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The First Comic Strip Serials:
The first serial based upon a comic strip was Universal's 15-episode Tailspin Tommy (1934) with William Desmond, an aviation-based series of stories about competing airlines delivering postal mail. Soon after, John King starred as daredevil pilot Ace Drummond in Universal's 13-chapter Ace Drummond (1936), based upon another Sunday comic strip feature - about the flying exploits of WWI ace Eddie Rickenbacker.
The Emergence of Flash Gordon:
Alex Raymond's 1934 science-fiction comic strip hero Flash Gordon was brought to the screen in 1936 by Universal, with star Larry "Buster" Crabbe as the title character, and sexy blonde Jean Rogers as terrorized heroine-girlfriend Dale Arden, and villainous planet Mongo ruler Ming the Merciless, portrayed by Charles Middleton.
The most expensive serial ever made (at reportedly $350,000), Flash Gordon (1936) (and its sequels) became the most successful, popular, and enduring serial of all time:
The action-oriented episodes were filled with fantastic spaceships, futuristic scenes and cities, monsters, and other imaginative creations.
Other Comic Strip Super-Heroes:
The success of Flash Gordon inspired other studios to follow suit. Other costumed comic-strip, super-hero characters included:
In response to Columbia's efforts, Republic Studios evolved their own Captain Video clone, known as Commando Cody (Sky Marshall of the Universe), who first appeared in the 12-episode Radar Men From the Moon (1952) (it was a pale imitation of the same hero in Republic's earlier 12 chapter serial King of the Rocket Men (1949) (aka Lost Planet Airmen), made in response to Columbia's successful serial Superman (1948)). [Note: Retik, the Moon Menace (1952) was the feature-length abridgement of Republic's serial Radar Men From the Moon]
The Golden Age of the Serial, and Republic Studios:
In 1935, Mascot Pictures, Consolidated Film Industries and Monogram Pictures joined with several independent producers to form Republic Pictures. The newly-formed studio became a major serial producer for the next 20 years.
The directing team of William Witney and Jon (or John) English (usually working together but sometimes apart) were the pre-eminent, enduring serial directors of the sound era ("The Golden Age of the Serials"), especially during their time at Republic in the mid-30s and early 40s, where they directed some of the best examples of the B-movie serial 'genre' (in many forms, including super hero stories, jungle adventures, sci-fi and crime/detective tales, westerns, and more).
Their first team effort was Zorro Rides Again (1937) with the character of Zorro. They followed up with another popular figure in serials, The Lone Ranger. By 1940, Republic was recognized as one of the major studios. Throughout its history, Republic was responsible for bringing the following to life in serials: The Lone Ranger, Captain Marvel, Spy Smasher, Dick Tracy, Zorro and Red Ryder (see above).
Witney's and English's serials, with superior special effects, great action sequences, a focus on character development, and polished production values, included Hawk of the Wilderness (1938), The Lone Ranger (1938), Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939), the exciting Zorros Fighting Legion (1939), the 15-episode Drums of Fu Manchu (1940) with young Henry Brandon as Dr. Fu - Asian criminal mastermind, Mysterious Dr. Satan (1940) (aka Doctor Satan's Robot), The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), Jungle Girl (1941) with Frances Gifford, The Perils of Nyoka (1942) with Kay Aldridge, Spy Smasher (1942), Daredevils of the West (1943), Fighting Devil Dogs (1943) with Herman Brix and Lee Powell as the heroes and a black-caped villain named Lightning, Captain America (1944), The Crimson Ghost (1946), and three of the Dick Tracy episodes.
Blondie Film Series:
Although technically a series of 28 films stretching over a period of twelve years (1938-1950), the series of Blondie films somewhat qualifies as a feature-film serial. Its main character was a blonde named Blondie Bumstead. The premise was derived from Chic Young's comic strip character (created in 1930). All of the light-hearted films, one sequel after another, told of the misadventures and mishaps of the small town family, led by bumbling dunce husband Dagwood (Arthur Lake), his sensible yet sassy wife Blondie (Penny Singleton), their son Baby Dumpling/Alexander (Larry Simms, appearing from age 3-15), their younger daughter Cookie (Marjorie Kent), and their family dog Daisy.
From 1938 to 1943, Columbia Pictures produced this popular and wholesome series of low-budget situation comedies after acquiring the film rights to the story. When the series of 12 films ended in 1943, strong demand forced the series to continue in 1945 for five more years.
Most of the films were directed by Frank Strayer, although some were directed by Abby Berlin and Edward Bernds by the mid-late 1940s.
Among the entries, a few included future stars (often Columbia's contract players):
Only two of the films in the series did not contain the name Blondie: It's a Great Life (1943) and Footlight Glamour (1943). Dagwood's name did not appear in the title of any of the Blondie movies.
Dick Tracy Serials:
By the time Republic Studios had created all of its Dick Tracy serials--60 episodes altogether, after its initial 15-episode entry Dick Tracy (1937) with lead actor Ralph Byrd as the square-jawed shamus, it had become the longest-running series in serials history (the other films in the series were the 15-chapter Dick Tracy Returns (1938), 15 cliff-hanging episodes in Dick Tracy's G-Men (1939), and 15 crime-fighting episodes in Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. (1941)).
British actor Crauford Kent starred as the title character Angus Blake in the 10-part The Ace of Scotland Yard (1929). Serials featuring a black-clad, phantom crime fighter debuted with Columbia's 15-part The Shadow (1940).
The Lone Ranger Serials and TV Show, and the James Brothers:
The first filmed story of the mysterious masked hero of the plains, starring Lee Powell and Chief Thunder-cloud, was Republic's 15-chapter serial The Lone Ranger (1938). [This serial was made into a featurized film version, Hi-Yo Silver (1940).] In the same-length sequel, The Lone Ranger Rides Again (1939), the Lone Ranger was played by Robert Livingston.
Note that Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels ("Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear") would make their feature film debuts as the Lone Ranger and his faithful companion Tonto in The Lone Ranger (1956) after appearing on ABC-TV's hit show The Lone Ranger first broadcast in the late 1940s (and remaining in primetime from 1949-1957). The full-length adventure film, Legend of the Lone Ranger (1952) (aka The Origin of the Lone Ranger) was compiled from segments of the TV series.
Jesse James (and brother Frank) were also the subject of serials in the 13-episode The Adventures of Frank and Jesse James (1948), with Steve Darrell and Clayton Moore as the legendary outlaw brothers.
The Comeback of Serial Queens in the 1940s:
Republic paid homage to the silent era serials, by making the 15-episode jungle serial Perils of Nyoka (1942) (aka Nyoka and the Tigermen), a sequel to the previous year's Jungle Girl. It was an old-fashioned serial (its title recalled Pearl White's The Perils of Pauline (1914)) that was loosely based on Edgar Rice Burrough's tales, and starred Kay Aldridge as a vine-swinging, tough jungle heroine. Aldridge would later appear in two other serials: Daredevils of the West (1943) with Allan Lane, and Haunted Harbor (1944) with Kane Richmond.
And model Linda Stirling, dubbed "The Queen of the Sound Serials" in the mid 1940s, starred in six Republic serials during her reign, including:
The Decline of the Serials:
By the 1940s and early 1950s, serials had been so numerous that they were beginning to lose their popularity, with the increase in production costs, the onset of more sophisticated feature films in the talkie era, and the emergence of television in the period 1949-52. They were also repackaging themselves with boring and stale plots, stock situations and footage, and less imagination. Another reason for the decline was that TV shows (available for free at home) began to adopt and co-opt the serial format, in series such as Sky King, Captain Video, Hopalong Cassidy, Commando Cody: Sky Marshall of the Universe, The Gene Autry Show, Batman, and The Lone Ranger.
Serials were briefly revived, however, in the 50s and 60s, when studios repackaged feature versions of many of their serials for TV release. In the early 50's, Republic entered this new medium of TV and produced a number of series specifically designed for it. Their 12-part serial Commando Cody: Sky Marshall of the Universe (1953) was released to film theatres in 1953, and was later broadcast on NBC in 1955 as the spin-off Commando Cody - as a 12-part summer replacement TV series. Much of the film's material was derived from Republic's earlier Radar Men From the Moon (1952).
Another reason for the decline was that many serials were often humorless, campy, uninspiring, repetitive, cheaply made, and second rate with excessive stock footage. Inferior, low-budget science-fiction serials included the 15-part The Purple Monster Strikes (1945), King of the Rocket Men (1949), the 12-episode Flying Disc Man From Mars (1951) and Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952).
Universal stopped making serials at the end of WWII around 1947. Republic's last serial was King of the Carnival (1955), while Columbia's Blazing the Overland Trail (1956) was regarded as the last official serial.