"Oh, Elders fleet and strong and wise, appear before my seeking eyes."
The Big Red Cheese had me at "Shazam!" Warner Bros.' fabulous Archive Collection, the super-secret vault of coveted, hard-to-find cult movie and TV classics, has released Shazam! The Complete Live Action Series, a 3-disc, 28-episode collection of the beloved CBS superhero series that aired from 1974-1976. A must-see Saturday morning program when I was growing up in the mid-70s, Shazam! plays just as well today with kids who may indeed laugh at those charmingly hokey special effects...but who will also respond to the genuineness of these zippy little morality tales. No extras (unlike those terrific Filmation boxed sets from the late, great BCI Eclipse) for these acceptable transfers.
I guess a brief rundown of Captain Marvel wouldn't hurt here (and I'm no expert so cut me some slack if I get something wrong). Premiering in 1939 for Fawcett's Whiz Comics, Captain Marvel was created by artist C.C. Beck and writer Bill Parker. While it's certainly open for debate among comic historians, Captain Marvel's resemblance to Superman certainly didn't hurt its sales, with the Captain Marvel Adventures comics eventually becoming the best-selling title of the 1940s. Plugging into every kid's dream of wishing he could become a he-man capable of smashing his foes, superhero Captain Marvel was the alter-ego of orphaned l2-year-old, Billy Batson. A cub radio news reporter selected one day by the all-powerful wizard Shazam to become Captain Marvel, Billy only has to say the wizard's name to be transformed into Captain Marvel, who possesses the wisdom of Solomon; the strength of Hercules; the stamina of Atlas; the power of Zeus; the courage of Achilles; and the speed of Mercury (now you see where the "Shazam" comes from). After the war, sales for Captain Marvel Adventures began to slide, and with an accompanying copyright infringement suit from DC Comics (who also felt Captain Marvel was nothing more than a thinly-veiled lift of Superman), Fawcett Comics ceased official publication of the comic in 1953. In 1972, DC Comics acquired a license to publish Captain Marvel comics, but since Marvel Comics had their own copyrighted Captain Marvel character, DC put their Captain Marvel comics under the moniker Shazam!.
Filmation, a production company founded and helmed by Lou Scheimer, Hal Sutherland, and Norm Prescott in 1963, had by 1974 become a significant provider of Saturday morning programming for the Big Three networks, with a list of animated titles such as The New Adventures of Superman, The Archie Show, The Batman/Superman Hour, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, Star Trek: The Animated Series, and The Brady Kids to their credit (along with future hits like Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe). Considering their long association with DC Comics (DC's 1966 order for The New Adventures of Superman pushed Filmation out of TV commercials and into Saturday morning animation), it's not surprising, then, that Filmation's first excursion into Saturday morning live-action production in 1974 would be aligned with DC―their Shazam! franchise (Filmation would produce five other all live-action series during the company's active years: The Secrets of Isis, The Ghost Busters, Ark II, Jason of Star Command, and Space Academy).
Producing a half-hour live-action Saturday morning TV version of Captain Marvel brought significant changes to the original comic's origin story. Gone is the ghostly wizard Shazam who spoke to Billy from the beyond, as well as Captain Marvel's archenemy, Doctor Sivana (as well as the entire Marvel Family or any other superheroes/villains, for that matter, with the exception of Isis popping in now and then). Billy (Michael Gray) is no longer 12-years old, but a teen/young adult, who travels around Southern California with his elder (and perhaps immortal) Mentor (Les Tremayne) in their Open Road RV, battling not the forces of evil from some demented supervillain, but rather helping young kids who get caught up in bad situations they can't handle anymore, necessitating Captain Marvel (Jackson―not "Jason" as I incorrectly wrote―Bostwick and later John Davey) to appear and dig them out of caves, or stop impending rock slides, or pluck them out of the sky from escaping airplanes. Billy doesn't get his advice/instructions from wizard Shazam anymore, but straight from Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury (animated by Filmation, with live-action Billy matted into their cavernous lair), who signal Billy via a lighted, bleeping dome located on the RV's dashboard (perhaps a transmutation of the "Rock of Eternity"?). The Elders give him some thoughtful clues as to what adventures might await him that day, and how he can be of service to those he helps, when he yells the magic word, "Shazam!" and a crackling lightning bolt emerges from a suddenly stormy sky, creating a fiery transformation from Billy to Captain Marvel.
Way, way back in 2007, I enthused rhapsodically about that heavenly angel sent down among us mere mortals,
Shazam! being your typical Filmation production, however, doesn't leave a whole lot of room for fantasies involving giggling psychopathia. No, Shazam! was conceived and produced during those early years of "responsible" television, when the know-nothing do-gooders and "educators" (hee hee!) and the governmental numbskulls said "Enough!" to TV violence and insisted kids programs have "educational" value. I've made my feelings about that particular trend in programming quite clear in other reviews I've written, so I won't go into detail here, but suffice it to say I like my kids programming entertaining first, and preferably funny and/or violent second, and like most kids, then and now, the last thing I want is an overt lesson in anything I'm watching (that's why we were watching Saturday morning shows in the first place―to forget about our wretched school week). However...if I have to have a lesson, the way it's packaged here in Shazam! is okay by me.
Because after all...we did listen to this stuff when we were kids. Maybe it didn't stick, or maybe we couldn't summon up those little homilies when we really needed them...but they're still there, tucked away somewhere. Virulent cynicism is the new norm today, so first-time viewers may go into auto-sneer at Shazam!'s talking heads lessons in being true to oneself, or being tolerant, or resisting peer pressure, but truth be told, those feelings and thoughts are just as valid as anything you'd want to say to your kid today. Only the clothes and the cars have changed. And surprisingly, Shazam!'s messages are told without camp or irony (hard as that may be to believe when we're talking about a guy running around like a big red cheese, smashing boulders). For lack of a better word, there's a genuineness to Shazam! that's completely disarming. Yes, it was produced to get ratings and make money, but it obviously believes in what it's saying, because the writing and the performances come off as relatively straightforward and sincere. As many fans know, the end-of-episode "morals" that were cut off during syndication have been put back (as an extras option here on this disc set), so you can see Captain Marvel briefly sum up what you just watched, and lay down a non-judgmental, forgiving lesson for you to learn. Some viewers are going to laugh at this gimmick, but I remember feeling quite good whenever Captain Marvel looked me straight in the eye, telling me everything would be okay if I just did what I was taught in church or school or at home (I don't remember a thing the incandescent Isis said...). Sure it was simplistic, and unrealistic (who has a superhero there to pull you out of a jam?), but it's fantasy, after all, and one that isn't dark and depressing and fatalistic like so much stuff out there now associated with the sci-fi/fantasy genre. Shazam! is positive and upbeat even when dealing with serious issues (there's even a drug-trafficking episode); what kid, watching clean-cut Captain Marvel telling them things will work out if they have the courage to be honest, didn't want to be just that?
All seriousness aside...Shazam! is a lot of fun, as well. I never watched Shazam! because of the comic book connection (I, uh...was an Archie and Jughead fan....I apologize); I watched it because it was such a treat to see something live-action amid all the limited animation series. And the fact that it incorporated the look and feel of so many of the primetime network offerings at the time only helped glamorize it (all that sweet, sweet SoCal sunshine and the blasted-out mountains and oceans of asphalt). Of course it doesn't answer any of the questions we might have about the little and small details that pop up...like what "station" are Mentor and Billy supposedly taking a "vacation" from? TV? Radio? Power? Or does Captain Marvel resent hanging out all the time inside Billy, to be summoned up like a genie in the bottle at Billy's convenience? We forget most of that stuff pretty quick, though, when we see how (wonderfully) silly a lot of Shazam! is...with number one head-scratcher being that officially sanctioned Captain Marvel® lightning bolt on the RV's grille (so much for being undercover). Or how about the rig's Princess Slimline® phone? Or the curious way that random, unrelated catastrophic events seem to happen in conjunction with incongruous, petty little sins, like being chased by your little punk friends for ratting them out...right into a massive power station. Or trying to escape with your pet wolf...right into a runaway hot air balloon. Or getting your violin stolen...right before a giant runaway missile is bearing down on you.
You can amuse yourself seeing some soon-to-be marginally recognizable performers (and some down on their luck), including the little schmiel from Saturday Night Fever, Lance Kerwin, Pamelyn Ferdin (the voice of Lucy and one of Felix Unger's Edna), Dark Shadows's John Karlen, Christina Hart (one of the hot Manson girls from TV's Helter Skelter), Derrel Maury, Ron Soble, The Munsters' Butch Patrick, Stephanie Steele, the Puerto Rican janitor from that one season of The Odd Couple, Lew Brown, Lisa Eilbacher for god's sake, Eddie Firestone, Jackie Earle Haley, Hilly Hicks, Dabs Greer (remarkably good as an old prospector), Eric Shea, Ross Elliott, Jimmy McNichol (hee hee!), Bill Quinn, Danny Bonaduce (oh no...), Linden Chiles (looking the other way...), Milt Kogan, James Van Patten, Andrew Stevens (just years away from superstardom in Hollywood Wives), William Campbell (looking sad) and the Dodgers Maury Wills. The special effects are frequently hilarious, particularly the live-action flying scenes where it appears they've strapped strapping Bostwick to the hood of a Toronado and went tear-assing down Mulholland.
The Isis crossover episodes gave me the whim-whams, as expected (Isis and Captain Marvel together? Clearly a mating of eagles), while the eternal debate about which Captain Marvel is better, occupies the six or seven guys out there who still care...including me (Bostwick was famously let go at the beginning of the second season by the producers who thought, incorrectly, that he was holding out for more dough...and boy did those same producers cough up some dough when Bostwick sued their asses and won). Jackson Bostwick certainly has the look and more importantly the demeanor of a super-nice superhero (check out how...weirdly intense his eyes are when they do those spooky close-ups). And he does have that whole Clayton Moore gravity to his part that I liked. John Davey, on the other hand, took some getting used to, especially when his first outing looked like it was going to be his last, considering how much of dick he was when he rescued those kids (check out their faces when he tells them off; they like, "F you, Captain Marvel."). Davey looks tough like a pugalist―not overweight, just beefy―which doesn't exactly spell "superhero" to me. But he does have that ticked-off demeanor (like someone just drank the last Schlitz® at the craft service table) that kind of grew on me. All of this came flooding back to me as those mellow, mellow music cues instantly summed up a Saturday morning during the Golden Age of Gerald Ford, sprawled out on the front room floor, in my horse 'n' cowboy jammies (of course with a cowboy hat and real chrome six-shooters strapped on), eating a bowl of Freakies®, my Archie Digest®s at the ready when the commercials came on, while silently perusing the TV Guide®, trying to decide what I should watch next: The Pink Panther Show or Super Friends. Of course it's difficult to watch Shazam! now separated from those nostalgic feelings, but my little kids seemed to enjoy it (they keep asking to watch an episode every day), and I had a blast revisiting it with them. Can't beat that for a recommendation.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.