Fates Worse Than Death: The New Adventures of Tarzan

Guatemala: jungle land of mystery! Homeland of the lost Maya! Cradle of secrets! It is to this land that Major Martling brings his expedition in search of the Green Goddess, a mysterious idol said to contain an unknown but highly potent explosive formula, as well as a fortune in jewels. Along with his daughter Alice and her fiancé Gordon, Martling is accompanied by his friend Lord Greystoke, who has some experience in the wilderness himself. Greystoke has come to Guatemala to find his old friend Lieutenant D’Arnot, a pilot who crash-landed in the Central American jungle.

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Of course there are complications: in addition to the typical jungle perils of wild animals and hostile natives, Martling is hounded by Raglan, a rival explorer in the employ of a munitions company that hopes to recover the explosive formula for its own use. In addition, both parties are being shadowed by a mysterious woman, Ula, who claims to be the widow of D’Arnot’s co-pilot, and who seems to have unfinished business with Raglan. She tries to foil Raglan’s plans, but is she on Martling’s side? What is her real aim?

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Deep in the jungle lies the Dead City, home to a tribe and a cult that is very much alive, worshiping the Goddess under the leadership of a tiger-striped high priestess. They threaten Martling’s party with sacrifice, even as Raglan steals the idol while the cultists are distracted. Were Martling and his party alone, this might be their end, but Lord Greystoke is not just the worldly traveler he appears to be: he is also Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle! Through an action-packed twelve chapters that includes fights with jungle cats, explosions, gunfights, espionage, and more, Tarzan and Martling race to recover the idol before Raglan can get it onto a ship bound to Europe, all while fending off the vengeful natives and the hooded warriors who will likewise stop at nothing to recover their Goddess, in The New Adventures of Tarzan!

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I’ll admit I had a hard time getting into The New Adventures of Tarzan at first, for a couple of reasons. In the copy I was watching, the sound started out kind of fuzzy, making it hard to hear the dialogue, and there is a lot of exposition to get out of the way, with numerous characters and their histories and motivations being introduced. Because The New Adventures was based on storylines from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan novels (although not directly on any one novel), it is less streamlined than many later serials, and the accumulation of multiple subplots and shifting settings feels surprisingly modern, like an overstuffed summer blockbuster.

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The first chapter is also forty minutes long, and contains several set pieces that could easily have been cliffhangers between chapters (Tarzan wrestles with crocodiles in a river, and later saves Major Martling’s daughter from a snare that suspends her over a jaguar pit). I have grown so accustomed to the rhythms of the serial that when these crises were resolved without chapter breaks and the chapter crept toward twenty-five, thirty, and thirty-five minutes in length, I started to wonder if the DVD producers had edited out all the chapter breaks (a move that would compromise this project, to say the least). But no, the first chapter is just extra-long, and does eventually end on a cliffhanger, like the other, shorter chapters.

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I’m glad I stuck it out, however, as once the slow engine of story got underway and the excess baggage of characters and subplots was shed, The New Adventures of Tarzan turned out to be an engaging serial with a variety of colorful settings and some exciting action sequences. The main conflict, in which a well-intentioned, patriotic explorer and an unscrupulous mercenary fight over an ancient, powerful artifact, recalls both the 1933 Perils of Pauline and, of course, the later Raiders of the Lost Ark. (There’s also Martling’s notebook which contains the code necessary to open the idol, and which changes hands several times.)

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Much of the serial was filmed on location in Guatemala, including Chichicastenango and the ruins of Tikal, by producer Ashton Dearholt; the conditions turned out to be almost as difficult for the cast and crew as for the characters on screen, with illness and bad weather taking their toll. The role of Raglan, credited to Dan Castello, was actually played by Dearholt himself after Castello had to drop out early on. The expense and danger of the production mostly end up on the screen, however. The big cats Tarzan fights are real (at least up until the moment an obviously stuffed cat is thrown down; some of these fights are better edited than others); the giant waterfalls over which characters (or, again, their dummy stand-ins) plunge are suitably impressive, giving the film an epic scope.

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On the other hand, the film shows some of the limitations of independent production: other than the chapter titles, there is little to no background music; combined with the relatively meager dialogue during Tarzan’s many solo excursions and only ambient sound, long stretches of The New Adventures could pass for a silent movie. One strange touch occurs in the Dead City: a recurring gong, sometimes the only thing heard on the soundtrack, is distorted enough to sound like the disturbing, unexplained drones David Lynch frequently includes in his films, and is a surprisingly eerie match for the scenes of torture and imprisonment by hooded inquisitors. (No, I never expected to make a comparison between a serial and Lynch either, but here we are.)

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Tarzan himself (Herman Brix, who would later change his name to Bruce Bennett) is not the monosyllabic wild man of popular culture; because this serial was produced by Tarzan’s creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, it reflects the character as he appears in the books, speaking perfect English and transitioning effortlessly between his identities as Lord Greystoke and Lord of the Jungle. This version of Tarzan never says anything like “Me Tarzan, you Jane,” not least because Jane isn’t in this story.

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Whereas other film representations of Tarzan emphasized the noble savage or fish-out-of-water elements in his story, The New Adventures treats him more like a superhero: as Greystoke he wears his wealth and title easily, an aristocratic Bruce Wayne, but when there’s trouble he strips down to a loincloth and takes to the jungle, swinging on vines and talking to animals. His identity is far from secret, however, and he’s treated like a celebrity: Martling’s valet George, in fact, is described as “the flunky who joined the expedition to be closer to his idol, Tarzan.” Burroughs’ Tarzan represents a colonialist ideal: the “best of both worlds,” with all the education and material advantages of Western civilization and all the vigor, toughness, and native wisdom of his adoptive culture.

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In addition to its ambitious location shooting, The New Adventures stands out from the serials I’ve watched in other ways. Burroughs’ stories could be quite bloody, emphasizing “nature red in tooth and claw” and featuring villains evil enough to justify just about anything the good guys might do to them. That’s often sanitized in film and TV retellings, which are more kid-oriented than the books they’re based on. Although not especially graphic, The New Adventures includes gunplay, stabbings, explosions, and more, with (mostly) realistic consequences. No bloodless fistfights here: Tarzan and co. don’t mess around. The most surprising sequence involves George (who is otherwise comic relief) spraying machine gun fire at attacking waves of tribesmen from the Dead City as if in flashback to the Great War. Even Indiana Jones would save that kind of move for Nazi soldiers.

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As I mentioned, the rhythm of this serial is also somewhat odd, with a profusion of subplots (especially at the beginning) that gradually thin out as D’Arnot is recovered and leaves with Alice and Gordon, and Ula joins Martling’s party. Once the idol is stolen, the vengeful warriors from the Dead City don’t pick up Raglan’s and Martling’s trail until Chapter Seven, and the action is essentially resolved in Chapter Eleven. Many serials include an “economy chapter,” in which flashbacks to earlier events are included to catch up latecomers: The New Adventures treats the last chapter as a recap, an anticlimax that serves only to tie up a few loose ends and put a cap on the serial. Still, I’ve come to appreciate the looser, less formulaic serials of the early ’30s, if only because they have more capacity to surprise; however lumpy its storytelling, The New Adventures of Tarzan is full of invention. No one is phoning it in.

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What I watched: The New Adventures of Tarzan (1935, Burroughs-Tarzan Enterprises)

Where I watched it: Pop Flix’s 2-DVD Classic Tarzan Collection, which also includes three features: Tarzan the Fearless, Tarzan’s Revenge, and Tarzan and the Trappers.

No. of chapters: 12

Best chapter title: “Devil’s Noose” (Chapter 3)

Best cliffhanger: At the end of Chapter 10 (“Secret Signals”), Tarzan confronts Raglan on the dock in Mantique as Raglan prepares to load the Goddess idol onto Simon Blade’s ship. There’s a scuffle with Raglan and his crew, during which the idol drops over the side of the dock, where it hangs from a rope. Raglan pulls a gun and commands Tarzan to step away from the idol, promising this will be “the last time you meddle in my business!” In a sequence straight out of a gangster film, after a close-up of Tarzan, the shot reverses to Raglan, the camera pointing straight down the barrel of his gun. Bang!

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Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: In Chapter Nine (“Doom’s Brink”), one of the most action-packed chapters, the members of Martling’s party have been captured separately and taken to the Dead City by the Goddess’ worshipers. Each faces a different peril: Martling and George are taken to a torture chamber (!), Ula is imprisoned in a cell with an old woman who attempts to stab her, and Tarzan is tied up in the cell next to Ula’s with a chained lion. After overcoming the old woman, Ula uses her knife to dig through the wall separating herself from Tarzan. As Tarzan hurries to untie himself, the lion’s chain gives way; the last shot of the chapter is of the lion’s slavering jaws as it lunges at the camera.

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It looks like the game is up for Tarzan, no? As the beginning of Chapter Ten resets this peril, however, not only does Ula make a hole big enough to pass Tarzan the knife, he has time to untie himself and maneuver to the hole before the lion attacks, so he’s not even in the same place when the lion lunges off of its chain. (This is at least more satisfying than the chapter where Tarzan is caught in a spiked tiger trap, only to be grazed by the spikes instead of impaled: such “oh, I guess he’s okay” resolutions are even more anticlimactic than straight-up cheats, in my opinion.)

Funniest moment: Martling’s valet George (Lewis Sargent) has a lot of similarities to Professor Hargrave’s secretary Dodge from The Perils of Pauline, but despite his silly attachment to his yo-yo, his always-growling stomach, and his panicky reactions to mundane jungle plants and animals, George has a few serious moments. His machine gunning of natives from the Dead City (see above) is later paid back when George is the first to be tortured in Chapter Nine. Still, most of George’s scenes involve clowning of one kind or another, and I’ll admit to laughing when, in Chapter Seven (“Flaming Waters”), George is bitten and chased by a bunch of water turtles, an ordeal to which Tarzan responds with an epic eye-roll.

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Sample dialogue: “He reminds me of some of the jungle cats I’ve known: they’re most dangerous when they purr.” –Tarzan, referring to Captain Blade, Chapter 11 (“Death’s Fireworks”)

What others have said: “At one point, Burroughs had worried that so much local scenery had been eliminated from the episodes that the whole thing might just as well have been shot in Hollywood. But in the final edit, enough Mayan ruins, colonial cities, and Guatemalan Indians survive to create a richly exotic and authentic backdrop. And for once, Tarzan is able to swing through trees other than the sycamore and eucalyptus so predominant in earlier films shot in or near Los Angeles.” –John Taliaferro, Tarzan Forever: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Creator of Tarzan

What’s Next: The Miracle Rider

Fates Worse Than Death: The Could-Have-Beens

In watching and researching motion picture serials over the past few months, I’ve run across many based on characters from other media: comics, radio, and literature. Allowing for the vagaries of art and commerce, I’ve been struck by the absence of several characters who one might expect to be adapted as source material. What follows is necessarily speculative, but I’ve compiled a list of characters, popular at the time, who could have appeared in a serial but didn’t, for whatever reason.

Perhaps arbitrarily, I’ve excluded characters who appeared in feature films or cartoons during the “Golden Age” of the serials: Sherlock Holmes and Dracula may not have appeared in serials, but they are well-represented on film. I’m more interested in characters whose film appearances are either limited to the modern era or who haven’t appeared on film at all (yet).

John Carter of Mars

From one perspective, it isn’t surprising that Edgar Rice Burroughs’ interplanetary hero didn’t make the leap to the big screen until 2012’s poorly-received adaptation. Although John Carter set the pattern for the early space heroes, appearing in print in 1912, both Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers were featured in serial adaptations during the Golden Age of science fiction (in 1936 and 1939 respectively). It was Gordon and Rogers who cemented the conventions and story beats of space opera for film audiences and became household names in the process. Later, Star Wars and other science fantasy epics would borrow elements of Carter’s adventures (what is Tatooine but Burroughs’ dying Mars?), further stealing the series’ thunder.

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On the other hand, clearly there was a market for science fiction adventure, and Burroughs was aware of the power of licensing his creations: his other famous character, Tarzan, was featured in numerous film adaptations in the 1930s and ‘40s (continuing to this day), including one produced by Burroughs himself.

Perhaps it was the extravagant native fauna of Barsoom (the locals’ name for Mars) that made it prohibitive to film: in his adventures, Carter faces the four-armed giant Tharks (Green Martians), rides eight-legged thoats, and encounters other multi-limbed creatures that would have been compromised by the special effects of the 1930s, to say the least. (Flash Gordon tries manfully to create convincing space monsters, and is only intermittently successful.) In a similar vein, the fliers and radium guns of Burroughs’ novels might have seemed like a daunting proposition to film, but other science fiction serials and features found ways to create such effects or work around them.

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Intriguingly, there was at least one attempt to produce a John Carter film during the Golden Age: in 1935, Warner Brothers animator Bob Clampett approached Burroughs with a proposal to put together an animated John Carter series that, had it been made, would have beaten both Snow White (the first animated feature) and the Flash Gordon serial to theaters. Clampett and Burroughs put together a deal with MGM, but ultimately the project was deemed too weird for audiences. Only a few minutes of test footage remain to show what might have been.


(Thanks to fellow fan Bruce Ross for alerting me to this aborted project, and check out Bruce’s blog to see his impressive custom action figures, including a certain Warlord of Mars.)

Jules de Grandin

The most popular author to appear in Weird Tales magazine wasn’t Robert E. Howard or H. P. Lovecraft: it was Seabury Quinn, a lawyer with a specialty in mortuary law and the funeral business. Quinn’s most popular creation was the feisty French physician Jules de Grandin, a prime example of the “occult detective” character type. With his sidekick/narrator Dr. Trowbridge (clearly modeled after the sturdy Holmes/Watson dynamic), de Grandin defended Harrisonville, New Jersey against supernatural, scientific, and just plain criminal threats in nearly a hundred stories.

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Although less well-remembered now, the de Grandin stories contain plenty of ideas that could have made for excellent serials—killer animals, vampires, cults, mad scientists, and more—and were formulaic and action-packed enough to provide what audiences of the time expected.  De Grandin, with his cod-French exclamations (not only the time-honored “Sacre bleu!”—de Grandin would frequently vary his patter with insertions of “Parbleu!”, “Mordieu!”, “Zut!”, and odd turns of phrase like “Horns of a little blue devil!”, “Name of a gun,” etc.), was likewise a character whose exaggerated national character would be right at home at Republic or Columbia. (His catch-phrases are no sillier than the “inscrutable” Orientalisms of Charlie Chan or the “By Jove!” English of Anthony Tupper in Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island.) More importantly, like all serial heroes, de Grandin favored the direct approach, and was as likely to defeat the forces of evil with a sword or automatic as with an incantation or clever trap.

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Conan the Cimmerian, et al

Speaking of Robert E. Howard, it’s unlikely that a serial based on his famous creation Conan would have been anything like the 1982 feature Conan the Barbarian, influenced as it was by the success of special effects blockbusters like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark and the contributions of later authors (not to mention the Frazetta-esque physique of star Arnold Schwarzenegger). However, the ancient past had been represented in epics like Ben-Hur, and fantastical “lost worlds” were featured in serials such as The Undersea Kingdom and The Phantom Empire, so it wouldn’t have been out of the question. A Conan serial would have probably resembled those starring Tarzan or “jungle girl” Nyoka, with an emphasis on action and the lead’s physicality, toning down Howard’s often pessimistic philosophical digressions.

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It’s worth noting, however, that Howard created several series characters, in a variety of genres, that could have headlined serials (and to this day, not all of them have been adapted for film). “Last king of the Picts” Bran Mak Morn and medieval Irishman Turlogh Dubh O’Brien represent Howard’s interest in the history and people of the British Isles; King Kull of Atlantis and swordswoman Red Sonja represent a strain of sword-and-sorcery similar to the Conan stories. Of all of Howard’s series characters, probably the closest in spirit to the serials is Steve Costigan, a modern-day merchant sailor and boxer whose stories combined action and wry humor. Although Conan remains Howard’s best-known creation, the author left behind a wealth of material yet to be mined for adaptation.

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The Spirit

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Cartoonist Will Eisner created the Spirit (the supposedly dead criminologist Denny Colt, going forth from his cemetery hideout to fight crime) in 1940 as the lead character in a series of comic books he produced for inclusion in newspapers owned by the Register and Tribune Syndicate. Ownership of his own character, with little editorial interference, gave Eisner the freedom to explore a variety of story-telling techniques, and due to his innovative approach to composition he is often compared to cinematic masters such as Hitchcock and Welles. (In Michael Chabon’s novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the title characters are inspired by Citizen Kane to invigorate their own comic book stories with devices such as achronological narratives, alternating points of view, and dynamic, cinematic compositions applied not just to the panel but to the entire page. Although fictional, this is likely a reference to the leaps forward that Eisner made with The Spirit.)

Sometimes the title character was barely featured in stories, making cameo appearances in the stories of a range of urban characters both poignant and humorous; this approach would have fit perfectly with the serials, which often introduced audiences to original characters who had equal screen time with the licensed characters in the title (such as Linda Page and her uncle in the 1943 Batman serial). Quoted in A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics, Eisner explained,

I began to realize who I was writing for”—that is, an audience dominated by adults, rather than children—and “I suddenly found an opportunity to do what I had really always wanted to do, which was to write ‘seriously’ or write good material, and at the same time stay within the medium I knew and had developed skills for.

Ironically, as Eisner drew from film to develop his sophisticated visual language, the serials were increasingly geared toward children, dropping the nuances of the 1930s serials in favor of formula and non-stop action. Without Eisner’s ambitious style, the Spirit wasn’t superficially different from other masked pulp heroes like the Spider or the Green Hornet, and it is unlikely a Spirit serial would have been very distinguished. (However, many commentators have pointed out that the title character of the 1943 serial The Masked Marvel bears a strong resemblance to the Spirit; in that serial the central mystery of the story was the true identity of the hero, with four possible candidates.)

Tom Steele as the Masked Marvel

Tom Steele as the Masked Marvel

Wonder Woman

Seriously, what gives? Despite the news that DC’s premier superheroine—the female superhero in the mind of the public—will appear in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Wonder Woman is severely underrepresented on film. She has yet to headline her own theatrical feature film, and has only a single direct-to-video animated feature to her name. Considering that Wonder Woman spent World War II fighting Nazis alongside Captain Steve Trevor, a serial would seem to be a no-brainer. But it was not to be.

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Created in 1941 by psychologist William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman reflected his desire to create a strong but loving role model for girls, an Amazon princess fighting for equality in “Man’s World;” in his words, she would be “a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.” Marston modeled his creation on both his wife Elizabeth and a woman named Olive Byrne who lived with the couple in a polyamorous relationship. Although Marston’s unconventional views on the sexes and Wonder Woman’s fetishistic overtones (including the “lasso of truth” and the notion of loving domination) raised eyebrows in later years, they don’t seem to have been considered problematic during the 1940s. (Certainly the serials had their share of questionable material, and anything objectionable would likely have been removed or changed anyway: some of the changes studios made to comic book characters could be quite drastic.)

Consider the screen presence of Wonder Woman’s fellow heroes: Columbia produced serials starring Batman (in 1943 and 1949) and Superman (1948); Republic brought Captain Marvel (1941) and Captain America (1944) to the screen, and there were numerous less-remembered costumed heroes in serials as well. (That’s not even mentioning the animated Superman shorts from Fleischer or the later Superman and Batman TV programs; as of this writing, Lynda Carter’s portrayal of Wonder Woman is still the only prominent, long-running live-action version of the character.)

Female-led serials weren’t unheard of: I’ve reviewed two this summer, The Perils of Pauline and Zorro’s Black Whip. The star of the latter, Linda Stirling, was actively groomed to be the next Pearl White, appearing in several jungle, Western, thriller, and science fiction serials for Republic. (In fact, it was reading about Stirling’s career that brought Wonder Woman to mind and inspired this article.)

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(Interestingly, an issue of DC: Realworlds, an out-of-continuity series in which DC’s heroes are expressly fictional but inspire ordinary people to take heroic action, features a hypothetical Wonder Woman serial. The story centers on an actress who finds the courage to stand up to a Red-baiting politician who combines features of Joseph McCarthy and Ronald Reagan. Perhaps in an alternate universe, audiences are thrilling to Wonder Woman vs. the Nazi Baroness or Wonder Woman vs. the Red Menace.)

What’s Next: In one week, I’ll conclude Fates Worse Than Death (for this summer, at least) with a look at Gang Busters. See you then!

Fates Worse Than Death: “What an Amazing Escape!”

Introducing the Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat

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Although the serials are nearly synonymous with cliffhangers—in which the tension builds to a high point before the episode ends, with a character in mortal danger or a major revelation left dangling—they didn’t invent them, and cliffhangers continue to be used on television, in comics, and even in film.  In the nineteenth-century, all kinds of writers serialized their work in popular magazines, from the authors of penny dreadfuls to Charles Dickens, and later pulp writers were similarly aware of the cliffhanger’s power to hold the reader’s interest.  Edgar Rice Burroughs not only used them between chapters, but also between books: he ended his second John Carter novel, The Gods of Mars, with Martian princess Dejah Thoris’ fate unknown, only to be revealed in the subsequent The Warlord of Mars.  (There is, of course, a similar narrative connection between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and indeed it is now common practice for the second book or film of a trilogy to end on an uncertain note.)  Any serialized medium—in which chunks of story are doled out in installments—will sooner or later take advantage of cliffhangers to keep readers or viewers hooked.

As crude a narrative device as they are, however, cliffhangers are popular because they work: already in the short time since I began this project, I’ve sat down more than once with the intention of watching one or two chapters of a serial, only to be drawn forward by curiosity and suspense, and I’ve ended up watching several more than I planned.  I can only imagine what it was like to wait a whole week to find out whether the hero would live or die (and make no mistake, in a very few cases the hero actually did die, only to be resurrected later, or for it to be revealed that someone else had taken his place).  If you were the right age or particularly attached to the characters, it was probably as intense as the wait for a new Harry Potter novel or episode of Breaking Bad in recent years.  For casual viewers, I imagine it was more like my experience of reading daily comic strips or watching soap operas: easy to forget and not think about after the fact, but when reading or watching the next installment it all comes back to me.

Serial chapters always rewound the story to a point before the cliffhanger, both providing context (for anyone who might have missed the previous chapter) and renewing the tension (for new viewers and regulars alike).  Like reading daily comics collected in book form or watching an entire season of television in one sitting, binge-watching a serial makes for an experience with built-in redundancy.  Seeing the cliffhanger and its resolution back-to-back also makes it more obvious when the filmmakers cheat (more on this in a bit).

In Paul Malmont’s The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown, a fictional mystery starring several real-life science fiction and pulp authors set in 1943, there’s an amusing scene in which L. Ron Hubbard is trapped in a forgotten, gaslit aqueduct beneath the Empire State Building with a group that also includes Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp and Walter Gibson (author of the Shadow novels).  A self-styled man of action, Hubbard plans their escape:

Hubbard jerked a thumb back to the bigger hall.  “Why don’t we douse the flame, let the gas fill up, then ignite it with the lighter and blow the lid up there clean off?”

“Are you nuts?” the kid [Asimov] asked.  “Don’t you understand the formula for gas density? . . . It means we’d suffocate before we ever built up enough gas to do anything.”

“And even if we could survive that,” de Camp added, “a basic energy equation shows that the shock wave would kill us even before the roof collapsed on our heads.”

“Well, let’s dam up the stream and just float up and let the water pressure pop the top off!”

“Are you kidding? . . . The hypothermia would kill us.”

“Before we drowned under the ceiling.

The joke isn’t just that Hubbard (then a self-aggrandizing young writer, not yet the father of Scientology) is an ignoramus; rather, he is thinking like the kind of pulp hero he is accustomed to writing about.  Serial heroes, like their magazine counterparts, often relied on the same kind of likely-sounding but scientifically impossible solutions to get them out of jams.  In addition, well-aimed shots, conveniently dangling ropes or vines, and explosions from which the heroes were miraculously thrown clear tended to balance out the contrived death traps that threatened them.

That’s not the kind of cheat that infuriated serial audiences however; as long as the solution played fair and didn’t significantly change the cliffhanger’s setup, it didn’t matter whether it was likely or even possible.  After all, Flash Gordon, the Lone Ranger, and Gene Autry were heroes precisely because they could do things ordinary people couldn’t, and if their array of talents included one-in-a-million strokes of luck, well, that’s what audiences expected from them.

The difference between realistic and fair is explicated as clearly as possible by Annie Wilkes, author Paul Sheldon’s “number one fan” in Stephen King’s Misery. Wilkes (played by Kathy Bates in the 1990 film adaptation) demands that Sheldon, her captive patient, write a novel resurrecting his beloved character Misery Chastain after he had killed her off.  She won’t accept any rewriting cheats to do so, and she uses an example from the serials to explain:

This was a no-brakes chapter.  The bad guys put Rocket Man—only it was Rocket Man in his secret identity—into a car that didn’t have any brakes, and then they welded all the doors shut, and then they started the car rolling down this twisty-turny mountain road. . . .

“And here came the car, with Rocket Man still trying to put on the brakes or bash the door open, and then . . . over it went!  It flew out into space, and then it went down.  It hit the side of the cliff about halfway down and burst into flames, and then it went into the ocean, and then this ending message came up on the screen that said NEXT WEEK CHAPTER 11, THE DRAGON FLIES. . . .

“The new episode always started with the ending of the last one.  They showed him going down the hill, they showed the cliff, they showed him banging on the car door, trying to open it.  Then, just before the car got to the edge, the door banged open and out he flew onto the road!  The car went over the cliff, and all the kids in the theater were cheering because Rocket Man got out, but I wasn’t cheering, Paul. I was mad!  I started yelling, ‘That isn’t what happened last week! . . . Are you all too stupid to remember?  Did you all get amnesia?’ . . .

“He didn’t get out of the cockadoodie car!  It went over the edge and he was still inside!  Do you understand that?

Even allowing for the small number of serials I’ve watched so far, I’ve known that feeling: the hero didn’t get out of the cockadoodie car before it went over the cliff, or out of the building before the cockadoodie bomb went off, or didn’t switch the cockadoodie train to another set of rails before it crashed.  Some cheats were more obvious than others, and some studios were more prone to pull a fast one than others.  Cheats also became more common later in the serial era, when dumbed-down serials were aimed at supposedly gullible kids.  But there’s an Annie Wilkes in every audience, and they’re watching closely.  So I’m proposing the Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat, to be awarded (when deserved) to those moments where the film’s producers don’t quite play fair with the audience, rescuing the hero at the expense of the suspension of disbelief.  I believe I’ll have plenty of candidates.

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