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Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Captain Video In The Movies

I wish I’d been ten years old around 1954 so I could look at shows like Captain Video, Rocky Jones -- Space Ranger, and Space Patrol on a primitive black-and-white television with one of those peculiar roundish screens. By the appearance of (few) surviving episodes today, it must have been like watching animated cave drawings. These were puppet shows with people instead of socks. Guys would sit for thirty minutes in front of a "control panel" and talk endlessly about whatever galaxy they happened to be passing through, but we never saw anything other than painted backdrops. They say Captain Video’s TV adventures were filmed largely on an upstairs floor at a Manhattan hotel. Virtually all were unceremoniously dumped into New York harbor over forty-five years ago, so I’m unable to offer anything other than anecdotal evidence as to what Captain Video might have been like on TV, but I can tell you that Columbia’s serial spin-off is great. They shot it late in 1951 after two years of popularity generated on the twenty-four nationwide DuMont network affiliates (we didn’t have one in North Carolina). DuMont claimed it was the first television series adapted for the movies, forgetting the previous year’s The Goldbergs, and perhaps one or two others as well. Each hand washed the other, as theatres were encouraged to promote the Captain Video series in their lobbies (broadcast Monday-Friday), while DuMont followed TV episodes with a slide announcing Columbia’s serial.

Determined to sample early TV sci-fi, I put on a DVD of some Rocky Jones – Space Ranger shows. Within ten minutes, I was slipping in and out of consciousness to the reassuring monotonic recitation of various scientific principles as they apply to space travel and quelling interstellar despots. It was like that relaxing sensation you get when you’re lying in bed and it’s raining outside. Rocky’s adventures evoked a gentle downpour on a tin roof for me --- who needs Ambien when you’ve got a sleep aid like this? Anyway, it was as close as I could get to a real Captain Video episode, but if the Videos were as economical as the Rockys, then I’ll have to say this Columbia serial, cheap as it is, looks like Intolerance beside them. There’s the usual combination of rocket ships and 40’s sedans, each racing thither and yon to no discernable purpose, and the special effects have a way of reaffirming their determination to be as unconvincing as possible with each succeeding chapter. Animation is used to depict flights through space in much the same manner as Superman "flew" in those two Columbia serial monstrosities that preceded Captain Video. There are no women in this serial --- not one that I recall --- so you need not worry about mushy stuff, though I did ponder as to how the Captain’s youthful sidekick, "Video Ranger," could be expected to develop necessary social skills amidst such a total deprivation of feminine association, but perhaps I take these things too seriously.

The inspired use of Cinecolor allows us to view the various outlaw planets in a pleasing mosaic of tinted hues, as you can see here in captured frames. This really livened up the serial for me, even though each and all of those planets looked very much like terrain that had hosted Tim McCoy, Charles Starrett, Gene Autry, and maybe even the Three Stooges
. Speaking of Autry, there is an "army" of robots (I counted three) whose service record went all the way back to The Phantom Empire in 1935 --- and even beyond that --- having made their initial screen appearance opposite Joan Crawford in a deleted musical number from Dancing Lady (1933)! Judd Holdren is Captain Video, or should I say Judd Holdren is Captain Video. Anyway, he's the titular character, and as it turned out, this would be one of Judd's few leads. Others have accused him of abominable thesping, as though he were reading lines off-camera not seen hitherto. Again, I don’t like to be hard on actors. Holdren is not a Gielgud. His resume did not likely include seasons at the Old Vic, and yet he’s perfect here amidst the cut-rate trappings of a Columbia 50’s serial, and so I doff my hat to his memory, and Larry (youthful woman-deprived Video Ranger) Stewart’s as well.

Captain Video delivered sockeroo coin and quickly took pride of place at the very top of Columbia’s serial grosser charts, ranking all time third highest behind Superman (domestic rentals of $856,000) and Atom Man vs. Superman ($528,000) with a tidy haul of $398,000, mighty healthy numbers for a serial in those declining years. Columbia really got behind the product too, as you’ll see from numerous tie-ins shown here. Those Post cereals were no doubt consumed on camera during the TV show --- intergalactic warriors frequently hawked mail-in premiums and bric-a-brac. I like that very stylish Captain Video playsuit --- I shouldn’t think a child would be remiss in wearing it to Sunday School --- sans holster, of course, though I’ve no doubt dress codes were somewhat more rigid in 1951. The Captain Video wallet probably lasted about as long as my cousin’s Famous Monsters Of Filmland billfold, which is to say no more than a month or so, though I still envied him that colorful accessory. Imagine a 1951 exhibitor ordering these comic books by the hundreds for two and a half cents apiece. What an annuity those would be today! Forward thinking showmen could build a place in Florida for what they're no doubt worth. Major studios weren't above using Captain Video to promote their own theatrical product. Here he is selling The Rocket Man, a 1954 sci-fi comedy from Fox. If I had the smarts to learn "Captain Video Talk," I’d probably chuck this site and apply to medical school. The serial is awash with technical mumbo-jumbo that would stump Stephen Hawking --- believe me, the words shown here are the easy ones. The Captain Video club card was a given for any serial --- theatres would issue one to each child with the first chapter, then punch out numbers as they returned for succeeding shows --- the payoff would be a free admission for the conclusion of the chapterplay. Exhibitors were also encouraged to "invite local scientists" to a screening of the first chapter, after which they would be interviewed as to the remarkable "harbingers of future triumphs" on view in Captain Video. Those future triumphs would include but a few more Columbia serials, as the company would throw in the towel five years later with the final chapterplay of them all, Blazing The Overland Trail.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The Goldbergs" had run on radio for over 15 years by this time, so the movie can't count as a TV-to-film adaptation, but rather it's radio-to-film adaptation (which was certainly nothing new).

11:07 AM  
Anonymous Steve on the mountain said...

I was one of those 10-year olds in front of the set in 1954. I remember the robots. I'd forgotten their stylish fedoras.

11:15 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

My information indicates that "The Goldbergs" premiered on CBS television in January 1949, and the feature followed a year later --- so I would maintain that it's a TV-to-film adaptation. Another feature that opened prior to "Captain Video" was "Queen For A Day", which I did not mention in the post because it did actually precede the TV program and was indeed based on the radio series, so that one would be a radio-to-film adaptation.

12:07 PM  
Anonymous Laughing Gravy said...

GREAT feature; thank you. I wrote the cheezy (but enthusiastic) liner notes that accompanied the CAPTAIN VIDEO DVD from VCI, and could've used this info; where th' heck were you when we needed you? I am quite proud of being the guy who "suggested" (begged?) VCI to use the color tinting effects for the DVD. I think it looks terrific. A very fun serial.

12:32 PM  
Blogger Mariana said...

Hi, John! Do you know who this actress is?

She looks like a very young and cheerful Ann Sheridan, do you think it's her?

2:17 PM  
Blogger J.C. Loophole said...

Interesting little thing...
I happened to be watching Out of the Past and being a loyal Greenbrier reader something struck a choard: Dickie Roberts. Roberts played "The Kid", or the Deaf Kid in the film. When I was checking out more about his career come to find out not only was he featured placing a the first screen smacker on Shirley Temple in Miss Annie Rooney, as per your earlier-in-the week post, but low and behold, he is also listed as a cast member playing "Jeff" in the Captain Video TV series. (And he's married to Jane Powell) Very interesting how there are so many threads and links if you look for them.

2:53 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

To Laughing Gravy --- Your notes for the "Captain Video" DVD were wonderful --- I consulted them when I prepared this posting. Had no idea you were the author, but belated thanks for your essay --- and for the continuing pleasure of your "In The Balcony" website ---

To Mariana --- Just checked out that link --- on the one hand, I'd say Ann Sheridan, but I couldn't swear to it. Anybody else got any possibilities?

To J.C. Loophole --- Not familiar with Dickie Roberts, but that's Dickie Moore in "Out Of The Past" and "Miss Annie Rooney", though I wouldn't be surprised to hear that Dickie Moore also turned up in an early sci-fi TV show. Scotty Beckett's a regular on "Rocky Jones -- Space Ranger".

3:58 PM  
Blogger Jerry Beck said...

You said "this would be about the last we’d see of Judd in leads (other than a serial follow-up, The Lost Planet)" but I think Judd this was the FIRST we'd see of Judd in leads. He starred as COMMANDO CODY (1952) and as "Larry Martin" in ZOMBIES OF THE STRATOSPHERE (1952) at Republic after this, as well as "Rex Barrow" in THE LOST PLANET (1953).

I love this serial. One of Columbia's best. I'd love to know more about Judd Holdren after he gave up on acting. I heard he committed suicide.

4:18 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Right you are, Jerry. I'd forgotten about "Commando Cody". Has anyone seen any of those episodes? Not the serial, but the things that were done for both TV and theatrical distribution ... I've never heard of any being around, and I'd be very curious to see them. About Judd Holdren's death, I had read that he took his life. Don't know why, and hesitated to mention it in an otherwise light-hearted post. Should I have?

4:26 PM  
Anonymous Ranger Louis said...

Greetings, Video Rangers. The Captain's Opticon Scillometer is still on sharp-focus frequency at .

Spaceman's luck to you, Rangers, and remember to throw out those interlocks!

=o Ranger Louis o=

5:25 PM  
Blogger Oscar Grillo said...

Great to see photos of my hero: Gene Roth!...Eugene Stutenroth acted every blacksmith, barman, small time crook, sheriff, German spy and enemy alien in almost every serial ever made...I always wonder how was it for him getting back home from a day of shooting and the children asking: "What have you done today at work, daddy?"

11:07 PM  
Blogger J.C. Loophole said...

You are correct as always. I meant Dickie Moore, because Dickie Roberts is that awful movie with David Spade which happened to be on yesterday as well- "Dickie Roberts: Child Star." Sorry, so many names in this rattled brain of mine that some them can find themselves mixed together in the oddest of places.

9:04 AM  
Blogger Jerry Beck said...

I've got a nice bootleg video tape of the 12 episode COMMANDO CODY series. I think that show, and the Columbia CAPTAIN VIDEO serial, are the two best, definitive, examples of the early 50s "space cadet craze". I've seen 'em all (ROCKY JONES, SPACE PATROL, TOM CORBETT, et al) and these two Judd Holdren shows are superior productions - and most inporatantly, fun!

11:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The late Andy Kaufman, on discovering that CAPTAIN VIDEO was an adventure series, commented "I thought Captain Video was a guy who stood in front of the camera and talked to you!!"[a memory from my meeting Andy Kaufman around 1981]

9:14 PM  
Anonymous Mike In Ohio said...

I worked as an assistant to the projectionist at a revival theater in St Pete Fla. in and around 1975. The owner wanted a "full bill" like the old days so he showed a cartoon, coming attractions,and a serial chapter. The serial he kiched off with was Captain Video. Over the next couple weeks I watched this fun serial unfold as the opening fare to the likes of "Gone With The Wind", "It Happened One Night", "Lost Horizon", and a beautiful Technicolor 35mm print of "Trail Of The Lonesome Pine". When I noted to the owner- operator that his somewhat camp 50's serial didn't quite fit in with his classic 30's fare, he informed me that he had tried to get "Flash Gordon" but the rental was higher than the features he was showing vs. what he got Captain Video from Columbia for, which he said was "dirt cheap"

12:43 PM  
Anonymous Mike Tennant said...

Funny that they didn't get Al Hodge, who played Captain Video on TV, to star in the movies. For that matter, it doesn't appear that they got any of the other principals from the show. (Perhaps they could have gotten Richard Coogan, who preceded Hodge as the captain, but that might have been uncomfortable for all concerned.) Were Hodge and others too busy doing the live TV show? Were they stuck in New York and thus unable to be in the movies? I would think kids would be disappointed to go to the theater to see their hero on the big screen only to find a completely different cast.

11:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Goldbergs ran on radio from 1929 to 1949, before moving to the big and small screens. So it's definitely a radio-to-film adaptation. (See
columns/retro/200002.phtml, as well as or

3:09 PM  

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