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September, 2006 : Essay:

Science Fiction On the Cheap

The movie serial went extinct just about as I became aware of its existence—not at a movie theatre, either, but in front of the family television set. I neither knew, nor would I have cared or understood if told, that the form had even then gasped its last with Republic Pictures' King of the Carnival (released in 1955) and Columbia's Blazing the Overland Trail (1956).

What I did know in the mid-1950s was that 20-year-old chapter plays such as Flash Gordon, Fighting Devil Dogs, and Hawk of the Wilderness (not that I knew or would have cared how old they were) excited and enthralled me, often surpassing their new competitors, the made-for-TV shows. I deem my seven-, eight-year-old self's preferences sound; given the option now, I would still pass up the dreary syndicated Flash Gordon series starring Steven Holland for Universal's version starring Buster Crabbe.

The first Flash Gordon serial was an anomaly among its kind: the studio spent an unheard-of $350,000 in 1936 money to bring Alex Raymond's comic strip to the big screen. The investment paid off with a box-office smash that topped the bill ahead of accompanying feature films in many theatres and earned a favorable review in Time (the only instance of that magazine's reviewing a movie serial, favorably or otherwise). Viewed today, Flash Gordon's sparky sputtering smoky rocketships and table-top miniatures are risibly quaint or quaintly charming, depending on the viewer. There can be no denying, however, that Buster Crabbe, an Olympic swimmer and former movie Tarzan, was "a magnificent nostril-flaring Flash" (in Chris Steinbrunner's memorable phrase), that succulent Jean Rogers made a succulent Dale Arden, and Charles Middleton, a perfect Ming the Merciless. Fans of the comic strip rejoiced in the chapter play's faithfulness to its source: Raymond's planet Mongo lived, complete to Hawk Men, Shark Men, Lion Men (led on screen by another former movie Tarzan, James Pierce), Orangapoids, Octosacs, and other crazy mixed-up fauna.

I am not going to make exaggerated claims for serials, which, probably more than any more cinematic form, were committee efforts, produced as quickly as possible, as cheaply as possible (Flash Gordon, remember, was an exception to the rule) and intended for a young, not very discriminating audience. Serial scripts passed through numerous hands on their way to completion (the credits of Republic's 1943 Captain America list seven writers), and then multiple directors took over: one shooting fight scenes, another handling car chases, perhaps a third specializing in the expository dialogue sequences used to keep fight scenes and car chases from blurring together. In finished form, an average serial consisted of over five hours' worth of film cut up into quarter-hour segments, each of which built up to some variation, inspired or not, on the classic cliff-hanger ending—a format hardly conducive to coherent narrative, never mind Art.

"As a result," wrote William K. Everson, self-admitted serial devotee but also an unblinkered critic, as close to a serious historian as the unserious form has ever had, "no director exercises total control over a serial or is able to impose a definite style…"

None of this is meant to imply that there was no artistry in the serial: there was, but it was all devoted to areas where it really counted (and could be reused!), and…it was merely an extension of techniques and styles that existed outside the serials…. But it is a kind of mechanical artistry, honed to perfection through years of polishing, nonetheless exciting for being so efficiently manufactured, but still mechanical.

That said, it needs to be noted that there was no mistaking one studio's serials for another's. Universal had the (relatively) less rudimentary story values. Republic excelled at action choreography, staged by the best stuntmen in the business, and enjoyed the services of a first-rate special-effects department presided over by Howard and Theodore Lydecker; ask nearly any knowledgeable serial fan for the titles of six favorite serials, and the odds are that half of them will be Republic offerings such as Zorro's Fighting Legion, The Adventures of Captain Marvel, Mysterious Doctor Satan, Spy Smasher, and Manhunt of Mystery Isle. Columbia also turned out dozens of serials, but the consensus among aficionados is that meagre budgets and slapdash production undercut most of the studio's efforts.

And it also needs to be noted that years before Howard Hawks' Thing From Another World concluded with its injunction to "Keep watching the skies!"—before Patricia Neal narrowly averted a robot rampage by uttering the command Klaatu barata niktu!—before the Martian onslaught of War of the Worlds—the lowly serials provided steady employment for alien invaders, space travelers, time travelers, killer robots, and mad scientists.

Just when serials and science fiction intersected is open to discussion; certainly it happened before the term "science fiction" existed. According to Alan G. Barbour, in his Days of Thrills and Adventure (The Macmillan Company, 1970), the movie chapter play as we know it today arrived in 1913: The Adventures of Kathlyn, followed in short order by The Exploits of Elaine, The Hazards of Helen, The Mysteries of Myra, and, most famously, The Perils of Pauline. Almost from the first, as almost to the last, the serial provided a congenial habitat for criminal masterminds, e.g., Paul Panzer, The Clutching Hand, The Ghost, The Whispering Shadow, The Iron Claw, Dr. Satan, The Wizard…and what is a criminal mastermind with laboratory training but a mad scientist?

And there you had it: science fiction—of a primitive order, to be sure, and made on the cheap, and served out in 15-minute chunks, but science fiction nevertheless.

A distinction must be made between mad scientists in feature-length horror films and those in serials. In feature films, science (such as it was) meant advances (if advances they were) in medicine and chiefly entailed draining people of their blood and transplanting their brains (nobody in a horror film ever got a liver transplant), all for the eventual good of humanity. Your usual kindly white-haired feature-film scientist—played by Boris Karloff as often as not, and situated in a remote and inhospitable locality with only a beautiful daughter and/or a socially unpresentable assistant named Igor for company—meant well even if, somewhere along the line, he had become distracted from truly useful work by the siren lure of equations like gorilla + spinal-fluid extract + nubile starlet = ?

His movie-serial counterparts, however, were in it for whatever they could get out of it; you didn't go around calling yourself The Scorpion or The Crimson Ghost or Dr. Mephisto or Dr. Satan if you were just trying to cure a rare disease—no, indeed, you built yourself a Decimator or a Cyclotrode or a Radiatomic Transmitter, and resolved to (A) conquer (B) destroy the world, and blew stuff up.

Some movie-serial mad scientists stood out even in that sociopathic crowd. Bela Lugosi in The Phantom Creeps (Universal 1939) had at his disposal a secret underground laboratory, an invisibility belt, a super-explosive, the ugliest robot ever unleashed, and stock footage, props, sets, and music from half a dozen of the studio's feature films, including a couple starring Lugosi himself.

The Lightning, in Fighting Devil Dogs (Republic 1938), was a Tesla gone seriously wrong, roaring about in his huge flying wing (left over from the previous year's Dick Tracy) and sowing death and destruction from on high. This serial opens in singularly creepy fashion, with its eponymous heroic Marines, Lee Powell (a former movie-screen Lone Ranger) and Herman Brix (a former movie-screen Tarzan), investigating a house struck by the Lightning's lethal air-to-ground Electronic Thunderbolt; everybody and everything in the place is dead, "even the flies."

The serials quite naturally turned for inspiration to other forms of Low Art, the comics, pulp fiction, and radio melodrama. In consequence, they quite naturally trafficked in the fantastic, sometimes treating it as though it weren't, in fact, all that fantastic, e.g., casually rejuvenating a dead hoodlum in Captain America. The first Dick Tracy serial (Republic 1937) eschewed the repertoire and repertory of Chester Gould's comic strip in favor of a criminal mastermind, variously known as The Spider or The Lame One, who not only commands an impressively huge flying wing and destroys suspension bridges with a vibration projector but also performs an operation on Dick Tracy's brother to turn him into a bad guy. Jungle serials went in for lost cities (one of which, in Republic's 1936 Darkest Africa starring Clyde Beatty, came complete with winged, flying Bat Men) and, every once in a great while, trotted out critters more exotic than lions and tigers and bears: "claw monsters" in Panther Girl of the Kongo (Republic 1955)—crayfish filmed on the miniature sets the Lydecker brothers excelled at creating. A serial without so much as a single science-fictional or fantastical element simply wasn't trying.

Granted, The Phantom Empire (Mascot 1935) may have gone overboard in this regard; it embroils a singing cowboy with Queen Tika, ruler of the futuristic subterranean city of Murania, who has her heart set on world domination. Although not the only western serial to erase the boundary between genres, it is certainly the best-known, because it made Gene Autry a star.

All-out science-fiction serials followed thick and fast after the success of The Phantom Empire and Flash Gordon. In Undersea Kingdom (Republic 1936), cowboy actor Ray "Crash" Corrigan portrays a naval officer named Ray "Crash" Corrigan who sets forth in a submarine of advanced design to locate the source of earthquakes that are devastating the surface world. He and his standard complement of tagalongs (worshipful prepubescent boy, elderly savant, treacherous assistant, comic relief, and nominal love interest) wind up in Atlantis, which appears to be some few hectares of real estate preserved within a great subsea dome. Atlantean technology, like that of Murania or Mongo—or, for that matter, of John Carter's Mars, the model for all such realms—is a mishmash of old and new; Atlantean armed might is measured in cavalrymen and charioteers, swords and aerial torpedoes, robots armed with disintegrator rifles, and a sort of mobile battering ram manned by Lon Chaney, Jr., who, of course, went on to become the archetypal lycanthrope in feature films. Corrigan went on to become It! The Terror From Beyond Space.

Flash, Dale, and Ming returned in the persons of Crabbe, Rogers, and Middleton in two more Universal releases, Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938) and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940). Crabbe took time off from thwarting the Merciless one's machinations to frustrate Killer Kane's in Buck Rogers (Universal 1939), adapted from the other widely popular science-fiction comics strip of the day; there is much zipping back and forth between Earth and Saturn in spaceships that resemble nothing so much as steam irons.

Due to the sharp postwar rise in production costs and corresponding decline in revenues, Universal stopped making serials after 1946, conceding its share of the market, such as the market was becoming, to Republic and Columbia. Since the late 1930s, Columbia had brought to the screen a great many characters with devoted followings in other media—radio's Shadow and Captain Midnight; the pulps' Spider; the comics' Terry and the Pirates, Mandrake the Magician, The Phantom, The Batman, and Brenda Starr, Reporter—and during the post-war period it followed through with more of the same: Brick Bradford, Superman, Blackhawk. Even Jules Verne provided grist for the studio's chapter-play mill; the 1951 adaptation of The Mysterious Island pitted Captain Nemo (Leonard Penn) and a handful of Civil War castaways led by Richard Crane (later star of TV's Rocky Jones, Space Ranger against invaders from the planet Mercury. That same year, Columbia raided television and came away with Captain Video, portrayed on the small screen by Al Hodge, but recreated on the big screen by Judd Holdren, of whom we will presently hear more.

Over at Republic, Roy Barcroft, serial heavy par excellence, strutted his stuff in The Purple Monster (1945), portraying a Martian who, stranded on our planet, assumes the form and personality of an Earth scientist in furtherance of fell schemes. King of the Rocket Men (1949), regarded by many as Republic's last really great serial, opens with the theft, by a mysterious Dr. Vulcan, of a laser-like superscientific gizmo called the Decimator, prize creation of a learned congeries called Science Associates. Some of the Associates meet unpleasant ends, the survivors convene and confer, and rocketry expert Jeff King (Tristram Coffin) unveils his own contribution to superscience and serial lore: the Rocketsuit, consisting of a bullet-shaped helmet, a rocket backpack, and chest-plate controls with dials marked UP and DOWN. In flying sequences created by the Lydecker brothers and enhanced by stunts performed by Dave Sharpe, the Rocketsuit carried with it an aura of stark reality which analogous scenes from the Superman TV show simply couldn't match. Anyhow, packed into his Rocketsuit and backed by one of the best stuntmen on the Republic payroll, Jeff King ultimately makes such a nuisance of himself that Dr. Vulcan, in a fit of pique, switches on the Decimator and annihilates New York City by means of artificially induced tidal waves.

Meanwhile, trouble-makers continued to arrive from other worlds—usually but not always Mars. In Republic's Flying Disc Man from Mars (1951), the titular menace, Mota by name, seeks to subjugate our world with atomic-powered weapons, while in Radar Men From the Moon (1952), Commando Cody, modestly self-proclaimed Sky Marshal of the Universe (George Wallace, sporting the Rocketsuit), mixes it up with Roy Barcroft, dressed again in his Purple Monster threads but now calling himself Retik and assisted by, of all people, Clayton Moore, TV's Lone Ranger. Commando Cody's arsenal includes a great black bullet-shaped businesslike Rocketship (none of that Flash Gordon Art Deco for the Sky Marshal!) in which to carry the fight to Luna. In Zombies of the Stratosphere (also 1952), particularly ambitious Martians (among them, a young Leonard Nimoy) propose to blow Earth out of its orbit and move the Red Planet right in; they pit their robot (recycled from Undersea Kingdom through 1940's Mysterious Dr. Satan against Judd Holdren in his recycled Rocketsuit, and lose. In 1953, the indefatigable Holdren appeared in one last Columbia science-fiction serial, The Lost Planet, and that was the end of the road for the science-fiction serials.

But not quite the end, as it happened, for Holdren, the Rocketsuit, and Republic Pictures. Already cutting corners and cannibalizing itself, the studio wound down chapter-play production and geared up for television through the simple expedient of having the serial unit make Commando Cody TV episodes. Holdren assumed the mantle of the Sky Marshal, donned the Rocketsuit (as well as a black eye-mask on loan from The Lone Ranger), and swung into action against The Ruler, an interplanetary despot played by Gregory Gay, erstwhile Flying Disc Man from Mars. The thirteen 26-minute episodes first aired in 1955; I've seen a review dismissing the show as "aimed at an even younger audience than Radar Men From the Moon," and another calling it "lots of good fun, with plenty of action typical of the serials," but I somehow never saw it, just as I never saw Republic's last serial, King of the Carnival.

Possibly I was watching Flash Gordon at the time, on a different channel.

Copyright © 2006, Steven Utley. All Rights Reserved.

About Steven Utley

Steven Utley is the author of the story collections Ghost Seas (1997), The Beasts of Love (2005), and Where or When (2006), and co-editor (with Michael Bishop) of the anthology Passing for Human, forthcoming from PS Publishing in 2008.


Sep 27, 17:33 by IROSF
A thread to discuss Steven Utley's essay.

The article can be found here.
Sep 28, 00:42 by Byron Belzak
A wonderful account that would make a wonderful addition to Wikipedia. And thanks for the viewers' list of oldies and goodies. It makes me want to go to Netflix, Blockbuster or my local library to see what they have in their sci-fi video arsenal of fun, particularly Flash Gordon and gang.
Sep 28, 01:16 by A.R. Yngve
The 80s TV show JASON OF STAR COMMAND seems heavily inspired by old movie serials (but had much better special FX).
I recall from my childhood a Danish 1980s TV series, CRASH, which was a faithful homage/spoof of movie serials (again, with better special FX).

Nov 2, 14:41 by Joe Prisco
Nothing to add to this wonderful overview / article / essay. Very enjoyable reading :-)

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