Saturday, July 31, 2010

Volume Four, Number Fourteen

As well as being a fan of comics and pulps of the 30s to the 50s I am also a fan of the old movie serials.

For those of you who are familiar with movie serials (also known as chapter plays), what they are basically is low budget movies divided into 12 or more chapters or episodes with each chapter ending with a cliffhanger (called this because quite often the hero, his or her aid, or some damsel in distress is hanging from a cliff).

Movie serials have been around since the early 20th Century with the first appearing in Europe. They were quite popular there and the American film industry quickly began producing them with the first being "What Happened To Mary" which appeared in 1912.

During the silent film era there were dozens and dozens of serials including The Perils of Pauline, The Son of Tarzan, Tarzan the Tiger and an endless number of westerns. All were made on the cheap and were one of the main attractions that drew people to the theatres week after week.

When the sound era came in many of the companies that produced the silent serials were not able to make the transition to producing chapter plays that worked with sound. Eventually there were only three main studios that produced serials; Columbia, Republic and Universal. There were minor studios that also dabbled in serials but these three produced the bulk of them.

Westerns continued to be big as did police yarns and jungle tales. As time went on though comics became a major subject of the serials. Comics series that were featured over the years include The Vigilante (DC), Congo Bill (DC), Captain Marvel (Fawcett), Captain America (Timely/Marvel), Superman (DC), Batman (DC), Spy Smasher (Fawcett), Blackhawk (Quality at the time of its release) and Hop Harrigan (DC). Comic strips and radio programs were also the subject of chapter plays including Flash Gordon (comic strip), Brick Bradford (comic strip), The Lone Ranger (radio), Green Hornet (radio), Dick Tracy (comic strip) and Buck Rogers (comic strip). And last but not least there were the pulps including The Shadow and The Spider.

Some of the serials were well done while others, well, had problems. The biggest problems were the very low budgets that were allocated to each serial. In some cases the studios would use footage from previous serials to cut corners and in the case of Superman whenever the Man of Tomorrow went into flight the shot cut to one of the Fletcher Superman cartoon scenes of Superman flying.

Depending on who you talk the general belief is that movie serials began to lose audiences when television came on the scene in the late 40s, early fifties. At one point to draw audiences in producers would even use characters from TV shows in their serials; the most notable being Captain Video.

But it didn't help and the last movie serial came out in 1956 from Columbia and was a western titled "Blazing the Overland". Don't think though that was the end of the serials. While the studios were no longer producing them fans of this film genre began making their own. Writer, movie and comic fan Don Glut fpr example used to make his own "backyard films" in the 1960s including The Aventures of the Spirit (featuring Will Eisner's Spirit), Captain America Battles The Red Skull and he even revived the serial superhero Rocketman in a serial entitled Rocket Man Flies Again.

Of all the amateur movie serials that have been produced most agree that the best one is a superhero chapter play titled Wildcat that was released in 2006 by Lamb4 Productions. And while only fans of the format have been releasing serials since 1956 chapter plays have still had an influence on other mediums; particular television. The chapter format has been used in cartoons since their earliest days on TV with the best known user of it being Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. On the original Mickey Mouse Club (1955-1958) original serials used to appear and on Walt Disney Presents movies were divided into episodes and were aired over a series of weeks.

The best known serialized TV series are probably Dr. Who and the 1960s Batman and in 1979 NBC aired a series called Cliffhanger which aired new serials. While Doctor Who is still popular today Cliffhanger was a flop lasting only half a season.

The movie serials had other influences too such as the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises who made use of the fast paced action and cliffhanger formulas in their stories.

My first encounter with movie serials was in 1967; April 8th to be exact as it was on my birthday. Back then some theatres were still airing movie serials from the past and some friends of mine and I went to a theatre in London Ontario called The Hyland Theatre which continued that practice. I don't remember what the main feature or the cartoon or the movie short was but I do recall the serial; it was Nyoka and I immediately fell in love with the format due to its fast paced action and adventure.

During the 70s I used to watch a show on TVO-the province of Ontario's provincially run publicly owned television network-called Magic Shadows which every Friday night would run a chapter of a movie serial. Over the years I got to see more Nyoka, westerns-lots and lots of westerns-and Captain Marvel just to name a few. And when I couldn't watch an episode because I had to work my mother would watch it for me, take notes and then tell me all about it the next day.

One doesn't get to see many-if any-movie serials these days on television. There are dvds available featuring many of the old serials and I have a couple of video tapes with serials (Green Hornet and Batman). Movie serials probably won't catch on today but one never knows. In this fast paced age maybe they might just be what the viewing audience is looking for. Tons of action, sharp and snappy dialogue and a cliffhanger ending; all in fifteen minutes. What do you think?

1 comment:

Josh Lambright said...

A very nice article. Movie serials are so much fun, and I do think that modern audiences should revisit these fun adventures from times gone by, the entertainment factor is still there, and I don't think anyone could say that cliffhangers aren't fun.

Oh, and I was excited to find mention of the "Wildcat" movie serial in there with all those greats, as the director I'm truly honored to know that the work my team and I put into it is being enjoyed and appreciated.