Fates Worse Than Death: Exploring the Motion Picture Serials

Several years ago I was sitting in Century II Concert Hall before a Wichita Symphony pops concert; the day’s program was to include film music excerpts (some accompanying silent film clips), including selections from John Williams’ Star Wars score.  I don’t remember quite how the conversation started, but an older lady sitting next to me was blunt in her assessment: “People don’t realize it now,” she told me, “but Star Wars was a comedy.  The first time I saw it, I just laughed, because I had seen it all before.  Luke Skywalker swinging across the chasm on a rope? That’s Douglas Fairbanks.”

StarWars_Gouzee

I already knew that in a general way before this conversation, of course: not only had George Lucas acknowledged the inspiration he had taken from the adventure and science fiction movies of his youth, Star Wars’ debt to the weekly serials was a big point of discussion among fans and critics of the Star Wars saga.  Between 1913 and 1956, serials, or “chapter plays,” were a unique genre of motion picture: episodic, with a week-to-week continuity and boldly drawn, easy to follow stories that kept audiences coming back for more.  The serials developed in parallel with pulp magazines and comic books and shared many of the same story-telling conventions (and specific characters).  They were best known for the “cliffhangers” that ended each chapter with a character in peril, waiting until the beginning of the next chapter to show their escape.

Although the serials of the silent era were produced with an adult audience in mind, from the mid-‘30s onward, sound serials were increasingly geared to children.  Almost all were livened up with spectacular stunts: fist- and gunfights, chases, natural and man-made disasters.  Whether the story took place in the Old West, outer space, or the jungle, whether it was an adaptation of a classic novel or a story of (purportedly) true crime, the storytelling mode was the same, emphasizing action, adventure, and suspense.

Perilsofpauline

Serials of the sound era generally included between ten and fifteen chapters (by contrast, one silent serial, The Hazards of Helen, boasted over one hundred; it appears to have been an open-ended “continuing adventure” rather than a single narrative, however).  The first episode introduced the characters and set up future conflict (ending on a good cliffhanger to get the audience hooked!); episodes were around twenty minutes in length (with exceptions: sometimes the first episode would be a little longer, like the pilot of a television show).  Serial chapters were shown in conjunction with full-length features (along with newsreels, cartoons and other “shorts”), part of a weekly moviegoing experience that had little to do with the specific film being shown.

Although I tend to see Star Wars as more homage than parody, there’s no denying that it draws heavily on the language of the serials that were popular from the 1930s to the 1950s, before their thunder was stolen by television. Indeed, watching the 1977 original today with an awareness of serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, it’s easy to see just how much the characters and situations were based on very specific models: how, in Terry Gilliam’s words, Darth Vader is just “the cowboy with the black hat”—the “spearhead villain” in the terminology of the serials.

I had seen clips from the original serials, sometimes in conjunction with material from Star Wars (or Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lucas’ and Steven Spielberg’s other homage to the format).  As I mentioned in a previous essay, the pop culture of my childhood was marked by a major resurgence of the characters and formats popular in the 1930s and ‘40s: not just the movies, but also the comics, pulp magazines, and radio shows of the Depression and war years.  During the 1970s and 1980s, there were new movies, comics, and television shows based on characters such as Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage, the Lone Ranger, Tarzan, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and many others.  Some were revived in response to the success of Star Wars and Indiana Jones; others had been brought back as part of the “adult fantasy” wave that had also swept J. R. R. Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons to cultural prominence in the early 1970s, and of which Star Wars was partially a product.  And some had never really gone away.

Still, it was rare for serials to be shown in their entirety on television when I was a kid: there had been a serial revival in the mid-1960s, coinciding with the popularity of the Batman TV series, but that was before I was born.  Many of the serials had been “featurized”—edited down to hundred-minute movies—for television broadcast, so I might have seen some without even realizing it, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I was able to get the full, multi-chapter experience.  As much as I love the pulpy aesthetic of old movie posters and the juicy, crackling dialogue of the old-time villains, the serials themselves were something of a blind spot for me.

The goal of this series is to explore some of the classic serials, not necessarily as they were originally seen, but at least uncut and at full length.  Of the hundreds of serials that were made, not all have survived, but many are available on DVD and a large number can be seen on YouTube.  Without trying to be comprehensive, I will have plenty of material to examine.

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In reading about the history of the serials, many names pop up frequently: the serials had their own stars, such as leading men Buster Crabbe, Tom Tyler, and Kirk Alyn; and leading ladies Pearl White (“Pauline” of The Perils of Pauline, the archetypal silent serial) and Linda Stirling.  (Stars such as Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff also made appearances in serials, as did future star John Wayne and television’s Lone Ranger, Clayton Moore.)  Behind-the-scenes personnel made long careers out of the serials, such as stuntmen Tom Steele and Yakima Canutt, and directors Spencer G. Bennet and the team of William Witney and John English.  One also sees the name Sam Katzman frequently: the corner-cutting producer who, despite the tight budgets with which serials were typically made, was said to have never lost money on a production.

Finally, the name of Republic Pictures is nearly synonymous with the serial.  While other studios made serials as part of their output, Republic specialized in them, and one can hardly discuss the subject without acknowledging them.  After forming through the merger of Mascot (an established producer of serials) with Consolidated Film Laboratories and Monogram in 1933, Republic made sixty-six serials over the next two decades, almost to the end of the serial era.  Republic, along with Columbia, Universal, and a number of smaller studios, brought superheroes like Captain Marvel and the Phantom to the screen for the first time, and eventually created some of their own, such as Rocket Man.  In examining the serials, I intend to examine both the source material from which these characters were drawn and the serials’ lasting influence on the TV shows and movies that followed.

So much for the preliminaries.  I’ve decided to start with one of the most successful serials of all time: in two weeks, I’ll examine Universal’s 1936 production of Flash GordonI hope you’ll join me.

FlashGordon

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