Ah, Warner Archive, home of so many wonderful childhood TV memories.
Actually, I don’t remember watching Shazam! The Complete Live Action Series, but I must have, because I remember watching The Secrets of Isis, and the two shows ran together. (By the way, big thanks to my buddy David for picking me up a copy of the Isis set, which was commercially released, and getting it signed for me at one of the San Diego conventions.)
As the helpful introduction tells us, Billy Batson (Michael Gray) was selected by the gods to “travel the highways and byways of the land” with his mentor Mentor (Les Tremayne) “on a never-ending mission to right wrongs, to develop understanding, and to seek justice for all”, becoming the mighty Captain Marvel (Jackson Bostwick, then John Davey) when needed. (Clearly, they were going for an Adventures of Superman-like opening.) It’s based on the DC comic, of course, although in another sign of how long ago this was, it’s credited as “SHAZAM! magazine published by National Periodical Publications, Inc.” (with creative consultant Carmine Infantino!). You can see the show opening here:
I’m impressed by how effectively they made a limited budget work. There are only three regular actors, plus the cartoon “elders” (couldn’t call them gods; by the way, Adam West voiced Hercules in the first episode) which were animated in limited fashion. By having Billy and Mentor drive around in an RV, they can use whatever location they like for convenience or cost, and there’s only one regular set, the vehicle’s interior. The special effects were likewise minimal, since Billy didn’t fight supervillians. (We get the standard back-projection stiff flying sequences, though.) Instead, Captain Marvel provided moral lessons and helped out regular people in trouble.
The shows seem slow to today’s viewer, but it’s in keeping with the 1974-1976 time period. All 28 episodes of the show are here on the three-disc set, running about 22 minutes each. You can choose to play them with or without the ending moral tag, which provided the lesson to the kids watching, in case the plot itself wasn’t obvious enough. (What do you expect from a show with three credited educational advisers?)
Warner has done its usual thorough job. Although the video quality is about what you’d expect — TV quality, sufficient, but not outstanding, with occasional blank-screen video gaps before end tags or credits — they’ve included the commercial break voiceovers (“we’ll return after these messages”/”and now, back to Shazam!”) with the show logo, a nice treat for those who want absolutely everything about the show. The elements have been remastered from the original 16mm camera negatives, so it’s in really good shape for the show’s age.
The plots are simple. In the first episode, kids are stealing cars to joyride, but the one who thinks this might be a bad idea learns how it feels when his bike gets stolen. The moral is to stand up for what you think is right regardless of peer pressure. Another has a girl trying to prevent her aunt’s horse Beckett from being destroyed, as the aunt requested in her will. (I don’t even know how someone came up with this plot.) The moral is that you can always work things out by reason, and humans should take good care of the animals in their care.
Others will remind you of the decade, such as the one about respecting native artifacts (with its moral shown above, voiced by Bostwick) or working to get girl athletes equal rights. (This one has a teenage Butch Patrick as one of the bullies.) We also learn drug dealers are bad; not to drop out of school; choose your friends carefully; don’t lie (although you might get to see Captain Marvel wrestle a lion if you do); don’t cheat; and do what your parents say.
A very young Jackie Earle Haley stars in one episode as a loner kid at summer camp, who’s helped to learn to not be so disagreeable so he can make friends. In another, Danny Bonaduce shows up as one of a gang of boys breaking into the school on the weekend. The three episodes where Isis (Joanna Cameron) guest-stars are also included. (She was so cool!) In the first (the last of the second season), a guy gets in trouble because he refuses to ask for help, so in a nice parallel, Captain Marvel gets help from Isis in putting out a forest fire.
You’ll either want to watch this with an episode listing at hand, picking out the ones that seem interesting, or ration them out so you’re not watching too many at once. Given the formula structure common to kids’ entertainment and the times, they’re more enjoyable as short tastes, but they are still watchable, especially for younger viewers. In fact, if you want to share the fun of heroic stories with your children, this is a great choice. I’m surprised I got sucked into watching so many at once, but they’re like popcorn. What’s Captain Marvel going to do next?
If you’re interested, from what I can tell, the version with the Jerry Ordway art cover is still available. (The studio provided a review copy.)