Let it be known that movie serials from Poverty Row studios and some major studios are a pleasure of mine. This section of Classic Hollywood seems to get left out of most film festivals and retrospectives; yet they are rollicking examples of film making on a budget . Many actors, technicians, and directors made careers in this end of the business only to have their names and work lost or ridiculed by ‘serious’ film.
Lambert Hillyer, who helmed the BATMAN (1943) serial, had 166 credits to his name in a career that spanned 1917 to 1956, and included episodes of the TV series HIGHWAY PATROL. A Warner Brothers work horse director with a huge body of work was Forde Beebe.
Taking a scan of Beebe’s credits provides a look at a one person industry of movie making. Many of the films list Beebe as not only director, but also writer. Beebe was versatile in that not only are there Serials listed and everything that goes into long productions of 16- 22 minute segments to be co- ordinated but also feature films starring such names John Wayne and Tom Neal.
No doubt these people worked with smaller budgets, ‘B’ crews and actors, ‘B’ writers, and little setup on a relentless shooting schedule. This area of Hollywood is regarded by some as lower class productions. Yet for me if you can get past some derivative plots in various settings like outer space or the old West you have fine escapist entertainment. Many of today’s film makers who pound us with CGI explosions, swerving car chases, and hand held gun fights are trying to give a ‘French New wave’ sense of immediacy to a situation we have all seen before.
Movie serials were a money maker for the studio and theatre chains at that time as you had people hooked on the cliff hanger ending coming back each week to your establishment to see the next chapter. Some were around sixteen chapters. That’s four months of visits plus the studios had not yet figured out you could charge huge amounts of money for food. Imagine today if you had people going the theatre once a week for four months; you could finance that blockbuster in no time or better still pay for the bomb quickly.
The movie serial at was also a training ground or (dumping ground depending on your point of view) for directors, actors, and crew. If you had a reputation for delivering product on time in the cost conscious studios of yesterday you were rewarded with bigger budgets, better scripts, and stars.
Since you had an actor under contract you could put him or her into one of these productions to keep them working or as discipline for some deed they did. Lon Chaney Jr is one example as he moved from various film serials to occasional lead man status in horror films such as THE WOLFMAN (1941), and to brilliant supporting roles in HIGH NOON (1952) with Garry Cooper and OF MICE AND MEN (1939). RIDERS OF DEATH VALLEY with featured Dick Foran who was another example of someone who moved back and forth from this style of productions to bigger ones like THE PETRIFIED FOREST (1936).
You may have plot holes and strange situations in some pictures, yes. The Tom Mix serial THE MIRACLE RIDER features cowboys, horses and motorcar chases all to cover up the mining of a powerful explosive found on Indian land by evil men bend on world domination. Sixteen weeks of steam punk fun all made in 1935. The mystery is the lack of respect shown this vital film foundation.
The studios that did films such as REPUBLIC PICTURES, MONOGRAM STUDIO etc ., were not located in the best parts of town; nor did they have the best facilities or pay the top money but they filled a need. UNIVERSAL, COLUMBIA and others also got into the production of these films. We have festivals and retrospectives for many styles of motion pictures today: I think it would be interesting to these included, letting those that perhaps forgotten get some brief applause. A few of today’s film makers could take lessons on how to provide robust entertainment with longevity on budget similar to Roger Corman and a few others. Long Live this style of film making.