Serial September: Captain Celluloid vs. The Film Pirates (1966)
As a special bonus this month, we review the homage serial Captain Celluloid vs. The Film Pirates.
RODNEY BOWCOCK: Captain Celluloid vs. The Film Pirates tells the story of Captain Celluloid, a masked super hero that works at a film distributer by day and does battle with “The Master Duper”, (a fiendish villain that sells bootleg duped prints of noted silent films to film societies) by night.
It’s a four chapter silent serial, that deftly combines traits of both silent chapterplays and the notable Republic serials that followed (even cribbing a lot of Republic music queues). Watched in one sitting, I was shocked at how well made this fan shot film (from an idea by William K Everson) is.
ADAM WILLIAMS: No disrespect intended, but I expected this to be an in-jokey vanity project made by film nerds for film nerds. Well, my assumptions were correct, but the movie surprised me in many ways. First, as you said, it’s very well constructed given its low budget. Right from the opening title, which shoots across the screen on strips of film, the film generates the old-fashioned locomotive pace of a Republic serial. The main players are introduced acting out little separate scenes under their respective credits (Al Kilgore’s intentionally wooden henchman act provides the film’s first laugh). In mere seconds, we see the uncut print of Greed being excavated, the newspapers announcing its shipment to the Rochester Film Museum (the film’s second laugh!), and the hijacking of the film delivery man with a ray gun by The Master Duper. No editor is credited, so I can’t praise their work, including the proto-psychedelic ray gun hypnotizing effect. I think it’s safe to credit director/producer Louis McMahon for the film’s proficiency. McMahon does have a couple other credits including lensing the low budget thriller Violent Midnight and camera operator on the repellant, albeit effective exploitation film I Spit on Your Grave.
RB: Shot in 1966, there are notable appearances by most of the film scholars of the era, like the aforementioned Everson, there’s also Alan K. Barbour (one of the first people to take Republic serials seriously), Al Kilgore and John Cocchi. These are all names that have maintained space on my shelves of film books for decades. It was great fun to place faces with the names and watch them clearly having a great time.
SAMANTHA GLASSER: Kilgore was one of the founding members of the Sons of the Desert, the Laurel and Hardy fan club, and drew their crest. Everson was involved with Cinevent and his 16mm film collection is now housed at the George Eastman House in Rochester. I love that his character's name is an amalgamation of D.W. Griffith's and William S. Hart's.
AW: Shameless plug: at the Columbus Moving Picture Show in the Spring, I managed to find Alan Barbour’s booklet The Serials of Republic (with a brilliant cover illustration by Al Kilgore) for a buck. You never know what you’ll find in the dealer’s room.
Back to the movie, I wanted more of Jean Barbour (Alan’s wife) as Satanya! If Mary Tyler Moore wore a Dracula cape and collected rare prints of silent films, you’d have Satanya. She’s so fetching.
SG: I got Barbara Feldon meets Morticia Adams vibes. Very sultry, and a nice addition to a dude-heavy cast (which makes sense since it is a male dominated hobby).
Hey, why is this Master Duper, if he is so great, duping the films onto nitrate film stock? Get with the times, man!
RB: I was surprised when researching this film to discover just how widely it was screened. One 1983 engagement at the Pacific Film Archive paired the first two chapters with a 1932 Paramount Edmund Lowe rarity, The Devil is Driving and an unheard of 1934 Fox feature Such Women are Dangerous with Warner Baxter and Rosemary Ames. I love stumbling across the schedules from film societies in the past, and one thing this film does well is make one yearn for the days when most cities seemed to have one (“There are as many film societies now as there used to be theaters” proclaims Doris Burnell as Dale Stirling in chapter one). Well, now we don’t have as many theaters, and we’re seriously lacking in film societies, so where does that leave us?
I always feel a little nostalgic pain that I may have missed out on something when I read about the good times that film buffs had at screenings such as those at Joe’s Place or Everson’s Theodore Huff Memorial Film Society. Of course, things aren’t all bad now. We all have collections of movies on DVD and Blu-Ray that all but the most fervent pioneers could never dream of, but one also has to wonder if something has been lost in the convenience of it all. I’d certainly say that movie watching has become more of a solitary pursuit now, in stark contrast to the group activity that it was in the days before home video. That said, for all of the thousands of movies that I have at my fingertips (not even counting the amount of vintage films on YouTube, of which more seem to be popping up on a daily basis-- albeit in occasionally questionable quality-- I’m yet to run across either feature from that 1983 Pacific Film Archive screening. Are those prints still around, I wonder? Did the vinegar get them, or perhaps an unknowing relative hassled with handling an estate full of things that they know not or care less about? I don’t even know where to begin to track them down…
SG: I feel that pain frequently, which is why I've gone through the efforts to perpetuate the legacy of Cinevent through the Columbus Moving Picture Show. We can't go back in time, but we can keep the past live through maintaining the routines of the generations before. Just as they gathered to watch movies on film, we do. Just as they spent exorbitant amounts of money for items their grandchildren tossed in the garbage, we do. Just as they geeked out over meeting other people who know who the hell Gustav von Seyffertitz was, we do. Movie tributes to the days of yesteryear like Captain Celluloid, which I would categorize as modern because it is post-studio era, make me feel a kinship not only with the films they're spoofing, but with the people who worked to keep the memory of that era alive so that people from my generation could have access to them and an appreciation for them.
AW: Captain Blu-ray vs. the Porch Pirates wouldn’t work quite as well, would it? This movie conjures up the fun and mystery of being a film fan before the era of endless availability that we’re currently living in.
You're all taking this too seriously. Who wants old silent movies?
RB: Anyway, what were we talking about? Ah, yes. Captain Celluloid and the Film Pirates. A delightfully goofy, good natured and loving tribute to the days of film fandom gone by. A hearty four stars to see these pioneers in front of the camera, vs their usual positions behind the projector. I had a great time with it. If you like classic movies and have a basic understanding of the history of our obsession, I think you will too.
AW: Running less than 50 minutes, Captain Celluloid is a blisteringly paced goodtime. The participants are clearly having a blast crossing the proscenium arch from fandom to on-screen fisticuffs. If you enjoy the films that Ray Dennis Steckler was making around the same time—I’m thinking specifically of Rat Pfink a Boo Boo and the Lemon Grove Kids cycle—then you won’t be disappointed in this equally exuberant but financially-challenged homage. It’s amateurish, for sure, but the etymology of “amateur” is to love and it’s plain to see that passion displayed throughout this movie. Four stars.
SG: This serial is a lot of fun. It is indulgent and well-crafted in the way Mike Schlesinger's Biffle and Shooster comedies are. If you're in on the joke, the quality is enhanced even more. Four stars.