Captain Video Flies Home
That fine nostalgia site Matinee At The Bijou was in touch this week concerning Greenbriar’s July 2006 post on Captain Video. They’d recently come across some You Tube’d episodes of the original 1949-55 DuMont series and planned to incorporate these into an updated version of the GB story. For not keeping up with You Tube, I had no idea these shows had been submitted there, as my info was that virtually all of them were lost. I’ve learned since of thirty or less existing, some offered on DVD by Alpha Video and others scattered about the PD wilderness. What began as a paragraph footnote for a three-year old GB entry about the 1951 serial became what follows after I watched and was thoroughly captivated by television’s Captain Video. Matinee At The Bijou will be featuring one of these vintage episodes on their blog screen this week as our two sites link up for this Captain Video look-back. Be sure to catch Matinee’s CV upload for thirty minutes of retro viewing joy. And while you’re there, check out their archive for much vintage stuff to watch, and a wonderful piece run recently where animation experts and fans were asked to pick their favorite cartoon, a great idea for a post I wish I’d had.
Unlike Columbia’s serial photographed with conventional 35mm cameras, Captain Video was shot using Dumont’s Electronicom, a device that by its very name implies something exotic and futuristic. The Electronicom’s dual capacity allowed for both live transmission and a Kinescope capture, the latter being 16mm film that was sent to stations playing a later broadcast of Captain Video. If DuMont hadn’t junked their Kines, we’d have something other than faint record of this very first science fiction series for television. Maybe limited samplings are enough, though. Much as I enjoyed the one off You Tube, it could be hazardous sitting through a raft of these things, no matter one’s sentiment over afternoons before the Zenith with its porthole screen (all twelve inches as shown in the 1950 model here). That last part was an essential to Video Ranger membership, plus necessity of being around in the late forties/early fifties to properly experience the show. I've never seen a round screened TV in action, having come closest perhaps in front of washing machines running with a full load (and who’s to say that would be any less engaging than much of early television?). To have grown up transfixed by such a contraption seems inconceivable, but viewers younger than myself can't imagine TV sans color, so I guess all of us reach our own level of obsolescence eventually. When did programming lose the zeal of Captain Video and its kin? Every pitch is an impassioned one. Announcers come on like tent preachers. TV gave up a lot when it became the so-called cool medium analysts talk about.
Captain Video sponsors included Post cereals and a candy bar called Powerhouse (ever had one? I don’t think I have, and sweets are my lifelong obsession). It would be great seeing all the CV commercials. For two nickel Powerhouse wrappers and ten cents in coin, you got by mail a Captain Video identifying ring. It must have been great living in the summit era of prizes and premiums. Addresses were so simple too. You’d reach the Captain through a bare-bones New York postal box, as if that metropolis were some rural route with letters finding their destination no matter the scrawl on envelopes. I once sent Kellogg’s boxtops for a Great Sounds of 1959 LP, so I have at least some idea of what it was like for kids ten years earlier awaiting delivery of Captain Video gimcracks. In a world gone daffy over cholesterol and carbon footprints, it’s refreshing to visit a time when children were beset with such irresponsible marketing. Longtime CV partner Post Sugar Crisp was a tooth-rotting harbinger of diabetic seizures to come and every bit as lethal as interplanetary tyrants the Captain proposed to dispel. Each little puff of Sugar Crisp is coated with candy, he'd say, inveigling youngsters to consume non-stop. Why weren’t more kids fat back then like they are today?
A character they call Lieutenant Cromwell tries seizing a Ranger rocket (upon being disarmed by him, I’d swear one of the Rangers said Damn You, Lt. Cromwell … at least that’s what it sounded like). This guy’s sonorous line readings are better than any of his opponents, so I wanted him to succeed. He also resembled John Dehner, but turned out to be an actor named David Lewis. I looked up Lewis on imdb and it seems Captain Video was the first credit of a career that lasted many years. Here’s more CV trivia: Ernest Borginine got early work as an interstellar heavy, but I’m not sure any of his episodes exist. Captain Video players often trip over dialogue that would tax a Barrymore. Blow up the nucleus of the comet by bombarding it with atom blasts!, this doable thanks to comet interiors being made up of meteoric masses. Everything by way of excitement is talked about rather than shown. It’s like radio with fuzzy pictures. Trips to Pluto are frequent offscreen events. You really had to use imagination to groove with Captain Video. I’d have preferred my science fiction in comic books, frankly. Were others of the same mind? Only 24 stations countrywide ran Captain Video to a viewership estimated at 3.5 million (gee, isn’t that about what network news is drawing nowadays?). I’m surprised so many fans remember the Captain.
There were two Captain Videos. The first resembled a young Rock Hudson and the second was more John Wayne-ish. That was Al Hodge, a name destined for obscurity once his character departed from airwaves in April 1955. You couldn’t syndicate Captain Video for its going out live or on kinescopes, so there was little to remember him by other than scattered toys and merchandise bearing the name. Hodge accommodated our darker expectations as to what became of discarded TV personalities by finishing (1979) in what’s said to have been a tiny apartment surrounded by Captain Video bric-a-brac. Well, if he’d gone out prosperous, would I have mentioned it at all? Lifelong fans are defensive of integrity they ascribe to Captain Video. Sets we call threadbare are (they say) at least equals of what other primitive series were hanging, and maybe I’d agree given access to more televised stuff from that era. Truth is, no one was doing programs so early on that could stand beside features or TV to come. Is it a wonder Hollywood regarded home viewing with such contempt? Captain Video was for filling its daily thirty minutes with anything that could talk or move, never mind what or where. One device (my favorite) was when the Captain activated his Remote Tele-Carrier to monitor progress his "California Agents" were making. These included Ken Maynard, Johnny Mack Brown, Raymond Hatton … whatever buckaroo might be pillaged from B westerns excerpted in eight or so fragmentary minutes. The CV crew would use these breaks to change sets and load ray guns (which never, ever killed or even injured anyone). It didn’t matter where they dropped the needle on a cowboy show. Such was filler and nothing else. Parts I watched made no sense whatever, with Buster Crabbe’s image so poorly rendered as to be recognizable only by his voice. Still it’s wonderful to experience kid programming this audacious. Maybe Captain Video’s episode ending tribute to America’s educational system was a kind of compensation for mind numbing he propagated during evening hours, along with his assurance that in other countries, the school system is ineffectual. Child viewers might well have wondered how the Captain sized up public education on Pluto.