The serial is an extinct form of movie-going experience. Right up to the fifties, your movie ticket got you not only the main feature, a B-feature, cartoons, a newsreel and other shorts, but an episode of a serial. Usually running 12 or 15 chapters, the serial would unspool in 15-20-minute units, each ending in a cliffhanger (often quite literally so, with the hero or heroine plunging off a cliff in a runaway car, for instance). George Lucas pays tribute to the serials in his Star Wars films, which begin with …he traditional recapitulating crawl and chapter titles.
Many, many serials are available on DVD, and since most of these titles are in the public domain, you’ll find multiple editions of the same title, with print and transfer quality varying wildly. The rule of thumb here, is, as with everything else, that you get what you pay for, so don’t expect a miraculous viewing experience if you only dropped a couple of dollars on your disc. Major-label re-issues are your best bet. The Adventures of Captain Marvel, for instance, released by Republic Pictures, is a pretty solid package.
If you’re at all predisposed towards these things, any one of them will provide plenty of entertainment. By their very nature, they are full of incident. Hardly a minute goes by before one is plunged into the next action scene. They are best viewed as they were intended – episodically. Trying to sit through four hours or more in one go is a bit much, and one would become very conscious, in such a case, of the fair bit of repetition, and the fact that though the action is frenetic, the plot itself tends to move forward only a tiny bit from one episode to the other (much like a TV soap). At any rate, I thought I’d point out some of the more off-the-wall offerings out there.
Les Vampires is one of the oldest ones out there (it’s from 1915-1916), and it is also the most revered. Louis Feuillade’s tale of a gang of arch-criminals (the titular vampires) set the bar very high. This is the serial as brilliant cinema, and it created in master criminal Irma Vep (figure out the anagram) one of the most memorable and forceful female characters of cinema’s early days. Image has released a first-class, speed-corrected edition of this seven-hour serial.
The Lost City (1934) begins with deadly electrical storms wreaking havoc around the world. They are artificially created, and their source is traced to a remote location in Africa. Much of the series then becomes a jungle adventure that periodically moves to an underground civilization (that is high-tech but strangely underpopulated). Most striking here is the delirious racism. The kindly old scientist invents a machine that changes its subjects’ race from African to Caucasian, and he is celebrated by the hero as a great humanitarian. Yikes!
Yikes again, for similar reasons, in the case of Batman (1943). This is hardly an unusual serial, but I mention it here in this context for its casual, yet extreme racism, very much a product of the war years (we are told that Little Tokyo is now a ghost town since the “wise government rounded up the thugs”).
The Return of Chandu (1934) features all sorts of exotic adventuring, led by the swashbuckling magician, Chandu. Its principal oddity is in its casting: the hero is none other than Bela Lugosi. While Lugosi certainly played sympathetic characters at other points in his career (especially if Boris Karloff was present to be the villain), I can’t think of any other time where I’ve seen him engage in fisticuffs and get the girl. Those aspects alone make this worth the price of admission.
And then there’s The Phantom Empire (1935), the serial that made Gene Autry a star. Combine these elements: a singing cowboy, his Radio Ranch, a mother lode of radium on that ranch, gangsters after that radium, another underground civilization, robots, and laser beams. Easily one of the five strangest westerns ever made. And enormous fun.
Okay, nostalgia hounds. Enjoy.