This was only my second time to ever watch the 1944 Republic serial movie feature Captain America. I remember not really paying much attention to it the first time around since the lead character actually had nothing what-so-ever to do with the Marvel (then known as Timely) comic book character other than his costume. However, after watching it more closely this time I did pick up a few things.
This actually isn't a bad serial. The story runs along fine and there are plenty of action sequences and the fight scenes are actually pretty good. The serial isn't as corny or hokey as either The Batman (1943) or Batman & Robin (1949). Had this serial been about anyone other than Captain America it would probably have been one of the better film detective stories from that era. The glaring and insurmountable problem, however, is that the serial uses Captain America but the character as depicted in the film has absolutely nothing to do with the comic book character aside from using his costume.
Dick Purcell played Captain America and did an alright job aside from being a little bit pudgy for the role. In this serial, Captain America is not the superhero identity of U.S. Army soldier Steve Rogers but instead of District Attorney Grant Gardner. Also, despite being filmed and released during the pinnacle of World War 2, there is not a hint of World War 2 in it. While Captain America was punching out Nazis in the pages of Timely Comics every month, this Grant Gardner was fighting mobsters and investigating thefts and murders.
While on the cover of Captain America comics you might find Captain America slinging his iconic shield at the Axis foes any given month, this Captain America never once mentioned Nazis, Hitler, the Axis, World War 2, or gave any indication that the greatest war in history was in progress. He also did not carry a shield, nor was it ever mentioned. This Captain America did, however, carry a gun and used it repeatedly every episode to gun down mobsters.
It was clear to me that this serial was actually originally written for a character other than Captain America. That does seem to be the case as it appears this script was actually written for another nameless superhero crime-fighter character but ended up going to Captain America after Republic acquired the film rights to him.
Captain America was the last Republic serial made about a superhero character. It was also the most expensive serial that Republic ever made. The serial was also the only film made using one of the Marvel Comics /Timely characters during that era.
The plot follows District Attorney Grant Gardner trying to defeat The Scarab who is really museum curator Dr. Cyrus Maldor. Unlike most of the serialized adventures of the era, the secret identity of The Scarab is known to the audience from the beginning with the usual approach being the use of a mystery villain who was unmasked in the final chapter.
Dick Purcell was cast as Captain America and the character differs drastically from the comic book version. Dick Purcell was cast as the hero despite having an average, if not slightly pudgy build. Dick Purcell died a few weeks after filming when he collapsed in the locker room at a Los Angeles country club. In the opinion of film historian Raymond Stedman, the strain of filming Captain America had been too much for his heart.
Captain America was budgeted for $182,623 although the final cost was $222,906 (a $40,283 overrun). It was the most expensive of all Republic serials as well as the most over budget. While not specified in any of the sources I used for this article I suspect the overrun was due to the insane number of cars that were either blown up or run off of cliffs during the series. There were also multiple explosions used. Captain America was filmed between October 12 and November 24, 1943. Patreon supporters at the $5 or higher contribution level can listen to our podcast audio review of the series by clicking here.
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