If you’ve been with this site long enough you know that I love the classic movie serials, those multi-part stories that used to play in movie theaters. In the days before television the only way you could see anything was at the movies. You had shorts and cartoons, but to me serials were the closest predecessor of television, and we still see serialized stories today, but not in the same way. I’ll get to those in a future article. We’re just sticking with the classics.
Here at BW Media Spotlight, and over at The Clutter Reports, I’ve discussed a few of my series, The Adventures Of Captain Marvel, the first Batman, and the sequel Batman And Robin (not to be confused with the 90s debacle). I do have a few others I plan to look at in the future but my collection is shorter than I’d like. I used to watch the classic serials on a PBS show called Matinee At The Bijou and on our local cable access channel. Four TV shows I grew up with also followed the classic formula. Three of them are from Filmation, Jason Of Star Command, Flash Gordon, and the “Great Space Chase” segments of The New Adventures Of Mighty Mouse. The other was a Canadian series that PBS aired called Read All About It, that taught reading comprehension via a sci-fi mystery. (I hope at least one of those articles has a video that still works.) It’s a form of storytelling you really don’t see anymore outside of two-parters. The last one I ever saw was a tribute serial in 2005 called The Mercury Men. But what goes into making a good serial and why is it a semi-lost art?
Serialized storytelling is still with us thanks to seasonal arcs or full on series like Lost or The Walking Dead where the story doesn’t end until the series does, whether it should or not. The classic serial usually lasted from 12-15 episodes long and was one continuous story rather than a series of converging stories. The closest would be various tokusatsu series from Japan, but even some of the more recent ones have each character with their own story arcs. The old serials didn’t really have character arcs. They were plot-driven stories with characters just interesting enough to root for or against. So if you only care about character-driven stories the classic serials are not for you. If you prefer plot or event-driven stories or like me can enjoy both on their own merits (I talked about this in an Art Soundoff) then you may well enjoy watching or even making one of these.
While I’m of course drawn to the superheroes and science fiction stuff there were crime serials as well that contained no superheroes, or regular people versus mad scientists. I’d name a couple off-hand but those aren’t in my wheelhouse so I never really followed them, something I plan to make up for in the future. I was drawn more towards the adventures of Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Commando Cody, Captain Marvel, The Phantom, and the like. Whatever the case there is one important element that separates the classic serial from other multichapter stories: the cliffhanger.
The classic serials usually end with a cliffhanger, something to draw the audience back to the theater next week to see how the hero survives. And that’s a key to the classic cliffhanger. The hero isn’t just standing there as the villain gets away, wondering what to do next. No, your hero or one of his friends (usually the girl because 1940s, even if she isn’t a love interest) has to be in mortal peril either due to an elaborate death trap or just the villain getting a lucky hit in. Do this right and you get the kids itching for the next week so they can run back to the theater and sit through the cartoon and some movie you would have otherwise cared about waiting for the next chapter to see how the hero gets out of this mess. Do it wrong and you get King Of The Rocketmen.
Longtime readers may also remember that summer I posted the King Of The Rocketmen serial during Saturday Night Showcase, an episode a week like the old days before binge watching to give you the experience that was intended, although you could have looked up the other episodes on your own. Not that you’d really bother. For the originator of the “rocket men” serials that inspired The Rocketeer the cliffhangers were surprisingly weak as hell. “Oh no, the hero with the flying jetpack is plummeting out of the sky. How will he ever survive?” Then there was the episode where he’s coming into the window is the cliffhanger where the bad guys start shooting at him. Next episode we see they simply all missed. The worst one though is when the hero, Jeff King (secretly Rocket Man, the only one to have a secret identity among his jetpack-wearing pals until Cliff Secord in the comics), is knocked out the bad guys send a truck packed with explosives rolling towards him. This looked like a potentially good cliffhanger by this serials standards. Do you want to know the exciting and amazing way he survived at the start of the next episode? He stood up and walked away fast. Can you stand the pulse-pounding action? I’m not surprised the stats for those Saturdays showed nobody watched the thing. I should have gone with something better, though to be fair everything else was not too bad. It’s like they never planned it as a serial and were forced to shove in cliffhangers whether they made sense or not.
I would urge you to try out a few classic movie serials though. Most of them are in public domain so finding them on YouTube and the Internet Archive is rather easy, and plenty have been put out on home video. It’s too bad they don’t make those anymore but in today’s binge culture I don’t think people would get the same excitement out of them. Thanks a lot, Netflix, for ruining any serialized story with more than one season.