Cliffhangers of Doom!
Chiselled heroes! Dastardly villains! Perilous predicaments! Nailbiting cliffhangers! Abundant exclamation marks! The vintage movie serials (or chapterplays, to use the scholarly term) blazed a wayward trail through cinemas of the thirties and forties while the science fiction B-movie was still a vague notion at the back of Roger Corman’s mind. Like the B-movie, the serial’s brand of shoestring thrills is today regarded in the manner of a toddler learning to walk: the “Aw, bless!” school of sci-fi appreciation. But the serial producers were true pioneers, and the clichés they threw at pre-war screens laid the foundations for decades of sci-fi to come.
CHAPTER 1: THE SILENT THRILL
Serials are almost as old as cinema itself. From the very first, What Happened to Mary (1913), silent chapterplays majored in the “flapper in distress” format that’s become the defining cliché of antiquated melodrama: rich heroine gets tied to railway tracks/slowly advancing circular saw by moustache-twirling villain. The most popular – The Perils of Pauline, The Exploits of Elaine – made international stars of their feisty leading ladies, and their abominable protagonists, The Clutching Hand and The Iron Claw.
MARGO LANE: “You’re not thinking of heading into danger alone?”
THE SHADOW: “Not if you’ll come with me!”
The Shadow (Columbia, 1940)
CHAPTER 2: A TREACHEROUS PLOT
With the arrival of sound, serials became explicitly tailored for children’s matinees, and the cliffhanger was introduced. Now a serial chapter could end with a hero plunging off a cliff to certain death, squashed beneath a falling spiked ceiling or imprisoned in a burning barn, only to reveal the following week that he’d managed to leap free at the last minute, or an overhanging branch had broken his fall; or that the truck we’d clearly seen smashing into a wall with the hero at the wheel last week actually swerved and kept on going unscathed this week. This last was technically considered “cheating” by the juvenile audience, and only the more desperate serials resorted to such outright chicanery.
NYOKA GORDON: “We must go to the Lair of Eagles, and after penetrating to its far end we will come to the Tunnel of the Bubbling Death.”
PROF DOUGLAS CAMPBELL: “Tunnel of the Bubbling Death! Weird sort of name, isn’t it?”
Perils of Nyoka (Republic, 1942)
CHAPTER 3: SMOKE FROM THE SKIES
The sci-fi serial kicked off in 1936 with Universal’s thirteen-chapter adaptation of the comic strip Flash Gordon. With million-dollar budgets augmented by the judicious raiding of leftover props from features like Frankenstein and The Mummy, the three Flash Gordon serials, in all their cod-classical, silver-booted, smoking rocketship splendour, remain prime examples of jaw-jutting galactic heroics. Suspension of disbelief was helped by the portentous seriousness adopted by all concerned, which remained effective even when the costume designer went a bit mad with the feathery plumes in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940). The Flash serials, along with Universal’s later Buck Rogers (1939) – the legendary Buster Crabbe played both heroes – are rightly regarded as jewels in the serial crown.
MING THE MERCILESS: “They’ve broken the glass chamber! I’ll release the Purple Death Dust and kill them all!”
Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (Universal, 1940)
CHAPTER 4: ORDEAL BY GADGET
If Universal was the king of serialised space opera, Columbia was either the crown prince or court jester, according to taste. Something was slightly wonky about the alliteratively monikered Brick Bradford (1947), who travelled through space via the mysterious Crystal Door, later employing the self-explanatory Time Top. Or Captain Video (1951), who battled the evil Vultura (in standard sci-fi villain guise of a fat bloke in tights) with such ingenious contraptions as the Opticon Scillometer. The Lost Planet (1953) played host to over fifty such gadgets, including the Cosmic Cannon, the Thermic Disintegrator and the Prysmic Catapult. A formula would appear to be developing. Columbia’s space serials also introduced elements of knowing self-parody – whereas Flash Gordon would take his battle with the Sacred Orangopoid of Mongo deadly seriously, Brick Bradford would crack wise as he and his sidekick were tied up in a burning building – “Say, you got a light?” – nearly two decades before the Batman TV series burlesqued the old serials for camp giggles.
MARION BRENNAN: “You wouldn’t shoot a woman?”
BURT SPEAR: “No, I wouldn’t. That’s why I brought my buddy along. He likes to shoot women. It’s his hobby.”
King of the Forest Rangers (Republic, 1946)
CHAPTER 5: FLAMING HYPE
Republic Pictures was derided as the “poverty row” studio. Perhaps because of this it made its meagre means go that bit further with the appliance of know-how. Instead of creating expensive other worlds from plasterboard offcuts, they favoured a cheaper alien invasion of Earth. To make a little go a long way, hype was employed. The eponymous alien marauder of The Purple Monster Strikes (1945), for instance, was neither a monster, nor strictly purple, but it looked better on the posters than the more truthful The Fat Bloke in Tights Strikes.
DR TITO DAKA: “I want to savour this moment. Ha, ha, haaa… [Pause.] That’s enough.”
The Batman (Columbia, 1943)
CHAPTER 6: FISTS OF DOOM
Republic’s alien invaders always arrived alone — somewhat understaffed to invade an entire planet. We were repeatedly assured the others would arrive soon, but in the meantime local gangsters were employed — by hypnosis, mind control, or just a promised cut of the royalties — to expedite the overthrow of civilisation. This lent an odd, film noir-ish air to the intergalactic escapades, but helped with the most popular aspect of the Republic serials: the fist fight. Each chapter contained, on average, two sizeable bouts between hero and henchmen. They were impressively staged, using every trick in the book — breakaway furniture, sugar glass, undercranked film. The hero’s mask and the heavies’ hats (which somehow never fell off) enabled stuntmen to be shot in close-up without giving things away. In fact, stunt men were more prized than lead actors, who were often chosen more for their similarity to the studio’s resident fall guys than acting ability.
ABEL BELLAMY: “You blundering idiots! Would it be too much to ask if something went right?”
The Green Archer (Columbia, 1940)
CHAPTER 7: THE INVISIBLE WIRE
Second only to stunts in Republic’s armoury came special effects. Threadbare ingenuity was the order of the day. Complicated process shots for flying superheroes were financially impractical, but brothers Howard and Theodore Lydecker cooked up a cheaper, better, method for The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941). As the hero leapt into flight (via a concealed springboard) the brothers cut to a papier-mache dummy, slung on wires suspended between the peaks of two hills in Bronson Canyon (an area familiar to viewers of Batman and Star Trek). The dummy slid down the wires, the film was reversed — the result was a realistic flying man. The effect was spoiled a bit by close-ups of the hero standing on a box with outstretched arms shot with the camera tilted sideways, but you couldn’t have everything.
GRABER: “There’s a man in a flying suit chasing us. Step on it!”
Radar Men from the Moon (Republic, 1952)
CHAPTER 8: KNOBS OF VENGEANCE
Republic’s own brand superhero also flew by wire. King of the Rocket Men (1949) introduced Tristram Coffin as Jeff King, who took to the skies in a rough-hewn helmet and his signature rocket pack, controlled by that famously user-friendly trio of Bakelite knobs: “on/off”, “up/down” and “fast/slow”. The character was tinkered with to become Commander Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe in Flying Disc Man from Mars (1951) and Radar Men from the Moon (1952) — the latter boasting a young Leonard Nimoy. Now, instead of being restricted to pursuit of fedora-sporting gangsters in Buicks, he battled aliens on Earth and the Moon, the flight to the latter taking place across a suspiciously uninterrupted bright daytime sky.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: “With his vibrator he will bring the city to its knees!”
Captain America (Columbia, 1944)
CHAPTER 9: DEATH DRIVES A BUICK
“Recycle” was the serials’ watchword. Stock footage of cyclones and explosions cropped up with clockwork regularity. The same white Buick plunged off a cliff in just about every Republic serial, often several times. Bela Lugosi, villain of The Phantom Creeps (1939), even rewrote history by destroying the Hindenberg. Props cropped up again and again, from simple ray guns to the Republic Robot, a rivet-studded tin boiler on legs with flailing pincers and a grumpy demeanour. The shadowy Dr Vulcan’s superweapon in King of the Rocket Men, the fearsome Decimeter (a sewing machine case encrusted with Bakelite dials) was suspiciously similar to the Cyclotrode, an electricity-nullifying device sought after by The Crimson Ghost (1936), a villain in a joke shop skull mask, under which the actor camped it up something rotten with an eye-rolling and head-waggling routine reminiscent of a skeletal Groucho Marx.
DUNCAN RICHARDS: “All right, Ashe, turn off that Cyclotrode! You’ve played with it long enough!”
The Crimson Ghost (Republic, 1946)
CHAPTER 10: PERFORMERS IN PERIL
The odd villain aside (such as Flash Gordon’s arch foe — Charles Middleton’s impeccably beastly Ming the Merciless) serial actors sleepwalked through their performances. Occasionally a fedora-hatted good guy or pencil-skirted heroine caught the cameraman’s eyeline, perhaps imagining themselves looking out over the sea of distracted seat trashers and oblivious popcorn insurgents they knew would constitute their cinema audience. But the lack of finesse is beside the point. Gusto was all. Where else in science fiction would you find villains sending blackmail messages to their enemies , on specially-pressed, knockout gas-emitting 78 records? Or a science fiction Western like 1935′s The Phantom Empire, allegedly cooked up while the writer was under laughing gas at the dentist, in which singing cowboy Gene Autry finds a subterranean civilisation of tights-wearing Art Deco baddies under his ranch, but escapes from their clutches each week just in time to present his radio programme?
GENE AUTRY: “Say, we got a broadcast at two o’clock! If we miss it, we’ll lose our contract!”
FRANKIE DARRO: “And that means we’ll lose Radio Ranch! We’ll have to ride like the Dickens!”
The Phantom Empire (Mascot, 1935)
CHAPTER 11: THE DEADLY GAME
Despite rarely featuring child protagonists, serials were the perfect juvenile entertainment. The writers worked on childlike principles, combining wild flights of fancy with a rigid set of rules of the game, honkers sci-fi gadgetry with hard-boiled wrestling action, rigid narrative convention with shameless storyline cheating, giving serials the chaotic, long-winded nature of an epic afternoon adventure game improvised by two constantly bickering kids on a patch of waste ground. It’s this honest-to-god, serious-minded daftness, rather than the knowing camp irony they’ve gathered in the intervening decades, which gives the best of the serials their unique flavour.
BRINY DEEP: “I’m gonna fry a parrot one of these days!”
Undersea Kingdom (Republic, 1936)
CHAPTER 12: TRIAL OF TYRANNY
Despite Messrs. Spielberg and Lucas’s valiant attempts to recreate their dilapidated vigour on massive budgets — watch Fighting Devil Dogs (1938) and see which famous sci-fi villain you’re reminded of by the black-helmeted, caped and gloved baddie The Lightning — the appeal of the ramshackle-yet-earnest serial will always be viewed through the coarse filter of history in these slick and shiny days. But it would be a shame to forget the simple, imagination-firing power of the serial at its best — the days when kids witnessed the hero’s rocketship smash into the surface of Mongo, and spent seven long days eagerly awaiting “Chapter Two: Death Takes the Helm”.
THE CRIMSON GHOST: “‘We’ve been tricked by cleverness!”
The Crimson Ghost (Republic, 1946)
This article originally appeared in SFX magazine #161.