Prior to the mid 1950s, many matinee moviegoers considered the weekly cliffhanging movie serials to be their favorite part of the show. Week after week, for 12 to 15 consecutive weeks, audiences would return to learn how the hero or heroine managed to survive impossibly dire predicaments left to the imagination when the episode faded to black the week before.
Also called chapter plays, the original silent serials were incredibly popular, so popular that 35mm prints were literally run to death, which is why relatively few silent serials survive today. The blockbuster that created the furor was "The Perils of Pauline"(1914) starring Pearl White. Unlike later serials, Pauline was extricated from peril within each twenty minute chapter. No cliffhanger. One early silent serial that does survive is "The Master Mystery" (1919) with Houdini and robot! Rumor has it that a restoration of this intriguing chapter play is underway.
Of course, Matinee at the Bijou features the sound serials, and producer’s are currently screening and contemplating which classic serials to include in future seasons of Matinee at the Bijou. The 12 chapters of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe will kick off our first new season, and later we’ll be scheduling The Green Archer, a grand 15-chapter Columbia Pictures serial from 1940. We're also looking at former silent western superstar Tom Mix's last sound film, a western/sci-fi Mascot serial extravaganza called The Miracle Rider (1935) for eventual inclusion in the series.
The very first Flash Gordon serial, based on Alex Raymond's adventure comic strip, blasted the serial into movie palaces where it played alongside first run features. Olympic star Buster Crabbe as Flash remains the quintessential serial hero, just as Charles Middleton as Ming The Merciless became the ultimate chapter play villain. The ending of chapter 2 was especially terrifying as Flash wound up in the clutches of a 12-foot dragon monster called the Gocko. Can he escape and reach a hypnotized Dale before she marries the arch fiend Ming? Time will tell if we are able to persuade the corporate copyright holder of the original “Flash Gordon” serial to permit our booking it for a future Matinee at the Bijou season.
In future posts, we’ll look at the movie serial output of the major and minor studios. Columbia Pictures, for example, produced a total of 57 serials, including the Superman and Batman serials. Republic Pictures is usually credited with consistently having the best action sequences, along with their share of innovative cliffhangers. Mascot Pictures made more serials than feature films!
We’ll also spotlight the stars and character actors who portrayed the heroes and villains, and we’ll feature some of the preposterous plots and far-fetched cliffhangers. Watch for a fun post about serial “cheat endings” where the cliffhanger showed certain death, but substituted an entirely different sequence the following week!
Meanwhile, here's your chance to enjoy a sneak preview of The Green Archer - one of Bijou's upcoming serial presentations, while learning something fun about the way the serials were made. One thing many action-packed serials had in common with B-movies could best be summed up as “the old hat trick.” This trick was often pulled when the script called for a gaggle of gangsters or cowboys, all wearing hats, to break into a staged fistfight. A thrilling fight sequence or two was a must in every single chapter, and the action had to go on for some time. This created complex continuity problems for the director and keeping track of the many hats an impossible task. The problem was easily resolved by fastening the hats on the heads of the actors so they would not come off no matter how many times they got hit or went down. Why did they need to wear hats? Naturally, so the medium shots of stuntmen cut in better with close-ups of the heroes!
You can watch this phenomenon right now in a sample chapter from The Green Archer currently playing as part of our Bijou Mini-Matinee series. Click on the link to the right under the marquee and enjoy the show.