Captain Midnight is an interesting character, especially when you consider trying to adapt him into the film serial format. The basics of the hero are that he’s an ace pilot and brilliant inventor, running his Secret Squadron of fellow pilots to perform dangerous missions against Nazis and other threats to American skies. It was a popular radio show in its day, famous for including the decoder rings and other fun mail order gimmicks.
A radio character of that popularity, much like “The Green Hornet”, also received some comic book treatments. Unlike “The Green Hornet”, however, Captain Midnight’s transition from radio to page was very different. While the radio series was known for its aerial battles and realistic treatment of flying and plane mechanics, the comic couldn’t rely on such things to captivate young readers. Fawcett Comics, the once proud producers of the popular “Captain Marvel” superhero, decided to turn the ace pilot into something more…on the traditional superhero side. Less pulp, more tights. Thus, Captain Midnight was redesigned to wear a flashier red costume, one with a big logo on his chest like most comic book heroes. He had fun gadgets, like his collapsible glider wings and a “Doom Beam Torch”, and his Secret Squadron was whittled down to just a couple of key members to form a base group of memorable sidekicks. He was still battling Nazis, but more in the vein of a hero like Captain America. Also, some of his comic adventures included wacky space aliens. Because, comics.
The movie serial was released in 1942 by Columbia Pictures, and by this time he was an established character in both mediums. Needless to say, the serial takes this into account and melds the two of them into a fun, albeit formulaic romp. The story follows Captain Jim “Red” Albright, aka Captain Midnight (Dave O’Brien), as he assists Joyce Edwards (Dorothy Short) and her father in defending his inventions against criminals. The criminals in question are Ivan Shark (James Craven), his daughter Fury (Luana Walters), and their band of goons and thugs. The Secret Squadron is nothing more than Chuck Ramsey (Sam Edwards), Captain Midnight’s teen sidekick, and Ichabod “Icky” Mudd (Guy Wilkerson), a slow-witted mechanic.
The basic setup is that Ivan Shark, a master of disguise, is constantly plotting to capture Dr. Edwards and/or steal his inventions to sell them to foreign enemies. Captain Midnight drops in and thwarts his plans, but is almost always left in some elaborate death trap that Ivan Shark had made. Some of these are just classic, too. There’s the hero trapped on a conveyor belt that leads into a buzz saw, there’s a slowly flooding chamber, a spinning pole over a room of fire, etc. How Ivan Shark finds the time or manpower to erect some of these traps is beyond me, but they usually end the episode.
It’s a fairly cartoony serial, even with the hero dressed more like a ninja pilot in all black, rather than the red and purple tights of his comic book counterpart. None of the villains ever seem to die, most of them being the exact same bumbling goons you’d expect to see get beat up week after week. It’s kind of funny when the serial becomes aware of this and the goons start whining and complaining about their terrible job. Ivan Shark is not a very intimidating villain, in fact, he’s often played more for laughs as he constantly berates and shouts at his idiotic henchmen. His daughter Fury, despite her name, is also fairly useless, which is too bad because bad girls in these kinds of stories are often pretty fun.
The lead actor, stuntman Dave O’Brien, is a likeable enough lead, though not as enthusiastic as James Craven as the villainous Ivan Shark. The rest of the cast is decent, though the most interesting is Guy Wilkerson as the unfortunately named Icky Mudd. This actor looks exactly like he did in the comics.
Aside from the death traps, the action is pretty good considering the limited budget. Captain Midnight is a brawler, and his bouts with the goons usually result in the complete destruction of the sets. It’s exaggerated, unlike the fighting in “The Green Hornet”. Captain Midnight’s punches send bad guys flying across the room, but like rubber bands they fling right back into the action. There’s also a considerable amount of dogfights and airplane action scenes, most of them really well edited considering it’s a lot of spliced stock footage mingled with their own sets and miniatures. Most of the budget always seems to have gone into the nutty deathtraps.
For fans of the character, I imagine most were somewhat pleased with the result, though there’s more of the comic in here than the radio drama. It trades in realism for heightened action and thrills, but it still has a lot of fun with the characters and the adventures they get into. It’s a bit too formulaic for 15 episodes, but any given one of them was sure to entertain a younger audience.