The superhero serials

The Spider’s Web: ∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ (5/10)
The Fighting Devil Dogs ∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ (3/10)
The Green Hornet: ∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ (4/10)
The Adventures of Captain Marvel ∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ (6/10)
Superman ∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ (8/10)
Batman ∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ (3/10)
Captain America ∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ (4/10)

In a nutshell: To a varying degree of quality, the superhero serials of the late thirties and early forties laid the foundations of many sci-fi film tropes, although at the time borrowing heavily from urban crime dramas and western serials. 

The Spider’s Web. USA, 1938. Starring: Warren Hull. The Fighting Devil Dogs. USA, 1938. Starring: Lee Powell, Herman Brix. The Green Hornet. USA, 1940. Starring: Gordon Jones, Keye Luke. Superman. USA, 1941. Animated short films. The Adventures of Captain Marvel. USA, 1941. Starring: Tom Tyler, Frank Coghlan Jr. Batman. USA, 1943. Starring: Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, J Carrol Naish. Captain America. USA, 1944. Starring: Dick Purcell, Lionel Atwill. Produced by Columbia, Universal and Republic.

Tom Tyler flying high as Captain Marvel/Shazam.

Tom Tyler flying high as Captain Marvel/Shazam.

As I have mentioned numerous times when reviewing film serials: I don’t review film serials. The problem is, that if you want to write any sort of comprehensive blog on the origins of science fiction tropes, you just can’t leave out certain serials. Especially during the thirties and forties much of what we take for granted in sci-fi today got their humble screen beginnings as serials. That’s why I’ll use this post and to least take a brief glance on a number of the serials that came out of the States in the late thirties and early years of the forties, including: The Spider’s Web (1938), The Fighting Devil Dogs (1938), The Green Hornet (1940), Superman (1941), The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941) and Batman (1943). What sets these apart from previous serials is that they all contain masked superheroes or supervillains. Unlike other posts, though, I won’t go into great detail regarding makers and actors.

The Spider's Web kicked off the superhero serial in 1938.

The Spider’s Web kicked off the superhero serial in 1938.

The film serial is a format that is dead today, but was extremely popular during the first half of the 20th century. With a few ups and downs along the way, one can say that the serial’s heyday lasted from about 1915 to 1950. The golden age of the film serial in the United States is generally regarded as starting with Flash Gordon (review) in 1936 and ending with the end of World War II in 1945, and the rising popularity of television. When I talk of serials here, I explicitly mean US American serials. Fellow Europeans may feel left out, but the simple truth is that the European film serial was a dead genre from the thirties onward.

A midnight show during the early forties.

A midnight show during the early forties.

Unlike today’s cinema, the movie houses of yesteryear showed all sorts of content, not only feature films. A show might consist of a newsreel, a commercial segment, a short film, an animation and/or a serial episode in conjunction with a feature film. Some theaters would show double features, or even triple features during a single sitting, with intermissions in between – others would continuously play films of different kinds throughout the day (and night), with patrons paying a single admittance fee, then coming and going as they wished. All this changed in the fifties, when television came along.

Cinemagoers in the early forties. Sometimes what was on screen was less important.

Cinemagoers in the early forties. Sometimes what was on screen was less important.

Serials were popular especially among second-tier and Poverty Row studios, as they were cheap to make and could sometimes draw people to cinemas to see feature films that would otherwise not have gathered a decent crowd – and serials almost always made a profit, however small, especially if they had a star in the title role. The standard serial format was made up of 12-15 episodes of 15-30 minutes in length. Most serials were action-packed and fast-paced, and the most popular format was the western, since it was the cheapest to make. Other popular formats were urban crime and gangster dramas, jungle and fantasy adventures (several Tarzan serials and ripoffs were made), and from 1936 onwards ever increasingly science fiction-themed serials and superhero serials, sometimes with horror elements.

Flash Gordon was the first all-out science fiction serial, released in 1936.

Flash Gordon was the first all-out science fiction serial, released in 1936.

The first science fiction serials, The Voice from the Sky (1930) and The Whispering Shadow (1933, review) would contain the science fiction element to some superweapon wielded by the villain. The Vanishing Shadow (1934, review) gave the gadgets to the heroes. Onslow Stevens played Stanley Stanfield, a newspaper heir who invents an invisibility vest, and is aided by a scientist who creates ray guns and other gadgets. In a sense, one can see Stanley Stanfield as the first masked crimefighter or superhero of the silver screen. The Phantom Empire of 1935 (review) was one of the strangest concoctions ever brought to the screen – a western sci-fi musical comedy. But it was the first serial to be heavily influenced by science fiction comic books like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, inasmuch as it placed a highly evolved civilization not in space, but underground. 1936 was the year the whole thing was blown wide open. Not only did the most prolific serial studio, Republic, start their serial production, it was also the year when Universal made Flash Gordon. Flash Gordon drew a record number of people to see a serial, and it had a huge influence on science fiction films – although its impact wasn’t really seen on the big screen until the fifties, when the kids that grew up with it became screenwriters, producers and directors. Not counting the bizarre sci-fi musical comedy Just Imagine (1930, review), it was the first American outer space adventure to hit the screen.

Catering at a drive-in in the forties.

Catering at a drive-in in the forties.

Republic answered the same year with their own Flash Gordon clone, Undersea Kingdom (review), borrowing a bit from Flash, a bit from The Phantom Menace and a bit from Super Serial Production’s 1935 fantasy serial The Lost City, and added an undersea city. In 1937 Republic recycled Bela Lugosi from The Whispering Shadow – but this time he actually got to play the villainous mad scientist instead of being a red herring. S.O.S. Coast Guard was basically a marine adventure with a mad scientist MacGuffin.

1938 was a big year for both science fiction and superheroes. To a lesser extent because it was the year that the second Flash Gordon serial was released – but more importantly because it was the year that the masked villain and the masked crimefighter/superhero was introduced to the screen. And added to that: the Superman comics started appearing in comic magazines.

The superhero’s origin of course goes way back in literary history, but the birth of the modern superhero can be seen in in the popularisation in the early 20th century of the stories of Robin Hood and the Scarlet Pimpernel, among others. In a way one of the first superheroes with superpowers was Edgar Rice Burroughs’ creation John Carter who first appeared in 1912 in pulp magazines, and whose adventures were first novelised in 1917 in the book A Princess of Mars. Very much like Superman would later have superhuman powers on Earth because of his Kryptonean origin, John Carter had ”supermartian powers” on Mars because of his terrestrian origin. Burroughs’ other famous creation, Tarzan, might also be counted as one of the early modern superheroes. Other archetypal superheroes born in the early thirties were Doc Savage, Hugo ”Gladiator” Danner and Conan the Barbarian.

John Carter - the first modern superhero?

John Carter – the first modern superhero?

An offshoot of the superhero genre was the masked vigilante, a skilled (anti)hero with a secret identity, first created in its modern form by Emma Orczy in her stage play The Scarlet Pimpernel. The Scarlet Pimpernel’s Americanized reincarnation is of course Don Diego de la Vega, better known as Zorro. Today many tend to forget that Zorro isn’t a folkloristic hero like Spring-Heeled Jack, Vilhelm Tell or Robin Hood, but a pulp fiction creation by Johnston McCulley, that first saw the light of day in 1919 in the All-Story Weekly, the same magazine that first published Burroughs’ Martian chronicles as well as other sci-fi writers like A. Merritt and Ray Cummings.

The Shadow was the first urban masked vigilante.

The Shadow was the first urban masked vigilante.

The late twenties and early thirties saw the newspapers’ comic strip section being overtaken by science fiction heroes like Buck Rogers, Brick Bradford and Flash Gordon, while pulp magazines were updating the lone ranger from the western prairies to the concrete desert, and combining him with the zorroesque masked vigilante. In 1930 the first of the urban masked crimefighters, The Shadow, appeared in a radio show to promote the pulp magazine Detective Stories, and proved so popular that the magazine quickly turned his adventures into a print story. The original Shadow had learned ”the Eastern art of concealment”, explained as a form of hypnosis, which made him invisible to his enemies. As such he would also appear in a few short films in 1931-1932, but this aspect was dropped in the feature film The Shadow in 1937, where he does take on the alter ego of The Shadow, but neither disguises himself (if you don’t call a black fedora a disguise), nor hypnotizes his enemies. That’s why the film won’t cut the superhero brand on this blog.

The Shadow was quickly followed by similar pulp fiction and comic book heroes in the same vein. 1931-1939 saw the emergence of a slew of urban crimefighting heroes who were often successful inventors, lawyers, newspapermen or businessmen, but donned a mask and cape to fight crime, often with fantastic inventions and gadgets to aid them. Between 1931 and 1939 magazines rolled out heroes like The Spider, The Green Hornet, The Phantom and Batman. The Shadow would eventually get a serial treatment closer to the original story in 1940, but he was beaten to the mark by his closest rival, The Spider, released in another pulp magazine in 1933. While The Shadow’s real identity was left ambiguous, The Spider created a much-used trope inasmuch as his real identity is that of a millionaire playboy – of course famously copied by the creators of Batman, among others.

Star Trek and Robin Hood have similar origins in many ways.

Star Trek and Robin Hood have similar origins in many ways.

If The Shadow was influential, so was The Spider. He used an ”air pistol”, whereas The Green Hornet would use a gas gun. He left his spider mark on the forehead of his enemies, just like The Phantom would later do with his skull mark. Like Batman, he could traverse buildings with a strong line, that he could also use for a multitude of tasks, like a much later Spiderman. His physical characteristics like the black fedora and coat, the use of a standard gun to kill people with and his penchant for different disguises were, on the other hand, borrowed straight from The Shadow. He did, however, wear a black domino mask.

The Fighting Devil Dogs.

The Fighting Devil Dogs.

Which brings us to 1938, which was the year that the film serial The Spider’s Web was released by Columbia Pictures in October. But before that, let’s take a brief look at another serial that was released a few months earlier, in May: The Fighting Devil Dogs.

While The Fighting Devil Dogs had no superhero, it did have a masked supervillain, making it the first appearance of such a character on the American screen. The French were naturally first, with Fantômas in 1914 and Les Vampires in 1916, both directed by Louis Feuillade, the father of modern mystery/crime cinema. One may, however, call The Lightning the first costumed supervillain.

The Fighting Devil Dogs was made by Republic and follows two marines played by Lee Powell and Herman Brix (from Sky Racket, 1937, review), who later changed his name to Bruce Bennett partly in an effort to shed his image as Tarzan from the 1935 and 1938 films. The two heroes try to uncover the identity of the mysterious villain The Lightning, who uses deadly missiles that that cause massive lightning strikes wherever they hit, destroying everyone and everything in their path. An uncredited Lester Dorr plays The Lightning, decked out in a black suit, cape and helmet, who controls his minions via radio. Much of the plot is still concerned with rather conventional ganster/crime drama, including a multitude of fistfights, car and motorcycle chases, gun fights and a few aviation scenes, as well as many scenes with people in an office talking exposition. The serial uses a lot of stock footage, some of it several times, and the overall direction and writing is rather flimsy. Nevertheless, the serial is noteworthy because of its villain. The suit for The Lightning is an example of superb design, and George Lucas (a known lover of serials) clearly used it as a design blueprint not only for Darth Vader, but for Boba Fett as well.

The Lightning from The Fighting Devil Dogs on the left.

The Lightning from The Fighting Devil Dogs on the left.

1938 also saw the second of the hugely popular Flash Gordon serial: Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, again with Olympic swimming medallist Buster Crabbe in the lead (Herman Brix was an Olympic shot put medallist, btw).

But the most popular serial, all categories, of 1938 was The Spider’s Web. The serial was partly written by one of the pulp writers who created the stories, and thus stayed fairly true to the source material, although it had a lighter touch. The pulp stories were infamously brutal and violent, which didn’t suit the Hays Code. Another change was that The Spider was given a full black face-mask with white web patterns, but the fedora remained, as did his business suit, the standard attire for the late thirties and early forties crime fighters. Though, like in the pulp stories, he was decked out in a black cape. The webbed mask may partly have been to make him more visually appealing, but also to differentiate him from The Shadow, who wore a similar cape and fedora. With the face-mask The Spider set the standard for masked vigilantes to come, and the serial saw him climbing walls and lowering himself from ceilings with his ”web”, much like a later Batman.

The Spider on the right.

The Spider on the right.

The original pulp stories had The Spider fight a multitude of flamboyant villains with names like The Red Mandarin, The Brain, Judge Torture and The Emperor of Vermin, anticipating the onslaught of comic book supervillains. Two of the villains were even called The Bat Man and The Iron Man. In the first serial his nemesis is The Octopus, dressed in a white robe and a Ku Klux Klan-like hood, and his henchmen wear similar attire, but in black. But despite the fantastical elements, the story, such as it is, is very much similar to earlier hard-boiled crime/action serials, a trait that would linger with most of the superhero serials of the era. This means that there are a lot of fistfights and car chases, but most prominently people in offices talking exposition – cheap filmning. The Spider was played by Warren Hull, who up until that time was best known for appearing as the second male lead in the Boris Karloff film The Walking Dead (1936, review). His success with The Spider made him a serial staple, playing Mandrake the Magician in 1939, as well as The Green Hornet in the serial’s second season in 1941 and he returned in The Spider Returns the same year. Curiously enough, The Spider, despite its huge popularity back in the day, has never been made into a feature film. The story was revamped into comic book form in the nineties and again in 2011 and 2012, and since movie producers must soon be running out of comic book superheroes, one shoudn’t be surprised if we see Adam Sandler or some other Seth Rogen-substitute as The Spider in the near future.

The Octopus from The Spider.

The Octopus from The Spider.

1939 was notable for two sci-fi serials from Universal. One was The Phantom Creeps, which rehashed the tried and tested formula of having Bela Lugosi as a mad scientist bent on ruling the world, a giant robot as a henchman, and American G-men trying to get to Lugosi’s weapons before foreign agents do so. The other was Buck Rogers, adapted from the groundbreaking comic strip, but owing more to the Flash Gordon serials than the scourse material – Buster Crabbe even played the lead. Like Flash Gordon, it had a rather large budget for a serial, and was generally well made, if not quite up to Flash Gordon standard. The serial was slightly hampered by its racist undertones, derived directly from the comic strip. Buck Rogers saw Crabbe as a dirigible pilot caught in a storm and an avalanche, who was kept in perfect stasis in 500 years before being dug out by a future civilization. The comic had Rogers help out the Caucasian civilization in their fight against communist Mongols. The serial adapts the story so the enemy better fits the current threat to the United States, the Japanese.

The Green Hornet.

The Green Hornet.

Like The Shadow, The Green Hornet was based on a radio serial. This one was aired in 1936, and was adapted to a film serial by Republic, released in January 1940 following the success of Columbia’s The Spider’s Web. Like The Spider, The Green Hornet also wore a face mask, a cape and a fedora, but switched the business suit for a long overcoat (presumably dark green, but it’s hard to tell from the black and white film). The Green Hornet was played by the fairly unknown actor Gordon Jones, who was replaced by The Spider actor Warren Hull in the follow-up serial in 1941. The Green Hornet drew its inspiration mainly from earlier crime serials, with the Hornet going up against a powerful crime syndicate. Unlike The Spider, though, The Green Hornet had a sidekick, his Korean valet Kato, played by Chinese-born actor Keye Luke. The Green Hornet’s private identity is Britt Reid, the heir of and editor of an influential newspaper, with which he fights crime through the official channels. Kato the valet is also a brilliant inventor, who pimps up Reid’s car into a superfast crime fighting Hornetmobile with accompanying extremely annoing buzzing sound. Speaking of annoying, so is the horrible theme music, apparently composed to imitate the sound of a hornet buzzing around your ears. It is worth noting that in the original radio serial Kato was Japanese, but because of the anti-Japanese sentiment of 1940, he was changed into a Korean.

The Green Hornet and Kato fighting crime in 1940.

The Green Hornet and Kato fighting crime in 1940.

Though slightly better treated than African-American actors, Asian actors had a hard time getting roles in the thirties and forties, despite the fact that there was a huge demand for stories involving Asian characters. There was a simultaneous fascination with orientalism and a growing suspicion towards Asians in general and Japanese in particular as Japan was on the war path with China and threatening American interests in the Pacific. The Sino-Japanese war in 1937 turned the American (and Western as a whole) attitude against the Japanese, which naturally didn’t improve with the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941.

Despite the fact that many of Hollywood’s biggest money makers had Asian main characters, very few were actually played by Asians. Dr. Fu Manchu was originally played by Swedish-American Warner Oland (born Johan Verner Öhlund), and the role was taken over by Boris Karloff. Warner Oland then moved on to play sixteen films as the Chinese detective Charlie Chan, and British expat Karloff later moved on to another Chinese detective role as Mr. Wong. German Peter Lorre starred as Mr. Moto in a number of films. Keye Luke was one of the few Asian actors in Hollywood that managed to carve out a decent career in a number of diverse roles, and The Green Hornet was at least a tad unique in the sense that it actually had an Asian actor in a major role on the good side – and Luke played Kato without any hint of orientalism – just as he did when he took over from Karloff to play the title character in the last Mr. Wong film.

Keye Luke in Gremlins II (1990).

Keye Luke in Gremlins II (1990).

Luke played one of Warner Oland’s sons in many of the Charlie Chan films, and later became something of a staple in sci-fi serials. He played a Japanese surgeon in Invisible Agent (1942, review). In 1966 The Green Hornet was made into a tv series with the legendary Bruce Lee taking over the role as Kato – Luke had a guest spot in one episode. He had a small role in the sci-fi film Project X (1968), appeared in Star Trek in 1969 and provided the voice for one of the leads in 85 episodes of the animated series Battle of the Planets between 1978 and 1985. He is perhaps best known for a modern audience as Grandfather or Mr. Wing in Gremlins (1984) and its 1990 sequel. He passed away in 1991. The Green Hornet was remade as a feature film in 2011 with comedian Seth Rogen as the Hornet and Korean pop star Jay Chou as Kato – a film that was almost universally panned by critics.

The original Batman comics.

The original Batman comics.

As time progressed, the villains of crime films, as well as serials, became increasingly more Japanese, and the heroes increasingly more patriotic, as the US was drawn into World War II in 1941. Such was the case with the first Batman serial in 1943, where Batman even had a rank with the US military force, something not present in the comics, which started appearing in 1939. Batman, created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, is of course one of the most influential comics ever created, on par with Superman and Flash Gordon, and was noted for its dark edge, drawn more from pulp stories like The Shadow, Zorro and The Spider, than comics. Batman’s brutal edge softened somewhat in 1940 with the introduction of Robin, which created a craze for kid sidekicks in films and comics.

Despite the fact that Batman is today often clumped together with Superman and Spiderman, he was originally created much more in the same vein as the previous masked vigilantes, which is obvious in the serial, introducing a burly Lewis Wilson as Bruce Wayne/Batman, looking a lot older than his actual age of 23. Along with Dick Grayson/Robin played by curly teen actor Douglas Croft, the dynamic duo seems to draw a lot more inspiration from the Green Hornet serial than the comic books, as the action mostly amounts to standing around in offices talking, driving around in a car and kicking some henchman ass – but of course we are also introduced the the gadget-friendly Batcave.

The not so graceful dynamic duo of 1943.

The not so graceful dynamic duo of 1943.

The Batman serial was introduced in 1943 when the US was heavily involved in WWII. Apart from a few offhand remarks on Batman’s army rank, a voice-over also not very subtly informs us that Batman and Robin ”represent the youth of America who love their country, and are glad to fight for it”, and that ”at this very moment when the axis of evil are spreading their venom all over the world, even within our own land, Batman and Robin stand ready to fight them to the death”. In the serial Batman is a secret government agent, rather than a ruthless vigilante at odds with the law. Add to this an extremely racist portrayal by J. Carrol Naish of the Japanese villain Prince Daka. It is clear that the filmmakers set out to create a Japanese villain, since they didn’t draw on the giant gallery of fantastic Batman villains from the comic, but created this extremely dull character for the serial, played with heavy stereotypes by Naish, and anti-Japanese racial slurs are present throughout the whole serial.

“Japanese” villain J. Carrol Naish boiling heads. Or something.

Wilson, picked for his family resemblance to Bruce Wayne, is not a very good actor, and has been described as ”thick around the middle” and ”lacking the athletic grace” of his comic book source, and indeed of the serial superhero counterparts in the Republic serials at the time. The serial was also hampered by a low budget – Batman rides along in a Cadillac rather than a Batmobile, and even though both heroes have utility belts, they are never used. The costumes are baggy and ridiculous, and Batman’s cowl is crowned with flimsy devil’s horns, rather than bat ears. All in all, not a very graceful screen debut from the dark knight, even though the serial was popular with the audience and garnered a follow-up in 1949.

Robin and Batman 1943.

Robin and Batman 1943.

Other sci-fi serials that came out in the era include the 1940 Mysterious Doctor Satan, originally intended as Republic’s Superman serial, but when production began, Fleischer Studios had already bought the rights for a series of animated short films, so Republic reworked the script closer to Batman, and added the hero Copperhead, whose sole disguise was a copper chain mail balaclava. It’s been speculated that the revised draft was based on another crime story, but that this angle was dropped when a superhero was needed as Superman caved in. The serial is best known for featuring a slightly updated version of the ”Republic robot”, first introduced in Undersea Kingdom, which looked more or less like a water boiler attached to ventilation ducts. 1942 saw the rise of the war superhero Spy Smasher, kicking Nazi ass on US soil, and 1943 introduced The Phantom, played by Tom Tyler, adapted from one of the most popular comic books at the time (and one of my fondest childhood memories – The Phantom was HUGE in Finland and Sweden in the eighties and nineties, although his popularity had waned somewhat in the States).

The Phantom of the forties.

The Phantom of the forties.

The other branch of the superhero spectrum was the superpowered superheroes, most notably Superman, who appeared in comic strip form for the first time in 1938. In stark contrast to the brutal, remorseless vigilantes, Superman/Clark Kent/Kal-El was a kind, moral and gentle person, who went out of his way not to kill people and always saved the day with a smile on his face. Although Superman became something of a symbol for America during WWII, creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster never set out to create an explicitly patriotic hero. Modelled on mythical heroes like Hercules and Samson, and inspired by many pulp stories and Hollywood movies, Superman echoed superhuman characters like John Carter, Doc Savage and Hugo Danning, and the creators have admitted to using swashbuckling movie star Douglas Fairbanks as an inspiration. While often appropriated by right-leaning audiences and pundits, Shuster and Siegel were both left-leaning artists who originally had Superman enforcing social justice by fighting corrupt politicians and bankers. Gradually, though, the villains became more mad scientists and supervillains bent of world domination, not least because of the influence of the animated films of 1941.

Captain Marvel.

Captain Marvel.

But the serial that beat Superman to the finish line was The Adventures of Captain Captain Marvel, that was released just months before the first Superman film. Captain Marvel was created as a comic book shortly after Superman, in 1939, and was just as popular. Unlike Superman, Captain Marvel/Shazam is a normal human being called Billy Batson, in the comics he starts out as a 12-year old boy, who is given magical powers by the sorcerer Shazam – he must the speak the sorcerer’s name to gain superhuman physical and mental powers. More than Superman, Captain Marvel often took on Nazis in battle. In the comics Billy meets the sorcerer on a mystical subway ride.

Republic rehashed the origin story and made Billy a young member of an archeological team in Africa, who uncover a royal grave with an artefact that can create gold, but also awakens the evil demon The Scorpion. Billy is singled out by Shazam, guardian of the tomb, as worthy to become the superhero Captain Marvel. Captain Marvel was played by Tom Tyler, a B-western hero who would later also play The Phantom. Billy was played former child actor Frank Coghlan Jr.

Frank Coghlan Jr. as Billy, meting Shazam.

Frank Coghlan Jr. as Billy, meting Shazam.

The Adventures of Captain Marvel followed the comic book’s lighthearted fun and sense of adventure, and combined it with stunning action sequences and masterful special effects – and the serial had a decent budget. Despite some grumbling about Tom Tyler’s lanky appearance and occasional clumsiness, he does stand as one of the icons of the golden age of film serials, bested perhaps only by Buster Crabbe as Flash Gordon. One of the reasons for the success was stuntman David Sharpe’s acrobatic skills, which allowed him to do death-defying leaps and backflips, that were cross-cut with shots of a papier-maché dummy on a wire rig, flying across the screen, creating an almost flawless illusion. Captain Marvel is often cited as Republic’s best serial (although many serials are often cited as ”Republic’s best serial). Again – as a testament to George Lucas’ love for serials – if you remove Captain Marvel, the first episode of the serial plays out like a miniature version of the Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Tom Tyler beating up bad guys.

Tom Tyler beating up bad guys.

Although technically not a serial, Superman did appear as seventeen short films in 1941 – basically a serial. The films were produced by producer/director Max Fleischer’s studio, and while brother Dave Fleischer was billed as director, the actual animation director was Steve Muffati. Paramount gave Max Fleischer the astounding amount of 50 000 dollars to produce the first 10-minute film, Superman, also known as The Mad Scientist, concerning a – well, mad scientist – using giant robots to rob banks and wreak havoc in Metropolis. The film was nominated for an Oscar and is noted for its impeccable animation and beautiful drawings. The filmmakers were heavily influenced by film noir and German expressionism – Metropolis doesn’t look at all too different than Fritz Lang’s 1928 Metropolis (review) – a film that Siegel and Shuster also used for inspiration for the comics. Out of all the superheroes to come out of Hollywood in the thirties and forties, Superman definately gets the most respectful and classy treatment. Attention to detail in the films is impeccable, and the serial acquires a dark, moody atmosphere, that quite clearly influenced the suberb animated Batman series made in the nineties.

The big kahuna: Superman in 1941.

The big kahuna: Superman in 1941.

Brothers Max and Dave Fleischer were veterans in the animation industry, responsible for films of Koko the Clown, Popeye and Betty Boop, and developed synchronized sound and the rotoscoping animation technique later put to great effect by Walt Disney – and indeed by modern filmmakers like Peter Jackson – that involves painting over live action film frames for added animation speed and naturalistic movement. The studio also relied heavily on this technique when making Superman, bringing a sense of heightened reality to the proceedings. While Superman has superpowers, he operates in a world that is deeply rooted in reality, making his feats all the more fantastic. A slight controversy arose in 1997 about whom Fleischer actually used as their model for Superman, when bodybuilder Mayo Kaan placed ads in papers claiming that he was the first model for Fleischer’s legendary Superman version – although Fleischer claimed it was wrestler Karol Krauser. Turns out the studio had in fact employed Kaan as a model in 1940, while later hiring Krauser in 1941.

An example of the beautiful design of Fleischer's Superman.

An example of the beautiful design of Fleischer’s Superman.

The first seven episodes of Superman followed the comics quite closely, with superman battling mad scientists, robbers, robots and supervillains, but this changed when the Fleischer brothers were ousted and the studio changed name to Famous. While the high quality visuals weren’t compromised, Famous scripts deviated from Siegel and Shuster’s left-leaning, slightly pacifist notions and the films became more or less pro-American propaganda films with Superman fighting Nazis and Japanese – thus also creating the symbol of Superman as a hero of the war effort.

Lois lane and Clark Kent in a very film noir setting.

Lois lane and Clark Kent in a very film noir setting.

The last superhero churned out during the golden age of the serials was Captain America, and he can count himself lucky that I use the term superhero very loosely in this post.

Captain America saw the light of day in March 1941, nine months before the attack on Pearl Harbour wich officially drew the US into WWII. Despite that the US wasn’t even involved in the war, comic makers Joe Simon and legendary Jack Kirby created an American superhero kicking Adolf Hitler’s ass in Germany (he actually punched Hitler’s lights out on the cover of the very first comic book). The comic book follows scrawny little Steve Rogers who is too weak to be drafted into the army, despite his enthusiasm. Picked up by a team of government scientists, he is given a treatment with a serum that makes him the pinnacle of human performance – they aren’t actually superhuman powers, but but rather what you’d get if you combined all Olympic gold medalists throughout history in one body. Thus little Steve shows that nobody is too small to do his part in the war against the Nazis.

Captain America (Dick Purcell) in 1944.

Captain America (Dick Purcell) in 1944.

Basically what Simon and Kirby were doing, was making a large poster boy for the pundits who argued that the US should enter the war in Europe, and they decked him out in a red-white-blue costume (presumably because they were fans of Norway) and gave him a super-duper gadget shield which he used as a frisbee. But none of what I have written above has any consequence for the serial.

The cover of the captain knocking Hitler's lights out.

The cover of the captain knocking Hitler’s lights out.

Made by Republic in 1944, the serial has nothing whatsoever to do with the comic, other than the name and the costume. There is no Steve Rogers, no super-serum, no enhanced powers, no super-duper shield and no war in Europe. Instead there is a middle-aged district attorney called Grant Gardner who dons a ridiculous costume by night and engages in even-handed fistfights with criminal henchmen and shoots people with his revolver. Lead actor Dick Purcell was not very athletic, but rather had a slight tummy, and died of a heart attack shortly after the serial was finished. Instead of fighting Nazis, the serial lends inspiration from the Captain Marvel serial, and starts things off with a curse a a newly opened Mayan grave. There’s also a mad masked villain called The Scarab, played by the wonderful Lionel Atwill, whose career was in the ruts after all major studios shunned him because of a sex scandal. Atwill does provide the serial with some class, though, and the high production value can be seen – this was Republic’s most expensive serial ever. But still, this is basically a fistfight cliffhanger crime mystery serial, rather than a superhero serial. The fight scenes are very good, as Republic always excelled in them, but for anyone looking for Captain America, this isn’t worth the trouble.

King of the Rocket Men,

King of the Rocket Men,

Captain America was the last superhero serial made during the golden age of the serials, which ended with the end of WWII in 1945, and the slow but steady rise in television ownership in the US. The three serial studios, Columbia, Universal and Republic would continue to make serials until 1946, but their popularity, budgets and quality slowly waned. Universal abandonded the format in 1947. The sci-fi serial never disappeared, though, but for some time rehashed old formulas for masked mystery villains, including The Purple Monster from The Purple Monster Strikes (1945). The costume was reused in a number of serials, including the last new addition to the superhero franchise, King of the Rocket Men (1949), basically the same character as Commando Cody, who turned up in two serials in the fifties. The best remembered new super-villain was probably The Crimson Ghost (1946), whose face mask was later adopted as the logo for the horror punk band Misfits.

The Crimson Ghost.

The Crimson Ghost.

Studios also made attempts to reheat the space opera genre with Brick Bradford in 1947 with modest success and even revamped a popular children’s television show called Captain Video and His Video Ranger (review) in the fifties. Bruce Gentry fought a flying saucer in 1949 and the early fifties saw a few UFO-themed serials after the success of a number of UFO films in 1950 and 1951. Kirk Alyn donned the Superman cape in 1948 (review) and 1950, and Batman and Robin made a return in 1949, with new actors. The Lost Planet (1953) was technically the last sci-fi serial ever made, and by then it must have been completely evident for all involved that the cinema serial was drawing its last breath. By now Columbia and Republic almost exclusively made western and jungle adventures – the cheapest form of serials. Republic held out until 1955, and in 1956 Columbia also abandoned the cause. And by 1956 science fiction movies were well into their golden period.

I will return to some of the above mentioned serials in later posts.

Janne Wass

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17 thoughts on “The superhero serials

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