First, an introduction to serials...
Back in the days of old, our then-youthful ancestors would go to the local theatre and pack themselves in for an entire afternoon full of laughs, thrills, and chills. Kids were treated to a handful of cartoons, newsreels, a two-reeler (short), previews of the many coming attractions, a double feature and, of course, the latest exciting chapter of this week’s Saturday Matinee Serial.
Also known as “Cliffhangers,” these multi-chaptered features (many of which were produced by studios like Republic, Columbia and Universal) depicted our insanely-brave heroes and heroines alike in their never-ending pursuit of justice (and the American way, of course). Each week, our dashing champions would match both wit and brawn against some of the most unscrupulous scoundrels that the world of cinema had ever known: Nazis (and other Axis criminals); aliens armed with atomic weaponry; killer robots; hooded villains named after fierce animals (and their fedora-wearing, pin-stripe-suit clad henchmen). You name it, the serial era exploited it. The good guys were cheered, the bad ones were jeered. Gorilla-infested jungles, lost underwater civilizations, the Bronson Caverns of doom, the seedy underworld of the big city, the sky and outer space were all well represented as locales.
Generally, a complete serial ran somewhere between 12 to 15 chapters, with each chapter running anywhere from 15-25 minutes in length. At the end of each week’s chapter, our stars would find themselves in a precariously fatal predicament, about to face their eminent and most-impending doom in what is famously referred to as “a cliffhanger ending.” Would they survive? If so, how on earth would they accomplish it? Well, one of the great things about serials is that you would have to wait an entire week to find out what really happened, all the while speculating the outcome with your friends (a surefire way to guarantee that the theater would be jam-packed again next week).
Another great thing about serials were their cliffhanger endings, as they featured some of the most bizarre escapes (or copouts, if you prefer) ever conceived and committed to film. “No, you did not see our hero being flattened like silly putty by a steam-roller, his helmet flying off into the air like we depicted last week--what you really saw was him ducking out of the way just in time! And the helmet? Ha, that was a tin can that happened to be lying on the ground.”
Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever. Somewhere between the advent of the Nuclear Family, Suburbia, the blatant but oft-ignored fact that Franco-American changed their recipe for Spaghetti-Os, and the rise of television, the serial died. But, despite its passing, the serial still continues to live vicariously through devoted fans and films like the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films (and them some). However, since the re-invention of the serial on the big-screen is a bit unlikely, we hereby invite you to go out and pick one of these classics on DVD — and then join us here at blogcritics.org as we (or perhaps just I) salute the Saturday Matinee Serial.
(And, should you want to get better acquainted with this phenomenon from yesteryear, there are two sources that I highly recommend: The Serial Squadron, a great place to discover and discuss serials; and VCI Entertainment, the only outfit with enough balls to release serials on DVD.)