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A special kind of film that was a mainstay in cinemas from the 1910s to the 1950s.
The basic structure is a film that is presented in consecutive installments in a theatre, with the expectation that the audience would come each week to see the whole story through. As such, it was famous for its fight scenes and its cliffhangers (most of which were notoriously poor).
The genre first started with such serials as the silent film The Perils of Pauline, but they hit their artistic peak in the 1930s and 1940s. Although some big studios like Universal played the field with the Flash Gordon Serial serials, the most famous and renowned producer of serials was Republic Pictures, especially with the director team of Whitney and English, who produced classics like Daredevils of the Red Circle and The Adventures of Captain Marvel (the first Superhero film).
Eventually, the genre petered out against the competition of television; furthermore, a common criticism during the genre's waning years was that the focus had shifted from plot and character development to action and stunts, highlighting the importance of the Cliffhanger as a gimmick tool (and also underscoring said gimmick's flaws to boot). But the spirit of the Film Serial lives on whenever a TV show episode cuts to commercial with a cliffhanger — and even more so in the modern era of arc-based plots, or whenever a last-second twist at the end of an episode entices viewers to keep watching.
Tropes common to this format include:
- As You Know: Characters would routinely remind one another about the overarching plot, in order to keep audiences up to speed.
- B-Movie / Exploitation Film: Many serials were genre stories such as Westerns, Space Opera, Mad Scientist etc., or were based upon pulp/genre characters (Flash Gordon, Captain Marvel et al).
- Camp: You can't take these things too seriously.
- Car Chase: see also Fight Scene.
- Cliff Hanger: Putting the protagonist, or someone close to him, in immediate, deadly danger.
- Fedora of Asskicking: Many of the adventure serial heroes wore one, which is why Indiana Jones does.
- Fight Scene: Expect at least one of these in every episode, whether it be a fist fight, gun/sword/exotic weapon fight, or even a Car Chase. Such scenes nearly always led into the Cliff Hanger.
- History Marches On / Zeerust / Space Clothes: Naturally for any such set in the future, like Buck Rogers, or in space, like Flash Gordon Serial.
- Neutral Female: Due to the era in which they were made, women rarely occupy a proactive role.
- Sharp-Dressed Man / Badass in a Nice Suit: Also a product of the genre's era, a time when men generally wore suits, ties and hats as a matter of course (at least, for works that were contemporary in setting). The Hero, in particular, never seems to get his suit smudged no matter what he goes through — which gets particularly notable when the Hero wears the exact same outfit throughout the story, in order to facilitate...
- Stock Footage lifted from previous episodes helped stretch the budgets. Exaggerated when serials started lifting footage from other serials.
Notable Film Serials include:
- The Perils Of Pauline (1914, General Film Co): notable for not featuring chapter-ending Cliffhangers. That aspect of serials came later.
- Flash Gordon Serial (1936, Universal): starring Buster Crabb (who also played Buck Rogers).
- Undersea Kingdom (1936, Republic): starring Ray "Crash" Corrigan. A few episodes appeared on Mystery Science Theater 3000.
- Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939, Republic)
- The Phantom Creeps (1939, Universal): starring Bela Lugosi as a Mad Scientist. Also appeared on Mystery Science Theater 3000.
- The Green Hornet (1940, Universal)
- The Green Hornet Strikes Again! (1940, Universal — but at the very end of the year, so most episodes aired in 1941)
- The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941, Republic)
- The Batman (1943, Columbia): the Caped Crusader's first foray into live action. Also credited with creating the Batcave.
- The Purple Monster Strikes (1945, Republic)
- King Of The Rocketmen (1949, Republic): kicked off the Commando Cody franchise, even though "Cody" himself does not appear in this film.
- Flying Disc Man From Mars (1950, Republic): Generally considered one of the weakest examples of the genre.
- Spoofed and homaged in the comedy film J-Men Forever (1979, Pan Canadian Film Dist.), which uses re-dubbed Republic serials (including Commando Cody, Spy Smasher, Captain Marvel and Captain America) to show various superheroes fighting a plot to conquer the Earth with Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll.