THE SATURDAY MATINEE SERIAL
by Bill Monson
Anybody under 60 can skip this column.
Unless of course you're interested in ancient history or the guilty pleasures of your father or grandfather back when cars still had bumpers and running boards and airplanes had propellers and soda pop was a nickel and the bottles were chilled in water-filled coolers with a cap-opener on the side.
What set off this nostalgia? The demise of the West Theater. The West was one of the three movie houses in Galesburg where I went to Saturday matinees. The others were the Colonial (which became the second half of the West duplex in more recent times) and the Bond, which was a tiny place on the south side of Main Street just off the Square.
I've written in the past of those matinees, but I usually concentrated on the features. This time, I'd like to reminisce about the serials which played with them.
Serials or chapter plays were episodic film stories, usually in 12 or 15 installments, which lasted up to 20 minutes each. They were full of action--chases, fist fights, stunts--and always ended with the hero or heroine or one of their friends facing certain death. These "cliff-hangers" helped coax you back for next week's chapter, when the hero or heroine would manage a narrow escape. Many of these "escapes" were outright cheats, showing the hero rolling aside as the train roared by, diving out a window just before the warehouse exploded, or being saved when someone turned off the buzz saw. But after a general groan and perhaps a boo or two, the audience would settle back for this week's adventure. A word about that audience. I remember it as male and under 15. If there were girls present--and both my wife and sister say they went to Saturday shows--they didn't register on my pre-teen receptors. Nor did adults. What I recall was a ritual of pent-up testosterone. Four studios dominated the sound serial market: Universal, Columbia, Republic, and Mascot. Universal produced 69 sound serials (1929-46); Columbia, 57 (1937-56); and Republic, 66 (1936-55). Mascot, a small independent studio which was later combined with three other minor studios to create Republic, turned out 24 serials (1929-35). The major studios like MGM, Paramount and Warners did not do serials though they did produce short subjects. Because Universal ended its serial production in 1946, Republic was the leading maker of serials in my prime Saturday matinee years. However, I believe the Republic serials were generally a cut above the others anyway.
Republic had the best stuntmen in Hollywood, and the studio's special effects with miniatures by Howard and Theodore Lydecker were better than some major studio products. Its three action directors William Witney, John English and Spencer Gordon Bennett kept the chapters moving; and the writers came up with satisfying plots and cliff-hangers for them. Republic also had everybody's favorite villain Roy Barcroft. What the studio also had was less talk and more action--at least two fist fights or gun battles every chapter. The fights were so well choreographed that they were imitated by every other studio in their action pictures at any level. (Republic also used dubbed-in sound effects for fights, which included smacking a side of beef to get the sound of a punch.)
One interesting fact about serial stuntmen was they wore hats with flesh-colored rubber bands running under the chin to keep them on during stunts and fights. That way they were less likely to give away the secret that the star wasn't really doing the stunt or fight. Most Republic serial stars were chosen because they could handle action in close-ups and resembled the studio's superb team of stuntmen: Tom Steele, David Sharpe, Dale Van Sickle, Fred Graham, Eddie Parker, Duke Green, Ken Terrell, and Cliff Lyons.
The stuntmen were kept busy, moving from set to set, from serial to B-western feature; and we savage young males loved their work, recreating it later in our own backyards.
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