Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Captain Midnight/Mission to Mexico (Columbia/Screen Gems TV, 1955)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

On Sunday night Charles and I screened a single episode of the 1954-56 TV series Captain Midnight — which we’d run across on archive.org while searching for more Captain Video shows — and it certainly was a dramatic contrast technically in terms of just how far TV had come in the intervening six years. Captain Midnight was filmed by Screen Gems (a subsidiary of Columbia which had originally been formed in the 1930’s to make shorts, then they revived the label in the 1950’s and not only released their old shorts to TV — most famously, and most successfully, the Three Stooges comedies — but started making new shows, sometimes based on Columbia movies and sometimes developed de novo) and based on a 1942 Columbia serial which in turn had been based on a hit radio series.

The episode available on archive.org was called “Mission to Mexico” and featured Captain Midnight (Richard Webb) — he was a U.S. Air Force pilot and in some of his incarnations he had a normal last name as well, Albright, but it wasn’t used here — and his obligatory comic-relief sidekick Ichabod “Icky” Mudd (Sid Felton) going undercover south of the border to uncover smugglers of fissionable material. The main problem with this show was that, though it was unquestionably aimed mostly at children (there was even an elaborate sequence at the end supplying a “secret” message for kids who’d ordered the Captain Midnight secret decoder ring — the sort of thing brilliantly made fun of in the film A Christmas Story where the film’s child hero is pissed off when the “secret message” turns out to be yet another advertisement for the show’s sponsor, Ovaltine), it wasn’t clear whether it was intended to be contemporary action-adventure or science fiction. The setting is clearly 1955 and the vehicle Captain Midnight flies in is an ordinary U.S. Air Force fighter plane of the time (almost certainly stock footage supplied by the Air Force), but the script (by Wallace Bosco based on a story by “B”-movie veteran Malcolm Stuart Boylan) also features a sci-fi gimmick, a special lens that’s supposed to be able to focus the radioactivity inside a piece of unrefined uranium ore and use it to start a fire. (Needless to say, no such thing existed in 1955 — and it hasn’t been invented since, either.)

Though the writing wasn’t much better than that of Captain Video, at least it avoided the bizarre post-modern mashup gimmick of splicing old “B” Western footage into the middle of the story (though the people in charge of this particular Captain Midnight episode, the writers and director D. Ross Lederman — also a veteran of the “B” features of the 1930’s and 1940’s — managed to work “Western” iconography into the story of this by having so much of it set south of the border that they could trot out cowboys, bandits and horses) and, since it was shot on film, one doesn’t get the odd treat of hearing the actors totally mangle their lines on occasion. Judging from this episode (which may be the only extant one — it’s the only one listed on imdb.com’s “full episode list” page with an actual synopsis instead of just a title), Captain Midnight was a fun, unpretentious action-adventure show aimed at kids but not actively unpleasant for adult audiences — back in the era in which most families still had only one TV and they had to make sure shows appealed to the whole family and therefore they couldn’t niche-market to the young the way they do today! It’s also interesting to note that one of Ed Wood’s “regulars,” Ben Frommer, is in the cast as “Bandito,” and he turns in a perfectly competent if rather unspectacular performance in a tiny role.