Re: What are the best cliffhanger serials?

From: David P. Hayes
Newsgroups: alt.cult-movies,rec.arts.movies.past-films
Date: Sunday, April 19, 1998 9:22 PM

greywizard wrote in message <>…
>It occured to me that I have never seen any of those old-time serials. I
>would like to watch a few, and I would like to know which are the best.

General advice: keep to serials made from 1936 up to 1945 or 1946, avoid those made later. The budgets were drastically curtailed as the number of theaters showing serials plummetted. There were fewer writers on the later ones, which tended to mean less imagination, repetitive plot devices, less detail within the fights and cliffhanger-escapes.

Republic Pictures made the best ones, followed by Universal (which ceased making serials in 1945, possibly unwilling to tarnish their image with lower-budgeted serials, a decision that thankfully made more playdates available to the two companies to continue in the business). Columbia's are the worst. The "Superman" serials not only were made post-1946, but were released by Columbia, which on "Superman" didn't make the serials but instead distributed them for a producer with even less money to spend on them. Those laughable special effects don't do justice to the better work done elsewhere. Republic used Consolidated Film Industries for their optical effects; Republic owned the company, true, but it did such good work that the major studios contracted their optical work to it.

Recommendations: "Zorro Rides Again" (1937), "Zorro's Fighting Legion" (1939), and to a lesser extent, "Zorro's Black Whip" (1944); "Spy Smasher" (1942); "S.O.S. Coast Guard" (1937; with Ralph Byrd essentially playing his Dick Tracy character under a different name, and Bela Lugosi as the villain); "Manhunt of Mystery Island" (1945); "The Masked Marvel" and "Captain America" (both 1943 comic-book-hero type adventures); "The Purple Monster Strikes" (1945). All these are from Republic.

From Universal: "Buck Rogers" is continuously moving forward in story, and strikes today's viewers as a precursor of "Star Wars"; "Ace Drummond" (1936) has more characters than usual for a serial, and once you've been introduced to them all, that makes for more surprises and twists and counterpoints in the plot than you thought you'd see; "Adventures of the Flying Cadets" has one of the better plots of serials, and is by far the best I've seen that centers on a group of teenage boys turning detective.

Universal made three "Flash Gordon" serials. The third, "Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe," has surprisingly adult connotations (e.g., an attractive woman who in breathless voice promises unspecified rewards to the rugged man who rescued her).

I hope this helps.

>My video store has a good selection of serials for rent. Most are from
>Republic, though there are a few others. I've heard that Gene Autry's
>THE PHANTOM EMPIRE (a.k.a. RADIO RANCH) [1934] is a hoot - can
>anyone confirm this? There are also a couple of ZORRO serials put out by
>Rhino Video, (and at least one from Republic) and a few serials released
>on the Goodtimes Video label. And others.

As far as labels go, all other things being equal, go with Republic Home Video; they master their tapes from the highest-quality film materials--often the original negative. (They proudly state this on their packages. Their artwork for "Zorro Rides Again" does not state this, yet it appears that all of it was transferred from the negative other than the last ten minutes of chapter 1; presumably this was lost in 35mm--there's a noticeable degradation of quality at this point, but that's partially because the rest of the print looks so good.) Rhino and Goodtimes copy from collectors' prints; so did Burbank Video (which has since been absorbed into Video Treasures), yet they achieved very good results, with a "Zorro's Black Whip" that looks almost as good as the Republic issue. (Video Treasures did not live up to the high standards that their Burbank Video "division" achieved when the latter was independent; Video Treasures releases are typically duped from low-quality competitors.)

The first four "Zorro" serials (there were five in all, but the last is one of those post-1948 atrocities) were put out by Republic, so you needn't settle for Rhino tapes on the same titles.

A word about watching a serial: don't assume that it will be so like "Goonies" or an Indiana Jones movie or a Schwarzenegger/"Lethal Weapon" film that it can be watched straight through. Serials are paced such that after the cliffhanger from the previous episode is resolved, there is a slow build-up and a gradual re-introduction of characters, leading to a climax that seeks to "top" the chapter but not to "top" the previous episode--because each chapter was intended to be seen at a different screening than the previous. If you watch a serial straight through, the pacing will seem awkward. Dividing a serial up over a weekend (maybe two chapters Saturday morning, two in the afternoon, two in the evening, and repeating the pattern on Sunday) works neatly.

David Hayes


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