Thursday, November 8, 2012

SHAZAM! (1974) DVD Review

During the Golden Age of comic books, Superman's greatest adversary wasn't Lex Luthor or any of his other colorful rogues gallery, but competing caped crimefighter Captain Marvel, whose four-color mags frequently outsold those of the Man of Steel. By 1974, though, both heroes were owned by DC Comics, and while Superman was on track for silver screen glory a few years later, the World's Mightiest Mortal became a Saturday morning TV star with Filmation's live-action Shazam!, which aired every weekend on CBS.

The opening narration explained the premise: "Chosen from among all others by the immortal elders - Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, Mercury - Billy Batson and his mentor travel the highways and byways of the land on a never ending mission: to right wrongs, to develop understanding, and to seek justice for all! In time of dire need, young Billy has been granted the power by the immortals to summon awesome forces at the utterance of a single word! SHAZAM!"

The series ran for three seasons - a significant run for 70s Saturday morning kidvid - accumulating a total of 28 half-hour episodes. Teenage Billy Batson was portrayed by the shaggy-haired Michael Gray, while veteran Hollywood character actor, radio star and cartoon voice artist Les Tremayne was his elderly traveling companion, Mentor. For the first 17 episodes, Billy's super-powered alter ego Captain Marvel was portrayed by the athletic and earnest Jackson Bostwick. Unfortunately (reportedly due to a misunderstanding), he was fired a few episodes into the second season and replaced by stocky John Davey. Both men did creditable work as the soft-spoken superhuman, but as a kid watching the show, I never quite accepted Davey in the role. Bostwick was the "real" Captain Marvel for this 10 year-old.

Most stories started with Billy & Mentor having a picnic on the beach or driving down some Southern California back road when the Elders would telepathically contact Billy and give him some cryptic advice. Fortunately, that advice would begin to make sense once Billy & Mentor encountered the troubled teen of the week. After putting said kid back on the righteous path - which usually involved a last minute super-heroic feat by the good Captain - Billy & Mentor would hit the road again in their custom RV... until the following week.

The show was simplistic, non-violent, moralistic and cheap-looking, with special effects hardly more advanced than those used on the 1950's The Adventures Of Superman television series, but the writing was often pretty serious, and surprisingly, not sugar-coated. In a few episodes, Captain Marvel even battled real criminals like drug dealers, who were exploiting kids for their own purposes.

Production values were pretty minimal. Shot as cheaply as possible on 16mm film and almost entirely outdoors in natural light, the show certainly doesn't look very impressive. But the acting was solid, with the weekly casts filled out by lots of familiar TV actors of the era. Notable guest stars include Danny Bonaduce, Space Academy's Pamelyn Ferdin & Ty Henderson, Lance Kerwin, Butch Patrick, and Jackie Earle Haley. TV's Batman, Adam West, provided the voice of Hercules.

Because Shazam! shared the same network, studio and timeslot as The Secrets Of Isis, the lovely JoAnna Cameron made appearances as the superheroine Isis in three episodes, as well. (And the noble Captain returned the favor, guesting on an episode or two of Isis the same season.)

The new 3-disc, Manufactured-On-Demand Shazam! - The Complete Live Action Series from Warner Archive includes all 28 episodes, presented in their original 4x3, 1.33:1 "standard" TV aspect ratio. Picture quality is generally pretty good for a nearly 40 year-old, low-budget show shot on cheap film stock. Given the source material, the image is grainy and overall a bit soft, with occasionally faded colors. Some episodes look better than others, but there is no significant print damage or other distracting age-related artifacts. Audio is a serviceable Dolby Digital Mono.

The only "bonus feature" is the option to play all episodes with the original 30 second "morals" re-instated into the episodes. These short segments appeared at the end of the episodes and featured Captain Marvel or Billy talking directly to the camera and bluntly explaining the ethical lesson the episode dramatized. As these segments were removed after the original airings, Warner Archive has had to hunt down the footage from various sources (including old videotapes), so picture quality on these is often pretty poor. Still, I'm grateful that they went to the effort and expense to include them, for completion's sake.

If you grew up with the show, there's no denying the nostalgic appeal. The effects and production values may be "cheesy" by today's standards - and the moralistic stories may lack subtlety - but they're highly entertaining. Warner Archive has done a very decent job putting this set together, and if you're a fan of the show, it's definitely worth picking up. Highly recommended.

Buy it now from AmazonShazam! The Complete Live-Action Series


  1. There was an article in NEW YORK magazine from 1975 about the morals at the end of SHAZAM! that always stayed with me, that your comments remind me of:

  2. Loved Shazam and Isis... watched them every week.
    Great memories of these classics.

  3. RIP, Filmation (and Krofft and Hanna-Barbera). But they will live on forever in our memories.

    1. Actually, Kroft is still an active production company. The last work their title card appeared on was the 2009 film LAND OF THE LOST, and Sid and Marty are still working, looking to either remake their older properties or get behind a new production:

    2. I would hardly consider one picture every decade or so to be "active." And I wouldn't mention the 2009 film. Fans of the old show hated it and it's a safe bet there won't be more than a relative handful of people who'll look back at it with nostalgia in coming decades.

    3. I would, if only because it was so slavish a recreation (which would have failed anyway). At lest this version was original enough in making it a comedy.

  4. I'd never heard of this before, but I had grown up as a kid buying the Shazam! comics and watching the original B+W serial. With a slight cynicism as to whether I would enjoy this or not, I bought this from Amazon US.

    The episodes are highly watchable and any fears I had were unfounded. Chris' review is spot-on (not that I had any doubts) and am loving this. I may now buy Isis on the strength of this.

    Be warned though: if buying from Amazon US from the UK, you'll be hit with an outrageous customs charge. I don't rate on Amazon, but I will be rating the seller zero for this. As a rule of thumb, if the same product is available on Amazon Canada, buy it there. The cost is usually about the same, and they send by courier with no customs charge, arriving in just days instead of weeks.


  5. I used to watch Isis but Shazam not as much. Never realized they Bewitched Captain Marvel. Maybe there was something better on, or I preferred to watch a woman in a short skirt than two guys living in an RV. Hmmm? I do remember watching Electra Woman and Dyna-girl, and that was the cheesiest of 'filmed in my basement' shows.

  6. I have both Isis and Shazam video collections and they are fabulous! I am really enjoying Shazam!

  7. I'm watching my way through this set right now and enjoying it almost as much as I did as a kid. Funnily, I started watching it originally right after John Davey took over, so I used to think that he'd been replaced by Bostwick! (CBS re-ran the show in various configurations for another season or two.)

    From what I know, Warner's actually put a fair amount of work into restoring these to watchable condition; they're certainly better than the prints that TV Land was running a few years ago and the "bonus" episode they added to the Wonder Woman DVD set.

    On a side note: I know IMDB credits Adam West as Hercules, but I'm unconvinced. Given that the opening narration and almost every other Elder voice is Lou Scheimer (with maybe one by Norm Prescott), and knowing that Scheimer can do a voice very like West, I'd be a bit surprised that they'd hire West just for that.