Spencer Gordon Bennet – Captain Video, Master of the Stratosphere (1951)

This is one of the worst Columbia science fiction serials. That said, it does have a couple of interesting qualities. First, it has some very unusual cliff hangers, but there’s no set up that allows you to guess ‘How do they get out of it?’ Almost every one is a cheat, with Captain Video pulling out a new secret gadget to neutralize the terror, or Gallagher (Don C. Harvey, usually a ‘henchman’ in other serials and movies) in the Control Room twirling dials and flipping switches to save our heroes. When a fire in a well fails to burn them, Captain Video explains that it’s because human bodies from Earth react differently to the atmosphere of Theros. But there’s only one ‘jump out of the car before it explodes / goes over the cliff’ cliff hanger! As usual, it’s the stirring narration by Knox Manning at the end of each episode that teases you into wanting to watch the next chapter.

The real fun and the best part of the serial are the names of the gadgets! The ‘hose-inator’ sucks up poisonous gas; the ‘degravitator’ counteracts gravity by creating a ‘sonic air cushion’ which allows our heroes to fall slowly and safely to Earth from deep space; their ‘inertializer’ paralyzes the bad guys; bombs are defused by an ‘anti-detonator’— wow! The list goes on and on! There’s ‘the space platform,’ the ‘optican skillometer,’ the ‘thermograph,’ the giant binoculars called ‘scanning goggles,’ the ‘atmospheric locator,’ the ‘static beam,’ ‘platinite,’ the ‘stethapod,’ the ‘interference ray,’ ‘hyrogenic radiations,’ the ‘magnetic impulse detector,’ the ‘diathermic accelerator,’ ‘paralyzing vapor bombs,’ the ‘space radiophone,’ the ‘palm mike’ (a kind of mini-walkee talkee), the ‘cosmic vibrator,’ and the ‘cloak of invisibility.’

Captain Video: Master of the Stratosphere is a 15-chapter serial released by Columbia Pictures in 1951. It was directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet and Wallace A. Grissel with a screenplay by Royal G. Cole, Sherman I. Lowe and Joseph F. Poland, based on a treatment by George H. Plympton. The serial is unique for several reasons— in particular, it is the first and last film serial ever based on a television program, Captain Video and his Video Rangers.

Judd Holdren, in what was only his second starring screen role, plays Captain Video, the leader of a group of crime-fighters known as the Video Rangers. He faces an interplanetary menace, as the evil dictator of the planet Atoma, Vultura (Gene Roth) and his lackey, the traitorous earth scientist Dr. Tobor (George Eldredge) are planning to conquer the earth.

Cast

* Judd Holdren as Captain Video
* Larry Stewart as Ranger
* George Eldredge as Dr. Tobor
* Gene Roth as Vultura
* Don C. Harvey as Gallagher
* Skelton Knaggs as Retner
* William Fawcett as Alpha
* Jack Ingram as Aker, a henchman
* I. Stanford Jolley as Zarol
* Jimmy Stark as Ranger Rogers
* Rusty Wescoatt as Beal, a henchman
* Zon Murray as Elko’, a henchman

Captain Video was the only serial adapted from television.

As produced by Sam Katzman, the serial has a production budget seemingly not much larger than the famously tiny budget of the DuMont Television Network’s live daily teleseries.

Republic Pictures used and reused the same basic plot in Radar Men from the Moon, Zombies of the Stratosphere and Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe in 1951 – 1953, and borrowed Holdren himself for the latter two serials. The Captain Video chapterplay is a bit more satisfying to science-fiction fans, because it does make an effort to keep the action interplanetary, instead of earthbound. Captain Video and his teenaged sidekick, the otherwise nameless “Video Ranger” (Larry Stewart), must make frequent visits both to Atoma and to another distant planet, Theros.

Both Atoma and Theros are impersonated by Bronson Canyon, so to distinguish the two, the Atoma footage is tinted pink and the Theros footage is tinted green in the original release prints. These colored scenes were processed by Cinecolor.

In the Captain Video teleseries, “Tobor” is the name of a large robot, who was one of the series’ most popular characters. Calling a villain “Dr. Tobor” may have been intended to fool young theater-goers into thinking they would see the robot in the serial. In fact, the only robots on view are the ludicrous cardboard, fedora-wearing robots seen in the 1935 Gene Autry serial The Phantom Empire. (These were originally built as dancing robots, for the 1933 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer musical Dancing Lady).

This was the second of only three science fiction serials released by Columbia. The third, The Lost Planet (1953), is a virtual sequel although with different character names,[2] The slaves of The Lost Planet’s evil extraterrestrial dictator Reckov (also Gene Roth) inexplicably all wear uniforms that look like those of the Video Rangers of 1951. In any case, the hero in The Lost Planet is a newspaper reporter named Rex Barrow, also played by Judd Holdren. As in the Captain Video serial, there is also an evil earth scientist, Dr. Grood (Michael Fox), in cahoots with Reckov of the Lost Planet.

Captain Video was very successful when first released to theaters, and kept playing long after other serials had been retired to the vaults. It is one of only two serials that Columbia reissued three times (in 1958, 1960, and 1963).

Harmon and Glut describe this serial as a “rather shoddy, low budget space cliffhanger.”

The serial includes several science fiction gadgets of the era. The Opticon Scillometer was used for looking through walls. Objects were made to disappear with the Isotropic Radiation Curtain. The Mu-ray Camera could photograph lingering images after the event. Temporary madness could be caused with the Psychosomatic Weapon. A variation on Radar was entitled the Radionic Directional Beam and the Radionic Guide.[1]

Chapter titles

1. Journey into Space
2. Menace of Atoma
3. Captain Video’s Peril
4. Entombed in Ice
5. Flames of Atoma
6. Astray in the Stratosphere
7. Blasted by the Atomic Eye
8. Invisible Menace
9. Video Springs a Trap
10. Menace of the Mystery Metal
11. Weapon of Destruction
12. Robot Rocket
13. Mystery of Station X
14. Vengeance of Vultura
15. Video vs. Vultura
======================================================

Remember, this was made in the days of when you could order your ‘decoder ring’ and other gadgets from the top SF TV shows of the time — the best of which in all ways was ‘Space Patrol’ (1950) which offered home versions of gadgets used on the show. (And then again, you get one for free in a box of cereal!)

What makes this one really weak as a serial: too much walking or driving around outside (but it’s in the great slanted rocks of the Iverson Ranch in Chatsworth); bland hero; costumes from the stock room; no physical contact between the hero and head villain, Vultura (Gene Roth, a left over from the Three Stooges shorts)– in fact, as someone who wants to rule the universe, he spends virtually all his screen time talking into hand held microphones and showing his flabby stomach. There’s too much time spent by all the characters twisting dials, flipping switches, using microphones, and staring into video screens (‘the optical skillometer’).

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One comment

  1. Thank You for posting this serial.

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