Thursday, September 10, 2009

You Gotta Respect the Cliffhanger

A lot of the old timey stuff I like is done in a cliffhanger format: multi-chapter serials in which each chapter ends at a tense or dramatic moment. Radio shows like The Adventures of Superman, I Love a Mystery and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar are good examples of this.

And, of course, there are the movie serials—a concept that goes back to the silent film days and ran into the 1950s before dying out. The movie serials ran anywhere from twelve to fifteen chapters. To see the whole thing, you had to go to the theater each Saturday, watching the next chapter as part of the Saturday matinee. A lot of the best serials--Superman, The Adventures of Captain Marvel, Zorro’s Fighting Legion, etc.—are available on DVD.

Now there is a proper way and an improper way to watch movie serials (or listen to radio serials, for that matter). You can’t watch more than one chapter per day. You can’t sit and watch the whole thing in one sitting. That partially spoils the experience and it simply isn’t done. Enjoying the pleasant suspense of a cliffhanger is half the fun. A little patience—a little self-control—and the entire experience becomes that much more enjoyable.

I had a birthday recently and got a copy of the 1940 serial The Green Hornet as a gift. It’s one of the better ones. The production values are good. There’s some really nifty looking car crashes and plane wrecks. The story is strong—each chapter, the Hornet is breaking up yet another racket run by a syndicate of mobsters (with the identity of the top mobster being kept secret). The Hornet’s car—the Black Beauty—is cool-looking, as is his custom-made gas gun. The Hornet is played by actor/stunt man Gordon Jones, but when he puts on his mask, his voice becomes that of Al Hodge—the actor who played the Hornet on radio. The fight scenes are energetic and nicely choreographed.

Keye Luke, best known as Charlie Chan’s number one son and later as Master Po in the Kung Fu tv series, is the Hornet’s Philippino valet Kato, the character responsible for souping up the Black Beauty and inventing the gas gun. He’s one of my favorite character actors from the 1930s & 1940s—always giving a personable performance.

So far, I’ve watched the first four episodes. The Hornet’s gotten the goods on a construction company using shoddy and unsafe materials and busted up a murder/insurance racket. He’s caught three of the bad guys, but they’ve either refused to squeel on the rest or been killed to insure their silence.

At the end of the fourth chapter, the Hornet is in an out-of-control car as it slams into a gas station. How will he survive? I’ll find out tomorrow, when I watch Chapter Five.

But not before then. I know the proper way to watch a serial, by golly.

When I was in Sudan on a short-term mission trip last May, I discovered that several of the full-time missionaries were hooked on the TV show Prison Break, which uses the serial format. They had the DVDs and would watch a whole bunch of episodes at one time.

I tried to explain the extraordinary wrongness of this—that they had to ration out the episodes and enjoy the suspense. But I couldn’t get them to listen. I even tried to convince them that there’s a verse in Leviticus that bans watching more than one episode a day, but they didn’t buy that.

Well, I know the proper way to watch a serial, even if the rest of the world doesn’t. One chapter a day. It’s the only way. Watch more than a chapter a day and you simply don’t go to Heaven when you die.


  1. You're absolutely right. Do NOT watch a whole movie serial in one sitting. It's more fun digesting it into tasty little bits. Also, I haven't finished the Green Hornet, either but did you notice how wonderfully close this serial was to radio show in style? Even the music seems the same.

  2. That's because--as well as dubbing radio actor Al Hodge's voice whenever the Hornet was wearing his mask--the individual chapters of the serial were based directly on specfic episodes. One of the fun aspects of The Green Hornet serial is how much it really does respect the source material.

  3. Forgive me, DeForest, for I have sinned. I have shamelessly watched more than one chapter of a serial in a single sitting. I thought that was the great thing about DVDs--being freed from having to wait a week to see how our hero escaped this chapter's inescapable deathtrap? I will admit, in seeking some sort of absolution, that I rarely watch more than two chapters at a time.

    As for THE GREEN HORNET, I've thus far only seen the first one from 1940 and thoroughly enjoyed it. I only knew Gordon Jones as Mike the Cop on the 1950's ABBOTT & COSTELLO SHOW and was very impressed by how well he played the dashing editor and hero (even if his voice was dubbed as The Hornet). -- Gary in Omaha

  4. Well, two chapters at a time isn't that bad. I'm convinced, though, that part of the pleasure of watching (or listening to) serials is enjoying the suspense between chapters.


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