Once upon a time, our heroes didn’t wait two years for a big CGI blockbuster, they were on the big screen EVERY WEEK for a nickel! Welcome to Ten Things: Ten Movie Serial Heroes!
Whooshman-Bicarbonate Films, in conjunction with An Amateur Comics Historian and miraculously escaping unharmed, Presents:
TEN THINGS: TEN MOVIE SERIAL HEROES!
10) CAPTAIN AMERICA
These days, everyone knows the story of Steve Rogers, patriotic American who was 4F for the draft and volunteered for a secret experiment to make him the world’s first super-soldier!
Well, forget all that, because this 1944 serial features District Attorney Grant Gardner, whose investigations into a rash of suspicious deaths in the scientific community put him on the trail of the mysterious Scarab, leading him on a chase to save more of our greatest minds from hypnotic death. This 15-part serial reputedly irritated Timely Comics due to the extensive changes to the character, but most of all for replacing his iconic shield with a handgun. Going waaaay over budget, ‘Captain America’ was not only the most expensive of Republic’s serials, the strain of the role has been cited as a factor in the death of actor Dick Purcell, who had a fatal heart attack in the spring of ’44.
This first live-action appearance of the Man of Steel, this 1948 serial is notable for a number of reasons: It was tremendously profitable, showing off Superman’s popularity just 10 years after his debut. It mixed live-action and animation (though opinions vary on how well) to get around difficult special effect, and it features the debut of Noel Neill as Lois Lane. (Neill would reprise the Lois role on television in 1953.) Another 15-chapter affair, this film made Kirk Alyn famous: I’d say he became a household name, but he was only credited as ‘Superman’, with Republic’s advertising claiming that they’d hired the real steel deal to play himself.
8) SPY SMASHER
A 12-parter this time, from 1942, this serial is likely the reason that people remember the minor Fawcett hero decades later, and was immediately copied by Columbia Pictures for their film, ‘The Secret Code.’ Film historians have noted chapter 11 as having one of the most unique serial cliffhangers of all, with the hero gunned down on-screen and crashed several stories to the pavement. Rather than write it off as the traditional “miraculous escape”, we find that the man in the costume is well and truly dead, he’s just not Spy Smasher.
The fact that it turns out to be his twin brother is a completely different (and at the time, somewhat less shopworn) cliché.
7) CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT
Based on the famous radio program that ticked off little Ralphie so bad, Captain Midnight is the leader of the Secret Squadron, fighting evil and the creeping threat of World War. His main villain in this 15-parter was Ivan Shark, who has a plan to bomb American cities for “the enemy.” It’s not a particular stand-out as a story, but I have to say I really like the look of the good Captain’s costume here. (Since he is primarily known as an audio-only character, renditions of Captain Midnight’s battle togs tend to vary.)
A film-only hero from 1940, The Copperhead is secretly Bob Wayne, who doesn’t even get top billing, as the serial is named for the villain, ‘The Mysterious Doctor Satan.’ Using a special chainmail mask, originally worn by his father as an outlaw in the Old West, Copperhead successfully takes down Doctor Satan using his brains and fists. Interestingly, the story itself began as a treatment for a proposed ‘Superman’ serial, but the rights issues weren’t ironed out, leading to the creation of a new hero and an eight-year wait for Superman’s proper debut (as seen above.)
5) CAPTAIN MARVEL
One of the more noteworthy serials in modern time, this 12-parter from 1941 was Republic’s first comic book adaptation. ‘The Adventures of Captain Marvel’ got around the flying problem by mounting a dummy of the Big Red Cheese, made of ultra-light paper mâché, and running it along wires with a pulley system. Combined with a stuntman who would leap, it made for a remarkably successful practical effect, Like The Copperhead before him, Cap’s film foray came about because of Republic’s desire to bring Superman to the big screen, an effort made impossible by the licensing terms of the classic Fleischer Brothers cartoons.
4) THE PHANTOM
A legendary hero pretty much everywhere (but less so in the United States, which probably has to do with the metric system somehow), this 1942 Columbia Pictures outing gives him the real name of Geoffrey Prescott, as his real name hadn’t yet been introduced in the source comics. Using the Hollywood Hills to double for an African jungle, ‘The Phantom’ got the costume dead solid perfect, even though it replaced his wolf with a German shepherd, and even merited a sequel in 1955. Sadly, the rights had expired, so that serial was hastily repackaged as ‘The Adventures of Captain Africa.’
3) THE GREEN HORNET
Another radio star turned movie feature, ‘The Green Hornet’ is probably remembered most for Keye Luke, a Chinese-American actor who played Kato, A noted voice and character actor, Luke is known as the blind Master Po in the 70s TV series ‘Kung Fu’ as well as being the first actual Chinese actor to play the Chinese character Charlie Chan. Kato, in this serial, is presented as Korean rather than the more common Japanese, as the film came out in 1940 amid World War II. The Hornet himself and the story aren’t particularly memorable, but I personally remember this one fondly from my college days, thanks to a public domain VHS release.
2) THE MASKED MARVEL
Another original character, The Masked Marvel made his debut in 1943, with a twist on a familiar formula: The audience doesn’t know who is behind a mask, which happens quite often in serials, but in this case, it’s the HERO’S mask! (Keeping the identity of the villain from viewers was a commonly used trope in those days.) This actually helped with continuity, as a stuntman played the hero throughout nearly the whole serial, eliminating the need to cut or edit between shots of an actor and shots of a stunt player.
Boy, that cowl is… somethin’. Bowing in 1943, this 15-part serial gives us a pretty traditional Batman matching wits with an evil scientist named Dr. Daka, who wants to sabotage the ports and industry of Gotham City. Officially secret government agents, Batman and Robin got fewer changes than some of their comrades (Captain America is jealous) and even though it’s a pretty low-budget affair, their adventure was successful enough to merit a sequel in 1949, stuffed cowl “horns” and all.
This week’s topic is all me, but feel free to follow along @MightyKingCobra for more Ten Things madness on Twitter (or check out the full Twitter archive here!) As with any set of like items, these aren’t meant to be hard and fast or absolutely complete, if only because I haven’t seen all of ‘Radar Men From The Moon’ yet. Either way, the comments section is Below for just such an emergency, but, as always: Please, no wagering!