Captain Video [2 Discs] [DVD]
VCI has done pop-culture mavens and television buffs a real service with the release of the Captain Video serial -- for the rest of us, this reviewer isn't so sure. Long regarded as "lost," and so obscure that many serial buffs had forgotten it existed, Captain Video was the first chapter-play to be adapted from a television source, and among the earlier American film properties to spun out from a small-screen source (although, technically speaking, Laurence Olivier's 1944 Henry V, no less, probably has the distinction of being the first theatrical motion picture property to have started life as a television project). So there's some popular culture significance here, and also some moments of cleverness, such as the use of tinting in the extra-terrestrial sequences to add some variety to the obviously low-budget goings on up on the screen. There are a few missing frames here and there, and also, on a wholly different level, moments where the resolution of the DVD format is so good that the cheapness of the overall production shows through on the full-screen (1.33-to-1) image in ways that it wouldn't have so obviously in 1951 (even on a screen 50 feet across). But generally VCI has done a nice job with this double-disc set, within the limitations of the original production. Each of the 15 chapters gets a marker of its own on the two platters, and the second disc has some decent supplementary materials, including biographies of principal cast members and the two directors, Wallace Grissel and Spencer Gordon Bennet, and an array of trailers from thematically related releases by the company. As to the chapterplay itself, it's pretty wretched as entertainment -- in adapting the television series (which was broadcast live, and has left behind only a handful of kinescopes), they were working with a bigger budget but not one that allowed for decent special effects, props, or costumes; and the acting is often horrendous, making the performances in, say, Republic's serials of the same period look brilliant and thoughtful by comparison. What the serial does have in its favor is a lot of energy and forward momentum, which at least makes it exciting in a primitive way, if one doesn't spend too much time thinking about what's on the screen. And in case one does, there are some interesting topical notions contained in the script -- part of the principal villain's activities involves sponsoring wars of "liberation" as a pre-text for planetary takeovers, which is a fairly complex idea for a property like this, and applies anti-Communist principals to the plotting of space-fantasy; it might not be the work of Robert Heinlein or Arthur C. Clarke (or even their gardeners), but it's pretty sophisticated for an adaptation of a kids' sci-fi show of the period. It's fun in its primitive way -- though not nearly as enjoyable as, say, the Superman or Atom Man Vs. Superman serials, made at the same studio somewhat earlier and directed by Bennet, are. Still, the Captain Video serial itself is so rare and obscure that it's worth a look, even if the low-budget shooting loses some of its "charm" in these high-resolution surroundings. Purists should also be warned that -- apparently in order to protect its hold on the material and discourage pirates -- the VCI logo is displayed intermittently on the lower-right-hand corner of the screen.