Thursday, November 8, 2012


During the Golden Age of comic books, Superman's greatest adversary wasn't Lex Luthor or any of his other colorful rogues gallery, but competing caped crimefighter Captain Marvel, whose four-color mags frequently outsold those of the Man of Steel. By 1974, though, both heroes were owned by DC Comics, and while Superman was on track for silver screen glory a few years later, the World's Mightiest Mortal became a Saturday morning TV star with Filmation's live-action SHAZAM!, which aired every weekend on CBS.

The opening narration explained the premise: "Chosen from among all others by the immortal elders - Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, Mercury - Billy Batson and his mentor travel the highways and byways of the land on a never ending mission: to right wrongs, to develop understanding, and to seek justice for all! In time of dire need, young Billy has been granted the power by the immortals to summon awesome forces at the utterance of a single word! SHAZAM!"

The series ran for three seasons - a significant run for 70s Saturday morning kidvid - accumulating a total of 28 half-hour episodes. Teenage Billy Batson was portrayed by the shaggy-haired Michael Gray, while veteran Hollywood character actor, radio star and cartoon voice artist Les Tremayne (NORTH BY NORTHWEST, WAR OF THE WORLDS) was his elderly traveling companion, Mentor. For the first 17 episodes, Billy's super-powered alter ego Captain Marvel was portrayed by the athletic and earnest Jackson Bostwick (MUTANT SPECIES). Unfortunately (reportedly due to a misunderstanding), he was fired a few episodes into the second season and replaced by stocky John Davey. Both men did creditable work as the soft-spoken superhuman, but as a kid watching the show, I never quite accepted Davey in the role. Bostwick was the "real" Captain Marvel for this 10 year-old.

Most stories started with Billy & Mentor having a picnic on the beach or driving down some Southern California back road when the Elders would telepathically contact Billy and give him some cryptic advice. Fortunately, that advice would begin to make sense once Billy & Mentor encountered the troubled teen of the week. After putting said kid back on the righteous path - which usually involved a last minute super-heroic feat by the good Captain - Billy & Mentor would hit the road again in their custom RV... until the following week.

The show was simplistic, non-violent, moralistic and cheap-looking, with special effects hardly more advanced than those used on the 1950's ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN television series, but the writing was often pretty serious, and surprisingly, not sugar-coated. In a few episodes, Captain Marvel even battled real criminals like drug dealers, who were exploiting kids for their own purposes.

Production values were pretty minimal. Shot as cheaply as possible on 16mm film and almost entirely outdoors in natural light, the show certainly doesn't look very impressive. But the acting was solid, with the weekly casts filled out by lots of familiar TV actors of the era. Notable guest stars include Danny Bonaduce (THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY, BIGFOOT), Pamelyn Ferdin (SPACE ACADEMY), Lance Kerwin (SALEM'S LOT), Butch Patrick (THE MUNSTERS), and Jackie Earle Haley (WATCHMEN, THE HUMAN TARGET). TV's Batman, Adam West, provided the voice of Hercules. Because SHAZAM! shared the same network, studio and timeslot as THE SECRETS OF ISIS, the lovely JoAnna Cameron made appearances as the superheroine Isis in three episodes, as well.

The new 3-disc, Manufactured-On-Demand SHAZAM! - THE COMPLETE LIVE ACTION SERIES from Warner Archive includes all 28 episodes, presented in their original 4x3, 1.33:1 "standard" TV aspect ratio. Picture quality is generally pretty good for a nearly 40 year-old, low-budget show shot on cheap film stock. Given the source material, the image is grainy and overall a bit soft, with occasionally faded colors. Some episodes look better than others, but there is no significant print damage or other distracting age-related artifacts. Audio is a serviceable Dolby Digital Mono.

The only "bonus feature" is the option to play all episodes with the original 30 second "morals" re-instated into the episodes. These short segments appeared at the end of the episodes and featured Captain Marvel or Billy talking directly to the camera and bluntly explaining the ethical lesson the episode dramatized. As these segments were removed after the original airings, Warner Archive has had to hunt down the footage from various sources (including old videotapes), so picture quality on these is often pretty poor. Still, I'm grateful that they went to the effort and expense to include them, for completion's sake.

If you grew up with the show, there's no denying the nostalgic appeal. The effects and production values may be "cheesy" by today's standards - and the moralistic stories may lack subtlety - but they're highly entertaining. Warner Archive has done a very decent job putting this set together, and if you're a fan of the show, it's definitely worth picking up. Highly recommended.

BUYShazam! The Complete Live-Action Series