Steven Spielberg and George Lucas paid homage to the movie serials
of their childhoods when they made Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones embodied The Hero who can't be hurt or killed; who never seems to tire; who always manages to escape the villain's most dastardly schemes; who saves the girl from many evil clutches. The Mastermind commanding a gang of klutzy henchmen always outsmarted at every turn by our Hero. A grateful populace of innocent civilians. Non-stop heart-pounding action with plenty of Spills, Chills and Thrills. I too spent many childhood hours watching these movies on television where they had a rebirth and a whole new audience outside the theaters. Shows like Serial Theatre and Adventure Theatre were produced in New York City and showcased the films seen originally on the big screen.
From novels, comic strips and radio melodramas emerged the movie serial. Like so many other plot contrivances serials (also known as "chapter plays") started as soon as films started. The silent era produced The Perils of Pauline as its most famous. Serials' heyday was the
1940's and some continued into the early '50's. Republic Pictures was the main studio (along with Universal and Columbia Pictures) and many serial actors went into regular movies. Bruce Bennett started out as Herman Brix in the early Tarzan films and the serial Daredevils of the Red Circle. He changed his name to Bruce Bennett and was featured in Sahara and The Treasure of Sierra Madre. Many serial stars were athletes, especially those who gained fame in the Olympic Games. Buster Crabbe, an Olympic swimmer, became Flash Gordon. Serials like Commando Cody and Rocketman predate the Ironman movies but the thrills never get stale.
There were attempts to resurrect the serial type of movie in the 1960's and 1970's. We saw many of these on the Mickey Mouse Club TV program, especially The Hardy Boys book series. I daresay the formula is alive and well today. Just look at the popularity of TV's most recent program, Lost.
Many serials were Westerns and the most popular stars were used again and again. Tim McCoy, Johnny Mack Brown, and many recognizable character actors worked
steadily for years due to the tremendous popularity of this genre. In the 1930's and early'40's spies and criminals were another staple of the serials. Once the United States entered World War II the villains were cast as German spies and Japanese agents (all portrayed by the familiar faces of Chinese actors, like Richard Loo). They were all certainly typecast but the actors found steady work and regular paychecks.
There were so many serials, covering so many genres, that I won't attempt to list them here. Suffice to say however that for all the clichés, all the "I've seen this before" moments, many of the actors put their hearts and souls into their roles. As mentioned earlier Herman Brix as Tarzan is considered as the most accurate portrayal of that famous character. Daredevils of the Red Circle has been rated by some critics as one of the best serials in its class. Zorro's Fighting Legion, starring Reed Hadley (later on TV as Captain Braddock of Racket Squad), had some great cliffhangers week after week. Gadgets to rival James Bond and Mission Impossible were an integral
part of spy and science fiction serial films. And the films used classical music as background scores to add to the excitement. Franz Lizst's Les Preludes was the main theme for the Flash Gordon serials.
My all-time hero was Flash Gordon. Buster Crabbe was perfect in the role and played the part for all it was worth. Flash could do anything and look good at it. Ming the Merciless somehow could never get his myriad schemes to destroy Earth and its citizens to work because of one man. From a popularity standpoint Flash Gordon is among the top ten serials of all time. It's also among the most expensive (for its era) ever made. Rocketships that could mimic airplanes (now we have the Space Shuttle); hand-held radios that transmitted pictures; TV, then in its infancy, was used for purposes not seen until many years later; costumes that made us think we were watching Robin Hood and His Merrymen. It didn't matter because Flash would, and did, save the day, Dr Zarkov and of course, Dale Arden. I still enjoy watching these adventures today on wide-screen DVD. We can all use a few more heroes these days.
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Jun 17, 2010 2:33 AM
|The movie serial is somewhat alive and well - kinda. Only they're called "trilogies," and if you're lucky, TO BE CONTINUED will only take a year - or two for the next installment.|
Being a comic book fan, I loved the old superhero serials. I watched them on DVD, of course, so I didn't have to TUNE IN NEXT WEEK.
Good column, man!
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My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).|
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