Part 2

Serial Films
Part 1 | Part 2 | Examples

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:

Flash Gordon - 1936Alex 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:

  • Flash Gordon (1936), 13 chapter serial from Universal, the first Flash Gordon screen adventure, and the first pure science-fiction serial; the original and the best of its type; later condensed into a 97-minute feature film titled Flash Gordon: Rocketship; also retitled for TV viewing in the 1950s as Space Soldiers
  • Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938), 15 episode serial from Universal, the sequel to the 1936 serial, with Jean Rogers as a brunette; later retitled for TV viewing in the 1950s as Space Soldiers' Trip to Mars
  • Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940), 12 part serial from Universal, the third of three serials in the late 1930s; with Carol Hughes as Dale Arden; later retitled for TV viewing in the 1950s as Space Soldiers Conquer the Universe

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:

  • Buck Rogers - 1939Zorro, the masked figure appeared in Zorro Rides Again (1937) with John Carroll as the disguised, legendary 19th century title character, the 12-chapter serial Zorro's Fighting Legion (1939), Zorro's Black Whip (1944), Son of Zorro (1947), and Ghost of Zorro (1949) with Clayton Moore in his first masked-western-hero role
  • Buck Rogers - Buster Crabbe also starred in the 12-part serial adventure Buck Rogers Conquers the Universe (1939), shot between Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938) and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940)) - it proved not as popular as the Flash Gordon series; also the serial Planet Outlaws (1939) with Buster Crabbe as Buck Rogers; later surfaced as the feature film Buck Rogers (1979) with Gil Gerard
  • the Green Hornet - Universal's 13-episode serial The Green Hornet (1940) starred Gordon Jones as the crusading hero Britt Reid (the Green Hornet) as the modern 'Robin Hood'
  • The Shadow - a superhero crimefighter was created in the 1930s and popularized in movies (in the Columbia Pictures' 1940 serial, a trio of Monogram Pictures: The Shadow Returns (1946), Behind the Mask (1946), and The Missing Lady (1946), and Republic's The Invisible Avenger (1958)), pulp magazines, and a radio show (with Orson Welles); the 15-part serial The Shadow (1940) featured scientist Lamont Cranston (Victor Jory) as The Shadow who tracked down an invisible terrorist known as The Black Tiger who was threatening the world with a death ray
  • Captain Marvel - Republic's 12-chapter serial The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941) with Tom Tyler as the superhero, was adapted for the film screen from Fawcett Comic's Captain Marvel comic-book character
  • Captain Midnight - Dave O'Brien portrayed Captain Midnight in Columbia's 15 episode Captain Midnight (1942)
  • The Phantom - the purple and black, masked comic strip adventure hero, based on the syndicated comic strip created by Lee Falk, appeared in the low-budget, 15-chapter The Phantom (1943) and starred Tom Tyler in his best serial
  • Captain America - 1944Batman and Robin - Batman was the first DC Comics character to have his own serial. The first of two 15-chapter serials by Columbia was Batman (1943) with Lewis Wilson as smug playboy Bruce Wayne/ aka alias superhero Batman, "America's No. 1 crime fighter," and Douglas Croft as his "young two-fisted assistant" Robin/Richard "Dick" Grayson; they functioned as a crime-fighting duo against Japanese agent Dr. Tito Daka/Prince Daka (J. Carrol Naish) of Emperor Hirohito
  • Captain America - the 15-episode Captain America (1944) by directors John English and Elmer Clifton, the last Republic Pictures serial ever made about superheroes, starred Dick Purcell as the comic-book hero Captain America/aka DA Grant Gardner
  • Superman - the 15 chapter action serial Superman (1948) from Columbia Pictures (directed by Thomas Carr and Spencer Gordon Bennet) appeared in the late 1940s with Kirk Alyn as the Kryptonite hero
  • the second 15-chapter Batman serial from Columbia Pictures was Batman and Robin (1949) in which Robert Lowery starred as Batman/Bruce Wayne ("a wealthy playboy"), who lived in the Wayne residence (with the Batcave below) located in the suburbs of Gotham City, and John Duncan starred as Robin/Dick Grayson - the duo were "famed crusaders for law and order." The villain in this second series was the hooded Wizard (Leonard Penn).
  • the first Superman sequel was another 15-episode Columbia Pictures serial, also directed by Bennet titled Atom Man vs. Superman (1950), about Superman/Clark Kent (Kirk Alyn again) fighting against bald Lex Luthor/Atom Man (Lyle Talbot), who threatened Metropolis with a sonic vibrator and crippled the "Man of Steel" with kryptonite
  • Captain Video - Captain Video: Master of the Stratosphere (1951) was Columbia's 15-part serial based on the TV series Captain Video and His Video Rangers - this marked the beginning of the end of the serial

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.

Drums of Fu Manchu - 1940The 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 Zorro’s 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:

Blondie - 1938Although 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):

Columbia Pictures (1938-1943)
  • Blondie (1938) - the debut film
  • Blondie Meets the Boss (1939)
  • Blondie Takes a Vacation (1939)
  • Blondie Brings Up Baby (1939)
  • Blondie on a Budget (1940) - the fifth entry, co-starring contract player Rita Hayworth
  • Blondie Has Servant Trouble (1940)
  • Blondie Plays Cupid (1940) - co-starring Glenn Ford
  • Blondie Goes Latin (1941) - the 8th film; the only musical in the series
  • Blondie in Society (1941) - with William Frawley in the first of three appearances
  • Blondie Goes to College (1942) - co-starring Larry Parks and Janet Blair, and with a bit part by Lloyd Bridges
  • Blondie's Blessed Event (1942)
  • Blondie For Victory (1942) - the 12th film
  • It's a Great Life (1943)
  • Footlight Glamour (1943) - co-starring Ann Savage
  • Leave It to Blondie (1945)
  • Life With Blondie (1945)
  • Blondie's Lucky Day (1946)
  • Blondie Knows Best (1946) - co-starring Shemp Howard (one of the Three Stooges)
  • Blondie's Big Moment (1947) - with Anita Louise
  • Blondie's Holiday (1947)
  • Blondie in the Dough (1947)
  • Blondie's Anniversary (1947) - co-starring Adele Jenkins
  • Blondie's Reward (1948)
  • Blondie's Secret (1948)
  • Blondie's Big Deal (1949)
  • Blondie Hits the Jackpot (1949)
  • Blondie's Hero (1950)
  • Beware of Blondie (1950) - also with Adele Jenkins

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 Lone Ranger Rides Again - 1939The 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 serial 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 Warnercolor 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 second Technicolor theatrical feature based on the popular TV series of the same name was the sequel The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold (1958). The full-length (70 minute), black and white adventure film, Legend of the Lone Ranger (1952) (aka The Origin of the Lone Ranger) was put together with three segments of the TV series. It was a compilation film - a combination of the first three TV episodes from Sept 1949 (Enter the Lone Ranger, The Lone Ranger Fights On and The Lone Ranger's Triumph).

[Note: Next came The Return of the Lone Ranger (1961), starring Tex Hill, was a pilot episode for a proposed CBS-TV series. Another theatrical film, a big flop with many Razzie nominations and wins, was director William A. Fraker's The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981) with Klinton Spilsbury as John Reid/The Lone Ranger, and Michael Horse as Tonto. After 32 years, another major filming of the Lone Ranger tale, directed by Gore Verbinski and produced by Walt Disney Pictures (and Jerry Bruckheimer films) was the blockbuster flop The Lone Ranger (2013), with Johnny Depp serving as both the Narrator (and Tonto).]

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:

Perils of the Darkest Jungle - 1944Republic 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 popular 12-episode The Tiger Woman (1944) (aka Perils of the Darkest Jungle) with Stirling sexily-costumed in a leopard outfit
  • the 12-chapter Zorro's Black Whip (1944), with Stirling as a female masked rider
  • the 15-chapter Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945)
  • the 15-part The Purple Monster Strikes (1945) (aka D-Day on Mars)
  • the 12-episode The Crimson Ghost (1946) (aka Cyclotrode "X")
  • the 13-episode western serial Jesse James Rides Again (1947)

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. Blazing the Overland Trail - 1956In 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.

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