All right, you kids — put those squirt guns away and stop throwing that popcorn; it’s time for this week’s exciting chapter of The Adventures of Captain Marvel. Today’s thrilling episode: “Death Takes the Wheel.”
Three title cards should bring any late arrivals up to speed. “The Scorpion – Sends his men to Oak Mountain Lodge for Carlyle’s lens.” “Billy Batson – Tries to beat them to the Lodge in his plane.” “Whitey – Fails to warn Billy that his plane will blow up at one minute past eight.” Now, speak the magic word and gain the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of… whew! I’m bushed. Never mind the rest; let’s get started!
In a flashback to the end of last week’s segment, a grinning Billy wings his way to Oak Mountain Lodge to retrieve the lens from Carlyle’s safe, blissfully unaware that an “atmospheric exploder” has been planted in his plane, while an agitated Whitey (there were a lot of them around in the 40’s) desperately tries to radio a warning to his friend. Neither he nor Billy knows that the plane’s radio wires have been cut.
As the time for detonation approaches, Billy glances down and sees the dangling wires; he reaches down and twists them together, restoring the connection just in time to hear Whitey say, “There’s a bomb wired to explode in your plane at one minute past eight! Bail out!”
On hearing this, Billy wastes no time in saying “Shazam!” Now transformed into Captain Marvel, he immediately opens the door and leaps from the plane, showing solidarity with all those who have ever been presented with a warmed-over airline turkey meal or an in-flight movie starring Rob Schneider. The airplane explodes (hope your insurance was paid up, Billy) and Captain Marvel flies away unhurt.
Later, chief henchman Barnett arrives at the Scorpion’s house, where he finds his boss once again gazing lovingly at the golden scorpion. The supervillain needs to find other interests; this one is definitely becoming unhealthy.
Barnett hands over Carlyle’s lens and the Scorpion fits it into place, then rhapsodizes, “I need three more lenses to complete the solar atom smasher — when that is accomplished, I’ll be able to create unlimited wealth and have a weapon which will make me invulnerable.” (I once saw a solar atom smasher for sale in the back of Action Comics for only $3.99 postpaid; ignorant child that I was, I didn’t realize what I was passing up.)
Barnett gloats that getting the other lenses should be easy with Billy out of the way, but the Scorpion informs him that Batson escaped the exploding plane. “I overheard Betty talk to him this morning — he said he was rescued by Captain Marvel.”
What to do now? Let’s see… Captain Marvel… flying, thug walloping, superhuman engine of righteous destruction. Billy Batson… pencil necked, squeaky voiced radio personality, prone to getting conked from behind. The Scorpion decides that Billy is the greatest threat and “we must attend to him at once.” Okay, so prioritizing isn’t his greatest strength.
The decision made, how will he dispose of Billy? In his guise as one of the archaeologists, the Scorpion will be present at a meeting at Malcolm’s that day, and will decoy Billy to some place where he will be vulnerable.
At that meeting, Fisher berates Billy for failing to keep Carlyle’s lens from the clutches of the Scorpion (I’ll tell you, it’s taken a lot of self-control to keep from using the phrase “Clutches of the Scorpion” until now) and an argument breaks out over how the group should proceed. Professor Bentley is in favor of destroying the remaining lenses, but Fisher refuses to “deprive the world of the most revolutionary device in history.”
At this point Tal Chatali enters and announces that he has made “an important discovery” at Carlyle’s. “I was going through his study in the hope of finding a clue, and found this on the floor.” It’s a small metal scorpion, about the size of a hand. Where could the Scorpion have obtained it? (Little do they know it’s a piece from the Precious Moments Loathsome Creatures Collection; they send you one a month for only $19.95, and when you have all twelve you get a handsome simulated walnut display rack. The Scorpion found the order form in Evil Mastermind Monthly.)
Lang declares, “I know only one man in this country who might have such a collection — he’s Chan Lal, the Oriental curio dealer.” Billy is detailed to visit Lal’s shop for whatever information he can find, while Betty goes downtown to conduct her own investigation — “I got the license number of that truck the Scorpion’s men were in yesterday and I want to go down to the motor vehicle department to find out who the owner is.” She got the license number of that truck… apparently there’s no end to the indignities this poor woman has to suffer — she doesn’t even realize that she’s become a human punchline.
As Billy and Betty exit Malcolm’s house, a large flower box drops from a second story window and narrowly misses the pair. Showing off his ratiocinative prowess for Betty, Billy says, “I wonder if that was deliberate.” A moment later they see Fisher slip from the house and speed away in his car. Billy and Betty are justifiably suspicious, but trailing such a hot suspect can wait; they have to hurry and get to the DMV and Chan Lal’s junk shop.
Shortly afterwards, Billy pulls up outside the shop, which bears a sign saying, “Chan Lal — Orientalist.” Ah, those thrilling days of yesteryear, with a chicken in every pot, a car in every garage, and an Orientalist on every corner. Going in, Billy finds himself in a large room crowded with curios and antiques; the place is like Grandma’s living room on steroids. As he looks around, trying to orient himself, a menacing shadow looms behind him, a shadow bearing an upraised sword…
Billy turns — “Chan Lal?” “Yes.” Lal lowers the scimitar and nonchalantly begins to polish it. “You startled me,” Billy confesses. Chan Lal slowly bows and replies, “A thousand pardons.” There’s no doubt the character is a stock stereotype, but the filmmakers get a little credit for having him played by chap named Tetsu Komai instead of someone named Timmy Finnegan Jr.
Billy shows Lal the scorpion and the dealer says that it looks like one from his collection, but since that collection is intact it must be an imitation. “To end all doubts, suppose we go down to the vault and check through the collection?” Characteristically slow on the uptake, Billy agrees.
Chan Lal follows behind as they go down to the basement vault; when Batson is halfway down the stairs, the Orientalist presses a hidden button and the steps angle to form a ramp. Billy loses his footing and tumbles to the bottom where two Scorpion henchmen are waiting. They bop him on the head, tie and gag him, and toss him in the vault. Chan Lal goes back upstairs to phone Barnett. The sinister Orientalist is in the pay of the Scorpion — who would have thought it?
Meanwhile, Betty strolls into the N Street Garage, which is apparently where the Scorpion rents his trucks. (The moviemakers spared us Betty’s visit to the DMV — they knew our nerves couldn’t stand it.) She speaks to the garage owner, Carter (Francis Sayles), and asks who rented the truck in question. He says he doesn’t know; it was never returned and the renter’s information was phony. Betty senses something phony all right; she pretends to leave but hides when she sees a car pull in.
She overhears the driver, a Scorpion thug, tell Carter to hop in and ride upstairs. As the bad guys zip up the ramps to the eighth floor, Betty beats them up in the elevator. She sees them pull into a separate section of the garage where a large wooden door closes behind them.
Quietly going up to this door, Betty hears Carter and two thugs talk about having Billy locked up at Chan Lal’s. “Barnett’s going down there to take care of him.” Upon hearing this, Betty runs to phone for help. Unfortunately, the thugs also decide to use the phone to see if Barnett is at the Orientalist’s yet, and they hear Betty on the line. She sees them coming after her and makes it to the elevator. They jump in a car and race down eight floors of ramps at breakneck speed to beat her to the bottom.
They just make it in time and are waiting for Betty when the elevator door opens on the ground floor. Waving his gun at her, one thug tells the luckless secretary, “Come on out sister — you’re not leaving just yet.” A snap-brim fedora, a cheap .38, and a propensity for calling women “sister.” That’s all you needed to be a card-carrying thug in those days. They take Betty back upstairs and phone for instructions.
Back at Chan Lal’s, Barnett comes in and gets the lowdown from Lal and the two henchmen. The phone rings – it’s the garage thugs. (Don’t you hate it how they always call when you’re relaxing at the end of a hard day, sharing a few laughs with your evil stooges?) Barnett tells them to take care of Betty — “and make it look like an accident.” Unbeknownst to the Scorpionites, down in the vault Billy has worked off his gag. A quick “Shazam!” and Captain Marvel smashes through the vault door and heads upstairs.
As he hangs up the phone, Barnett is positively glowing; “My men just captured the Wallace girl – looks like a lucky day for the Scorpion!” Captain Marvel steps through the door, and fists on hips, booms, “The day isn’t over yet!” This is one of the very few lines, besides “Shazam,” that Tom Tyler gets to say in the serial; he’s the strong, silent type. But Barnett’s line was such a perfect set-up, what could the writers do?
His soliloquy delivered, the World’s Mightiest Mortal lets his fists do the talking. As bullets bounce off his chest (some things thugs never learn), Captain Marvel picks up goons and tosses them effortlessly around the room. As he grabs Barnett, Chan Lal slips out the back door. Now completely disoriented, Barnett is helpless. Marvel shakes him by the throat and barks, “Where’s Miss Wallace? Where’s Miss Wallace?” Geez — once you get this guy talking, he won’t shut up.
Barnett keeps mum until Captain Marvel lifts him clean over his head and steps up to a bed of nails that Chan Lal keeps for just such an emergency. “Talk fast — or I’ll… ” Barnett’s tongue is loosened; “She’s at the N Street Garage.” Our hero chucks Barnett to the floor and flies off to the rescue. (I’m still not sure whether it was the threat of the nails that got Barnett talking, or if it was where Captain Marvel was gripping him in that overhead hold…)
At the N Street Garage, the Scorpion stooges are preparing to do away with Betty. Their plan is to employ paint thinner as a nefarious tool of murder. “We give her a whiff of that, load her in the car, and cut her loose down the ramp.” They can be forgiven for not knowing that the chemical will have no effect on Betty; she’s been inhaling nail polish remover for years. While Carter and Thug A get the thinner, Betty is being guarded by Thug B. He’s the sort of fellow who never listened to his fourth grade teacher, which is proven by the fact that he’s carelessly leaning back in his chair. Thinking quickly — again — (and she’s the only person in the serial who manages to do it even once) Betty kicks the chair out from under her captor, depositing him in a heap.
Before the other two can react, she jumps in a car and barrels through the wooden door to make her escape. However, as the door smashes open, a beam from it hits Betty in the head and knocks her out. Our unconscious heroine is now in a runaway car, which miraculously has its steering wheel cocked at exactly the right angle to send it perfectly spiraling down eight levels to the street, where it then amazingly straightens out and sends the plucky secretary hurtling towards a warehouse (housing a nitroglycerin factory, no doubt) across the road. The screen goes black and… crash!
Will Captain Marvel arrive in time to save Betty? What fiendish tricks will the Scorpion play next? How can Chan Lal afford the lease on corner property smack in the middle of downtown? Will Betty ever recover from the blow to her head or from her harrowing ordeal at the DMV? The answers to (some of) these and other questions will be found in next week’s exciting chapter, “The Scorpion Strikes.”
See you then!
Thomas Parker is a native Southern Californian and a lifelong science fiction, fantasy, and mystery fan. When not corrupting the next generation as a fourth grade teacher, he collects Roger Corman movies, Silver Age comic books, Ace doubles, and despairing looks from his wife.