Cliff-Hanging Republic Serials Ride Again

"Indiana Jones" and "Star Wars" have nothing on the serials of the '30s, '40s and '50s that brought kids--Steven Spielberg and George Lucas among them--to movie theaters Saturday after cliff-hanging Saturday.

No other studio approached Republic Pictures when it came to producing those action-packed series with their stock footage and standing sets that reappeared as often as the imperiled hero or heroine. Now modern technology has given us back those Saturday afternoon movie thrills with a vengeance--and chapter stops. Republic Pictures Home Video offers on laser disc ($39.95) some of the best of their sound serials with all their hurried acting, stilted dialogue, almost nonstop action, death-defying stunts and impossible chapter endings.

No theater ever projected these serials in such pristine black-and-white images with such good sound (which is what puts the laser versions several cuts above the $29.95 VHS offerings). But viewer beware: Though each exciting epic comes filled with 200-plus minutes of thrills on four long-playing (CLV) sides, don't try to watch four hours in one sitting. Digitally mastered from the original film negatives with digitally processed audio and the original theatrical trailers included, they hold up well--a chapter or two at a time. That's the way they were meant to be watched. Seeing all 12 or 15 chapters at one time destroys the mood, not to mention one's sanity.

Among the most fun is "Undersea Kingdom," the second serial produced by Republic in 1936, starring Ray (Crash) Corrigan as a naval officer who discovers that the undersea kingdom of Atlantis is responsible for a series of devastating earthquakes terrorizing the world (226 minutes, two discs).

Republic's special effects team of Howard and Theodore Lydecker and dazzling stunt work make up for the ludicrous plotting and silly dialogue: Corrigan falls down a bottomless shaft; is dragged by a chariot; trampled by horses; faces bombs and assorted other explosions; is tied to an armored vehicle as it crashes an enemy fort; escapes from a plane crash; is engulfed in flames, and just escapes as the enemy's floating fortress is destroyed. At the end of Chapter 12, Crash . . . but we shouldn't give away the ending.

In 1937, the superior "SOS Coast Guard" (224 minutes, two discs), directed by William Witney and Alan James, starred Bela Lugosi as a mad munitions expert and Ralph Byrd (the definitive Dick Tracy) in Coast Guard uniform as Terry Kent. It's arguably one of the best serials, with sensational stunts and better than usual plotting and acting. Along for the harrowing ride are Maxine Doyle as a star reporter and Lee Ford as Snapper McGee, an ace fotog who battles Lugosi every step of the way. Byrd and his friends escape a sinking ship, an exploding boat, disintegrating gas, a crushing elevator, an out-of-control ship, a falling water tower, an underwater fight, an explosion, a truck going over a cliff. . . .

Other bring-the-gang-over-to-watch Republic serials on laser disc include Corrigan in the 1937 "The Painted Stallion" (directed by Witney and Spencer Gordon Bennet, and considered by many one of the finest serials ever made), the 1939 "Zorro's Fighting Legion" with Reed Hadley as the dashing Robin Hood of the Old West, and the 1944 "Zorro's Black Whip" starring Linda Stirling.

That leaves us waiting for about 60 serials still to leap out of Republic's vaults onto laser, including those featuring Dick Tracy, the Lone Ranger, Red Ryder, Captain Marvel. . . . Saturday morning cartoons, who needs you?

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