Fakin’ It (Part Three:Film Serials)

Posted: March 29, 2010 in Fakin' It
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Hey kids! It’s time for another short instructive guide towards pretending you know all about movies. This time on Fakin’ It, we’re going to look at the lost are of Film Serials.

What is it?
A series of short films, with chapters shown usually once a week in theaters. Normally they would be shown on a Saturday, and regularly they were for children’s entertainment. In the beginning though, they were considered good fare for adults as well. They only devolved into kid stuff after the initial craze died down and sound films became prevalent. The extra price of sound production meant that only the cheapest things could be serials and for the most part, kids are the most willing to put up with crappy cheap productions.



I think it’s important to understand what a serial is and what it isn’t. First things first, they are NOT Indiana Jones. Indy may have been partly inspired by the Saturday matinee items, but like a lot of things Lucas and Spielberg have done that wasn’t the only place where inspiration was found. Indy is an amalgam of adventurers of many different stripes. Research deep and you’ll find feature length movies staring Charlton Heston, James Bond and, yes, some serial heroes. However, to suggest that only the sort of hero that could have inspired Indiana Jones starred in these things, or that those were the only kinds of stories in a serial, is totally wrong.

The serial came in just about every story type you could have, mostly westerns actually. This is because if you take all the movies that have ever been made in the U.S. that aren’t westerns and put them in your left hand and then take all the movies made in the U.S. that are westerns and put them in your right hand, you will be crushed under the weight and won’t be able to count them because there have been a lot of movies over the years. Okay, okay, you’d have almost twice as many movies in your right hand as in your left. Yes, I am aware of what I’m saying, and I stand by that statement. There were hundreds of thousands of westerns made during the Golden Age of Hollywood and just about everything was tried. This is one of the reasons why the genre died out, they had simply made every story they could. It’s important to understand that the western was made under assembly line like conditions because it makes a lot of what goes on in serials easier to understand.

If you’ve watched a lot of westerns from each era, you can see how the tropes of that age work and you begin to notice that most serials (the ones that aren’t westerns already) are just westerns with slightly different set dressing. There are regularly trains that need to be boarded so the good guys and the bad guys can have a fistfight on top of them, there are lots of cabins where people hide out or be tied up, and of course, a great number of caves with mines in them. All you need to do is strip away the Batman costume, put on a cowboy outfit, and you’d have an average western right there. A lot of the action serials were really that naked in their copying, draping a mask and a slightly sci-fi-ish story line over an existing movie and just hoping no one would notice. At any time, whenever they were at a loss for something exciting, they’d just do something from a western with a modern flavor.

Is it Art or Pulp?
Pulp, pure and simple. There are a few artsy serials floating around, but after the silent era they became mainly a vehicle for the sort of cheap pulp that defined many genres even up to this day. In many ways, the serial was a precursor to TV productions, and in fact many early TV producers started as Serial Studios. You’ll rarely find anyone arguing that these films need to be studied though, which is a shame because in order to understand current action movies (post Star Wars and Indiana Jones anyway) you sort of need to understand that format.

Themes to Look Out For
This section is so simple I could just list each on as its own sentence without further explanation. Action. Adventure. Daring-Do. Bad Science. See? Simple. That’s because serials are simple. For the most part. There are a few complex ones, but mostly it was about being exciting enough to get you to come back next week and see the next chapter. This is where the cliffhanger came from after all, so named because of the regularity which heroes would be dangling off a cliff until the next chapter.

Actors to Watch For
Oh, what actors couldn’t you watch for? There were big stars of serials, there were small stars who became huge Hollywood legends, and huge Hollywood legends who had to slum to make ends meet. It was very much like how TV ended up being treated. A list of people could include Harry Houdini, who made his when it was the hip thing to be doing; Bela Lugosi, near the end of his career; John Wayne, at the start of his; Tom Mix, Buck Jones, Buster Crabbe, and good ol’ Rin Tin Tin were all stars of their eras.

Movies to Watch
What are you looking for? Something artsy or something funny? Wait, did he say “artsy” just then? Yes I did. There are several silent movie serials that veer into the artistic areas. Les Vampires a silent French film is startlingly original, even today it’s surprisingly artistic. Judex is also fairly artsy. You can watch any number of super hero or Sci-Fi serials for a laugh. Most are unintentionally funny of course, but they are funny. The Batman Serial was so silly in retrospect that it had a direct influence on the goofiness of the Batman TV Show. Superman had a couple, so did Captain America and The Green Hornet. Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers both did hard time in the chaptered action genre. Of course westerns like those of The Lone Ranger, Red Ryder and Zorro are legion. Most serials were westerns, as I said before and when searching for a serial you can’t go more than ten steps without tripping on one. Check out someplace like Oldies.com’s Serials section and you will find lots of things to see at low prices. Most of them are hilarious though. Because they were made primarily for kids after the silent era, and because they were almost always made on the cheap, they are a goldmine of hilarity.

Movies Not to Watch/ Movies to Scorn
Nil.
This is one of the great things about serials. They’ve gone almost entirely untouched by the pretentious jack-ass crowd. No one with a beret and a silk scarf is fawning over these things and few members of the jeans and t-shit wearing neo-film lover crowd are into them either. Even while terribly pulpy things like Film Noir and Grindhouse Horror has been reexamined and made “Really Terribly Important” by people who you want to drown in a bathtub, the serial stands as an example of simple pulp from a simpler time. As a result, there is no movie not to watch from this variety. You can probably scorn most of them, after watching two of the medium/low grade films you’ll get the point, but you don’t need to avoid any one movie specifically.

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