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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

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.


Blogger Mike Cline said...

One of the stars of CAPTAIN VIDEO was a fine journeyman actor, Don Hastings.

Don has spent a lifetime on CBS daytime dramas, appearing on THE EDGE OF NIGHT when it premiered in 1956, before switching to another Proctor & Gamble program you may have heard of...AS THE WORLD TURNS.
Don joined the ATWT's cast in 1960 and 49 years later, is still a cast member of the perenial sudser.

9:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Al Hodge was also the first Green Hornet on radio, and the longest-running actor in that role. Those early shows are a lot of fun -- smashing up small time racketeers, insurance fraudsters, cons bilking old ladies out of their pension, etc. Life and its perils were simpler back then.


11:22 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Interesting to read an account of the Electronicam other than "The Honeymooners." I read some account of "The Honeymooners" that said Electronicam was not a kinescope setup, but rather a system that incorporated a live-TV camera and a regular motion-picture camera. Each time the live feed changed angles, the film camera would receive a pulse signal, indicating where the developed film should be cut to match what went out over the air. So instead of yielding a kinescope print, the finished product would be of standard motion-picture quality instead of off-the-tube kinescope quality. I'm sure there are some vintage-technology experts on the Web who go into this. (Not as much fun as your stuff, John!)

3:02 PM  
Anonymous joe dante said...

I'm SO old (>sob<) that I remember watching CAPTAIN VIDEO...and MEETING AL HODGE (a friend of my dad's), in costume, on the set of Junior Frolics, a local New York area cartoon show with a kiddie gallery in the early 50s. Our round screen tv blew up a year or so after we got it, so no tv for another year or two. But the Captain was the beginning of everything for me.

12:00 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Wow, Joe. What I wouldn't give for memories like that. My brother and sisters were sitting home watching "Ramar Of The Jungle" on the afternoon I was born. I've often wished since I could have traded places with them and experienced all that early television ...

6:10 AM  
Blogger Erik Weems said...

Good overview (which seems to be a special Greenbriar talent). I've read of Cap'n Video all my life in the usual places, and seen tiny bits in documentaries, and this write-up makes is seem like a pretty lovable program.

Regarding the old days of postal delivery, I once worked for an attorney in Washington DC who regularly got mail addressed with just his name, the city and a stamp. I think this was when hand-sorting still played a big part, and humans knew where the letter should go (the lawyer was pretty well-known), versus a computer.

3:21 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

I remember watching Captain Video when we first got our TV, which must have been in late 1952 or early '53. But I remember only a few seconds of a single episode. It was a sign-off teaser -- "Tune in tomorrow when you will see..." or something like that -- of a huge robot strangling a man. I remember the robot looked like a stack of cardboard cartons and oatmeal boxes covered in tinfoil, and that the teaser took place in a narrow pool of light, as if they hadn't gotten around to building the set yet. (But what's the hurry, they had another day yet, right?) You've piqued my curiosity, and I've put a couple of discs in my Netflix queue. Wouldn't be surprised if I yield to the temptation to check out YouTube before the discs arrive.

And yes, I've had a Powerhouse bar. I seem to recall peanuts.

1:51 AM  
Blogger Paul Penna said...

Certainly by the time of the "Classic 39" Honeymooners episodes in 1955, the film function of Dumont's Electronicam system delivered 35mm prints of the live performance, not a film of a TV monitor. You only have to look at the official DVD set to tell.

Here's a page that shows a surviving Electronicam, plus period stills of it in use with both Captain Video and The Honeymooners:

2:04 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks for that link, Paul. Amazing that one of these has survived.

2:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In 1981 I met the late Andy Kaufman, and we were talking about 50s kids TV shows.When he discovered that Captain Video was an adventure show, he said "I thought that Captain Video was a guy who sat in front of the camera and talked to you!". But it turned out that Hodge had switched to that format later.

4:45 PM  

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