The term “genre” has been studied, analyzed, written about and examined from dozens of angles. But nothing I’ve read bothers to mention (or even notice) that sound serials occupy a unique position among genres. They’re the only major-theater-exhibited genre produced almost exclusively by B or poverty row studios. (The single exception being RKO, which released one serial, “The Last Frontier” in ‘32.) Like other genres, serials had their sub-categories: westerns, sci-fi’s, jungle epics, etc., but serials alone, because of their genre limits, could not adapt certain other genres. For example, there’s no such thing as a musical serial or a comedy serial. No other genre demonstrated such limitations. Think about it. There have been western, sci-fi, horror and
Western serials got into the act, too, with cowboy singer guitar vocals now and then. In a saloon scene in “Sign of the Wolf”, for no particular reason, an unnamed blonde tootsie gets up and does an impromptu solo shimmy dance with piano accompaniment (and very well, too.) But the formulaic need for a certain amount of fights and cliffhanger situations in each episode seems to preclude a musical or comedy serial.
But is that really true?
Musicals are something else. I can’t think of a way to meld musicals with serials: the requisites for each seem to contradict each other. I’m coming up blank trying to think of a mystery feature film that combined both music and genuine suspense. Can you think of any? Possibly 1943’s “Phantom of the Opera” or the latest version?
It’s not as if the serial genre had always been particularly suspenseful. Back in the silent days, the first serials were aimed at women, and involved romance as much as action. The very first, “What Happened to Mary” (1912) was based on a series in McClure’s LADIES WORLD. Each episode was a complete story, as was the case with “Letters to Beatrice Fairfax” (‘16), which also strongly incorporated romantic themes. Most of the early serials were for and about women.
As serials developed and were discovered by males (especially young ones) the themes became more action oriented to accommodate the new audience. But even by the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, romantic “grown-up” elements were still showing up in serials. In “Tarzan the Tiger” (‘29) there’s a nude bathing scene during which Jane’s (Natalie Kingston) bare breasts are prominently featured. Tarzan is watching her, and she invites him to join her. (The scene must have astounded and delighted all the pre-adolescent boys in the audience).
Even into the ‘30s, shreds of romance persisted. In “Heroes of the West” (‘32) Onslow Stevens is constantly courting Diane Duval in romantic moonlight trysts, even managing to steal a brookside kiss. In “Tailspin Tommy” (‘34) Maurice Murphy and Patricia Farr spend a lot of time sweet-talking each other, and in “Queen of the Jungle” (‘35) Reed Howes has a good time teaching Mary Kornman what “kiss” means.
But throughout the ‘30s, serials became more and more action packed and male oriented. Eventually, grown-up themes were dropped altogether and by the ‘40s the genre was completely geared to young males. Women were more or less eased out of the market. In the ‘40s, when I was a pre-teener enjoying serials at my local theater’s Saturday morning kiddy shows, there were relatively few females in attendance. Whether this was due to the content of the serial or the obnoxious rowdy behavior of us boys, I do not know. Today, even among those who are movie buffs, for the most part women don’t seem to be serial enthusiasts.
As a genre, serials were always the runt of the litter, scorned by the majors and designated an embarrassing last-ditch payday for previously major performers. So it’s particularly gratifying and ironic that the lowly serial has—I insist—had more impact on films than any other film genre. All the others, despite the influence of specific films (like “Birth of the Nation” and “Citizen Kane”), were not major influences on each other. But serials, thanks to Spielberg and Lucas, have set the tone for almost all the action films since the ‘80s. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Star Wars”, inspired by serials as their directors have proudly proclaimed, have set the tone for the adventure/thriller movies of the past 35 years. Films like “Superman Returns” and TV shows like “24” and “Prison Break” embrace the serial esthetic and seem little more than compilations of one cliffhanger situation after another. Serials have been dead and buried for over 50 years, but their influence has never been stronger. What other genre can you say that about? Stand proud, serial lovers!
by Boyd Magers
Director James W. Horne’s next to last serial has a slight plot, some good airplane miniature work at times and Horne’s trademark over-the-top exaggerated body movements and expressions forced on the actors by his direction. But it’s all 15 chapters of fast, furious fun and excitement with heroic Dave O’Brien as a dauntless “Captain Midnight”.
One crazy plot angle of the ‘42 serial has villain Ivan Shark (James Craven) as a master of disguise. With a little face putty he becomes a doctor, an inspector, Major Steel and even Capt. Midnight! This device lets various actors portray Shark with their voice often dubbed by Craven. So—of course—Capt. Midnight uses some face putty to become Ivan Shark, allowing Craven to play Midnight.
Based on the radio serial which began on WGN, Chicago, October 17, 1939 (later airing on Mutual from ‘40-‘49), most of the well-known radio characters were utilized in the serial—Chuck Ramsey, Ichabod Mudd, Joyce (with a last name switch from Ryan to Edwards for serial plot purposes), Ivan Shark, his daughter Fury, and Shark’s oriental assistant Fang (wasted in the serial, as well as miscast as played by Ed Piel Sr.).
Incidentally, the Fawcett comic book of CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT began in September ‘42 after the Captain appeared briefly in Dell’s THE FUNNIES for seven issues and POPULAR COMICS for three issues in ‘41.
A later TV version with Richard Webb was quite far removed from the original character.
Researcher Hal Polk notes one of the best things about many Columbia serials was that they gave meatier roles to players who would have only a line or two in Universal or Republic chapterplays. At Columbia, Charles Sullivan, Charles Hamilton, Lee Shumway, Al Ferguson, Franklyn Farnum and others all have an opportunity. For instance, Sullivan gets his biggest serial role ever as Slick, showing his comic flair. When captured by Midnight he utters, “You’ll learn nothin’ from me—I’m as dumb as they come!”
Special notice goes to character player Ray Teal, Shark’s chief henchman, who became a versatile, in-demand character actor during his long career, escaping the “B” fate of bits and extra work that befell many badmen.
Young Roger Clark was one of Columbia’s promising young contract players who disappeared after a string of films from ‘41-‘45. (Not to be confused with other actors who later used the same name.)
Frank Marlo was a stuntman/actor throughout the ‘40s, also appearing in “Capt. Marvel”, “Chick Carter, Detective”, “Jack Armstrong” and “The Vigilante”. (Not to be confused with prominent actor Frank Marlowe—also in “Capt. Marvel”.)
Dorothy Short was married to O’Brien at the time of this serial. They wed in ‘36 but where divorced in ‘54.
Christen Klitgaard was a henchman mainstay at Columbia in the ‘40s. “Who?” you say. Perhaps you better know the smallish but stocky henchie as Kit Guard. Born May 5, 1894, in Hals, Hjorring, Denmark, to Jens Christian Bondrop Klitgaard and Thyra Eurcka (or Eureka) Klitgaard, he was one of nine children. Oddly, the surname of his mother (who was from Ireland but of Danish descent) was the same as his father’s. How and when the family emigrated from Denmark to British Columbia is not known, but the family arrived from Victoria, BC, in San Francisco on the steamship Queen on April 9, 1902; Christen was nearly 8. His father was listed as a farmer.
By 1910 at 16, Christen was employed as an office boy at a San Francisco legal firm. A naturalized citizen, for his WWI draft registration in June 1917, at 23, Christen listed his height as 5'9" with blue eyes and brown hair. By then he was married and living in New York City working as a blacksmith. On his draft registration he stated he’d previously been a bugler for the Coast Artillery of the 3rd National Guard in California.
What brought him to acting is unknown but his first film was in New York in 1917, “The Better Role”. His next credited role isn’t until 1920, with numerous credits beginning as he became established in 1924. In all, Kit Guard is credited in over 55 silents, many of them two-reelers with Alberta Vaughn.
Now 36, as sound came in, Kit was cast in dozens of B-films in all sorts of mug-type roles from henchmen to bartenders, truck drivers to fight handlers, waiters to sailors, convicts to cabbies. From 1930-1957 Kit made over 215 movies, with his first serial role as a henchman in “Radio Patrol” (‘32). He can also be seen in “Dick Tracy” (‘37), “S.O.S. Coast Guard” (‘37) and “Haunted Harbor” (‘44), all at Republic.
In the late ‘30s on through the ‘40s he found a serial-home at Columbia, being featured as various henchmen in a least 15 Columbia cliffhangers starting with “The Spider’s Web” (‘38). Perhaps his most visible henchies are in “The Shadow” (‘40), “Terry and the Pirates” (‘40), and “The Green Archer” (‘40). Others were: “Flying G-Men” (‘39), “Mandrake the Magician” (‘39), “Deadwood Dick” (‘40), “White Eagle” (‘41), “Secret Code” (‘42), “Valley of Vanishing Men” (‘42), “Black Arrow” (‘44), “Monster and the Ape” (‘45), “Son of the Guardsman” (‘46), “Atom Man Vs. Superman” (‘50), and lastly, “Riding with Buffalo Bill” (‘54).
By the ‘50s, in feature films, his roles were pretty much relegated to glorified extras (barfly, spectator, stagehand, miner, townsman, etc.). He last worked (as a doorman) in Frank Sinatra’s “The Joker is Wild” (‘57).
One of director James Horne’s favorite henchmen at Columbia died July 18, 1961, of cancer in Woodland Hills, CA, and is buried in Valhalla Memorial Park. (Thanx for research to Evy Patrick.)
Jacqueline Wells, who later acted under Julie Bishop was born in Denver, CO, the daughter of a wealthy banker and oilman. Reared in Wichita Falls, TX, after her parents divorced in L.A. she began her film career as a child in silents including the 1926 10 chapter Pathé serial, “Bar-C Mystery” with Wallace MacDonald and Dorothy Phillips.
Then came “Heroes of the West” in ‘33 for Universal as Diane Duval.
“Incidentally,” Julie told interviewer Michael Fitzgerald, “It was pronounced Dee-ohn and not Die-Ann. I only kept that name for a day and a half. (Laughs)” She called Noah Beery Jr. and Onslow Stevens “great guys. Onslow was the son of actor Housley Stephenson.”
She recalls Tom Tyler, her co-star in “Clancy of the Mounted”, as “…so handsome, so tall, and his voice—striking. But he was a man and I was a child playing a grown-up, so naturally we never dated or anything like that. I thought the serial was marvelous, incidentally.”
As for her fourth serial, “Tarzan the Fearless” (‘33 Principal), “I became friends with the man, Edgar Rice Burroughs, who wrote the Tarzan novels. Of course, Buster Crabbe was wonderful, marvelous. I thought him a much better looking man than Johnny Weissmuller. There was no funny business with Buster—he was serious about becoming an actor. I had already known Buster from being under contract at Paramount, so we were old friends when we worked on ‘Tarzan the Fearless’.”
The talented actress died on her 87th birthday August 30, 2001.