Vultura, dictator on the planet Atoma, has enslaved the inhabitants of planet Theros and has designs on doing the same to Earth. Traitorous Dr. Tobor is helping Vultura in his plans to conquer earth. The Video Rangers battle Vultura's thugs through 12 episodes to thwart his evil schemes.

Why is this movie fun?
Don't expect Star Wars in any capacity. Instead, watch Captain Video as if it were a high-school play. What could you do with some surplus electrical junk, sheet aluminum and some fireworks? Could you have done any better?

Captain Video and his fellow Video Rangers wear fairly simple, shirt, tie and simple service dress uniforms with a few little bits of brass and badges. They wear black football helmets (sans face mask) with goggles (rarely worn), so the rangers resemble motorcycle Maytag repairmen more than futuristic space-travelers. When they DO wear spacesuits, they're recycled from Destination Moon (though they used new "bell jar" helmets).

The pot-bellied Gene Roth dressed in mongol chieftan garb, as Vultura, makes for an amusingly UNimpressive villain.

The recycled props are fun to spot. The villains on the "red" planet Atoma wore leftover mongol costumes -- leather with studs and fur trimmed helmets. The inhabitants of the "green" planet Theros wore leftover arab robes. Gotta appreciate the recycling. I get a special kick out of the robots with their smiling little drawn-on faces, metal "ears" and metal fedora-like hats. They first appeared in Dancing Lady (1933), so were already recycled props when they appeared in Gene Autrey's The Phantom Empire, serial (1936). You'll also notice that the landscape of Earth, Atoma and Theros all look a lot like Bronson Canyon -- also much used in western serials and later serials. If you're quick, you'll spot familiar trees and rocks.

Cold War angle
The enemy planet being named "Atoma" is about as close to a nuclear-angst angle as there is. Not much. Serials were intended as pure (cheap) entertainment, not so much as a vehicle for social commentary.

Notes
There's nothing deep in the Captain Video serials. It's basic good vs. evil stuff. Since the target audience was kids, Captain Video was fairly non-violent. Oh sure, there were fight scenes, but for all the tussling, no one really got hurt. The Video Rangers used non-lethal ray guns which incapacitated people like a tazer.

Fare for younger audiences often have simpler good vs. evil themes and shallowly obvious characterizations. This isn't indoctrination so much as catering. Kids understand good and bad pretty early and like to see good triumph.

The Captain Video serial was shot in black and white, but was colorized via the Cinecolor process to put a red filter over the lens for Atoma shots, and a green filter for Theros shots. The colors helped you know which planet you were on, since it was all the same Bronson Canyon rocks for a backdrop.

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