There is an incredible wealth of classic cinema available through Warner Archive’s manufactured-on-demand DVD line. I recognize this, of course, and as someone with a degree in film, I often find myself heralding the wonders of the Warner Archive to others in the field for precisely this reason. And yet, while I have indeed seen some terrific, obscure cinema thanks only to the Archive, it’s their releases of rare DC Comics-adapted superhero television programming that have most excited me over the years. As such, I readily admit with nerdiness worn proudly on my sleeve that the three-disc MOD release of Shazam! The Complete Live Action Series immediately secured a position among my two favorite Archive releases alongside Legends of the Superheroes.
Shazam! aired for three seasons on CBS from 1974 to 1976 with the latter two seasons coupled with CBS’ The Secrets of Isis as the Shazam!/Isis Hour. As such, the second and third seasons feature three guest appearances by Isis (which are admittedly a little less than spectacular, unfortunately). The series finds young Billy Batson bestowed with the ability to transform into the superhero Captain Marvel by the ancient Elders (Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury) in times of dire need. This we learn about not through an origin episode as in other series, but through the title sequence’s narration. Thereafter, Billy and his Mentor (Les Tremayne, The Phantom Tollbooth), known only as Mentor or Mr. Mentor, travel the countryside together in a Winnebago waiting for the Elders to alert them to some impending trouble. The thing is, the Elders are actually animated when they appear to Billy! Stylistically, this provides a great contrast to the series’ otherwise constant backdrop of the Californian sticks.
The problems Billy and Mentor encounter in their travels often revolve around child characters. It is a children’s show after all. And these stories are of course intended to teach children a moral lesson, as evidenced by the Elders’ lecturing tone and the moral sequences that conclude each episode. In these moral sequences, Captain Marvel and, later, Billy hamhandedly address the audience to explain exactly what we should take away from each episode’s standalone. These sequences are included on the Warner Archive as a sort of special feature, allowing you to play all episodes with the morals included (the only thing is, these sequences vary wildly in quality). These morals teach kids that they should obey the law or that the word “fink” is merely a word used by those who don’t have sense enough not to do bad things.
The thing that really surprised me about the series is how dark much of it is topically, although intended for children. One episode deals with a man trying to kill a horse, another Antisemitism, a handful of others center on attempted physical violence toward children, and a two-parter finds Captain Marvel facing off against a drug syndicate. Another episode I found particularly hard to stomach, “The Athlete,” dealt with a pair of sexist boys attempting to ruin a girl’s future academic career simply because she’s trying out for the track team. What I like about this facet of the series is that the writers aren’t trying to sugar-coat real world events, thereby dulling the effectiveness of the messages with viewers. In this, Shazam! doesn’t talk down to its audience, and it’s no doubt thanks to the numerous educational advisers credited at the end of each episode.
An important thing to note about the series’ production is that Jackson Bostwick (pictured), who plays Captain Marvel at the outset of the series, only actually played the role for 17 of the series’ 28 episodes. Thereafter, John Davey (3 Women) took over the role after Bostwick was reportedly unjustly fired only two episodes in to the second season. Davey’s entire run on the series is showcased on the third disc of Warner Archive’s release. While Bostwick has a bit more charm than Davey, Davey proves to be a more than capable Captain Marvel in his own right. Davey appears in one of the most interesting episodes of the series, at that. In “Double Trouble,” a man posing as Captain Marvel robs a gas station and Marvel must turn himself in to the police, leaving Mentor and a little kid to solve the case. This also happens to be Davey’s first episode, and it’s a great introductory showcase for the performer’s abilities as Billy must spend most of the episode’s running time as Captain Marvel and Davey also plays the robber in disguise. The strength of this episode alone does wonders to soften the blow of this change in casting.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the special effects in Shazam! You’ll no doubt marvel (tee-hee) at the extreme cheesiness of the effects throughout. Among my favorites in this regard are shots in which Captain Marvel is blue screened on to a still photograph, or when the a mannequin in a Captain Marvel uniform was tied to the top of an airplane to make it appear as though the superhero were letting it land.
It’s difficult to sum up my thoughts about the series even in the space I’ve allotted to me for this review, but take that as a sign that Shazam! is far more complex than the image of a series that the monicker of children’s program typically evokes. And if that doesn’t sell you on Shazam!, how does a guest appearance by Danny Bonaduce strike you?! Changes things a bit, doesn’t it? Now go buy it!