Marvel Movie Madness! Part 32: Captain America (1944)
Was Hollywood's first attempt at the character a success?
Part 32: Captain America (1944, N/A Tomatometer)
Directed by Elmer Clifton and John English, starring Dick Purcell, Lorna Gray, Lionel Atwill, Charles Trowbridge
Alex: Captain America: Perhaps Republic's most popular serial ever! 15 chapters, a massive budget, and only Republic's finest seven serial screenwriters worked on it!
...Which means absolutely zero to anyone watching Captain America in close approximation to the year 2011.
Captain America is a 243-minute collection of 15 serial episodes produced in 1944. The DNA of the story has been altered as to be completely unrecognizable: Gone are Steve Rogers and his military origins, along with the Nazis and Cap's trademark shield. In their place is District Attorney Grant Gardner, who moonlights as Captain America, battling crooks and punching his way through local government bureaucracy. His main villain is The Scarab, a museum curator looking to scoop up mysterious artifacts, killing people left and right.
Naturally, it's easy to mock a serial from the 1940s. And it's really easy when Gardner (played by a porky Dick Purcell) puts on the Captain America suit and one can see Purcell's glorious paunch of justice. Then it becomes less funny when you do some research and discover Purcell died from a weakened heart mere weeks after finishing the grueling shoot. As was the style of the time, Captain America was shot fast and quick. The fight scenes, of which the serial cobbles together about five minutes' worth per episode, have a sort of ruthless workmanship you'd never see today. It's all hokey and people throw chairs in the general direction of people, as opposed to directly at them, but these guys are really bouncing around with the speed set to "Three Stooges."
Overall, yes, the serial sent the Rotten Tomatoes office into bouts of laughter (one cannot resist in the face of such flippant use of the word "vibrator"), but if you ever found yourself exiled by Red Skull into some infinite nebulous void between time and space, and have four hours to kill, here you go.
Tim: There's something incredibly charming about this Captain America. Nothing he does bears any resemblance to the comics (we joked that he should call himself "Captain Connecticut," because of his thick New England accent and the fact that his crime-fighting priorities are bereft of global scope). I'm mostly unfamiliar with the serial medium, so it was fun to watch this form of pre-television entertainment. Illuminating, too: anyone who complains that modern movie audiences are only interested in mindless sensation should give this stuff a look. It's shot with little artistic care, the dialogue is mostly stiff and colorless (save for a stray line like "That dame is wise to our setup!"), and the special effects are hilariously bargain basement, even for the period; everything here is in the service of non-stop action. It's also really violent -- as Alex noted, our hero kills a lot of people, and there are car wrecks and explosions galore. With the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg borrowed all they could from Republic Pictures serials -- the swashbuckling, the rope-swinging, the classic archetypes - and reassembled them with considerably more stylistic flair. Still, Captain America is worth checking out for a goofy example of the kind of stuff that thrilled the kiddies in the decades before more sophisticated superhero fare hit the big screen.
Luke: Ha ha, well it was, in the very least, entertaining. This Captain America wouldn't look out of place as a washed-up member of Watchmen's Minutemen -- the lucha libre outfit, leery smirk and low-rent thuggery seem less associated with patriotic justice than they do a D.A. exorcising his vigilante demons by thrashing some bad guys from central casting. (On a side note: can someone bring back villains with monocles?) The perils are obviously laughable by today's standards (as I'm sure future audiences will guffaw at 21st-century CG spectacle), but what's surprising is how quickly they hook you in once you're adjusted to the style. And as Tim mentioned, there are so many portents of the Spielberg/Lucas adventures: one episode alone boasted a leap onto, and in through the door of, a moving truck, plus those old clifftop car plunges -- both mirrored clearly in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It's fitting that one of their old colleagues, Joe Johnston, should be taking the reins of the 2011 Captain America.
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