Fates Worse Than Death: Captain America (1944)

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A bizarre series of deaths, some accidental and some obvious suicides, strikes at wealthy and influential men. The only connection between them is their involvement in an expedition to Central America in search of Mayan ruins, and the jeweled scarabs found in the victims’ possession. The mastermind behind the deaths, revealed to the audience in the first chapter, is Dr. Maldor, a member of the expedition who feels cheated of the glory and wealth that others have claimed. As the Scarab, Maldor is determined to take down his rivals, one by one, all the while posing as the friendly and helpful director of the Drummond Museum of Arts and Sciences.

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Maldor’s plan might very well succeed, but for the industrious District Attorney, Grant Gardner, and his assistant Gail Richards, who stand in Maldor’s way and get far too close to the truth in their investigations. Even worse, Maldor’s henchmen keep running afoul of the costumed crime fighter known only as Captain America. Could Gardner and Captain America be one and the same? The audience knows, but will the Scarab learn the truth, and what will he do with it?

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These days, when one reads about the 1944 Captain America serial, the focus is on its lack of fidelity to the comic books created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1941 and published by Timely (now Marvel) Comics. Instead of being Steve Rogers, a runty Army volunteer turned into a titan by the Super Soldier serum, the serial Captain America is Grant Gardner (played by Dick Purcell), a crusading district attorney who dons the costume to bring criminals to justice; no reference is made to his origin. Instead of wielding the iconic shield, Grant Gardner carries a gun, and he gets a lot of use out of it (in fact, considering how many bad guys Gardner kills in his civilian identity without anyone batting an eye, it’s not exactly clear why he needs to step outside of the law and put on a costume at all).

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This Captain America doesn’t even fight Nazis, all the more surprising considering the character’s explicitly patriotic concept and the serial’s wartime production. As in the 1949 Batman and Robin serial, Captain America’s foe follows the serial formula of a far-reaching (but apolitical) criminal mastermind: no Red Skull here, folks. Timely publisher Martin Goodman gave Republic the right to use the character for free (according to Marvel executive Tom Brevoort, speaking in the promotional documentary Captain America: 75 Heroic Years), likely expecting the film to boost sales of his comic books. Whether it had the desired effect, I don’t know, but one wonders what Simon and Kirby, not to mention their loyal readers, thought when they saw “Grant Gardner” going through the paces of a typical Republic adventure.

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I was aware of all that before I watched the serial, but I tried to keep an open mind: although this is an extreme example, it wasn’t unusual for serial producers to change details of their source material to fit into their standard formula, and perhaps the serial would be a success on its own terms, even as it missed the mark as an adaptation. Unfortunately, I ultimately found it tedious and repetitive, even though it had some good performances and some individual chapters that worked well. Like many fifteen-chapter serials, Captain America can’t quite sustain its length, and might have been more effective cut down.

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As both Gardner and Captain America, Dick Purcell has some personality and makes for an engaging central character, and there’s quite a bit of action (much of it supplied by longtime stunt man Dale van Sickel, who actually wore the costume for many of these sequences). He’s not really anything like what I think of as Captain America, being closer to a “cop who bends the rules” type rather than a boy scout, but free of other associations he held my attention. The sheer number of the Scarab’s henchmen that he blows away or throws out high windows, in either identity, would satisfy Charles Bronson.

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Even better is the supporting cast: played by Lorna Gray, Gail Richards is Grant Gardner’s capable assistant, and the only person who knows he’s Captain America. Although she sometimes ends up as the damsel in distress (the memorable cliffhanger in Chapter Five, “Blade of Wrath,” has her tied up and threatened with beheading by the guillotine-like blade of a paper-cutting machine), she also takes the initiative, and clearly takes after her boss. In one chapter, she catches someone tampering with Gardner’s car; when the man pulls a gun in an attempt to abduct her, she whips out her own heater and shoots him dead!

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As Dr. Maldor/The Scarab, Lionel Atwill is the very model of a plummy, cultured villain, complete with monocle. Using the “Purple Death,” he can make men do his bidding or drive them to suicide. Like most serial masterminds, he works through his disposable henchmen, keeping himself at a distance from the violence until the very end. His right-hand man (and also the most active in the field) is Matson (George Lewis), but John Davidson (whom we just saw in Tailspin Tommy) also lends his deep voice to the cause of evil as the henchman Gruber.

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Maldor possesses a cutting wit, often directed at his bungling helpers. In one scene he sarcastically congratulates his henchmen: “You should be proud of yourself. Captain America has made a fool of you in every job you’ve attempted.” In a late chapter, when Maldor starts getting his hands dirty himself, he honest-to-God says “There are ways of making you talk” to the only man who knows how to decipher a Mayan treasure map, before flogging him with a cat-o-nine-tails.

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Later in the same episode, when Maldor learns that Gardner is on his way to the Scarab’s farmhouse hideout, he uses an airplane to personally drop bombs on the house in the hopes of destroying evidence of his presence and (even better) killing his nemesis at the same time (it is in fact the fifth building destroyed directly or indirectly by the Scarab in this serial, a showcase of special effects masters Theodore and Howard Lydecker’s genius). It would be nit-picky to question the efficiency or timeliness of this method. Rather, it points to the ways in which Maldor exemplifies the criminal mastermind: the true master criminal works through others, keeping the dirty work at a distance, as long as necessary; he always has multiple escape routes and alibis; and most importantly, he has the resources and the will to do whatever it takes to remove any obstacle that keeps him from his goal. If that means getting in a plane and blowing up his own hideout, so be it.

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The thread of Maldor’s vengeance against the members of the Mayan expedition is really the only thing that ties together the various episodes, giving the serial a somewhat choppy rhythm: in several chapters, Gardner/Captain America is charged with protecting or rescuing a scientist or executive whom the Scarab threatens. In some cases, that involves recovering or destroying a new invention that the Scarab wants for himself (a “vibrating engine” shakes apart a building in the first chapter; an “electronic fire bolt” allows the Scarab’s gang to cut open bank vaults to finance his operations in the next, and so on). Unfortunately, too much time is spent explaining and talking, or with anonymous henchmen setting up traps without much happening. When Purcell, Atwill, or Gray aren’t on screen, the film lags.

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What I Watched: Captain America (Republic, 1944)

Where I Watched It: The serial is on YouTube in its entirety.

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: All the bases are covered by Captain America‘s chapter titles: from the poetic (“Blade of Wrath”; “The Toll of Doom”) to the bluntly literal (“Skyscraper Plunge”), the alliterative (“Triple Tragedy”; “Horror on the Highway”) and the lurid (“The Dead Man Returns”). But before Captain America was “The First Avenger,” there was “The Avenging Corpse” (Chapter Ten), my pick for Best Chapter Title.

Best Cliffhanger: Sometimes simple misdirection makes for the most effective cliffhanger. At the end of Chapter Eleven (“The Dead Man Returns”), Captain America has tracked the Scarab to an electrical laboratory, where Dr. Lyman’s Life Restoring Machine is to be used to revive Matson. As he fights with one of the Scarab’s henchmen, the two of them end up inside of the generator room, which generates the million volts necessary to charge up the machine. Another of the Scarab’s men, Dirk, throws the switch to turn it on: we see a shower of sparks and then the camera cuts to Dirk’s horrified face and we hear a chilling scream. (Of course at the beginning of the next chapter we see our hero leap out of the generator room just in time: the scream belongs to the other guy.)

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Sample Dialogue: “Mister Gardner is a brave man; I’d feel much happier if Captain America were with him.” –Professor Dodge, Chapter Three, “Scarlet Shroud”

What Others Have Said: “Sadly, Purcell died of a heart attack shortly after completing this serial at the age of 35. It was a tragic end for the man who originated the role of a nearly immortal hero (in the comics, Captain America’s died and come back to life at least three different times). Purcell’s Cap isn’t the strongest or most physically fit, but there’s something to be said for the human dimension he brought to the role.” –Matt Singer, The Complete History of Comic-Book Movies

What’s Next: Join me in two weeks as we get medieval with The Adventures of Sir Galahad!

Purple Prose, Purple Death

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In watching the 1944 Captain America serial (for which I’ll have a full write-up next week), I was struck by the title of the first chapter, “The Purple Death,” a title shared by the first chapter of the 1940 serial Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. In Captain America, the Purple Death refers to the extract of a rare orchid that makes its victims susceptible to hypnotic control (the “death” part comes when the victims are ordered to kill themselves, helpless to resist); in Flash Gordon, it’s a mysterious, fatal disease spread from Mongo to Earth that leaves its victims marked by a purple spot.

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The pulps (as well as comic strips and serials) were known for lurid, vividly-drawn stories with larger-than-life heroes and impossibly wicked villains to match. Purple is an attention-getting color, to the point that we speak of “purple prose.” I was also reminded of the Purple Empire, one of the enemy nations that Operator #5 fought against in the 1930s. (I thought there might be some significance to that, but the Operator series included a rainbow of enemy nations, possibly influenced by the color-coded War Plans developed by the U. S. military during the 1920s and ’30s.)

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In reading and watching stories from the 1930s and ’40s, I’ve encountered the phrase “purple death,” or uses of purple as a dangerous and dramatic color, enough times that I wondered if there was an underlying connection. So, in the spirit of Philip J. Reed’s Pop Questions, I’m asking: what’s the significance of the color purple in the pulps, and why particularly is death purple? Does it refer to the livid color of a bruise or the marks left by strangulation? Is it the association with royalty, by extension gaudy and powerful? I have a few leads that seem likely, but if anyone reading this has a specific answer, I’d love to hear it.

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Purple is associated with death and mourning in many cultures, including the Victorians of the nineteenth century, for whom purple was the color of “demi-mourning,” to be worn after a period of wearing black. It was also the color of royalty, originally due to the rarity and high cost of purple dyes in the ancient world. It would certainly match both the dramatic style and frequent (if shallow) references to history and classic literature in the pulps if that were the reason. I don’t have statistics at hand, but my hunch is that as comic books became the dominant medium for pulp storytelling, more villains than heroes had purple uniforms or color schemes.

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However, the most likely answer goes back to the 1918 influenza epidemic: the disease killed quickly, and often left its victims purple in color as their lungs filled with blood and starved the body of oxygen. One book on the subject is even titled Purple Death. According to some estimates, as many as 50 million people worldwide died during from the disease. Just as pulp heroes were often veterans of the Great War, so the memory of the epidemic would have resonated with writers and readers in the decades that followed. In Flash Gordon, the Purple Death was also a disease, and the scenes of public panic and the scramble to find a cure hearken directly to the 1918 epidemic; by comparison, the use of the phrase in Captain America is almost poetic, but would likely have still induce a twinge of fear for those who remembered it. Even today, with no direct memory of the influenza epidemic, it sounds ominous.

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So perhaps that’s the answer. If any readers have more details to offer, or facts to contradict my speculations, I’d love to hear them. Any other examples of purple as a color marking death or danger are, of course, welcome.