The Golden Era of the film serial was the 1930s through the early 1950s, when kiddie matinees were popular in theaters. Parents would drop their kids off at movie theaters (yes, unattended, if my mom is to be believed), where they would see one or two kid-appropriate films, cartoons, and film serials like Republic Pictures’ Flash Gordon, to cite the most popular film serial of them all. Film serials of that era were fashioned from sci-fi pulp magazines of the time, and often were genre entertainments intended for kids. Each “chapter” or “episode” was about 20 or 30 minutes long, and would often end with a dire dramatic situation, such as our hero dangling off the edge of a cliff, seemingly doomed (hence the term “cliffhanger”). The beginning of the following episode would feature our hero extricating himself from danger. The word “episode,” by the way, did not enter the popular lexicon until the popularity of film serials introduced it to us. Now it describes any part of any serial.
The influence of these old sci-fi and adventure pulp serials has left an indelible mark on popular culture, even if you’ve never actually seen any. This is due largely in part to popular filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who modeled their famous respective hits Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars very directly after the serials they used to watch as kids. If you watch old Flash Gordon serials, you’ll find that the robots, the character types, and the general tone is very similar to that of Star Wars. Sure, plenty of film professors have cited that Lucas used Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 film The Hidden Fortress as the basic structure for his blockbuster, but the tone of Star Wars has a refreshing old-fashioned corniness that is taken directly from stuff like1936’s Flash Gordon or 1952’s Commando Cody. Indeed, in the more recent Star Wars films, one of the characters is named Commander Cody, no doubt as an homage to the serial that Lucas so loved as a boy. Spielberg was also fond of these serials, and the whip-cracking, jacket-wearing, tomb-plundering adventurer that he named Indiana Jones is very much a direct descendent of other white treasure hunters trekking through “Darkest Africa” seeking holy artifacts.
Indeed, you can see a pop culture pattern emerging. Lucas was trying to recreate his childhood experience of Flash Gordon with Star Wars. The current generation that grew up on Star Wars is now trying to do the same thing with Star Wars. The pattern seems to be that filmmakers are trying to make “serious” versions of the things they grew up with, which were, in turn, “serious” versions of the things the previous generation had grown up with. How long before we have a Transformers movie? Oh wait…
I didn’t grow up watching serials in theaters – I was born too late – so I have a kind of romantic notion of these old shorts. Since they were short, and were often considered disposable entertainment for less-discerning children, serialized shorts even during the golden era, are typically pretty low-budget. And since they were produced very quickly, they’re not known for their acting, well-thought-out stories, or even quality. What they do have are simple and enjoyably recognizable characters. These serialized entertainments may not have had much to offer in terms of filmmaking acumen, but they did offer up a sort-of simplified introduction to kiddie heroes. This is especially significant in the current age of big-budget superhero movies. Sidekicks, henchmen, supervillains, damsels in distress. These simple tropes were given a first chance to breathe in the serialized shorts of yore.
The most popular serial shorts came, as I said, during the 1930s, largely from the long-in-business Republic Pictures. Other studios made serials (Universal was a champion of the format), but Republic was the most prolific producer of serials for decades; they made far more serials than actual features. All throughout the 1940s, studios would often put out five or six serials every year, each one about 12 episodes long. They were considered largely disposable at the time, so they weren’t often kept. You can find serials these days, but they’re rarely taught in film school, and are typically considered kind of an outsider element of film, or a mere precursor to television.
Serialized short features waned and vanished almost entirely with the advent of television in the 1950s. The notion of the “cliffhanger” could now be piped directly into your home, and a new short drama could be made on a weekly – or even daily – basis. Indeed, television ate into theatrical profits to a terrifying degree, and I have encountered a few articles from the 1950s that predicted the demise of cinema altogether. Luckily for me, and for all of us, that did not happen. Film did take a blow, but it soldiered on. Serial shorts, however, were a casualty. Sure, some people continued to make serials, but these were largely out of nostalgia. Now all serialized shorts are either relegated to long-running TV shows, or planned-length TV miniseries. I will not give any comment as to the notion of “long-form storytelling,” because I feel if the storytelling takes too long, then it loses cohesion. But then, I’m a movie guy and not much of a TV-watcher; I’m used to stories wrapping up in 90-180 minutes.
I would love to see serials return to theaters. Imagine a 30-minute superhero film before the latest blockbuster. Heck, in this age when entire franchises are greenlit ahead of time, and five movies can be planned out as a group, it’s only one more step to include one-fifth of a movie before each, encouraging audiences to attend each one, even if it’s only to see the next part of the serial. It makes perfect business sense, and it would be immensely entertaining for kids in the audience. Imagine, for instance, if a certain superhero that’s not very popular, were to be given five 30-minute films instead of one 120-minute one. And then those five short films were each placed before a current superhero feature, released over the course of a year or a year-and-a-half. And these shorts were not made available on TV or anything. That sounds awesome to me. Wouldn’t you go to see something like that? If the planning is careful enough, maybe the fifth chapter could tie into the film it precedes. Maybe this is just wishful thinking, though.
Sadly, my own personal experience with serials is kind of limited. I have seen some old superhero serials, Commando Cody (which was featured on “Mystery Science Theater 3000”), and even some Flash Gordon, but I’m not experienced enough a film-viewer to offer up any lessons as to which studio produced the best kinds of movies, and which ones would appeal to which audiences.
I can, however, point you toward the best of the serials I have seen. Running in 1915 and 1916, director Louie Feuillade made a crime serial called Les Vampires. Les Vampires was the follow-up to Feuillade’s equally compelling serial Fantômas, and followed a group of investigative reporters as they tried to reveal an underground crime syndicate. The serial (available on DVD, and running a full 6 ½ hours total) featured actress Musidora as a mysterious cat burglar named Irma Vep (an anagram for “vampire”), and several bizarre sequences that play almost as experimental when viewed by modern audiences. The film is rife with the well-known pulp tropes of trashy crime fiction, but is most certainly colored by a bizarre avant garde edge, complete with (silent) song and dance numbers. In 1996, a director named Olivier Assayas made a fantastic indie drama called Irma Vep, which was about a mad director who was attempting to remake Les Vampires, and how the crew’s insanity began to leak into the production. Watch them back-to-back as I did, and you will have a terrific experience.
Like I said, you can find many serials online and in video stores. Most of the serials you’ll find are bully westerns, cheapo sci-fi, and occasional visits to jungles and deserts and other well-worn adventure locations. You’ll find that the stories are never complex, the acting is rarely good, and the production values are always pretty low, but you may also find a kind of pure, childlike awesomeness to the simple adventure stories. For a short while, interrupted by tense moments of near-death escapes, you’ll feel like a kid again, even if you never had them the first time around.