Movie serials had been in decline through the late 1920's and the early '30's as long-form motion pictures and sound came to dominate the industry. Then in 1936, Universal Studios brought forth Flash Gordon, a serial adapted from the newspaper comic strip drawn by Alex Raymond, starring Olympic swimmer Buster Crabbe and the stunningly gorgeous Jean Rogers. It had three times the budget of the typical serial of the day, and its action and production values blew audiences away.
The success of this serial led the studios to make more serials based on comic strips. Ultimately, they started to turn to comic book superheroes. Republic Pictures at first tried to make a Superman serial but could not come to an agreement with the company that owned him, So they turned to Fawcett, and Captain Marvel. Thus, in 1941, did Captain Marvel become the first comic book superhero in any motion picture.
The Adventures of Captain Marvel is generally acknowledged to be one of the best serials ever made, and its cast had an amazing set of pedigrees. Tom Tyler (Captain Marvel) was a champion weightlifter and a member of the US Olympic team in 1928. He appeared in many westerns as well as Gone With the Wind. Frankie Coghlan Jr. (Billy Batson) played boys and teenagers for most of his career, and ultimately wound up in an episode of the Shazam! TV series. Louise Currie (Betty Wallace) appeared in movies with such stars as Bela Lugosi, Orson Welles, Gene Autry, and W.C. Fields. William “Whitey” Benedict (Whitey Murphy) was a Dead End Kid and a Bowery Boy. Nigel deBrulier (Shazam) had played Cardinal Richelieu in five different movies, was in most of the big silent epics, and had been in a silent film version of Oscar Wilde's Salome that was featured in the documentary Before Stonewall (this was not the only connection to the gay community that the name of Capitan Marvel would have). Gerald Mohr, who played the voice of The Scorpion, the villain of the story, in 1967 went on to play the voice of Green Lantern/Hal Jordan in "The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure,” and Mister Fantastic in “The Fantastic Four.”
When Superman was finally made into a serial by Columbia pictures starring Kirk Allyn in 1948, the studio got in a dig at Captain Marvel. They used a lot of stock costumes to populate the planet Krypton, the home planet of Superman's father, Jor-El. One of those costumes, worn by Jor-El's adversary on the Science Council, was the costume Tom Tyler wore in The Adventures of Captain Marvel.
Quick trivia: In the days of black-and-white film, various shades of gray were sometimes used to simulate color on screen. The costume Tom Tyler wore as Captain Marvel was actually gray, but “looked” like red on screen.
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