Fates Worse Than Death: Feature-Length Serials Revisited

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This past summer when I wrote about the practice of cutting serials to feature length, I wrote, “Editing down a serial into a more modern feature length would undoubtedly be an interesting project for a film student or anyone who wants to learn more about the pacing and construction of these films.” A few weeks after that post, Wayne Keyser of goodmagic.com contacted me and offered to send me a DVD he had produced with his own cut-down version of two serials, Radar Men From the Moon and Undersea Kingdom. Of course I was interested, and after taking some time off from serials after my busy summer, I gave it a spin.

The disc, Serial Remix, promises “ALL the rayguns, spaceships, robots, action . . . LITTLE of the talk, ‘recaps,’ talk, car chases, and talk!” In his correspondence with me, Mr. Keyser elaborated, “I think it may be worthy of mention that every feature-length serial condensation I’ve ever seen is very short on what makes the serial interesting. When you’ve got rocket ships and robots, who needs bank robberies and car chases?” In that spirit, both films are cut to the bone, with a minimum of scene-setting and all the repetitive wandering around that pads out many serials eliminated. Readers of my reviews of these two serials will recall that they didn’t excite me that much, so I’m not offended by efforts to streamline them. (Unfortunately, Serial Remix is not commercially available, so my thoughts are offered in the spirit of a case study rather than a review.)

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The versions presented are truly “remixed”: in addition to being edited for time, they have been reformatted for 16×9 widescreen instead of the original 4×3 fullscreen; some effects have been digitally sweetened (ray and lightning effects are added, sparks added to explosions, and so forth); and some shots have been moved around for pacing or to show off the models and other effects. One could easily refer to these as “Special Edition” serials, but few of Keyser’s adjustments are as obtrusive as George Lucas’s additions to the original Star Wars trilogy.

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(It should also be noted that as ridiculous as both films are, the remixes are admirably straight-faced: there are no wacky sound effects or pop-ups added, and no Mystery Science Theater-styled riffs. The closest Keyser comes to making a joke of the material is a “Meet Our Characters” sequence preceding Undersea Kingdom that notes everyone’s propensity for funny hats. I can live with that.)

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For the most part, these changes don’t considerably alter the story, but they do move it along and gloss over some of the fine details (not unlike the feature-length cuts made by the studios). In fact, watching Keyser’s remixes made clear how much is left to the viewer’s imagination in modern editing: serials were frequently quite literal in explaining the plot and showing every step of an action, whether it be the villain setting a trap for the hero, the hero’s miraculous escape, or the villain getting in a car and driving away. To some extent that was a function of the serial’s need to fill time, and when poorly handled it would indeed smack of padding.

It was also, I think, natural to the procedural storytelling mode that serials often engaged in: whether obvious or subtle, the situation must be established if there is to be any suspense. We don’t realize that the hero is walking into a trap unless we see it set up, or at least have an establishing shot that clearly shows the threat. And while the audience might assume that a rickety bridge is going to pose a danger in an upcoming scene, serial writers were rarely above tipping off even the slowest viewers by having a character say something like, “Be careful on that bridge; it’s liable to collapse if there’s too much weight on it.”

I might go even further and speculate that it is the seeming solidity of cause and effect in classic serial editing that makes cliffhangers so susceptible to “cheats.” The danger to the hero is so firmly established in dialogue, in premonitory close-ups (on the lit fuse, on the stuck gas pedal, on the clock whose midnight stroke spells doom), and often in the scene as filmed, that his death seems inarguable. We saw him plunge from the cliffside or fall beneath a hail of bullets, and the only way he can be saved is to undo the peril, to rewind so that in the continuation fate takes a different path. The audience may cry “cheat!” if they are observant enough to notice the switch, but such reversals are, I’m starting to think, a necessary part of serial grammar and the ability to literally cheat death a superpower peculiar to the heroes of the form. (Or perhaps not so peculiar: when Superman reverses the Earth’s rotation in Richard Donner’s 1978 film, undoing the disaster that has killed Lois Lane, he is simply performing a large-scale version of what serial heroes had been doing on a small scale for decades.)

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Keyser (and other editors turning serials into features) swerves around that paradox by eliminating the cliffhangers, of course; each peril is now simply a beat in an action sequence. But the elimination of excess verbiage and travel is closer to the grammar of a modern action film, in which the audience is swept up in the heedless forward motion, and goes along with it because there is little time to take a breath and question it. I didn’t watch these films with a stopwatch, but my general impression is that the average shot length was shorter than in the original, again making the films feel more contemporary in their rhythm. (Consider how little down time there is in the Indiana Jones movies, particularly Temple of Doom, in comparison to the serials they draw from; at least Star Wars alternates its action sequences with moments of repose.)

To get down to specifics, Radar Men From the Moon, as you may recall, features George Wallace as Commando Cody, whose signature costume is his rocket-powered flight suit. The same concept (and effects) had appeared in Republic’s earlier serial King of the Rocket Men, and would later inspire Dave Stevens’ character the Rocketeer. In Radar Men, Cody and his team are dispatched to the Moon (on a rocket ship also designed and built by Cody) by government agents who suspect that recent disasters on Earth are linked to atomic activity detected on the lunar surface. After a trip as comfortable and uneventful as a coast-to-coast passenger flight, they discover a dying lunar civilization that is indeed softening up Earth for invasion; the lunarians are already on Earth, advance scouts coordinating explosions and acts of sabotage with the assistance of Earth criminals!

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In Serial Mix, Radar Men is cut to a brisk 64 minutes, with an emphasis on Cody’s flying suit and other gadgets and the adventure on the lunar surface. Excised almost entirely are several middle chapters focused on the lunarians’ Earth helpers, Daly and Graber, as they steal supplies or attack Cody’s laboratory. Those sequences are entirely mundane, and aren’t missed. Daly and Graber still appear, essential to the story as they are, but they get much less screen time.

Undersea Kingdom, at 77 minutes, is (to my mind) more successful in its adaptation. With a few exceptions, the story of Crash Corrigan’s journey to Atlantis is adapted closely but with transitions and redundant material elided (often with the use of wipes imitating those in the original). The scene in which Corrigan is forced to take part in gladiatorial combat and wins the loyalty of fellow prisoner Moloch is skipped, as is the scene in which Corrigan saves the life of Atlantean high priest Sharad, earning him an invitation to lead the Atlantean army. The comic relief subplot with Smiley Burnette is omitted entirely (and since his scenes were shot and included after the fact, and his character doesn’t interact with Corrigan or the others at all, it’s an easy decision to make and takes nothing away from the main story).

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As one of a few special features on the disc, Keyser narrates “Remixing the Classics,” in which he describes his love of the serials and their effects and describes the process of editing them to shorter length. He points out some of the enhancements he made to the special effects, with before and after shots, and discusses the challenge of finding appropriate places to cut while preserving necessary plot information. This feature was of great interest to me and further illuminated Keyser’s approach.

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Before and after: Keyser replaced a view of the lunar surface with a shot of the lunar city

Before and after: Keyser replaced a view of the lunar surface with a shot of the lunar city

Keyser also proves to be an engaging and knowledgeable host and storyteller; it’s clear that Serial Remix is a labor of love, and in addition to looking at the choices involved in editing, he takes a broader look at the conditions under which serials were made. Often rushed (he points out that Undersea Kingdom was made in 25 days) and made for low budgets, the serials naturally fell back on recycling props (such as the electrical devices built by Kenneth Strickfaden and used for set dressing in hundreds of films), costumes, story lines, and locations (such as Bronson Canyon near Hollywood). Keyser has no illusions as to the great artistic merit of the serials (I’ll accept his judgment that The Phantom Empire is “goofy,” but “bad”? No way!) but his enthusiasm is nonetheless one I share. Seen as one fan’s tribute to the boy’s-adventure spirit of the serials, Serial Remix is a very enjoyable and polished package.

Kenneth Strickfaden shown adjusting one of his electrical props

Kenneth Strickfaden shown adjusting one of his electrical props

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks for the case study, I have been looking into creating such projects myself and this will help me a lot.
    In their heyday many serials were re-cut and re released as B features, the most famous being the Flash Gordon serials being released as Space Soldiers, Space Soldiers’ Trip to Mars, and Space Soldiers Conquer the Universe.
    When I was 13 (mid 70’s) I saw a feature version of Mysterious Doctor Satan and thought it was one of the most violent and disturbing things I had ever watched on TV! Removing all the padding and leaving just the fights and shootings created a surreal film noir…. Very weird.

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