Adventures of Captain Africa, Mighty Jungle Avenger! (1955)

Adventures of Captain Africa (1955)‘Well, we’ve got you, and now we’ll finish the great Captain Africa. You were fools to try and fight our great world organisation!’

A big game hunter teams up with a government agent to investigate a series of suspicious accidents. In the nearby jungle, the native tribes worship Captain Africa, a mysterious, masked white man who fights for truth and justice. Together, they become involved in a mission to restore a deposed caliph to his rightful throne.

One of the last of the movie serials comes courtesy of Columbia studios and some all-to familiar names. Producing is the legendary scrooge Sam Katzman, Spencer Gordon Bennet is in the director’s chair and the script was by George H Plympton, who had spent almost a quarter of a century delivering such Saturday morning thrills. Initially, Katzman intended this 15-episode white-knuckler as a sequel to box-office hit ‘The Phantom’ (1943). After all, lots of the old action scenes, fights and stunts could be seamlessly matched with new footage of star John Hart in the old Phantom costume.

But all did not go to plan. Filming was already well advanced when it turned out that the studio’s rights to use the character had expired. In a shocking development, Katzman’s negotiations with the copyright owners did not go well (they probably wanted money or something). However, such a problem were a mere bagatelle to our penny-pinching hero! The script was quickly rewritten so footage from other old serials could be used, retakes were ordered (how that must have hurt!), and Katzman put Hart in riding britches and jammed a flying helmet on his head sometimes. And so, with one mighty bound, Captain Africa was born, heroically rushing through the jungle one step ahead of an angry tribe of copyright lawyers.

Inevitably, the final product is not very good. Great white hunter Bob Osborne is concerned about sabotage at his compound. He has a pretty fine collection of tigers (perhaps they got lost on the way home from the pub!) and they have a regrettable habit of getting out of their cages and bothering the help. Government agent Ted (Rick Vallin) suspects something is going on and the two of them spend an awful lot of Chapter One talking it over. These chats allow for lengthy clips from ‘Jungle Menace’ (1937) and ‘The Desert Hawk’ (1944), as well as a few shots from ‘The Phantom’ (1943) of course. There’s a sequence of a shipwreck (for some reason) and a fight with swords between desert tribesmen. Shamelessly, that fight also crops up in Chapter Two, courtesy of a different flashback story being told by a different character!

But we have to get used to Ted’s company as we spend most of the episodes running around with him as he rocks a striped bed-sheet and saves hopeless Princess Rhoda (June Howard) from various bands of outlaws and agents of evil. Yes, it’s just an endless series of captures and escapes, and the main villain never actually appears! And they wouldn’t have had to use another actor either as he’s the twin brother of the deposed sovereign! But no, obviously that would have been too difficult (trick photography is just so expensive!) so we’re served up one fight after another with faceless minions. Additionally, the ‘agents of a foreign power’ are apparently led by someone called Boris. Can I identify him from the few dialogue exchanges that these villains have between them? No. I couldn’t. Perhaps I should have tried harder.

Captain Africa does actually show up every now and then, but often seems to be a guest star in his own serial. He does make a couple of exciting last ditch escapes though, as he wakes up beneath a descending portcullis (he rolls out of the way) and a speeding boulder (he steps to one side). His tactics mostly consist of running up to various stunt players and belting them one, although he does create a couple of stock footage explosions by throwing things. Actually Hart had replaced Clayton Moore as TV’s ‘The Lone Ranger’ a couple of years earlier. Unfortunately, the change didn’t sit well with fans of the show and Moore was re-hired the following season.

Adventures of Captain Africa (1955)

‘No, I don’t remember when Professor Zorgman’s giant robot hijacked the space rocket carrying the secret doo-dad. I wasn’t in Chapter 6.’

To save money, serials often had a ‘recap’ episode where characters would simply sit around and say things like ‘do you remember when the gang almost got their hands on the meteorite element at the mine? or ‘yes, wasn’t that when they tried to dynamite the bridge/derail the train/bomb the factory/kidnap the professor’s daughter, etc, etc.?’ Obviously, this allowed for the replay of a few scenes from previous episodes. But a single ‘recap’ episode simply wasn’t enough for the thrifty Katzman! In this serial, there are four!

To be fair to our favourite skinflint producer and his colleagues, obviously the radical rethink that proved necessary mid-production must have affected the quality of the final product but, predictably enough, the results are really wretched stuff. Only four more movie serials were made after it, as shrinking budgets, tired plots and endless repetition had put them on the ropes as early as the end of the 1940s.

And, of course, the arrival of television proved to be the final cliffhanger that no square-jawed serial hero could hope to escape.

The Phantom (1943)

The_Phantom_(1943)‘Can the seventh key be lost forever? Will Tartar take out his wrath on Diana? Don’t miss ‘Fangs of the Beast’ the next smashing episode of…’

A masked figure known only as ‘The Phantom’ has kept the peace between warring African tribes for generations, the role passing from father to son. But the harmony of the jungle is put in danger by a group of enemy agents and a university professor, whose safari is looking for the legendary lost city of Zolos…

Two-fisted movie serial action coming out of the Columbia studios and the depths of the Hollywood Hills…sorry, the African Jungle. Captain Marvel is about to go on safari with Dr Zarkov but finds that some jolly rotten enemy agents have sliced up his dad, who happens to be the legendary Phantom. Forced into his father’s onesie and mask, he battles quicksand, crocodiles, tigers (in Africa!), and local scumbag Singapore Slim and his rent-a-goons. He’s also up against the minions of deeply uninteresting enemy spy Kenneth MacDonald, who wants to build an airbase in the jungle for no doubt deeply unsound strategic and ideological reasons. It’s quite a full dance card for star Tom Tyler, but with superhero experience already under his belt from his days as the marvellous Captain in India, it’s no problemo!

This is typical rollicking serial action with the requisite number of last ditch escapes, gunfights, fisticuffs and a flavour of the exotic. The pace never lets up, and the story manages to avoid the repetition of events and McGuffins which dragged down most of its contemporaries. However, there are a couple of flaws which compromise the excitement and level of enjoyment. The main one is MacDonald’s villain, who is probably the most colourless in movie serial history, and a complete non-entity from beginning to end. Added to that is the damp squib of a climax, with the final couple of chapters failing to deliver any significant thrills or spectacle. On the bright side, we do get Frank Shannon from the original ‘Flash Gordon’ (1936) as the Professor, and Tyler pops into town on several occasions to do some undercover work. His choice of disguise? Sunglasses, a hat and a trench coat. Why these clothes are even available in the African Jungle is a mystery, let alone the fact that no-one bats an eyelid in his direction!

The original comic book character debuted in 1936 and was created by Lee Falk for King Features. Tyler was a good fit for the role as he bore a fairly close physical resemblance to the original illustrations, although sidekick Devil (Ace the Wonder Dog) did not, being a German Shepherd instead of a wolf. But no matter, he’s a pretty cool canine anyway, saving our hero’s bacon on more than one occasion. Ace was originally the RKO Studio’s answer to Rin Tin Tin, but came to Columbia from Republic Studios instead, who were synonymous with B-movie Westerns and Serials. Five years after his appearance here, he was still at Columbia, appearing in the title role of ‘The Adventures of Rusty‘ (1948), the first in a series of 8 films. Sadly for him, the role was immediately recast, and he didn’t appear in any of the sequels, finishing his career with Monogram and bottom of the barrel studio, PRC. It was even worse for Tyler, however, who never appeared in a significant role again, being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis shortly after production. He died penniless at the age of 50 in 1954.

The Phantom (1943)

🎵Don’t just stand there, let’s get to it, Strike a pose, there’s nothing to it🎶

Columbia began filming ‘Return of the Phantom’ as a sequel in 1955 with legendary ‘cash conscious’ producer Sam Katzman in charge. Unfortunately, it came to light after filming began that the studio’s rights to the character had expired, and, not surprisingly, negotiations between King Features and Katzman did not go well. But Katzman was not to be beaten! He simply cut down on the stock footage he was using from ‘The Phantom’ (1943) replacing it with old content from other serials, and had leading man John Hart put some riding britches on over the original costume and a flying helmet on his head. The result was ‘The Adventures of Captain Africa’ (1955) and movie history was made. But not in a good way.

Despite its faults, the original serial is still probably the most successful take on the ‘Phantom’ character. Subsequent attempts to turn him into box-office gold have all failed, the most notable being the big-budget movie of 1996 starring Billy Zane. But, given the current Holywood obsession with superheroes, there’s probably another try already in the works…

Brick Bradford (1947)

Brick Bradford (1947)‘Follow me if you can. To the Moon!’

Brick Bradford and his friends are recruited by the government to protect Dr Gregor Tymack He is working on an ‘Interceptor Ray’, which can shoot down enemy missiles, but he’s come to the attention of a criminal gang, who want to sell the secret to a foreign power.

15 chapter Columbia serial based on the hit newspaper comic strip created by Clarence Gray and William Ritt. The studio’s usual production team are present and correct: director Spencer Gordon Bennet (here working with Thomas Carr), producer Sam Katzman and writer George H Plympton. However, the final product is different from their usual output, the story being structured into 3 separate parts.

The first was written by Plympton and begins by setting things up. Tymack’s lab is the back room of an isolated lodge in the woods. Considering he’s working on something so important, it’s a puzzle as to why he’s out there with only two lab assistants for company. Similarly, why his safety is being placed in the hands of Brick (Kane Richmond) and his pals (tough but idiotic sidekick, an old professor, old professor’s available daughter) also seems to exhibit a somewhat cavalier attitude to national security.

Anywho, Tymack is under threat from the unscrupulous Laydron and his rent-a-goons. Laydron isn’t a criminal mastermind, a super villain or anything like that; he’s just a cheap thug who seems to have walked in from a 1930s Warner Bros crime movie. And, worse than that, he’s really not very interesting.  But just when we’re expecting the usual round of captures, escapes, fisticuffs and gunplay, Tymack legs it through his Crystal Door. To the moon!  Predictably, the lunar surface looks a lot like the Californian desert, you don’t need breathing apparatus and the planet is being run by a puppet queen and her evil advisor. Brick and his friends join the resistance (led by an Earthman and his daughter!) and sort it all out by the end of Chapter 5!

In part two (written by Arthur Hoel), Tymack remembers that he needs some scientific notes which were hidden in a pirate treasure chest a couple of hundred years before (what?!) So he sends Brick and his sidekick back into the past in his Time Top! They succeed with the aid of exploding cigars! It’s all a bit silly actually.

The final chapters of the serial are devoted to tying up the Laydron situation, only he’s no longer the main villain! Probably deciding that he was too boring, writer Lewis Clay has one of Tymack’s assistants change sides and steal the good doctor’s equipment. Unfortunately, he’s not much of a criminal mastermind either and events limp to a rather tired conclusion, enlivened slightly by an invisibility machine (bloody clever chap this Tymack!)

Brick Bradford (1947)

Their new home was surprisingly spacious but the garden needed a little work.

Whether the studio felt it did not have a plot strong enough to support 15 chapters and opted for this format instead is unrecorded. If it sounds like it makes for an exciting serial, it actually comes across as half baked. Unusually, there are very few ‘cheats’ in the cliffhangers (where different footage is shown at the start of the following episode).

Star Richmond plays it admiringly straight throughout, having previous as the lead in ‘The Spy Smasher’ (1942). Apparently, he hated using stunt doubles and insisted on fighting a 25 foot python himself in ‘The Devil Tiger’ (1934)! Lead actress Marion Burns had to rush in to help but it all ended happily enough: they got married!

Captain Video: Master of the Stratosphere (1951)

Captain Video Master of the Stratosphere (1951)‘As a scientist, I need not remind you that there are 3 known dimensions. I have deprived you of 2 of them. You are in the 3rd: Death!’

Captain Video and his Video Rangers fight for truth and justice from his laboratory in the mountains. Alien despot Vultura threatens Earth with conquest and Video finds himself facing human traitors who are paving the way for the invasion…

‘Captain Video and his Video Rangers’ was a popular 30 minute TV series that ran from 1949 to 1955. It was broadcast live. Episodes usually included about 7 minutes of footage from old cowboy movies, described as ‘the undercover Video Rangers adventures on Earth’. In 1951, the Captain hit the big screen in his own movie serial for Columbia studios. Not surprisingly, given the short period of popularity of both media, it is the only instance of a serial being based on a TV show. Instead of Al Hodge in the lead role, the studio went with Judd Holdren for the serial and his teenage sidekick (only ever named as ‘The Ranger’) was played by Larry Stewart. Nasty villain Vultura was subtly depicted by Gene Roth.

This is an entertaining, but undeniably cheap, chapter play with familiar Columbia expertise behind it (writer George H Plympton, producer Sam Katzman, director Spencer Gordon Bennet). The plot is completely familiar too, with most episodes centring on Vultura’s agent on Earth, the evil genius Dr Tobor, and his attempts to grab whatever scientific thingamajig will further the alien dictator’s plans this week. A completely unrelated character called Tobor actually appeared on the TV show. This was a mechanical man, who was originally going to be called ‘Robot 1’ until someone mistakenly put the stencil on to the costume backwards! The only robots in the serial are actually the ‘cowboy’ ones featured 16 years earlier in the Gene Autry classic ‘The Phantom Empire’ (1935). Pleasingly, they still look like they’re made of silver cardboard and have cowboy hats firmly in place.

Captain Video Master of the Stratosphere (1951)

‘That’s the last time I let you bring that metal detector on holiday.’

There is some interplanetary action too, both on Atoma and its sister world Theros (although both bare the inevitable resemblance to good old Vasquez Rocks in California). Action on Theros is tinted entirely green and on Atoma entirely red. It is pleasing to think that low budget auteur Al Adamson may have simply cribbed this idea for his brilliantly wretched ‘Horror of the Blood Monsters’ (1970). Both Holdren and Roth (along with a lot of the props and costumes) turned up in Columbia’s last interplanetary serial ‘The Lost Planet’ (1953).

Highlights include the low budget uniforms (army surplus for Captain Video and his Rangers, complete with suits, ties and motorcycle helmets with big googles), crudely animated spacecraft drawn by an 8 year old and hilarious over-explanatory dialogue. Vultura dresses like some kind of cheap viking. Tobor’s assistant is played by the wonderful Skelton Knaggs. Vultura spies on Earth from a space platform in the clouds where one of his minions has a hand held telescope. Fire on Atoma has no effect on Captain Video because of its ‘different chemical properties’. Captain Video’s life is often saved when he falls out of aircraft because his top scientist can reduce the power of Earth’s gravitational pull so he floats gently to the ground. His jet mobile goes really fast and often crashes and explodes but he always jumps clear in time and has an inexhaustible supply of replacements. No one ever has any good ideas apart from Captain Video.

It’s reassuring to think that the future of Earth will be in the hands of such men as Captain Video and his wonderful science type stuff.

Buy ‘Captain Video: Master of the Stratosphere’ here

Jack Armstrong (1947)

Jack_Armstrong_(1947)‘From this day forward, I, Jason Grood, am your absolute master…’

Jack Armstrong and his friends travel to a remote island to track down a missing scientist. Once there, they oppose Jason Grood and his mad scheme to rule the world with his aeroglobe.

This 15 chapter Columbia serial was based on a successful radio show ‘Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy!’ which ran from 1933 to 1951. On the radio programme, high school athlete and all round smart cookie Jack travelled all over the world due to his friendship with Billy and Betty Fairfield, whose Uncle Jim is a rich industrialist. This allowed for a high educational content but, predictably, there’s no sign of that in the serial.

The story focuses on the kidnapping of one of Uncle Jim’s scientists, who has been observing strange emissions of radiation. These originate on a remote island where the trading post is run by Jason Grood (Charles Middleton). He’s got the local native population in thrall by use of a hidden microphone, has a secret underground lab and a space ship (sorry, aeroglobe) that resembles a tin can. Middleton was unbilled because he was a late addition to the cast and to add him in would have cost money, something producer Sam Katzman was always eager to avoid.

Flash Gordon approaching? Really? You woke me up to tell me that?

Flash Gordon approaching? Really? You woke me up just to tell me that?

What follows is the usual series of escapes, gunfights, intrigue and cliffhangers. John Hart is too old to play Jack as a high schooler and Joe Brown Jr is very annoying as comic relief Billy. Middleton gives a strange performance as Grood, probably the most laid back villain in serial history. Most of the time, he lounges around in a white suit smoking a cigar. Perhaps he was determined not to repeat his performance as Ming the Merciless in the ‘Flash Gordon’ serials or, just as likely, found the whole thing rather tiring at his age.

There have been a couple of attempts to revive the character since the end of the radio show but it does seem to be unlucky. A 1960s animated series was proposed but never happened and then footage was shot for an interactive CD game in the 1990s. When the game failed to sell, more film was made to bring the project up to feature length as ‘An American Hero’ (1997) with Timothy Bottoms, but you’ll never see it. Apparently, the negative was ruined during cutting and the whole project was abandoned as an insurance write-off.

One thing that did survive from the serial was the villain’s name. Writer George H Plympton liked it so much that he used it again in one of the studio’s final serials; the bargain basement ‘The Lost Planet’ (1953), a decidedly weaker but much more entertaining chapter play.