Shazam! on DVD has kitschy, nostalgic charm
For baby boomers and nostalgia buffs, the new DVD release of ‘Shazam!’ will bring back memories of Saturday mornings long ago.
When I was a kid, Saturday morning TV was what I lived for at the end of a long school week. I had a steady diet of Looney Tunes, Scooby-Doo, The Wacky Races, The Groovie Goolies and more. Cartoons were fun and there was very little live action programming, but Sid and Marty Krofft brought live action to Saturday morning with Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, Lidsville, Land of the Lost and more. These shows were still brightly colored confections meant only to entertain … and sell sugary cereal and toys to impressionable minds during commercial breaks. Then the watchdog groups started making noise about the ads and the lack of educational value on Saturday morning. What kid wants to be forced to learn even more when all they want is a break from school? Thanks to these groups — and the costs involved in producing animation — Saturday mornings began to morph into mostly live action shows that also taught kids a lesson. Yawn.
One of these shows that aimed to entertain and teach was a live action superhero show called Shazam! Debuting in 1974, the show centered on young Billy Batson (Michael Gray) who traveled around the country in a really ugly Winnebago with his mentor named … Mentor (Les Tremayne)! Billy, through no real explanation as the show offers no origin story, is connected to a group of (stiffly animated) immortals — Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury (get it?) — who contact him each week during his travels to compliment him on his guitar playing and offer him some cryptic riddle that becomes clear as the plot advances. Billy and Mentor then either almost run into someone with the RV, are almost run into, or just happen to be in the right place at the right time to help some unfortunate soul in trouble … usually a kid on the brink of delinquency. But most of the time, the situation is beyond the abilities of Billy, so he sneaks off and yells the magic word “Shazam!” and is transformed into Captain Marvel in the flash of a lightning bolt. Cap saves the day, Billy and Mentor drive off to their next adventure and everyone else presumably has learned a lesson and lives happily ever after.
I do remember watching Shazam!, at least during the first season, so it was a real kick to see the show again now that it’s been released on DVD by the Warner Archive Collection. The three disk set includes all three seasons of the show, and I have to say the quality of the film image is quite spectacular for a show shot on 16mm film almost 40 years ago. The image is sharp, colorful and nearly free of any blemishes. It really is quite surprising to see how well the film has held up, and apparently the film elements have been remastered for this DVD release. The audio is fine as well, with everything front and center. Occasionally, some of the sound effects will overwhelm the dialog, such as a scene in which Billy is riding in a dune buggy, but overall the show looks and sounds probably better than it ever has. They’ve even gone the extra mile with this release by including two versions of the episodes: you can select each remastered episode from the menu individually (or use the Play All feature), or you can watch all the episodes together with the original “Moral” ending tacked on. Unfortunately, the morals — Captain Marvel delivers a wrap-up to the episode for those who didn’t already get the message that had been hammered into their heads during the show itself — have not held up as well as the episodes and the best existing elements have been used, from old scratched film to video dupes. Regardless, it’s still a nice bonus to have, but I wish they would have made these available individually instead of as part of a Play All feature.
The fact that someone at the Warner Archives felt this show was worth the attention given is a testament to the nostalgia of people like me who remember the show and have always wondered why it seemed to have slid into obscurity. Is the show good? I can’t say it’s the greatest Saturday morning show ever produced but it does have its charms. The show was certainly hampered by the rulings that governed shows at the time, requiring them to teach a lesson while entertaining, so Captain Marvel often ends up chiding someone after rescuing them to make sure they — and the viewer — got the message. We got it, we got it! The actors do their best with the overly earnest dialog, with old pro Tremayne giving the best performance (I love his facial expressions, which never seem like mugging for the camera). Jackson Bostwick appeared as Captain Marvel in 17 of the series’ 28 episodes but was mysteriously replaced for the final 11 by John Davey, who cut a less than heroic figure in the red jumpsuit. (Bostwick was accused of not showing up for a shoot to hold out for more money, but he was actually seeing a doctor for an injury sustained during the shoot the day before. Apparently Davey was the best they could find on short notice.) You have to wonder if Davey’s even going to get off the ground as he jumps to take flight. And speaking of the flying scenes, well, this is before Superman made you believe a man could fly. The episodes with Bostwick in front of a blue screen are passable, if laughable, and it’s a real hoot when they seem to have him strapped to a board on a truck with the camera shooting up from below and only from the waist up for some actual location shots of him flying. Davey’s process shots are not handled as well, sometimes with a visible green outline around him.
But it’s these things that give Shazam! its kitschy charm. Kids today, unless they’re very young, probably won’t buy any of it for a minute and the hammer-over-the-head morality play is sure to make them squirm. Younger kids — who haven’t seen modern superhero movies — may be entertained and the baby boomers are sure to enjoy the show for nostalgic reasons … and may be surprised that even while it may be a bit laughable by today’s standards, it still entertains and it’s fun to look for stars of the time and up-and-comers like Jackie Earle Haley (Watchmen), Lance Kerwin, Pamela Ferdyn, John Karlen (Dark Shadows), Butch Patrick (The Munsters), Lisa Eilbacher, Eric Shea (The Poseidon Adventure), Dabbs Greer, Jimmy McNichol, Danny Bonaduce (The Patridge Family), Maury Wills, Nancy Morgan and Andrew Stevens. When the show became part of The Shazam/Isis Hour, Isis star Joanna Cameron also made three guest appearances (and the original intro from the hybrid show is included). Overall, Shazam! isn’t great, it’s a little heavy-handed (okay, a lot), but it’s still a real treat to have the show looking so good on DVD. For boomers and nostalgia buffs, it’s definitely worth owning. You can purchase the set from Amazon.com through the link below, or directly from the Warner Archives, which offers the set with exclusive cover artwork.