Having already witnessed the demise of pulp fiction in literature and the delightful days of the great radio adventure, it was another minor traumatic experience to watch the movie Serial fade into obscurity. After more than forty years of continuous production. No longer would anxious youths run to their favorite theater to watch bigger-than-life heroes tackle the champions of evil.
There were several significant reasons for the death of the Serials. Chief among them, was the problem of economics. In the early days of Hollywood, Serials could be turned out at a reasonable expenditure. They were shot outdoors usually on a accelerated schedule, many completed in a week or two. And they always turned a marginal profit. However, as the years progressed and production costs rose, the Serial format began to look less and less appealing to the cost-conscious producers, who saw their peers in the A and even the B units cleaning up. The average episode was rented to a theater for only a few dollars as an incentive for the exhibitor to take additional features from the producing studio. But as the B film came into vogue during the depression years, it was clear; the Serial was doomed.
The Serials reached heir summit of popularity in the early 1940s. The conclusion of many was that there would always be a market for the weekly adventures. Unfortunately, nobody planned for the device that would forever change the American pastime—television. With the rapid growth of the small screen, youngsters could now watch complete action adventures right at home. Adventure series like Dick Tracy, Sky King, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, The Cisco Kid, Hopalong Cassidy, The Gene Autry Show, The Roy Rogers Show, and The Lone Ranger, provided young viewers with all the action material necessary to keep them satisfied. And it was free!
There was an additional problem that confronted the Serial-makers, Serials had always been filled with assorted violence and mayhem. Now the mothers and professional psychologists were beginning to attack the Saturday cliff-hangers on a rather broad front, claiming they were inducing every conceivable form of nervous ailment from extreme trauma to ringworm. The same rather vague reasons proffered by the same rather vague people probably added to the downfall the Serials when they were shown on television in the early 1950s; can you say PC anyone? All this, of course, was despite the fact that the Serials provided a basic moral truth: “good always triumphs over evil.” There were never any delicate shadings of purpose in the Serials. The villains were all bad and deserved the violent fates decreed them, while conversely the heroes were all good and deserved the right to mete out the justice they so often did. Nowadays we are told that life is not all good nor all bad, but spans the complete range between the two, the politically correct nuanced view. But as I sat in my favorite theater many years ago watching The Adventures of Captain Marvel, I didn't believe for a second that the Scorpion was a victim of a deprived childhood or that he wore his mask as an act of visual hostility towards a society that found no place in its overall scheme of things for him and his kind. Now that would have been extremely troublesome, and caused me a great deal of trauma. Of course I had no concept of trauma, I just loved movies.
Universal Pictures, whose Serial-production history went back into the earliest days of silent films, was the first studio to realize the chapter concept. The studio which had turned out such superior action fare as Flash Gordon, Ace Drummond, Buck Rogers, and so many favorites of the late thirties now found its market too limited for the costs involved and canceled further production after 1946. It was, perhaps, just as well, for the quality of their productions had slipped to the point where there was so little action and excitement that watching them was more of a chore than a pleasure. Universal had always stressed dialogue in their Serial plots rather than action, and some of their later efforts were so talky that one could scarcely fellow the plot. When Mysterious Mr. M; brought the Universal Serial line to a close, fans viewed the collapse with mixed emotions. The plot of Mysterious Mr. M found federal agent Grant Farrell (Dennis Moore) assisting a local plainclothesman (Richard Martin) in solving the disappearance of a famous inventor specializing in undersea devices. After thirteen dull episodes the mystery man turned out to be exactly who viewers thought it was in chapter one.
The end was finally realized when Republic finally threw in the towel with King of the Carnival in 1955. Even at the end, though economy was all too evident, there was still enough interest (this final Serial did have a mystery man) and excitement to satisfy the viewer who had not been put off by the earlier action classics. Republic, unlike Universal and Columbia, had stockpiled nearly fifteen years of wonderful special effects built especially for their Serials and B features by Howard Lydecker and his special-effects department. Unlike the cheap newsreel footage usually integrated in Serials at Universal and Cloimbia, these spectacular miniatures seemed as thrilling in 1955 as they bad in 1935. The chapter endings were still appealing and continued to bring audiences back week after week. In the salad days of the studio as many as seven writers were involved in creating the fast-moving screenplay for the Serial Captain America, and chapters ran up to sixteen or seventeen minutes each, with first episodes running as long as thirty minutes. The final thirteen Serials turned out by the studio were written entirely by a single writer, Ronald Davidson, and the running time per episode had been reduced to a standard thirteen minutes with a twenty-minute first chapter. The great days of free-swinging fights in which complete sets were demolished were a thing of the past. Fights were now done in small, cramped sets with the stunt men moving at a pace considerably slower than in years gone by. King of the Carnivalfound high-wire acrobats Harry Lauter and Fran Bennett on the trail of a counterfeiting ring operating in the circus in which they were employed. The mystery man was either seen roaming around in a clown costume or heard giving instructions to his henchmen via a two-way radio. Again, there was only one likely suspect for the mystery man. In the exciting finale, the villain is unmasked and plunges to his death after a thrilling chase, thus ending his reign of terror and bringing to a close the Serial output of Republic Pictures.
Columbia decided to ring down their final curtain with the customary cheesiness that had now become their hallmark; they chose a Western, Blazing the Overland Trail, and a very routine one at that. The pedestrian plot found evil Rance Devlin (Don C. Harvey) planning to create a private army to take over the territory. Opposing him were Lee Roberts and Dennis Moore (Moore had the dubious distinction of appearing in the final Serials of both Universal and Columbia). The film was so full of stock footage from earlier Serials and features that it was hard to accept it as a new attraction. Spencer Gordon Bennett, who had directed more sound Serials than any other director, including the thrill-packed Secret Service in Darkest Africa, The Masked Marvel, Haunted Harbor, and others, for Republic, and over twenty assorted titles for Columbia, seemed a fitting choice to bring the new life of the Serial, now in its final stage, to a peaceful and routine end. Released in 1956, Blazing the Overland Trail climaxed an uninterrupted flow of silent and sound Serials which totaled more than five hundred titles spanning a period of over forty years.
Except for a isolated screening on television, or a extremely rare re-issue at a retro theaters, the younger generations will never see nor enjoy these wonderful products of a bygone era. It's a pity. For every child should be allowed to enjoy his own precious days of thrills and adventure while those fleeting days of youthful escapism are still available.