MICHIGAN — Many people will be waiting in line to watch the latest superhero movie “SHAZAM!” which premieres in theaters on April 5. What makes this superhero unique is he is really a boy who can transform himself into an adult superhero by shouting the magic word, “SHAZAM!”
Although the character may be new to this generation of children, there are others alive who will remember the first time “SHAZAM!” was shouted on the silver screen and a Detroit area actor soared into the sky to battle evil,
Seventy-eight years ago, in March of 1941, the first cinematic superhero came to the silver screen in the “Adventures of Captain Marvel,” a 12-chapter adventure, courtesy of Republic Pictures. (The superhero’s name was originally Captain Marvel and SHAZAM! was just his magic word.) The serial was extremely successful in 1941 and is still considered today to be one of the greatest serials of all time. And the man who brought the superhero to life was former Hamtramck, Michigan resident, Tom Tyler.
Born Vincent Markowski in 1903, Tyler came to Hamtramck with his family at age 15. He had been born in Port Henry, N.Y., home of a movie studio, Arctic City, where the famous, early movie serial, “The Perils of Pauline,” had been filmed. During high school, he became involved in athletics and weight-lifting.
After graduation, Tyler worked for a short time at the Dodge Main plant. Then, while competing in an athletic contest at the Martha Washington Theater in Hamtramck, Tyler was approached by a Hollywood talent scout who told him to give Hollywood a try and he’d provide him with some names.
Borrowing some money from his younger sister Molly, Tyler set out for Hollywood with his friend, Emil Karkoski. In Denver, Karkoski decided to turn back and return home. Tyler went on without him.
Tyler began in B Westerns in 1924, changing his name to Tyler after the first few films. By the time his fourth movie was released, “Let’s Go, Gallagher,” he was playing lead roles. In 1939, he appeared in both “Gone With the Wind,” John Ford’s “Stagecoach” and as the mummy in Universal’s “The Mummy’s Hand” in 1940.
“By 1940, he was the biggest western star in America,” says Greg Kowalski, Chairman of the Hamtramck Historical Commission. “At one point, he was bigger than Roy Rogers.”
It was with more than 100 movies under his belt that, in 1940, he was chosen to play the role of Captain Marvel. Originally Republic Studios had intended to produce a Superman serial, but when negotiations broke down, producers turned to the owners of the Man of Steel’s biggest comic book competitor.
Captain Marvel had only been appearing in comic books for several months when Republic purchased rights to the character. But, after the serial was made, Captain Marvel, went on to become the character with the largest comic book circulation during the 1940s, even beating out Superman.
Critics say it was a combination of the cast, its mystery villain (not revealed until the end), stunt work and the special effects by the Lydecker brothers which created the right combination to make the serial such a success. Even after its initial release in 1941, it would be rereleased in 1953 and during the Batman craze in 1966.
“Most viewers thought Tom Tyler was great as Captain Marvel,” said co-star Frank Coughlan, Jr. in an interview with P.C. Hamerlinck in 1993. Coughlan played Captain Marvel’s alter ego, teenager Billy Batson. Even after appearing in more than 400 films, Coughlan said his fans best remember him for his role in that one serial.
“Tom was very quiet and reserved,” said another co-star, Louise Currie, in her 1996 interview with Hamerlinck. “I thought he handled the part quite well. He was nice, kind and cooperative.”
“I was 12 or 13 when I first saw the ‘Adventures of Captain Marvel,'” says actor/director Jackson Bostwick, who played Captain Marvel in the 1970s TV program SHAZAM!. “I saw Chapter One at a local theater on the same bill as the original ‘War of the Worlds’ for a 10-cent ticket price. The flying sequences are amazing. From then on I was hooked. It had everything going for it — action, adventure and a superhero that’s fun to follow.
“I appreciate the serial even more, today. And seeing it in black and white lends more to its stark reality than if it had been shot in color. Think of the effect that the Tarzan movies had with Johnny Weissmuller, as the Ape Man, being shot in black and white. Color would have diluted that ‘Noir’ effect. Hitchcock knew this, when he filmed, ‘Psycho.'”
Coughlan and Curry both described Tyler as very shy. His shyness, however, did not stop him from reaching out to others.
“During his career, when he was big in Hollywood, he would come back here,” says Kowalski. “He would meet with the local kids and have cake and cookies with them. He was a big hero to the kids.
“The St. Anne’s Community House was one place he would meet with kids. We had a couple of community houses here in Hamtramck and they were basically settlement homes for immigrants. He was very community-minded.”
Tyler went on to appear in another 47 movies after Captain Marvel and some episodes of TV shows.
Unfortunately, his career was brought down early by scleroderma, a fatal and crippling disease. He returned to Michigan in 1953 where he stayed with his sister, Katherine Slepski, and her family in Detroit. Tyler passed away on May 3, 1954 at St. Francis Hospital, just three months before his fifty-first birthday. He is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Detroit.
While Tyler may not be as well remembered today as he once was, his contributions to early Hollywood are chronicled forever on film. And like Captain Marvel, he was a humble, daring hero to millions of film-goers from the 1920s and into the ’50s, and even today through DVDs.