Hello all. Welcome to part 1 in what I hope to be an ongoing series looking at the history of Marvel Comics on the big (and sometimes small) screen. Enough introductions, you’ll get it as we go along.
We’re going to start with the first Marvel Comics property to ever hit celluloid: the iconic Captain America.
Captain America first appeared in Captain America Comics #1 in March of 1941, published by Timely Comics (the predecessor of Marvel Comics). Created by Joe Simon and the legendary Jack Kirby, Captain America was a star-spangled hero conceived in response to the ever increasing threat of Nazi Germany. Long before the United States was officially involved in the war, Kirby and Simon created Captain America as a political statement. The character even appears on the cover of the first issue punching Adolf Hitler in the face.
Captain America started out as Steve Rogers, a skinny 4F weakling who just couldn’t cut it in the military. His heart and patriotism for his country made him the perfect candidate for the Super Soldier experiment and was injected with a serum that made him the peak of human physical fitness. He dons a red, white and blue costume, and, along with his kid sidekick, Bucky, fought enemies foreign and domestic… all in the name of the U.S. of A. In 1944, Republic Pictures licensed the character for a 15-Chapter movie serial to be played at matinees for children, following in the cinematic footsteps of his comic book and pulp counterparts Zorro, Tarzan, Flash Gordon and Dick Tracy.
THE MOVIE VERSION
Republic Pictures made many drastic changes to the character, much to Timely Comics’ ultimate displeasure. Gone was the secret identity of US Army Private Steve Rogers, instead replaced by US District Attorney Grant Gardner. The Super Soldier serum played no part in the character’s origin. He does not carry his famous shield, and instead carries a gun. No Bucky. And despite the fact that Nazis could have provided perfect on-screen villains at a time that America was at war with Germany, they were not featured in any way. In fact the only thing that makes this film “Captain America” is the title and costume. Everything else was completely replaced. Dick Purcell plays our lead, and overall he’s pretty hammy in the role.
No Red Skull folks. No Adolf Hitler. No Nazis. No Japanese villains either. Sorry. Instead the villain was the generically named “Scarab.” The Scarab uses a purple poison gas to hypnotize his enemies and force them to do his bidding.
This being a movie serial, the plot takes a long time to unfold over the cliffhangers that happen at the end of every chapter for fifteen chapters. Long story short, The Scarab is really Dr. Maldor, a scientist who is getting revenge on members of a Mayan expedition, that somehow gained all of the members fame and fortune. Fame and fortune, that is, for everyone except Dr. Maldor. Dr. Lyman, the last remaining member of the expedition has developed a new mining technology he calls the Dynamic Vibrator (seriously), but The Scarab has now found a new use for: to cause death and destruction by simulating earthquakes. The mayor calls in District Attorney Grant Gardner to investigate, but really it’s Captain America who ultimately saves the day.
The only other notable character would be Gail Richards (Lorna Gray), Grant Gardner’s secretary, who’s only purpose seems to be getting rescued by Captain America.
The 1944 Captain America serial isn’t bad for what it’s supposed to be: silly 15 minute chapters to entertain children. It gets points for the very well-staged fight sequences, but ultimately the film bears little to no resemblance to the Captain of the comics, and really any other comic book vigilante could have been slipped in without any noticeable difference.
WHERE CAN YOU WATCH IT
Believe it or not, you can buy the complete serial on AMAZON.
Enterprising comic geeks have also uploaded the chapters on YouTube:
NEXT TIME: Spidey swings into action in the swingin’ 70s!
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