Posts Tagged ‘old movie serials’

Cliffhanger Serials of the 1940s

March 1, 2013

They came to life twice in the early 20th century with “The Perils of Pauline” (1914, 1933). They zoomed from there into the stratosphere during the Great Depression with “Flash Gordon” (1936).  Then they took off with all the power of  comic books with “Batman” (1943, 1949) and “Superman” (1948) in the 1940s.

The immediate post-war years (1945-1949) were the halcyon days of the 12-15 week movie serials that drew the kids to movie theatres across America every Saturday to see how the storyline’s heroes escaped their latest almost certainly fatal brush with death in the previous chapter. They continued into the 1950’s, of course, but were soon enough put to bed for all time by the role of television coming into the picture and offering virtually the same fare at home for free.

George Reeves as Superman on TV, for example, had a staying power that KIrk Alyn as the movie Superman from 1949 could not have and hold. Alyn was done in 12 chapters. Reeves could keep it up as long as the kids wanted him – and, unlike Alyn, as we said earlier, he was free.

Everyone has their own serial favorites from the old days. Here are my three favorites from the 1940’s:

Circa 1945

Circa 1945

(1) “The Purple Monster Strikes” (1945, 15 chapters): Arch movie serial “bad guy” Roy Barcroft played the title role as solo visitor to Earth from Mars as the advance guard explorer of a planned invasion. For some reason, Mars had perfected a one-man rocket plane that could fly to Earth, but they lacked the technology to start it up again for a flight home to Mars. It’s a little hard to start a flying machine that explodes within ten seconds of its only occupant’s quick landing departure from the flight capsule. As the “purple monster,” Barcroft had come to earth to get that return flight know-how, fly back to Mars, and then lead the planned invasion back to Earth.

Described by the serial’s narrator as a “strange, weird visitor” from another planet, Barcroft wears a late 1940’s version of a purple spandex-like suit and something that looks like a purple shower cap as his everyday attire. We see his attire in shades of grey, of course, due the black and white film they used for these adventures.

The Purple Monster also has the ability to stand near a dead human body and explode a little smoky capsule that allows him to enter the deceased in ephemeral form and disguise himself as Dr. Cyrus Leighton, a prominent American scientist. The Martian also carries with him a little black box called the “distance eliminator” that allows him to both speak and understand any language. In the last chapter, the monster almost gets away. He crawls inside the “going home” rocket with all of the plans inscribed on paper in detail. He pushes the rocket’s lever from its “stop” to to the “take off” position. Before he can exit the Earth’s atmosphere, however, he is blasted to smithereens by an atomic rocket missile that has been set up by the US Army to defeat his getaway and save the world.

All’s well that ends well. And Roy Barcroft goes on to play the sheriff in the movies version of “Oklahoma”  in 1956. Those of us who grew up watching Barcroft in serials and Grade B westerns are as proud of him as we were of former Houston Buffs who later made it to the big leagues. A kids, we knew him as the Purple Monster, a bad guy, but one of our actors nonetheless.

Circa 1946

Circa 1946

(2) “The Crimson Ghost” (1946, 12 Chapters): A college science professor leads a double life as “The Crimson Ghost” and he spends all his time trying to steal a colleague’s plans for building a Cyclotrode device that will have the power to short-circuit all-electric power on the planet. Whoever controls it will possess the power to take over the entire world. Megalomania was a common affliction among the movie serial villains. Must have been a writer’s disease, one that contemporary writers of the TV series “Revolution” may have copied from The Crimson Ghost.

What makes this movie so ironically attractive, however, is the presence of Clayton Moore as the Crimson Ghost’s top henchman, Louis Ashe. Moore is much better remembered today as the actor who played The Lone Ranger on the TV series of the same name.

One continuity problem with a Crimson Ghost scene that violated the laws of physics, even as I understood them at age 8: Hero Duncan Richards is about to drive off a cliff at 80 mph, but he is unconscious in the driver’s seat as the chapter concludes with the car going off into the abyss. The next week, the same scene plays out differently. This time, at the last minute, the hero wakes up in time to jump out of the car. From there, he runs on the highway to a slowing halt without either falling down or losing his hat as he also stops in time to watch the car going off the cliff without him.

What??? – Even at 8, I’m saying, “no way!” Even we kids can’t do that! He doesn’t even need a bandaid!

Like the Purple Monster before him, the Crimson Ghost is finally detected and stopped. This time the villain survives to go the penitentiary.

Circa 1949

Circa 1949

(3) “King of The Rocket Men” (1949, 12 Chapters): This one starred the only guy beyond the great Tris Speaker I ever heard of whose full first name was “Tristram.” Tristram Coffin played the Rocket Man who took on the challenges of the evil Dr. Vulcan for (what? you guessed it!) world domination. The Rocket Man wins to preserve the heroic record of good guys and the American Way against bad guys and evil at a perfect whatever figure for wins it is for America against zippo for the alien baddies.

Our science challenge with the Rocket Man had to do with the flame that burst out of his backpack rocket that enabled his flight. We could not figure out he was able to sit down anywhere after even a short flight. In fact, we would even ask ourselves: “Could the Rocket Man even fly from our neighborhood to the Avalon Theater and still be able to sit down once he bought his movie ticket?” We decided that he must have worn asbestos underwear that they just didn’t talk about back in the day.

Those were the days, my friend.

Those Saturday Serial Days

April 4, 2011

Batman (The Original) 1943

For me, it all started with original Batman serial in 1943. At age five, I could walk about six blocks each Saturday from out little rental duplex on Pecore Street, cross Studewood Avenue by myself, and then make my way straight into the old Studewood Theatre for the weekly showing of “Batman” and transfixation into another world – the world of Gotham City and the original caped crusader’s war on crime and evil.

All I had to do was see that little winged bat introduction logo featured here as I simultaneously tuned my ears to the slow-droning classical-like musical introduction and my voyage to this other land of cliff-hanging action would begin in earnest. For about fifteen minutes each Saturday, for fifteen weeks in a row, the battle between good and evil would play out before the believing eyes and ears of all the faithful who came to cheer Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder, as they chased down the bad guys and fought with all their might to protect America and our “American way of life.”

Since the original “Batman” was made during World War II, the arch villain here was a Japanese gentleman named “Dr. Daka,” played by American actor J. Carrol Naish, who portrayed the “bad guy” role  with his eyes taped into an Asian slant in the most offensive way by 21st century standards. As little kids, we didn’t care. All we cared about was that Batman existed to protect us from all harm. The fact that the fight scenes often pushed Batman’s eyes away from the viewing slots in his hooded mask, making it easier for the bad guys to knock him out, was lost upon us back then. We just knew that our hero would always find a way to prevail in the end. I had to see the serial again as an adult to see how all the sight line imperfections of our hero’s costume would have made finding the quickest way to the bathroom difficult enough – and actually fighting almost impossible.

Other serials came our way as WWII ended. After my family moved to Pecan Park in the East End in 1945, all my Saturday movie fare attentions shifted to the Avalon Theatre on 75th, just north of the Lawndale intersection.

All serials followed this course: (1) much fist-fighting and car chasing; (2) a lot of gun-shooting with no concern for bystander safety; (3) little attention to technical details. For example, one rocket ship had an adjustment spot on the flight lever that was marked as “take off;” (4) There was a good chance that one of the principle bad guys was going to be played by an actor named Roy Barcroft; (4) fpr 11 to 14 weeks, the serial hero, and/or his girl friend, would be left hanging near certain death at the end of each mid-story chapter; and, (5) in the end, the bad guys would be vanquished, destroyed, wiped out, and killed in ways that they each major villain so richly deserved.

Here are a few of my other favorite serials from back in the day:

The Purple Monster Strikes (1945)

The Purple Monster Strikes (1945). Roy Barcroft stars as a man from Mars who comes to Earth to learn more about jet engine technology. The Martians want to take over our planet, but they don’t know how to build a plane or a rocket ship that can take off again once it lands the first time. The science deficiency of the Martians is pretty fishy. These are the same Martians who already have invented a little box called ” the distance eliminator,” a device that allows them to understand and speak any language to which they are exposed. – And these same brilliant beings don’t how to build an aircraft that can take off again once it lands?

In the end, the Purple Monster’s plans for world domination literally blow him to smithereens.

Serial Social Note: Linda Stirling plays the hero’s girl friend, a role she often plays in these duels between good and evil.

The Crimson Ghost (1946)

The Crimson Ghost (1946). Linda Stirling returns as the hero’s girl friend and Lone Ranger star Clayton Moore appears as an absolute two-dimensional psychopath who will do whatever the evil Crimson Ghost tells him to do if it serves their goal of building a nuclear bomb they can use to take over the world. In the end, of course, the evil professor who scares the cra-zap out of people with his blatant grabs for power is destroyed – as is the socially irredeemable “Ash,” played by the aforementioned Clayton Moore.

King of the Rocket Men (1949)

King of the Rocket Men (1949). Tris Coffin did a great job as the “Rocket Man.” Saving the world from communism and the evil people who wanted to destroy freedom-loving nations  with the atomic bomb was as ongoing struggle for all the big and little superheroes of the late 1940s.

As kids, we loved how quick and easy it was Rocket Man to find and reach all the crime scenes that kept popping up over the fifteen week course of this serial. We also could not quite figure out how Rocket Man was able to use his rocket-firing flight suit without burning the part of his anatomy that is so critical to sitting down for dinner at the end of the day,

The best answer we could logically discern? Aluminum underwear.

As I’ve sort of written in my other earlier brushes with the movie serials memory, these little open-ended stories were part of the suspension bridge that threaded the childhood years for many of us who grew up in the years following World War II. What we derived from this exposure, for better or worse, is a much longer subject for another day, but I now only look back on it in my own life as a time of joy.

Life was was simpler then. Or so it seemed.