Friday, September 11, 2015

CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT: The Unaired TV Pilot

Richard Webb as Captain Midnight
The Captain Midnight radio program was among the more popular of children’s shows, centering around the character of flying ace Captain Midnight (formerly Captain Albright) who had received his nickname years before when he, as an Army flyer, returned from a dangerous mission at the stroke of twelve, just in time to save the Allied cause.

The program first aired in 1938, and during the early years (under the sponsorship of the Skelly Oil Company) Captain Midnight and his friends belonged to an organization known as the Captain Midnight Flight Patrol.

Late in 1940, a new sponsor (Ovaltine) took over and at this point the Flight Patrol was superseded by an organization known as the Secret Squadron. As the story unfolded, Captain Midnight was asked by the U.S. Government to head up this special new organization whose mission it was to assist federal authorities in fighting injustice throughout the world.

Within the Secret Squadron, Captain Midnight was designated as SS-1. Captain Midnight’s superior officer at government headquarters was Major Steel, and his chief Squadron assistants were mechanic Ichabod Mudd (SS-4), and young friends Chuck Ramsay (SS-2) and Joyce Ryan (SS-3). (Along with the organizational and sponsor changes came a change in the name of the young female lead from Patsy Donovan to Joyce Ryan.)

Chief villain of the entire radio series was Ivan Shark, mastermind of a world-wide crime syndicate. Though Ivan Shark was the central antagonist, his equally unprincipled assistant Fang and his evil daughter, Fury, were often heard from. There were also other international bad apples, one of whom was Barracuda, a sinister figure of Oriental ancestry. During the war years, the villains regularly took on an Axis makeup, and that period saw Captain Midnight and his friends continually rushing from adventure to adventure in a never-ending effort to make the world secure once more.

In 1942, Columbia Pictures licensed the character of Captain Midnight for a cliffhanger chapter serial, featuring most of the characters described. In 1954, Captain Midnight was introduced to television as a continuing series of 39 episodes produced under a contract with Screen Gems, Inc. Character actor Richard Webb played the title role. Variety reviewed: “For the little shaver with his adventurous soul, and there must be millions of them abroad in the land, this is super. Budget for budget, none of the kid shows is done better. There is no skimping here and all hands can come out of the wings for a deserved bow.”

These 39 episodes, under sponsorship of The Ovaltine Products Division, ran nationally for four years through syndication. Screen Gems then ran them nationally under their own title as Jet Jackson, Flying Commando, for many years. Ovaltine owned the name “Captain Midnight” so Screen Gems dubbed the words “Jet Jackson” in the soundtrack to avoid trademark issues. In 1968, Jet Jackson was the number one television series in Australia.

In 1956, a National Poll indicated the public rating of then current heroes: Mickey Mantle, President  Eisenhower… and Captain Midnight. You will no doubt find a number of Captain Midnight collectibles on the vendor tables this weekend: the 1940 American Flag Loyalty Badge, the 1941 Detect-O-Scope, the 1942 Mystic Eye Detector Ring, the 1945 Magni-Magic Code-O-Graph, and more. Over fifty collectibles were manufactured and distributed over fifteen years, not counting printed promotional material.

Script cover for unaired TV pilot.
Sixty years following the conclusion of the television series, a rare discovery was made. It appears that in October 1974, Richard Webb acquired from the Ovaltine Company of Illinois the rights to Captain Midnight, to produce a new television series. Authored by Richard Webb himself, an updated space age version was scripted with all the familiar characters and locale, including the Secret Squadron Headquarters and laboratories in a remote section of the Mojave Desert. The lead role of Captain Midnight was in his mid-twenties, assisted by mechanic Budd (nicknamed Ikky), Ramsay (age 14) and Joyce Ryan (age 13). Without explanation or excuse, the pilot script established that Captain Midnight spent time on another planet, returned to Earth in a Flying Saucer (referred to as The Silver Dart), and uses the same craft as his personal mode of transportation on his missions planet-wide.

In the pilot script, Captain Midnight and his crew investigate a highly effective method of sabotage at a geothermal site, discovering who the criminal is and his motives. Hoping to thwart the discovery of valuable diamonds under the ground, the villain used a long-handled sledge hammer to sabotage the drilling, with hopes the company would pack up and go home… leaving the diamonds behind for excavation.

Until recently this script was not even known to exist. Webb, also a successfully-published author of Great Ghosts of the West (1971) and These Came Back (1974), wrote a novel titled Captain Midnight, contracted for publication with Hawthorn Books. The novel was never published. Such discoveries, decades after classic programs such as Captain Midnight went off the air, are continuing to surface courtesy of historians and dedicated researchers. (I personally would love to read Webb's unpublished Captain Midnight manuscript if that novel ever surfaced...) Some of these discoveries stem from flea markets, online auctions and vendors at film festivals. Which makes us wonder just what valuables are fated for discovery next weekend in the vendor room at the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention?



1 comment:

Tom Floyd said...

wow! i would have loved to see that pilot filmed, and i too would love to read Webb's novel as i was and still am a huge fan of Webb's Capt. Midnight/Jet Jackson.

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