Fates Worse Than Death: Daredevils of the Red Circle

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Thirty-Nine-O-Thirteen! The number strikes terror into the hearts of an innocent citizenry as Harry Crowel, escaped from the prison to which he was sentenced for unnamed crimes, orchestrates a campaign of bombings and sabotage, revenge against those who convicted him. First among his targets are business interests of his former partner, Horace Granville. When 39013 (the name taken from Crowel’s prisoner number) strikes the Granville Amusement Center by sabotaging the diving tank of the three-man Daredevils act, leading to the death of one Daredevil’s brother, the three men are motivated to lend their talents to the search for the criminal mastermind.

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Leading the Daredevils is Gene, an acrobat and older brother of the victim; the other two members are Bert, an escape artist, and Tiny, a strongman. With their combined abilities, they make an able team of detectives, and their attention is divided between saving Granville’s holdings from destruction and protecting Granville’s granddaughter, Blanche. But what of old man Granville, so frail since his recent stroke that he must stay enclosed behind glass windows in a sealed room, communicating with police forces and the Daredevils by telephone? And who is the mysterious “Red Circle” who sends the Daredevils helpful tips by placing anonymous notes for them to find? Through twelve chapters of action, suspense, and varied locations, these mysteries and more are solved in Daredevils of the Red Circle!

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First things first: it’s revealed right away in the first chapter that Crowel, alias 39013 (Charles Middleton, Flash Gordon‘s Ming and The Miracle Rider‘s Zaroff, among many other villainous roles), is impersonating Granville. The real Granville is being held captive in the basement of his house, the better for 39013 to torment him with the destruction of everything Granville worked his whole life to build. It’s easy to imagine a modern film making the reveal of 39013’s imposture a big third-act twist, but in Daredevils of the Red Circle it’s played for mounting tension–the audience knows “Granville” is a fraud, seeking to trap the Daredevils–and gives Middleton copious opportunities to gloat, to “monologue” to his prisoner. When in disguise, 39013 is played by the same actor as Granville (Miles Mander; he even says that he will only speak in Granville’s voice while in disguise, getting around any need for Middleton to dub lines), so these sessions are the meat of the role for Middleton. When the disguised ex-con confronts his old partner, the effect is achieved with a well-done split screen.

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I was initially under the impression that Daredevils of the Red Circle was set at the circus, but that’s not quite true: the Granville Amusement Center is more like New York’s Coney Island or the amusement parks that were built along southern California’s piers, and that setting is left behind after the first chapter. The performing background of the Daredevils is important, though, and provides a connection to the superheroes who were just becoming popular in comic books (and would soon appear in their own movie serials). The skin-tight costumes most superheroes still wear derive from the leotards and bodysuits of circus performers, and in the Golden Age of comic book heroes, when the circus was a more prominent cultural influence, a number of heroes were said to have gotten their athleticism and unique skills from circus training (Batman’s sidekick Robin is the best-known example). The Daredevils even have a logo: the red circle on their costumes, later appropriated by the mysterious helper who draws it on notes to get the Daredevils’ attention.

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In addition to their circus costumes (traded in for suits and fedoras after the first chapter), the Daredevils’ skills translate well to detective work, at least the kind of physical confrontations typical for serials. Gene (Charles Quigley) is the acrobat of the group, and although he performs a few stunts and displays some wicked judo-like moves during fight scenes, that mostly translates into him being faster than the others. Bert (David Sharpe) is an escape artist, bringing with him a set of skills and equipment (lock picks, files, etc.) that have proven handy for a diverse range of heroes that includes Batman, Sam Spade, and Houdini himself. (The great escapist is mentioned by name, and it’s worth noting that Houdini had been the star of several films and stories–including one ghost-written by H. P. Lovecraft–that positioned him as a real-life pulp hero.) And every team of heroes needs some muscle: Tiny (Herman Brix, who had played the lead in The New Adventures of Tarzan, and who would later change his name to Bruce Bennett) performs feats like lifting a car by its back end before it can drive away, battering down doors, and even punching through a wall to get to 39013, in addition to the numerous fights he gets into.

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There are a few surprising twists that it would be better not to reveal, but Daredevils of the Red Circle deserves credit for giving depth to characters so obviously rooted in formula. As in many serials, Blanche (Carole Landis) is the only prominent female character, but there is more to her than is obvious at first. Also, I fully expected Gene’s kid brother Sammy (Robert Winkler) to tag along with the adult characters like Billy Norton in Undersea Kingdom, so I was genuinely shocked when he died in the first chapter (trapped in the burning Amusement Center, a scene more harrowing when it is repeated in a later flashback). In retrospect, I should have recognized his scenes of character development as the equivalent of the buck private who gets shot first, or the cop only one day from retirement. Sammy’s death gives Gene and the other Daredevils a classic motivation for joining law enforcement: revenge justice.

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There are two characters in Daredevils of the Red Circle who share names with the characters they play. The first is Tuffie, the Daredevils’ dog, who accompanies them on their adventures and does movie-animal things like sniffing out evildoers and calling attention to clues. The other is Snowflake, the African-American servant who prepares and serves meals in the Granville house, played by Fred “Snowflake” Toones, a character actor who made a specialty of servile comic relief characters. To modern eyes, Snowflake is a regrettable stereotype, a clumsy, cowardly fool who speaks in “sho’ nuff” dialect: he whines and rolls his eyes, thinking a ghost has taken his newspaper when Tiny simply slipped it away when he wasn’t looking; he gets his head stuck when a sliding wall panel closes on it; he drops trays of dishes whenever Tuffie or one of the Daredevils rushes past him.

Fred "Snowflake" Toones in a typical role

Fred “Snowflake” Toones in a typical role

On the one hand, Snowflake is playing a comic relief character in the mold of Smiley Burnette: Smiley was known for playing a likeable dope who often got in the way or loused up whatever he was doing, and, like Snowflake, he often played characters who shared his name. For a character actor, having an established persona was a boon: type-casting wasn’t necessarily a bad thing if it led to steady work. I’m sure Snowflake made a good living playing such characters (although director William Witney stated in his autobiography that Snowflake ran the shoeshine stand at Republic in addition to his film roles). On the other hand, Smiley Burnette was one of many white men in the films he made, and didn’t have to bear the burden of representation; at least in Daredevils, Snowflake is the only black character, and his role–not only a servant but also a clown–is all too typical of the roles black actors had to take (and often still have to take), when they were shown on screen at all. (At least the Republic serials and Westerns Snowflake appeared in were set contemporaneously or in the past: it’s cringe-inducing to see the same stereotypes appear in ostensibly futuristic fare like E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series.)

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Still, it’s not hard to see why Daredevils of the Red Circle has such a high reputation among serial fans: it hums along, rarely growing slack, and for the most part balances action, suspense, and humor expertly. Directors John English and William Witney (responsible for many classic Republic serials) had a knack for staging scenes of dialogue and exposition in engaging ways, so that audiences aren’t simply waiting for the next big fight or car chase. There are spectacular scenes aplenty, including some set in interesting and hazardous locations such as a gas plant full of ladders and catwalks, a flooding underground tunnel, and a burning oil field.

Many of these locations were recreated with miniatures made by the uncredited Howard and Theodore Lydecker, and integrated almost seamlessly; along with the use of rear projection and split screen, Daredevils of the Red Circle is an excellent example of the era’s practical effects and stunt work (famed stuntman Yakima Canutt appears as an uncredited G-man, indicating his likely presence as a stunt coordinator). The score, credited to William Lava but with contributions from Cy Feuer and others, is exciting and imaginative (within the formulaic constraints of the style, which owes much to the operatic scores of Rossini and Weber). It’s worth a watch.

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What I Watched: Daredevils of the Red Circle (Republic, 1939)

Where I Watched It: A VHS set from Republic Home Video, vintage 1985 (this very edition, in fact):

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Screen caps are from YouTube, however.

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “The Red Circle Speaks” (Chapter Eleven)

Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Five (“The Ray of Death”), 39013’s men surreptitiously change the wiring in a “gamma ray” at the Black Electro Therapeutic Clinic (another Granville holding) so that it will kill District Attorney Graves when he arrives for his treatment. The Red Circle tips off the Daredevils, who have intercepted the new wiring diagram and take the place of the messenger delivering it to the clinic. After being discovered and imprisoned in a basement vault, Gene escapes and pushes the District Attorney’s gurney out of the ray’s path just in time to save him. But as deadly sparks shower from the ray machine, can he save himself?

Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: At the end of Chapter Four (“Sabotage”), the Daredevils are tied up by members of 39013’s gang at the Tri-City Gas Plant, with the boilers rigged to explode. The Daredevils break out of their trap and rush to the boiler’s release valve–but too late! The boilers erupt into a fiery inferno!

At least, that’s how it appears at the end of Chapter Four. However, somewhere between chapters the production slipped through a wormhole and was transported to a parallel dimension. Over in Earth 2, as shown at the beginning of Chapter Five, Gene gets to the release valve in time and diverts the boilers’ pressure. Thank goodness for quantum relativity!

Sample dialogue: “Well, Thirty-Nine-O-Thirteen has added up to zero.” –Gene, Chapter Twelve (“Flight of Doom”)

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What Others Have Said: “The times dictated that serial heroes be white, so talented black performers like Snowflake, whose real name was Fred Toones, were relegated to minor roles, providing corny laughs in otherwise excellent serials like Hawk of the Wilderness and Daredevils of the Red Circle.” –Alan G. Barbour, Cliffhanger: A Pictorial History of the Motion Picture Serial

What’s Next: Bela Lugosi stars in Shadow of Chinatown!

Hitch Your Wagon to a Star: The Elusive Hollywood Sci-Fi Western

Despite the title, not a space Western

Despite the title, not a space Western

It seems like it should be easy: “space cowboys” such as Han Solo and Mal Reynolds are essentially Old West gunslingers dropped into the cockpit of a spaceship, so why shouldn’t it work the other way around: a robot on horseback or a space alien on a stagecoach? Despite the longstanding popularity of both Westerns and science fiction, the number of films that successfully bring the two genres together in this way is surprisingly small. To be sure, ghost stories, tall tales, and bloody violence are all established parts of Western lore, and some great movies have been made exploring these themes, but the “weird Western” typically explores the boundaries of fantasy and horror, myth and history, rather than science fiction. It turns out that it’s easier to move the Old West into outer space than vice versa.

Undoubtedly, the cinematic grandfather of all such hybrids is the 1935 serial The Phantom Empire (of which I have written more extensively elsewhere), in which singing cowboy Gene Autry runs up against members of a super-advanced underground civilization. In their book The Great Movie Serials, Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut characterize The Phantom Empire as the beginning of a cycle of “zap-gun Western” serials. However, the other examples they cite, such as Tom Mix’s final film The Miracle Rider, involve super-science of purely human invention, and lack the sense of weird mystery and contact with alien forces that makes The Phantom Empire so distinctive.

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Perhaps the reason there have been so few overt fusions of science fiction and the Western in film is that such a hybrid is redundant: once science fiction (especially in the pulpy, action-adventure mode that has dominated popular film-making) took over the Western’s role as the main arena for playing out America’s myths and fears, it borrowed wholesale many of the plots and character types associated with the older genre, effectively replacing it. Good guys (almost exclusively white in the early years of both genres) and bad guys (sometimes literally alien, sometimes white men whose greed had overcome them); a thirst for exploration and conquest, usually in the name of civilization but often identified with commercial interests; and a sense of isolation, of being separated from the routines and mores of the old world (including meditations on the softening, corrupting influences of civilized society), were all notable features of both the Western and early science fiction, to the point that “horse opera” could be updated to “space opera” without any misunderstanding on the part of audiences. The “edge of civilization” was constantly moving outward: Star Trek’s description of space as “the final frontier” is illustrative.

Show creator Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek as "Wagon Train to the stars." A few episodes, such as "Spectre of the Gun," made it literal.

Show creator Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the stars.” A few episodes, such as “Spectre of the Gun,” made it literal.

Besides the gunslinger, other characters, such as the alien other, the damsel in distress (or the hooker with a heart of gold in racier manifestations: neither genre had much use for well-developed female characters, as pioneering was considered man’s work), the white man “gone native,” the amoral company man, and the wise tribesman (often the last of his kind, given a tragic nobility once no longer a threat) were translated easily. Science fiction, arriving as it did in a period of both rapid dissemination of ideas and ready access to literature of the past, became a clearinghouse of genre storytelling, absorbing themes and tropes like a sponge. From this point of view, it’s only natural that Terry Gilliam could describe Darth Vader as “the cowboy with the black hat,” that Flash Gordon’s Princess Aura fits the mold of the femme fatale, and that Seven Samurai could be remade as both a Western and as a space adventure. Ultimately, callow, daydreaming farm boys are the same everywhere, whether from Texas or Tatooine.

In that case, the distinction between the two genres is one of iconography, and iconography flourishes in visual media: comic books and cartoons have always been friendly to the robot in a cowboy hat, as have the pop surrealism movement and the artists who contribute to sites like DeviantArt. When it comes to mixing and matching, Western and sci-fi are primary colors that can be laid on in broad strokes.

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Both literary and cinematic science fiction have had to work to absorb Western motifs, however: all but the most fantastic stories attempt to rationalize the mixture of Old West and New Frontier, and here the difference between the two genres is a clear obstacle.* The Western is rooted in a specific time and place, and once that historical moment was over, the Western became a genre about the past (one reflecting contemporary attitudes, to be sure, but almost always focusing through the lens of history); science fiction, especially in the early Space Age, was about the future, and whether focused on the promise of exploration or the horror of nuclear war, it used speculation about the future to examine the current moment. In short, both forms stood in the present, but the Western looked into the past, either searching for some imperialistic original sin or retreating into comforting nostalgia, while science fiction looked into the future, projecting either our hopes or fears.

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Given that difference in emphasis, science fiction has often chosen to visit the Old West by means of time travel or alternate history. The “steampunk” movement has produced a wide variety of literature, some of it great, but on film it has been too often a faddish visual template that can be applied to the same old pulp storytelling: the result has been ambitious failures like the film version of Wild Wild West or “high concept” dreck like Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. (Complaints about the perceived hackiness of combining the two genres aren’t new: Wikipedia’s “Space Western” entry notes pulp-era efforts to stamp out lazy updates of Western plots in sci-fi garb, including one magazine’s ad campaign claiming “You’ll never see it in Galaxy.”)

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Better are films that find ways to repurpose the trappings of the Western, like Westworld, in which the Western setting is a fiction within the fiction, or Serenity (the belated finale of television series Firefly), which makes explicit both the themes of colonization and post-civil war disillusionment that are a part of the Western. In both cases, the adoption of Western dress and lingo are made to seem not only organic to the setting but essential to the stories being told: both use science fiction to interrogate the Western, and by extension mythmaking in general.

* Even excursions into outright fantasy don’t always pass the laugh test: I invite you to consider the short-lived 1987 cartoon series BraveStarr:

I’ve also just become aware of a 1999 film called Aliens in the Wild, Wild West that doesn’t look too promising; although I haven’t seen it, an imdb reviewer calls it “one of the top ten worst movies I have ever seen.” Tellingly, like The Phantom Empire and like BraveStarr and similar cartoons, Aliens in the Wild, Wild West appears to have been made primarily for children.

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BraveStarr

Next week, I’ll look at a recent example of the genre, 2011’s Cowboys & Aliens.

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.

Our Founder

Our Founder

Fates Worse Than Death: Flash Gordon (1936)

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A strange planet is moving through the Solar system on a collision course with Earth, Velikovsky-style, bringing meteor showers and global panic with it.  Professor Gordon, stationed at an observatory, receives word that his son, Flash, has postponed his polo game so that he can take a transcontinental flight to return home before (presumably) the end of the world.  While on that flight, Flash (Buster Crabbe) and a female stranger (Jean Rogers) bail out at the same time, just before meteors cause the plane to crash.  They’ve landed near the rocket ship of Dr. Zarkov (Frank Shannon), a scientist (and former colleague of old Professor Gordon) whose plan is to fly to the invading planet and redirect it away from earth.  Needing an assistant, Zarkov coerces Gordon and the young woman, Dale Arden, into the ship.  The three blast off and soon arrive on the mysterious planet.

Zarkov

The planet Mongo, as it turns out to be, is ruled by Emperor Ming (Charles Middleton), to whom the three are taken as prisoners.  Upon seeing the beautiful Dale, Ming desires to take her for his bride; upon learning that Zarkov built the rocket ship that brought them there, Ming puts him to work in his own laboratory, in order to conquer the Earth instead of destroying it.  As for Flash, his attempts to free his friends awaken Ming’s ire; he has him thrown into the arena to battle three beast men.  Ming’s daughter, Princess Aura (Priscilla Lawson), however, has other ideas, and schemes to keep Flash alive for herself.

MongoLanding

Thus begins the epic, thirteen-episode Flash Gordon, which puts Flash and company into cliffhanging perils that include a flooding underwater palace, fights with fearsome beasts, torture, and even a machine that makes Flash disappear completely.  And did I mention the rays?  In addition to ray guns, there are gravity rays, melting rays, rays that restore health, and an invisibility ray (the explanation for Flash’s previous disappearance, of course).  Throughout the serial, our heroes encounter Shark Men, Lion Men, and Hawk Men, all with their own leaders and complex political relationships with Ming.  (Whatever its crimes against realism may be, you can’t accuse Mongo of being a monocultural “Planet of Hats” in the Star Trek vein.)  Beyond the physical threats, there are shifting alliances and treachery, and all the while Princess Aura plays both sides, helping Flash escape but working to keep him separate from Dale.

Alex Raymond’s comic strip had only been running for two years when Universal Pictures released its serial adaptation in 1936, scripted by Frederick Stephani, George Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Ella O’Neill, and directed by Stephani.  The producer was Henry MacRae, who had been a director of serials since the silent era and knew how to get the most bang for the buck. Although serials were known for their low budgets, Flash Gordon was lavish by comparison (the claim that it cost a million dollars has been disputed, but it is still easy to believe that it was more expensive than the average chapter play); it was the first serial to play in a Broadway movie theater and set the tone for much of the cinematic science fiction that followed.

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It would be damning with faint praise to say Flash Gordon looks good “for its time;” many of the shortcuts taken in its production—the use of stock footage, recycled sets and costumes, and a score cobbled together from previous Universal horror and adventure films—would have been more obvious to viewers at the time than they are now.  Three years after Willis O’Brien wowed audiences with the stop-motion in King Kong, the many monsters that Flash battles are either familiar animals with some outer space bling attached, or small animals filmed against miniature sets to make them appear gigantic—or both, like the dragon-sized finned iguanas that prowl the valley where Flash and his compatriots first land.  The exception is the bipedal papier-mâché dragon with lobster claws that inhabits the “Tunnel of Terror” in Chapter Two; with the addition of horns and a wall of flame, it doubles as the “Sacred Fire Dragon” in Chapter Nine.

dragon

None of that matters, however, as the story unfolds with a swiftness that encourages suspension of disbelief, and a game cast that takes the material only as seriously as it needs to be, but no more.  First among them is Buster Crabbe as the title character, and I think it’s fair to say that Crabbe is ideal for the part.  Like Tarzan (whom Crabbe had also played), Flash Gordon isn’t a role to be acted: it’s a role to be embodied, and Crabbe has the physique (he had been a champion Olympic swimmer, winning a Gold Medal in 1932) and movie-star looks (with hair bleached to match Gordon’s comic-strip appearance) to pull it off.  That’s not to impugn Crabbe’s acting: while he isn’t called on to chew the scenery like Middleton as Ming or John Lipson as the Hawk Men’s King Vultan, he has a natural, unaffected screen presence, perfect for the kind of all-American hero who finds himself at the center of all this craziness.  Crabbe is engaged with the material and never sounds like he’s reciting lines from a cue card (more than can be said of James Pierce as Prince Thun of the Lion Men).

Torture

Flash’s adversary, Ming the Merciless, is played by Charles Middleton, who long specialized in “heavies,” and brings a prickly grandiloquence to the role.  He’s the kind of seasoned actor who can deliver lines like, “Why did not the sacred gong sound the final note which completes the marriage ceremony?” and make it sound perfectly natural.  Ming is one of the great pulp villains, of course, and with his arched eyebrows, pointed beard and mustache, bald head, and long fingernails, he shares a great deal of DNA with that poster child of Yellow Peril racism, Fu Manchu. Like Sax Rohmer’s criminal mastermind, Ming is an invasive force, the perfect stand-in for overseas threats from Europe or Asia (before Pearl Harbor, the pulps and comics often replaced Japan and Germany with their own invented enemies, such as the “Purple Empire” that Operator #5 battled; sometimes such threats were even described as “Eurasian,” covering all the bases).  Hailing from outer space instead of a foreign country, however, Ming has a veneer of plausible deniability that has made it easier to keep him around in later decades. Opposing him, Flash Gordon is the ideal American of the 1930s who doesn’t start fights but isn’t afraid to finish them.

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Beyond his name and visual appearance, Ming embodies the stereotype of the “Oriental potentate,” cruel, decadent, and treacherous.  In the Universal production, Ming entertains himself watching combat in the arena and gaudy choreographic displays (courtesy of Universal’s library of stock footage); the costume of his empire is a mix of spage-age tunics, medieval robes, and Roman centurion armor for the men, and harem outfits for the women. The costumes (and most of the set dressing) are straight from Universal’s warehouses, but the mixture of styles isn’t that far off from Raymond’s comic strip design, which also borrowed freely from distant times and places from Earth’s history.  The question of how people on other planets might dress hadn’t really been settled: when Edgar Rice Burroughs (creator of Tarzan) sent John Carter to the planet Mars, he described the inhabitants as nude, or nearly so.  Artists illustrating his books preserved Earth standards of modesty by draping Dejah Thoris in Roman togas and other stylized garb.  While the comic strip Buck Rogers, which premiered in 1929, gave a more fantastical, futuristic appearance to its space travelers, Flash Gordon was mostly content to be Prince Valiant in space; despite the rocket ships and ray guns, Gordon was often shown fighting with a sword like John Carter.  It’s not for nothing that this genre became known as “space opera.”

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No character in the 1936 production illustrates this better than King Vultan of the Hawk Men.  All the Hawk Men (there are no Hawk Women, near as I can tell) have enormous, feathery wings sprouting from their backs, and wear Viking horned helmets and armor.  With his boisterous laugh and enormous appetites, Vultan is clearly modeled after Henry VIII (he’s even shown feasting on the drumsticks of what I assume is some kind of space chicken, and mention is made of his numerous wives).  However, with his truly over-the-top headdress and the exaggerated pectorals of his breastplate, he looks like Luciano Pavarotti as Brünnhilde in a drag production of Die Walküre.

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I like Vultan, though: unlike the humorless Ming and colorless Kala (King of the Shark Men, who can’t breathe water—I mean, where to even start?), Vultan is the only one who seems to really enjoy his villainy.  He is, however, a strong argument against those who feel that the 1980 feature version of Flash Gordon was too campy compared to the original.  Upon capturing Dale and (inevitably) deciding to wed her himself, he courts her by first terrifying her with his pet “Urso” (a bear painted with badger stripes) and then tries to entertain her by making shadow puppets on the wall.  This guy is all over the place; naturally, he becomes Flash’s ally by the end of the serial.

shadows

And who is Dale Arden but a classic “damsel in distress?”  She mostly screams and faints and exists to be rescued (interestingly, only one cliffhanger actually puts her in danger); she is subjected to mind games by Princess Aura, who convinces her that she must make Vultan believe she loves him, or else he will kill Flash.  The role isn’t the fault of Jean Rogers, who does as much as she can with it and looks great in the part.  In fact, between Rogers as Dale and Lawson as Aura fighting over Flash, it’s not hard to imagine a Depression-era boy at a Saturday matinee developing a sudden, unexpected interest in polo.

An amnesiac Flash Gordon tries to decide between Dale Arden and Princess Aura, the Betty and Veronica of outer space.

An amnesiac Flash Gordon tries to decide between Dale Arden and Princess Aura, the Betty and Veronica of outer space.

And it’s not only for the boys (and their dads): I mentioned Buster Crabbe’s physique, but I didn’t get to how often he appears without his shirt, slick with sweat or bound and tortured.  The sensuality and overt (but still PG) eroticism of the 1980 version weren’t invented from whole cloth.

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When the plot isn’t being moved forward by Ming or one of the other rulers of Mongo, it’s often one of Princess Aura’s schemes that does the trick.  To my mind, she’s the real hero of the story, resourceful, determined, and intense.  No wonder she ends up on the throne at the end, paired up not with Flash but the loyal Prince Barin, who is so exciting and interesting that I didn’t even think to bring him up until now.

What I Watched: Flash Gordon (1936, Universal)

Where I Saw It: It’s on YouTube.  The first chapter is here.

No. of Chapters: 13

Best Chapter Title: “The Unseen Peril” (Chapter Ten)

Best Cliffhanger: “Shattering Doom” (Chapter Seven): Flash, enslaved in King Vultan’s atomic furnace room, has an electric wire attached to his wrist, to kill him instantly if he rebels.  Doctor Zarkov surreptitiously attaches the wire to the handle of Flash’s shovel and instructs him to throw the shovel into the furnace when the time for escape is right.  Flash orders the other slaves to duck behind the safety wall and makes his move, triggering a massive explosion.  Will he get to safety in time?

Sample Dialogue: “Is there no way a man can conquer the sacred orangopoid?” –Princess Aura, Chapter Nine

With a Dry, Cool Wit Like That: “Scared, huh?” –Flash, as he grabs Dale and pushes her out of the airplane in Chapter One

Cheapest Special Effect: As much as I’d like to, I can’t count King Vultan’s shadow puppets, which are certainly odd but aren’t meant to be taken for anything else. Instead, I choose this fellow, the terrifying giant lizard of Mongo:

Lizard

Most Embarrassing Costume: I’ve already addressed the costumes in some detail, and while King Vultan’s appearance is certainly memorable, I think I’m going to award this honor to the Hawk Man servant who briefly makes an appearance in a full chef’s uniform in Chapter Six:

Chef

Biggest Cop-Out: Does anyone believe Ming is dead at the end of Flash Gordon?  Even without the knowledge that there would be two sequels, did anyone believe it in 1936?

What Others Have Said: “They were flying over and they were forced down where there was a rocket ready to take off—I mean, if you accept that, you have no problem with anything. If it bothers you that they happened to be flying over a rocket made by Dr. Zarkov, why then, this movie isn’t for you.” –Lorenzo Semple, Jr., screenwriter of the 1980 Flash Gordon feature film

What’s next: In two weeks, join me again for a look at Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island.

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.”

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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.

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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