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The Serials: An Introduction
by Gary Johnson -- page 1 of 5
Page 1Page 2Page 3Page 4Page 5

Tom Tyler at a distinct advantage
Adventures of Captain Marvel.

In its purest form, the serial belongs to another era, to a time when kids flocked to neighborhood theaters (instead of shopping malls) to plunk down two bits as admission to the Saturday matinee. There they'd get popcorn and candy bars and become part of the Matinee Mavericks (or the Saturday Rustlers or the Popcorn Circus). And when the theater finally darkened and the show began, they'd see a half-dozen cartoons, a two-reeler, a B western, and previews of coming attractions. And then, as they jumped up and down in excitement, the serial would begin. As the characters appeared on the screen, the audience would cheer the hero and heroine and hiss the villain and his henchmen.

These were the days when masked villains such as the Scorpion, the Spider, the Dragon, and the Lightning strove for world domination with a vast array of diabolical devices (such as the radiatomic transmitter, the decimator, and the cyclotrode). Meanwhile, courageous heroes valiantly struggled for justice, loyalty, and the American way, deactivating infernal contraptions with nary a second to spare. Terrifying falls were broken by overhanging branches. Secret passageways were discovered in centuries-old jungle temples. These ingredients were all packaged together in 12 to 15 chapters (15 to 25 minutes each) with each chapter typically ending in a cliffhanger, a moment of prolonged suspense when the hero or heroine was placed in life-threatening danger only to have the words "To be continued . . ." appear on the screen.

Frances Gifford gets barbequed
Jungle Girl.

At their best, these cliffhangers were of such destructive power that the audience was left stunned. How could the hero survive? To find out what happened, we only had to return next week to the same theater. And that was the main purpose of the serial--to keep the theater seats filled with paying customers.

To accomplish this aim, serials frequently stretched the truth (much like movie posters frequently promise much more than their movies deliver) and sometimes they plain lied, pushing the heroes into situations where nothing less than divine intervention could save them. Serials frequently banked on their audiences having less than perfect memories. (Remember, these weren't the days of VCRs with their handy rewind buttons.) If a hero were knocked unconscious and carried over a cliff in a runaway stagecoach, next week we would discover that he suddenly awoke just in time to dive to safety. If a hero was trapped in a cave filling with molten rock, the cave would suddenly develop a secret exit.

But the promise supplied by the cliffhanger endings was enough to keep us coming back for more, to see how Flash Gordon could escape the terrible death ray or to see how Spy Smasher could avoid being burnt to death in a fiery explosion or to see how Zorro could avoid being blown to bits in a warehouse. Even while we knew we were being manipulated, the serials always pointed toward a magical, inexplicable brand of resolution and we desperately wanted to see that resolution worked out before our own eyes.

page 1 of 5

The Serials: An Introduction
Page 1: In the Theaters
Page 2: The Beginnings
Page 3: Enter Flash Gordon
Page 4: The Golden Age
Page 5: The Downfall

The Phantom Empire

Flash Gordon

Dick Tracy

The Fighting Devil Dogs

Zorro's Fighting Legion

The Shadow

Mysterious Dr. Satan

Spy Smasher

Perils of Nyoka

The Tiger Woman

Serials Web Links



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