Cliffhanger Thrill Is Relived in Video Serials

Times Staff Writer

In the 1981 film “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Indiana Jones, the daring archeologist, got himself into some of the darndest, life-threatening fixes, escaping just in the nick of time.

Director Steven Spielberg, now at work on the third Indiana Jones epic, has said that the inspiration for the movie was those Saturday-afternoon cliffhanger serials he watched as a youngster. The spirit of those serials--a staple in movie theaters from the ‘30s through the mid ‘50s--lives on in the phenomenally successful Indiana Jones series.

The real thing lives on too, thanks to home video.

Republic Home Video has cornered the market on serials. Since the mid-'80s, the company has put out 16 of them--six in the last year--and has more than 40 more in its vaults, according to Vallery Kountze, senior vice president for marketing. It plans to release six to 12 of those in the next year, she said.


Drawn from the catalogue of Republic Pictures, a B-movie outfit that was a major serial maker (along with Universal, Columbia and RKO), Republic markets them at $29.95, offering a complete serial--12 to 15 chapters--on two cassettes.

“They appeal to older people, who remember them as kids, and to film buffs,” Kountze said. “But there’s also a new audience of younger people who consider the serials camp and hip.”

Indeed, the sets are tacky and the acting is generally wooden. The big attraction, however, is the action, which they supply non-stop. The favorite form of action--bloodless in those days--is the fist fight. One breaks out about every five minutes.

Each chapter ended with the hero or heroine in some terrifying situation, on the brink of death. Do they survive? If so, how? Fans would come back each week to find out. The beauty of having all the chapters--which run 11-17 minutes each--available in one package is not having to wait to find out how the hero survives.


Here’s a sample of the Republic serials available on home video:

“King of the Texas Rangers” (1941). Serial buffs and sports fans love this one because it features former star quarterback Sammy Baugh as a Texas Ranger. In defiance of logic, it mixes an old-fashioned Western with a wartime saboteur hunt. But in terms of action--especially the big oil-field fire--it’s still one of the better Western serials.

“King of the Rocketmen” (1949). Features Tris Coffin, who usually played villains, as the Rocket Man, a crime-fighter who flies because of a jacket equipped with rocket jets. His nemesis is the shadowy Dr. Vulcan, a major-league saboteur. This serial is notable for its well-staged fistfights.

“Adventures of Captain Marvel” (1941). Starring Tom Tyler as the comic-book character who was Superman’s chief rival for fan affection. Captain Marvel’s alter-ego, Billy Batson, shouted, “Shazam!,” turning him into the invincible, caped crime-fighter. With some remarkably authentic flying scenes, this is considered one of the best serials ever.


“Nyoka and the Tigermen” (1942). Kay Aldredge plays Nyoka, who’s battling the pretty but evil Vultura in North Africa. The film includes a hair-raising collapsing rope-bridge sequence, with acrobatic Nyoka barely escaping alive.

“The Masked Marvel” (1943). Tom Steele, as the hero, battles Sakima, an evil Japanese agent. It is awash with flag-waving patriotism and the kind of odious Japanese stereotypes that were prevalent in wartime movies.

“Spy Smasher” (1942). Kane Richmond plays another comic-book hero who’s combating saboteurs, this time The Mask and his gang. The production values are far above the norm. Features some of the greatest escape sequences in the serials genre.

“Son of Zorro” (1947) George Turner, as the masked avenger, fights an outlaw gang in the post-Civil War West. Most of the Western serials were sub-par, but this one, full of bang-up fight scenes, is well above average.


Information: (800) 826-2295.