Friday, July 6, 2018

Worth Mentioning - The Star Spangled Avenger

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Before the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there were other attempts to bring Captain America to the screen.


The first live action adaptation of a Marvel property was a 15-chapter Captain America serial that was released in 1944... but Marvel wasn't called Marvel yet at that time, and this isn't an accurate depiction of the comic book Captain America. The company that would become Marvel was then called Timely Comics, and when they gave famed serial-maker Republic the rights to make a serial out of one of their popular characters, they weren't too happy with the results. It seems that Republic simply took an existing script they had for a different serial, possibly one based on a comic book character from a different company (Fawcett Comics' Mr. Scarlet?), changed the names, and tweaked some details based on sample pages from Captain America comics that Timely provided to them - yes, just sample pages. Apparently they didn't feel like leafing through some actual issues of the Captain America comic.

Republic claimed that no details about the man in the Captain America costume were included on those sample pages, so none of those character details made it into the serial - this Captain America is not a World War II soldier who is given superhuman abilities after taking a "super soldier serum". He's not named Steve Rogers. He doesn't even carry a shield. The only thing that made the transition from the page to the screen is the costume.

This Captain America is District Attorney Grant Gardner, played by Dick Purcell - who, unfortunately, passed away from a heart attack a few weeks after the serial finished filming. Not content just fighting crime as a D.A., Gardner puts on a costume and hits the streets to crack skulls in the name of justice. The authorities in his city don't mind, in fact the local commissioner is grateful to have the assitance of this vigilante. They have a Batman / Commissioner Gordon sort of deal going on.

The serial begins with people that have a poison called the Purple Death coursing through their systems falling under the hypnotic spell of a mysterious villain known as The Scarab, who orders them to kill themselves. As it turns out, all of these men who were murdered by suggestion were involved with a scientific expedition to explore the ruins of a Mayan civilization. Some speculate that they were cursed for messing around in the ruins, but the fact is that The Scarab is someone else who was involved with the expedition, Lionel Atwill as museum curator Dr. Cyrus Maldor.

The Scarab's true identity is revealed to the audience right up front, within the first six minutes of the first chapter, but it will take Gardner/Captain America a while to deduce that Maldor is the villain of the story. That's even with Gardner getting assistance from his tough, plane-flying, car-chasing, quick-draw secretary Gail Richards (Lorna Gray), who is a pretty cool character in her own right. I don't know what Maldor has done previously, but if this is his start as a supervillain he dove right in. He didn't receive the fame and wealth he expected to from the expedition, so now he's out to gain wealth through nefarious means - stealing cash, Mayan jewels, and scientific secrets. He goes after a pair of devices created by an inventor associate that could help him out in criminal schemes: first a device called the Thermodynamic Vibration Engine, which can vibrate so hard it makes a building crumble, and later a device called the Portable Electronic Fire Bolt, which generates an electric charge strong enough to cut through steel and concrete like a bolt of lightning. Later he even gets his hands on a resurrection machine. He's like a spoiled child who wants every toy he sees.

Maldor is relentless in his pursuits, but Captain America thwarts his plans time and again (and again and again and... you get the idea, there are 15 chapters here), bashing his way through the Scarab's seemingly endless supply of henchmen.

The Captain America serial may not be remotely character accurate, but it's still a lot of fun to watch. It takes around 4 hours to get through all 15 chapters, but you're not really supposed to watch these things in one sitting. That's not how they were released to theatres back in the day. The chapters are very simple, packing as much action as they can into their short (an average of 16 minutes) running times, keeping the story and chit chat to a minimum. It's easy to overlook a lack of fidelity to the source material when something is this entertaining.

I first watched this serial sometime in the '90s, which is the same time I discovered its existence, when it showed up on VHS in a store. I loved it, and somehow - even though Grant Gardner isn't really Captain America - it even strengthened my overall appreciation for the Captain America character. This was my first experience watching a full serial and I really got into it. I liked seeing how each chapter ended with a cliffhanger that put our heroes into some kind of terrible jam that appeared to be impossible to escape from, then the next chapter would always start out by showing us that the situation wasn't as dire as it had seemed to be. Knowing going in that the serial is 15 chapters, it's pretty obvious that Captain America isn't going to die at the end of chapter 7... but how is he going to survive that fall down the mine shaft? Stuff like that is awesome to me.


Thirty-five years after the 1944 serial, director Rod Holcomb and writer Don Ingalls were given their chance to bring a Captain America story to the screen. And like the 1944 serial, this 1979 CBS TV movie adaptation of the Cap property changes so much from the source material that it almost makes you wonder why CBS bothered to purchase the film rights in the first place. Of course, the answer is name recognition. Once they had the name and the concept in hand, they went about updating the story for then-modern day.

If you're watching a Captain America origin story, you probably expect it to be set during World War II, but that's not the case here. As played by Reb Brown, our hero-to-be Steve Rogers is introduced as man of the '70s. He has just gotten out of the Marines and now intends to spend the next few years drifting around, living in his van and working on his artwork. His chill plans are interrupted when some random goons keep making attempts on his life, and when a colleague of his father's, Dr. Simon Mills (Len Birman), gets in contact with him.

Steve learns that his scientist father had created a sort of "super steroid" from his own adrenal gland, a serum he called FLAG: Full Latent Ability Gain. This serum allows a person to perform at 100% capacity, making them stronger and faster. Unfortunately, since it was made from the glands of a Rogers, it will only work for a Rogers. Any other test subjects (test subjects being mice) always die from cell rejection within two weeks. Steve's dad injected himself with this steroid and used his abilities to stand up for the little guy - becoming a super crime fighter. Basically, this Steve Rogers is made out to be the son of the original Captain America (a name that was used to ridicule his father), although the origin is different from the comic.

When one of these attempts on his life is nearly successful, Steve is injected with the serum by Mills, and it saves him. Now imbued with superhuman abilities, Steve has a chance to stand up against the continuing onslaught of henchmen, who are working for the type of villain that used to be the comic book adaptation baddie of choice: The Unscrupulous Businessman. In this case, it's Lou Brackett (Steve Forrest) of Andreas Oil Company, who has been making pre-emptive strikes against Steve assuming he was going to end up being injected with the serum regardless. He needs Steve out of the way so he won't get in trouble for assembling a neutron bomb, which he's planning to detonate for the quickly mumbled purpose of gaining access to a gold depository. When the specifics of this plan are questioned, the question is completely disregarded.

Steve designs a costume for himself, his van and motorcycle are modified into battle vehicles, and he springs into action to thwart Brackett's plans. Captain America driving a van. This was definitely the '70s. Steve isn't all work, though. He also gives himself some time to romance lab worker Wendy Day (Heather Menzies).

If you go into this wanting to watch a good Captain America adaptation, you're not going to get it. This isn't Captain America. It is a very average '70s television production with some decent action scenes, most notably a moment when Steve ramps his motorcycle high enough that he can grab onto a villain's helicopter.

To properly enjoy this, you'll probably have to have some kind of affinity for '70s TV movies. Even though they were before my time, I do have an appreciation for them, so I can get some entertainment out of this ridiculous take on Cap. I would much rather have gotten a more faithful adaptation, but this is watchable, and it never lets too much time go past without some kind of action going on. It also serves as a kind of time capsule, a look back to an era when producers didn't understand comic book properties at all.



Accurate portrayal of Captain America or not, the 1979 TV movie was the only live action Captain America you were going to get back in those days, so it's a good that a sequel was made, coming along just ten months after its predecessor. A sequel was especially necessary because it took almost the entire running time of the first movie for Steve Rogers (Reb Brown) to actually become Captain America, so you need a follow-up just to see the star spangled avenger in action some more.

When Death Too Soon catches up with Steve Rogers, we find that he's balancing superheroic deeds with his true passion in life, wandering around in his van, hanging out on the beach, and painting portraits. He puts on the Cap costume and goes to work early on in this film, but it's to take on a street-level scourge. A pair of muggers.

Soon enough Simon Mills (Len Birman), the scientist who gave Steve the super serum, and Mills' assistant Wendy Day - who was Steve's love interest in the first movie, but the romance seems to have gone out of their relationship when Heather Menzies was recast with Connie Sellecca between films - notify him that there is a more Cap-level villain out there to be thwarted: infamous terrorist Miguel, who has in his possession a very dangerous substance.

The casting for Miguel, international terrorist, is absolutely perfect. Director Ivan Nagy had the opportunity to put Captain America up against one of cinema's all-time greats, Christopher Lee. But we were all let down a bit by the plot writers Wilton Schiller and Patricia Payne crafted for Miguel, which is indicative of the odd approach that was often taken to earlier comic book adaptations. While these adaptations wanted to capitalize on the popularity of the heroes, they were often afraid that audiences would find the comic book villains too silly, so they would pit the heroes against very down-to-earth, average villains. Like the oil company owner in the first Captain America TV movie. But then sometimes they would give these more real world villains ridiculous schemes, and that's what Schiller and Payne did with Miguel. Miguel has a weapon of mass destruction that could kill a lot of people, he wants to be paid $1 billion not to use it. And what is this weapon? A chemical that can cause people to age rapidly. Like "38 days per hour" rapidly.

So they won't give us Red Skull, but they will give us an aging accelerant?

They also gave us a movie where Steve spends a surprising amount of time painting pictures of a kitty cat and hanging out on a farm. But occasionally he does suit up, knock around some henchmen, throw his boomerang shield around, and rip around on his motorcycle. He rides his motorcycle a lot.

I can't imagine that Captain America II: Death Too Soon has ever been seen as the ideal Captain American movie by anybody. Despite the increased Cap action and the presence of Christopher Lee, who really doesn't have that much screen time, this one turned out to be rather dull for the most part. That made it even more disappointing than the first TV movie for me, because there was more squandered potential this time around. An established Captain America taking on Christopher Lee should have made for an awesome movie.

At least this one provides an amusing moment in which Cap rocket-boosts his motorcycle off the side of a dam to escape from some enemies. We watch his motorcycle fall through the air and slam down on the side of the dam, it looks like he's made a terrible mistake. But rest assured, Cap walks away from this just fine. This isn't the last we see of his motorcycle, either. Not by far. The motorcycle comes back later so Cap can pull off such tricks as picking it up and throwing it over a large wall, and turning it into a hang glider.


In 1990, just ahead of the 50th anniversary of the titular character's comic book debut, it finally happened - a Captain America movie was made that had more than a superficial connection to the source material. Directed by Albert Pyun and written by Stephen Tolkin and Lawrence J. Block, the 1990 film makes an attempt to tell a version of the Cap origin story that we're familiar with, and it features his most well-known enemy from the comic books, Red Skull. Problem is, this Menahem Golan post-Cannon production was made on a low budget and suffered a bit from financial issues. It had ambition beyond its means.

The film begins with some serious intensity in 1936 Italy, when Nazi soldiers abduct a young Italian boy and massacre everyone who was in his house with him. The boy, a piano prodigy named Tadzio de Santis, is taken away to a fortress, where he is made the unwilling subject of the experimental Project Rebirth, which will make him twice as intelligent and twice as strong... The unfortunate side effect, as demonstrated on a rat, being that it will also turn him into the freakish-looking Red Skull.

Project Rebirth is the brainchild of Dr. Maria Vaselli (Carla Cassola), who defects to the United States. In 1943, the government decides to use Vaselli's process to create their own super soldier to send to the frontlines during World War II. Looking for volunteers, they find Steve Rogers (Matt Salinger, son of author JD Salinger), a patriotic young man from Redondo Beach, California who wants to serve his country but had polio and was left with a limp. Steve says goodbye to his mom, played by A Christmas Story's Melinda Dillon, and his girlfriend Bernie (Kim Gillingham), who promises to wait for him forever, and is taken away to a laboratory hidden beneath a small cafe.

Steve is given the codename Captain America ("He may not be Superman, but he'll be a living symbol of what this country stands for.") and his body is enhanced by Vaselli's science. While the Captain America movie made twenty years later would use digital trickery to make Chris Evans look scrawny as Steve Rogers before he's made into the super soldier, this one just had Salinger limp and hide his muscles under loose clothes. It works, though. Salinger is a tall guy, but he does look scrawny and impaired in his early scenes.

The Captain America experiment is a success, but then a man in the lab turns out to be a Nazi spy and opens fire, killing Vaselli and wounding Steve. Fighting through his wounds, he stops the spy... and then Lieutenant Colonel Louis (Michael Nouri) wants to send him on his first mission almost immediately after he's out of surgery. Lucky he heals from his gunshot wounds in record time.

Suited up in the fireproof costume Vaselli designed for him, Captain America parachutes into Germany and infilitrates a missile launch site, where an adult Red Skull (Scott Paulin) has a missile aimed at the White House. He gets to knock around some Nazis and do some damage with his boomerang shield, but he proves to be no match for Red Skull, who has had seven years to adjust to his abilities. Red Skull is down one hand by the time their encounter is over, but Cap has it worse - he's strapped to the missile when it's fired.

Cap's mission is a success, as he's able to make the missile go off course, saving the life of his fellow polio survivor FDR. The missile lands somewhere in Alaska's snowy arctic tundra... where Captain America remains frozen for the next fifty years.

By 1993, environmentally-minded Tom Kimball (Ronny Cox, who said the script for Captain America was the best he ever read, and was disappointed by the finished film), who witnessed Captain America and the missile narrowly missing the White House when he was a kid, has become President of the United States by the "narrowest margin in history" - tough to beat the one electoral vote Rutherford B. Hayes won by in 1876. When Kimball orders cutbacks on pollution, the traitorous General Fleming (A Christmas Story's Darren McGavin) plots with Red Skull, who over the last 50 years has found a way to get some regular skin back on his face, to take control over this new Presidenet with a mind-controlling brain implant.

Red Skull has been pulling the strings of the world in the decades since Captain America thwarted his missile plan, he was behind the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, but he's not going to have the best of the luck with this "take over the President" plan, because Cap is back. Some people stumble across him in the Alaskan snow, dig him out in a block of ice, and as soon as the ice thaws a bit he comes exploding out of it... And all of this described so far happens within the first 35 minutes.

Before Cap goes after Red Skull, though, he heads to California to visit Bernice. He finds his twenty-two year old girlfriend is now a seventy-two year old woman (Gillingham in old age makeup), but she has stayed in the same house all this time in hopes that Steve would someday show up at her door. She waited for him for sixteen years, then got married because she wanted to have a child. Her daughter Sharon (Gillingham with blonde hair) will assist Steve on the adventure to follow - after Bernice has been murdered by the henchmen Red Skull has sent out to kill Captain America, lackeys led by his daughter Valentina de Santis (Francesca Neri).

The origin, the freezing, the thawing, battles with Red Skull, the reunion with his love interest after decades... Captain America 1990 packs a large amount of the events of both Captain America: The First Avenger and Captain America: The Winter Soldier into one 97 minute running time. It's just missing the resurrection of Bucky; at this time, it was believed Bucky was one of the few dead comic book characters who would stay dead. He didn't even make it into this movie.

All this, and there's even some time for Ned Beatty to play reporter Sam Kolawetz, Tom Kimball's lifelong best friend who was able to deduce in 1943 that the guy on the missile wasn't the Submariner or the Human Torch (World War II Human Torch, not Fantastic Four Human Torch).

Captain America 1990 isn't great, but it's a lot better than its reputation might lead you to believe. It's actually a decent attempt to bring Cap to the screen in a time when Marvel characters weren't yet set up at the major Hollywood studios. It tried to tell the story in a respectful way.

Salinger isn't an inspiring Captain America, but he scrapes by. Watching it nearly thirty years later, the real standout of the film for me is Kim Gillingham, who does some great work as Bernice/Sharon, especially when she's in sidekick mode as Sharon. I'm left wishing Gillingham had a better, bigger career, because she's good enough that I shouldn't only know her for this movie.

I watched this movie a lot as a kid, I enjoyed it and was satisfied with it as my first live action Captain America. To say it pales in comparison to the movies made these days is an understatement, but for its time I thought it was good.

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