Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Popcorn please!

In days of yore (or mine as the case may be) there was a Saturday morning entertainment known as the Movie Serial. These films were chapter plays running between 10 and 20 minutes with a new segment being released each week.

These serials were also called "chapter plays". In essence they were motion pictures broken into a number of segments called "chapters" or "episodes". Each chapter would be screened at the same theater for one week. The serial would end with a cliffhanger in which the hero and heroine would find themselves in a situation from which there apparently could be no escape. Viewers would have to return in subsequent weeks to see the cliffhangers resolved and to follow the continuing story. To my knowledge no one ever actually “died” from hanging off the cliff.

Made on an extremely limited budget, using unknown or “C” list talent. Serials were quickly cranked out and fed into the movie theater chains of the day.

Movie Serials were especially popular with children. From the silent era and “Perils Of Pauline’ (1914) through the 1950’s, the chapter play was a Saturday staple. The advent of television would eventually spell the demise of this particular art form.

During the peak of their popularity, Movie Serials were dominated by Westerns, but virtually every genre from crime drama to horror was used in these chapter plays.

During the Golden Age of movie serials (1937-1945) the subject matter turned to what we refer to as “genre” sci-fi and of course Superheroes began to show up and eventually dominate the form. Both Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers were especially successful and made a star of former Olympian Buster Crabbe.

The honor of being the very first comic book superhero, to appear in a serial was Fawcett’s Captain Marvel (although The Green Hornet who’s origins lay in radio appeared a year earlier). Made in 1941 this 12 part chapter play was produced by republic Pictures and starred Tom Tyler in the titular role. While Captain Marvel did not have the light hearted, humorous nature of the comic books, the Serial was very successful and is looked upon today as one of the very best sound era chapter plays.

With the success of The Adventures Of Captain Marvel, the flood gates opened. Batman, Captain America, Blackhawk and, of course Superman followed over the next few years. Superman and Atom Man Vs. Superman (1948 and 1950 respectively) were both quite popular and also just about the last gasp of a dying art form. The Superman serials starred former song and dance man Kirk Alyn in the titular role and an impossibly young Noel Neill as Lois Lane. (Neill would later replace Phyllis Coates on TV’s Adventures Of Superman and is the actress most connected to the role).

While Captain America and Batman bore little resemblance to their comic book counterparts. Captain America, in fact was originally a different character entirely and pretty much only the costume was changed. This made little difference, however to the millions of kids who flocked to the theaters each Saturday to follow the adventures of their favorite comic book heroes.

Yes, these comic book adaptations were crude and low budgeted. The scripts often bore little resemblance to the source matter. (Though the Superman serials WERE fairly faithful adaptations given the limitations of budget and special effects). The actors were strictly ham and eggers. BUT the super hero chapter plays did prove that comic book characters were marketable film properties and inevitably lead to the summer blockbuster films of today such as 2011’s Captain America and Thor.

That’s 30!


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