During the 1930s and 1940’s, and even early into the 1950s, when you went to the movies you generally got two movies, a cartoon (or two), a newsreel and (particularly during Saturday Matinees) the latest chapter in an ongoing cliff hanger of a serial.
A lot to get for your 15 cents (in the 1930s) or quarter (in the 1940’s).
Many movies back then were quite a bit shorter than what we expect today, of course. Particularly the `B’ movie half of a double feature, which often only ran about an hour. Still, by the time you added in a 20 minute serial, cartoons, and newsreel you could figure on about 3 hours of entertainment.
The history of movie serials goes back well into the silent era, with perhaps the most famous from that era being the 20-chapters of The Perils of Pauline – released in 1914.
Pearl White, who appears as Pauline performs most of her own stunts, and Milton Berle always maintained that this was his first film appearance as a small boy, although that claim has never been authenticated.
Unlike the serials that would come later, Pauline was rescued at the end of each episode – the `cliff hanger’, with the serial’s star apparently about to perish at the end of each chapter – wasn’t used in The Perils of Pauline.
Pauline proved so successful, it sparked imitators (including White in The Exploits of Elaine), and numerous parodies (including Dudley DooRight). It also proved an effective, and inexpensive way to draw people back to the theatre each week to `find out what happens next . . . ‘.
By the early 1930s, sound had arrived, and serials reached their zenith of popularity. The most common serials were westerns, because they were the cheapest to make. But other genres such as science fiction, crime dramas, and spy yarns were popular as well.
This was the age of Flash Gordon, The Green Hornet, and The Mystery Squadron.
For the most part, these were low budget `B’ movies (with a capital `B’), but what they lacked in production values, they often made up with enthusiasm.
Originally aimed at the youth market, and typically shown on Saturday Matinees, these are popcorn munching, escapist, and often wildly entertaining bits of nostalgia and history.
Indiana Jones and even Star Wars owe much to this genre.
Sure, you have to be in the right mood to watch one (and have some time, they run 4 to 5 hours in length!), but I find they can be very enjoyable, particularly when consumed in smaller 1 or 2 chapter bites at a time.
Perhaps the wildest, and most outlandish of these serials was The Phantom Empire, which was Gene Autry’s first starring role. This is . . . sit down for this . . . a singing modern cowboy Sci-Fi epic.
Well, I’m not sure that it matters, but here is the IMDB description:
When the ancient continent of Mu sank beneath the ocean, some of its inhabitant survived in caverns beneath the sea. Cowboy singer Gene Autry stumbles upon the civilization, now buried beneath his own Radio Ranch.
The Muranians have developed technology and weaponry such as television and ray guns. Their rich supply of radium draws unscrupulous speculators from the surface. The peaceful civilization of the Muranians is corrupted by the greed from above, and it becomes Autry's task to prevent all-out war, ideally without disrupting his regular radio show.
Try not to let it bother you that these cowboys are all battling against the underground inhabitants of `Moo’ (sic). In any event, in 12 glorious chapters, here is The Phantom Empire.
Or, if you prefer, you can download the entire serial as one large (and very long) movie.
The Phantom Empire - All 12 Chapters
The Phantom Empire was produced in 1935 by Nat Levine. A series of 12 Chapters by Mascot Serial, starring Gene Autry
Serials never really went out of vogue, they just moved from the movie theatre to the small screen. In the 1950s we had serials in the form of Spin and Marty, and the Hardy Boys on the Mickey Mouse Club.
The classic Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons were serialized, as well. And Dr. WHO out of the UK utilized the cliffhanger, serial format with episode arcs that ran anywhere from 3 to 12 shows.
In the 1960’s, BATMAN with Adam West utilized the cliff hanger ploy, and today, Jack Bauer continues on with the format in `24’.
In the future I’ll bring you other serials, available for downloading. Everything from Tarzan to Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon to Ace Drummond.
If there’s even a little bit of a kid left in you, I think you’ll enjoy them.