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Indiana Jones and the Tomb of Saturday Serials by Stephen Jared

A beautiful woman tied to train tracks. A speeding locomotive snakes through the mountains. The woman screams. A hero races to her. But will he reach her in time?


Thanks to the cutting together of images like these, mixed with the melodramatic banging of a piano's keys, stage writers and novelists suddenly had a hard time competing with movies. Broadway could boast about gifted choreographers and the ability to drop scenery from the rafters but a clever juxtaposition of shots had by 1914 become a powerful storytelling tool.

Eventually, while mining material from the world of literature, someone swiped the serial-story gimmick. The idea worked for publishers; give a story's beginning then cheat readers out of the rest until they drop another nickel for the next publication. A third chapter would follow, and on and on. If the reader wanted the exciting climax, it would cost a pocket full of nickels. Films began to do the same thing.

At first, women were the stars of this instantly popular genre. The biggest was Pearl White. At that time it wasn't all about fist-a-cuffs and firing pistols. The main attraction was danger, the damsel in distress. With less attention given to a male hero, audiences were put in the position of wanting to rush in and save her. The Perils of Pauline was Pearl White's greatest success. In it she dangled from steep cliffs, was captured by cowboys, pirates and Indians, and trapped in burning houses and sinking ships. One chapter has her running desperately from a speeding boulder, not unlike Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Massive talents like D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks raised the level of sophistication audiences had come to expect from cinematic experiences in the 1920's. Their ambition combined with the radically changing times effectively left the movie serial at the side of the road. There were westerns, jungle and aviation stories presented as chapter-plays but nothing captured the imagination of the public again until Flash Gordon in 1936.


Buster Crabbe, Jean Rogers and Charles Middleton were perfectly cast as Flash, Dale and Ming the Merciless. The art deco design was beautifully sleek and appropriately futuristic and the writing, loyal to Alex Raymond's popular comic strip, was excellent. For many, good writing is measured by the degree to which there is emotional and psychological depth. But good writing also has a lot to do with imagination. Flash was nothing if not imaginative, taking viewers far beyond the familiar with its outrageous monsters, aliens and exotic sky cities. Fantasies had been filmed before but their foundations were mostly in fairy tales, whereas here the springboard was a comic strip.

Handfuls of writers around Hollywood were assigned new tasks. Rather than chain smoke and scratch their heads trying to articulate something which would amount to more than a hill of beans in this crazy world, they embraced the imagining of wild stunts, diabolical contraptions and over a dozen shocking cliffhangers per story. The success of Flash inspired numerous serials with costumed crusaders. Among them were Zorro, Spy Smasher, Buck Rogers, The Green Hornet, The Shadow, The Phantom, Captain Marvel, Captain Midnight, Captain America, Batman and Robin and Superman.

But it wasn't just costumes drawing crowds. Serials had a consistent style whether the title was Don Winslow of the Navy, Tarzan, Dick Tracy or Don Daredevil Rides Again. Each fifteen-minute chapter was packed with gunfights, fistfights, car chases and evil menaces with names like The Scorpion, The Dragon, The Mask, The Lightening and The Rattler. They were generally inexpensive. Much of what they needed they borrowed. Sometimes serials would shoot on sets left over from big budgeted studio films. The music was often originally composed for something else. Stock footage was common in many films of the thirties and forties but serials often had scenes written around it. In other words, if someone found a few feet of film showing a barn blowing up, writers would have their hero hide in a barn.

The quality of acting in chapter-plays varied. To be fair, these are not easy roles to play. The characters are one dimensional, which requires the actor to shed personality more than other types of roles. And yet, still the actor has to be compelling and likable. Viewers still need to see sincerity in the performance of an actor fighting for the love of his alien princess while strapped to a conveyor belt heading fast toward the atom furnace of doom. Among those who were great at pulling this off were Buster Crabbe and Kane Richmond. Physically they were well suited to serials and also they had the special talent of making larger-than-life heroes believable. Among the movie stars who worked in serials were Bela Lugosi, Walter Brennan, Boris Karloff, Lionel Atwill, Lloyd Bridges and John Wayne.


Television is often faulted for putting an end to the age of serials. But the best of serials had come and gone long before television landed in every home. Like a couple decades earlier, the trend simply reached an end. Those who were really great at chapter-plays had moved on.

But something happened few would have predicted at the time; a legacy remained. The first most obvious descendent of the serial was the Batman TV show from the 1960's with its deathtrap endings every other week. After that, the spirit of the old serials found itself resurrected again thanks to Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

All art is inspired by other art and appropriation of ideas is not the result of a lack of originality. And of course, originality for the sake of originality is worthless, just as an exact copy of a work of art never works.*

A swift glance through the serials of the thirties and forties leaves one surprised at how much is found which turned up later in Star Wars and Indiana Jones. This, however, does not call into question the jaw-dropping brilliance, in conception and execution, of both franchises. Einstein once said that a child could understand his theories, but the child would not understand their importance. There is something similar at work here in that most aspiring filmmakers looked to Welles, Ford, Hitchcock, Fellini and others to rip cinematic ideas from. George Lucas, even more than Spielberg, found something interesting in these largely ridiculous little stories that ran before the main features. He saw something important in them others had missed.

Zorro and then cowboy hero Lash LaRue first cracked Indy's bullwhip. Evil villain, The Lightening, from Fighting Devil Dogs** wore Darth Vader's polished black helmet, black suit and black cape. Raiders of Ghost City had a lead character named Idaho Jones. Fantastic treasures possessing supernatural powers like the Ark of the Covenant can be found in The New Adventures of Tarzan, The Phantom, Captain Marvel, Queen of the Jungle, Drums of Fu Manchu and one serial called Jungle Raiders seemed to predict the climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark with this tag line: See the weird and wonderful treasure no man could see and live!


The scroll of text, which opened every Flash Gordon chapter, also opened every Star Wars chapter. The ice planet Hoth hung in the Flash Gordon galaxy, except called Frigia. Massive amounts of water chased Flash and friends through a cave just as a flood later chased Indiana Jones and Willie Scott through a cave. The runaway mine car scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was in Tiger Woman. There were Nazis, archeologists or both in Ace Drummond and the Squadron of Doom, The Phantom, The Secret Code, Spy Smasher, Secret Service in Darkest Africa, The Perils of Nyoka and the remade version of The Perils of Pauline.

The most famous stuntman of all time, Yakima Canutt, contributed to a number of serials. In Zorro's Fighting Legion he leapt onto charging horses pulling a stagecoach. With bad guys shooting at him from within the coach, he dropped between the horses and crawled along the bottom of the coach only to then climb up the back and take out the surprised bad guys. In Raiders, the stagecoach was traded for a truck but the stunt remained the same. Zorro's Fighting Legion also has a collapsing rope bridge like in Temple of Doom.

As there were over two hundred serials produced, the listing of similar gags and visual motifs between chapter-plays and the Lucas' franchises could go on and on. Nevertheless, one's respect for George Lucas and Steven Spielberg should not be diminished. Hollywood has always mined old material and does so now more than ever. We live in an age of very limited original ideas produced. But how many of the remakes are any good? The challenge to new filmmakers re-interpreting old material to achieve creative success seems as great as if the project was wholly original. Borrowed elements from other films don't seem to make the game any easier. Spy Smasher, for example, was amazing, easily one of the best serials ever, yet so many of the same ideas are found in terrible serials.***

It seems all the various influences a filmmaker has would be invisible puzzle pieces without some brilliance as to how to make them all fit. One has to have the ability to see their influences as clear pieces of a puzzle and exactly where each piece fits. To know the best shot, the best actor for the part, the best music to capture the moment; these are the things a filmmaker must be capable of seeing or else all the stolen ideas will be worthless.


The greatest contribution serials offered to cinema was not costumes and contraptions but hope. A hero promised to return to fans week after week, giving them something to wait for, something to dream about. What ironically started as a gimmick, a way to lure kids to the same theater over and over, blossomed into artistic triumph. Most importantly, not only would the hero return, but also the hero would defy death in the process. Death was faced and eluded at every turn. A secret passage or an unexpected hand offered resurrection. Audiences sighed with relief. And the next chapter began.

Fans were left with the impression that the absolute worst could happen and yet the fight would go on. The hero would return. Death was not really death but instead a beginning. It would seem unlikely to be just coincidence that movie serials were at their peak of popularity when millions of children were losing their fathers to war.

This death-defying element, which served practical purposes in the serials, became essential in the stories of George Lucas.

What Steven Spielberg and George Lucas did was turn the little movie before the main feature into the main feature. With the tremendous success of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, doors opened for Superman and Batman movies. By the time the 1990's rolled around, Hollywood had confidence in big screen versions of Dick Tracy, Zorro, The Shadow, The Rocketeer and The Phantom.

Most recently, the second installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean series ended with a cliffhanger. And on television, what could be more exemplary of the old serials than 24, with its terrorist villains and weekly time-is-running-out conclusions?

For many of us, movies are the dreams that we choose. While some may choose psychological dramas or historical epics, others find insight, inspiration and maybe even a little profundity in costumed super heroes, determined g-men, quick-draw cowboys, sky fighters, jungle goddesses and of course adventuring archeologists. For some, the tangled webs of the psyche are unraveled and comfort is found watching an indomitable man with a bullwhip dodging boulders, poison arrows, snakes, spiders, Hitler's evil agents and most poignantly, freeing himself after being buried alive and rising from an ancient and impossible to escape tomb.


* For an example, see Gus Van Sant's shot-for-shot remake of Psycho (1998) with Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche.

** One of the stars of Fighting Devil Dogs was Montagu Love. His name alone conjures up images of Hollywood's distant and flickering black and white past. He is notable for playing parts in most of the best adventure films of the era: Gunga Din, The Sea Hawk, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Prisoner of Zenda and The Mark of Zorro.

*** Republic Pictures produced most of the best serials. The top directors of the genre were John English and William Witney. These two (who mostly worked as a team) are credited with having paved the way for modern action moviemaking.

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