Fates Worse Than Death: Feature-Length Serials Revisited


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

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


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


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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

Kenneth Strickfaden shown adjusting one of his electrical props

Kenneth Strickfaden shown adjusting one of his electrical props

Fates Worse Than Death: Radar Men from the Moon


A string of mysterious explosions and attacks is crippling America’s defense network. Scientific analysis indicates that atomic weapons caused the destruction, but what power on earth could focus atomic energy into the kind of ray being used? Only one man is equipped to investigate: Commando Cody, inventor and explorer, whose jetpack allows him to soar through the air (and who is also a crack shot with a pistol).


Liberating the atomic ray from the two gangsters wielding it, Cody takes the futuristic weapon back to his lab to analyze it. The two gangsters, Daly and Graber, report to their superior, Krog, who (as Cody will discover) is the leader of an invading force from the moon! Krog orders them to recover the ray and sends his human minions on several criminal assignments to raise funds for his terroristic activities.


Eventually, Cody and his team determine the source of the trouble and launch Cody’s latest invention, an interplanetary rocket ship, to the moon itself. The lunar civilization is dying, as its leader Retik explains, the air too thin and dry to grow food; already the lunarians must wear helmets outside of their pressurized cities in order to breathe. (Needless to say, no more attention is paid to real scientific knowledge of the moon than in the space fantasies of Edgar Rice Burroughs from decades before.) After softening up earth’s defenses, the lunarians plan to invade earth in Radar Men from the Moon.


In 1949, Republic Pictures, weary of licensing superheroes from the comics and radio, introduced an original character, Rocket Man, in King of the Rocket Men. Three years later, Radar Men from the Moon featured Commando Cody, a repackaging of the Rocket Man concept (essentially a superhero with a jetpack). By all accounts, Radar Men relies heavily on footage of Rocket Man from the earlier serial, as well as reusing props, costumes, and special effects from Republic’s extensive library. (Two sequels followed: Zombies of the Stratosphere and a television series, Sky Marshall of the Universe; Rocket Man/Commando Cody’s influence is also readily seen in Dave Stevens’ comic book hero the Rocketeer, adapted into a 1991 film directed by Joe Johnston.)


Radar Men from the Moon is very much what you would expect from a science fiction adventure from the early 1950s, as much Captain Video as Flash Gordon. With the fishbowl-style space helmets, finned rocket ships, and sweet moon tanks (not to mention Cody’s bullet-headed flying costume), it is, to use a modern term, “toyetic” (although the kind of mass merchandising we’ve come to expect since Star Wars wasn’t in place then, so there don’t seem to be a large number of actual toys based on these designs). On the other hand, the Greco-Roman architecture of the lunar city and the futuristic laboratory of Retik show that styles hadn’t changed that much since the space operas of the ‘30s (and a lot of the running time is spent on earth with perfectly mundane cops-and-robbers business).


Normally, I’ve tried to look at examples of a given concept or character in chronological order (covering Flash Gordon instead of one of its sequels, for example), but I had a copy of Radar Men on hand, and since Commando Cody is technically a new character, free of any earlier continuity, I don’t feel too much conflict about covering it before getting to the original Rocket Men. Besides, reused footage and props were a cost-saving feature of the serials almost since the beginning, so Radar Men is exceptional only for its late position in the format’s history and the slickness of its incorporation of previous material.


For what it’s worth, it wasn’t obvious to this viewer when it cut to older footage, and establishing shots weren’t drawn out as excessively as I’ve observed in the Universal serials I’ve watched. From a technical standpoint, the production of serials was clearly at a high point, and everything moves quickly and looks sharp. However, the same professional application of an established formula that makes everything look polished also drains any spontaneity out of this production: the characters are thinly drawn and their dialogue functions almost exclusively to move the plot forward. There is little room for the weird digressions or surprises that mark the serials of the 1930s.

Star George Wallace leads a cast that includes “heavy” Roy Barcroft as Retik and future Lone Ranger Clayton Moore as the gangster Graber; the performances are fine, but the real stars are special effects wizards Howard “Babe” Lydecker and Theodore Lydecker, brothers whose detailed miniatures of earthly and lunar structures and vehicles are extensively featured. There are also plenty of well-executed fight scenes, courtesy of Tom Steele and Dale Van Sickel, longtime stuntmen and fight coordinators.


So why isn’t Radar Men from the Moon more exciting? There’s a business-as-usual quality to the proceedings: no one seems that surprised that America is under attack by atomic weapons, or that the culprits might be from the moon. What’s that, we need to take our rocket ship to the moon? Sure thing. Oh, we need to go back? No problem. I’ll remember to take my jetpack in case I need to hijack a space tank. The material calls for hyperbole à la Stan Lee, but the execution is more like Dragnet.

That’s not to say that I’d be happier if Radar Men from the Moon stopped in its tracks to marvel at the insanity of its own plot: in general, pulp narratives don’t spend a lot of time questioning their believability. The characters accept that what is happening is real—they don’t have a choice—and the audience follows suit. There is usually, however, a moment or two that acknowledges the overturning of established science (I think of this as the “more in heaven and earth” speech, often delivered by a scientist who admits that there are still mysteries in the universe) or asks the audience to consider what it would really mean for humanity to encounter, say, an invading army of moon men. (Robert E. Howard, to cite one example, often salted his tales of brawny barbarian warriors with thematically-appropriate musings on destiny and masculinity.)

No such philosophical problems trouble Commando Cody or his team. If I had seen Radar Men from the Moon when I was twelve, I expect I would have loved it, but as an adult the prospect of an adventure that is all plot and very little character is less appealing. Rather than revisit it, I’ll probably just rewatch The Rocketeer.

What I Watched: Radar Men from the Moon (Republic, 1952)
Where I Watched It: A Hal Roach Studios DVD; it’s also available to watch on YouTube.
No. of Chapters: 12
Best Chapter Title: “Molten Terror” (Chapter Two)
Best Cliffhanger: At the end of “Molten Terror,” Cody and Ted are trapped in a mountainside cave on the moon. Lunar soldiers aim the atomic ray at the mountain, softening the rock (using the same melting effect seen at the end of The Phantom Empire) and filling the cave with molten lava.
Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: Several times Cody is in a vehicle that crashes: planes at the end of Chapter Four (“Flight to Destruction”) and Chapter Seven (“Camouflaged Destruction”), a car in Chapter Five (“Murder Car”). In the next week’s episode, intercut footage reveals Cody and his passenger bailing out at the last minute, exactly the kind of cheat Annie Wilkes was complaining about.
Sample Dialogue: “For some time our astronomers have noticed an unusual amount of atomic activity on the moon. Atomic activity on the moon, atomic blasts on the earth: the two known facts fit together.” –Henderson (Don Walters), Cody’s government contact
What Others Have Said: “It was my own personal homage to Commando Cody and all the other serial heroes of that era. I’d always been a huge fan of the serials. I loved all those edge-of-your-seat, cliff-hanging chapter plays. . . . I’d always loved the idea of a guy flying like a bird, with just a combustible contraption strapped to his back. The image really appealed to me. But I didn’t want to be stuck doing an exact replication of the serials, with Martians, death-rays, etc. That wasn’t quite the approach I wanted to take. I wanted to do a real period aviation strip, but with one small element of science-fiction added: The rocket-pack!” –Dave Stevens, creator of the Rocketeer, interview with Jon B. Cooke in The Comic Book Artist
What’s Next: I’ll take a look at Zorro’s Black Whip, starring Linda Stirling. Join me in two weeks!