Home > Reviews > Thoughts on SHAZAM! (1974)

Thoughts on SHAZAM! (1974)

Thanks to the DC Universe streaming site, I’ve just finished a rewatch of the 1974 Filmation live-action adventure series Shazam!, which I watched in first run on Saturday mornings as a kid. I haven’t seen the show in quite a long time, though I saw its sister show The Secrets of Isis on DVD back in 2009. I was expecting that it would have mostly nostalgia value and that from a mature perspective I’d find it rather silly. But I was actually surprised at how well it held up. Certainly it had plenty of contrivances and limitations and was made with an absurdly low budget, but it managed to be pretty decent in spite of that.

The show had legendary DC artist Carmine Infantino on board as a creative consultant from the company that was still billed as National Comics Publications at the time — and I’m rather surprised that I saw his name prominently displayed in the credits of this show every week in my childhood (at least in the first season), yet failed to recognize it when I saw it on comic book pages nearly a decade later. Anyway, it was a weird mix of fidelity to and departure from the source. Captain Marvel’s costume was an exact recreation of the comics version, his powers worked basically the same way, and there were a few passing references to Billy Batson working for a TV station, as he did in the comics (though nobody ever recognized him in the show, so either he worked for a local station or he wasn’t an on-air personality). But we never saw him at work. Instead, the implicitly teenaged Billy (Michael Gray, who was in his early 20s at the time) spent the whole 3-season, 28-episode series on an incredibly long vacation, tooling around Los Angeles and the surrounding countryside in an RV driven by his elderly mentor named Mentor (War of the Worlds‘ Les Tremayne), a new character created for the show. In place of the Wizard Shazam, the mythical figures who empowered him and provided the initials of the magic word that transformed Bily into Captain Marvel — Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury — appeared onscreen as “the Elders” in barely-animated cartoon sequences (static paintings with animated eyes and mouths) with a live-action Billy matted in, showing up once per episode to give Billy vague warnings about the problems he would face and the moral principles he’d need to apply in solving them. (All six Elders were voiced by Filmation producer Lou Scheimer. Some sources credit Solomon as his partner Norm Prescott, but I grew up hearing all of Scheimer’s voices — there weren’t very many of them — and I know them when I hear them.) As a kid, I saw the whole series in black & white, and I’m startled by how vivid the Elder sequences are in the remastered HD episodes on DCU.

Mentor is a mysterious figure. He seems like just a friendly grandfather tootling around in an RV with Billy, and Gray and Tremayne have a fun comic rapport as they tease each other, joke around, and occasionally get on each other’s nerves. But Mentor seems to have a connection to the Elders, sometimes repeating their words as if he were some Earthbound facet or agent of theirs, and in one early episode he shows up out of nowhere on a tree branch to give advice, as if he just materialized there off camera. Still, if the original implication was that he had some kind of supernatural connection to the Elders, that was abandoned by the second season. (Also, it was originally clear that he “heard” the Elders’ words when Billy visited them, but in seasons 2-3 he needed Billy to repeat them to him.)

(EDIT: Filmation historian Andy Mangels informs me that the series bible explained Mentor as a former host of Captain Marvel. Which makes perfect sense.)

Another change, incidentally, is that the Elders seemed more stern and proactive in season 1, sometimes sending out threatening thunderclaps when Billy and Mentor were tempted to use Captain Marvel’s powers for personal or frivolous reasons. By season 2, they seemed more indulgent, and there was one closing gag scene where Billy changed to Marvel inside the RV to win a petty argument with Mentor (the one and only time he was shown transforming inside the vehicle, although he did once change while tied up in a warehouse). I guess magic lightning isn’t affected by Faraday cages. Well, nobody ever seemed to notice the thunder or lightning when he changed, so I guess it’s pretty unusual.

Captain Marvel was played by two actors. In the 15 episodes of the first season and two episodes in the second, he was played by Jackson Bostwick, a bright-eyed, square-jawed muscleman who looked the part pretty convincingly aside from needing a haircut. But Bostwick abruptly walked out early in season 2 as a ploy to get a raise, and got fired instead, with the producers hastily casting a new actor, John Davey, to take his place for the remaining 11 episodes and three guest appearances on Isis. Davey was a less visually convincing Marvel, an older, rougher-featured, slightly flabbier man (though he was more toned up by season 3) who looked and sounded more like a blue-collar dad than a superhero. I gather that most people prefer Bostwick in the role, but at least in my current rewatch, I liked Davey much better. Bostwick had the look down, and he was amiable enough, but he was a limited performer who never felt natural in the role, affecting a constant grin that seemed forced and almost creepily ingratiating. Davey was a considerably more experienced actor who gave a much more unaffected, matter-of-fact performance. It might not have been as easy to believe he was the World’s Mightiest Mortal, but it was far easier to believe that he was actually a person involved in the story, rather than a performer mugging for the camera and reciting from a script. Certainly he was better than you’d expect from someone hastily cast in a single day after the first guy walked out.

(EDIT: Apparently the claim that Bostwick walked out over money was disproven; it was actually due to an on-set injury, and Bostwick won a Screen Actors Guild arbitration hearing over his firing and got compensated for it: http://www.angelfire.com/tv2/shazam/bostwick2.html )

The change in CM’s appearance was never explained on the show, and indeed, for some reason Davey’s first episode was aired the week before Bostwick’s last, perhaps to soften the transition. Now, since Billy/Marvel is essentially a shapeshifter, it seems there’s a built-in explanation for the change — except in Davey’s second episode, a criminal impersonates Marvel wearing a mask of Davey’s face and the public instantly recognizes him as the hero.

It’s worth noting that Captain Marvel’s screen time increased significantly once Davey replaced Bostwick. In season 1, he mostly just showed up for a minute or two at a time for one or two rescue sequences per episode, but in seasons 2-3, he sometimes had extended roles whose screen time occasionally surpassed Bily’s. (For instance, in the aforementioned episode, when Billy learns there’s a warrant for CM’s arrest, he Shazams and turns himself in as CM, spending most of the rest of the episode in that form.) Now, this happened soon enough that it probably wasn’t cause and effect — my guess is that the network asked for more screen time for the superhero even before the cast change. But I doubt that Bostwick could’ve handled the enlarged role and more extensive character interplay as well as Davey did.

While rewatching the show from my adult, more comics-savvy perspective, I found myself wondering what Billy/Marvel and Mentor did when they weren’t on the world’s longest vacation. Did this Earth’s Captain Marvel ever fight supervillains like Dr. Sivana and Mr. Mind, or did he just deal with bank robbers, catch runaway cars, and save kids from falling off cliffs due to their poor life choices? For what it’s worth, the first Isis crossover episode had the Elders tell Mentor (the one time we ever saw him in the Elders’ cartoon space) that Isis was the only person on Earth who could help Captain Marvel put out a forest fire. So that tells us that their universe had no other superheroes, at least none on a comparable level of power. Of course, the existence of Isis (JoAnna Cameron) invalidates the Shazam! opening narration’s claim that Captain Marvel is “the mightiest of mortals.” He can just fly around and punch through rock and lift cars over his head. She has godlike power over the forces of nature and can reverse time itself.

On the classic “Is Captain Marvel a transformed Billy or another person who swaps places with him?” question, I’d say the show more or less came down on the former side. Marvel sometimes followed through on Billy’s conversations with Mentor or on his goals (e.g. getting a delayed lunch or winning a friendly bet), and Billy once used “I” to refer to something Marvel did. Marvel’s personality didn’t seem quite the same as Billy’s, but this version of Billy wasn’t as boyish as he’s usually portrayed and Marvel’s appearances were usually fairly brief. And we can assume that he’s putting on a more heroic persona for the benefit of the public, though he lets his guard down more with Mentor. To some extent, it depends on the actor. Bostwick’s screen time and talent were both too limited to convey any sense that Billy’s personality was in there. Davey wasn’t doing an impression of Michael Gray or anything, but his manner was similar enough that I can buy that they’re the same person.

The show occasionally had some notable guest stars, either established names from the era or earlier, including Lance Kerwin, Pamelyn Ferdin (who would later star in Filmation’s Space Academy), William Sargent, Ron Soble, Butch Patrick, Hilly Hicks, Dabbs Greer, Kung Fu‘s Radames Pera, Danny Bonaduce, William Campbell, and Linden Chiles, or young actors who would become prominent later on, including Patrick Labyorteaux, Andrew Stevens, and actor-director Eric Laneuville. Laneuville’s episode also featured baseball star Maury Wills in a cameo as himself, which dodged a bullet — I was afraid the episode would get white-saviorish with Billy/Marvel and Mentor showing the light to a couple of black kids, but the producers wisely brought in the African-American Wills to provide the lesson — even making him the only non-regular ever to appear in one of the closing tags restating the moral of the week for the kids at home.  Perhaps the biggest star who appeared in Shazam! was a young Jackie Earle Haley, better known for his work in another DC production, playing Rorschach in Zack Snyder’s Watchmen. Quite a difference.

As for the main cast, Michael Gray had about five years of prior TV acting experience, but did very little acting after the show — surprisingly, as I thought he was pretty good. Les Tremayne had decades of experience as a radio actor, announcer, and narrator as well as a screen actor, known for The War of the Worlds and North by Northwest, but after this, he worked almost exclusively in animation through the early ’90s. Jackson Bostwick did a handful of roles in various later films, notably as “Head Guard” in TRON. John Davey went on working as a character actor for the next decade or so, appearing in six different roles in The Rockford Files and five in Barnaby Jones, with his final two credited roles in 1987, as a state trooper in MacGyver and a “Metrocop with Stunner” in the American pilot of Max Headroom.

Shazam!‘s production values were nothing to write home about, of course. The endless vacation was an excuse to avoid standing sets and shoot entirely on location (including several episodes shot at the familiar Vasquez Rocks cliff where Kirk fought the Gorn, and several uses of the Bronson Canyon cave area used as the exterior of Adam West’s Batcave). The visual effects were pretty basic, with flying shots for Captain Marvel not dissimilar to those from George Reeves’s Superman a couple of decades earlier. But they did some interesting flying gags where they tied Bostwick or Davey to a board and drove him around with a camera shooting his torso so it looked like he was flying close to ground level. They did a cool stunt with him dragging down a chopper in one episode, but in the episode where he caught a small plane and guided it to a safe landing, I realized after a moment that they just tied a dummy to the back of the plane. The most notable optical effect was the transformation shot created by the Westheimer Company, with Gray’s image fading into Bostwick’s and then Davey’s surrounded by animated flames and superimposed on live-action light and cloud tank effects. It’s mildly impressive that they actually went to the trouble of recompositing it for Davey rather than just cutting it short or replacing it with a simpler transition. But then, much like the stock henshin sequences in Japanese tokusatsu shows today, the “Shazam!” shot was a highlight of each episode, a ritualized moment the audience came to expect, so it makes sense that they’d put the most care into it.

Despite all this adult perspective, though, it was still a nostalgic treat to revisit Shazam! Filmation’s shows were my jam as a kid in the ’70s, and their music composed by Ray Ellis and supervised by Norm Prescott (under the pseudonyms Yvette Blais & Jeff Michael) was the soundtrack I used in my head to score my own life. I feel their wholesome, liberal, educational focus helped shape my moral compass, along with Star Trek. And early Shazam! fits particularly into my comfort zone, a reminder of that last year or so before I lost my mother, the one time I seem to recall feeling most contented and complete and untroubled, though it probably didn’t seem that way at the time. Maybe that’s why I found it so satisfying to revisit. I felt it was written and (mostly) acted better than I expected, but I could certainly be seeing it through rose-colored glasses. Still, that’s fine. I watch other shows with a more critical eye, but this revisit was purely for nostalgia, and I’m glad it held up for me.

Categories: Reviews Tags: , , , ,
  1. Larry Mager
    August 15, 2020 at 10:05 pm

    FINALLY! Some else besides me admits to enjoying the “Shazam/Isis Hour”!! When Cap first appeared in the comics, He was supposedly based on Fred MacMurray, He is later shown to look like Jack Oakey which is why I also prefer Daveys as the Cap. I agree with You Christopher as regards Mr. Bostwick. Thank You for discussing this Show. I enjoyed it then and still do now. Cheers!

  2. Jeremy Gann
    August 16, 2020 at 12:15 am

    SO happy I found you blog! BIG Filmation fan here too, as their shows WERE my Saturday mornings! Your blog is really great, and I also recently just saw (again) some SHAZAM! episodes (as well as my fave live action ISIS). I try to collect ALL Filmation shows, even though some are rough bootlegs. I just got WEB WOMAN which is an older one. I also am a HUGE fan of the background music that Ray Ellis did that elevated so many of Filmation’s shows. Congrats on the ST TAS book you helped with! THAT is exciting! Again, so happy to have found your blog! LOVED the reading! If I can ever be of help tracking down any Filmation shows let me know. I have a page you might like on Facebook (The Super Groovy Land of Nostalgica) where it is ALL retro, all good stuff and a lot of fun. Lots of FILMATION there too. Thanks again! J

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