SF Film recommendations
from the 20th Century

1: Before the Golden Age (1895-1949)

With cinema now over a century old, present-day
genre enthusiasts can easily forget what came before
and what inspired science fiction fans of yore.
Tony Chester identifies these early offerings and
SF2 Concatenation provides links to trailers or the film itself,
alternatively the IMDB listing. This is the first of a series of articles that charts SF film through the 20th century.

 

Introduction

Part One: Before the Golden Age (1895-1949)

The Serials

The subsequent articles in this series will follow shortly.

 

Introduction

Since the medium of film was first created there has been science fiction cinema. Further than that, were it not for science fiction films then, then cinema as we know it today would not exist. These may appear to be bold statements when taken at face value, but the ideas behind them are easily enough demonstrated. It is generally agreed that cinema, the showing of the then new 'moving pictures', began in late-1895 with the pioneering work of Louis and Auguste Lumiere and one of the first films they produced and co-directed was Charcuterie Mechanique (1895), or The Mechanical Butcher, in which a live pig enters one end of a device and emerges at the other as hams, sausages, ribs and bacon. Now science fiction is a notoriously difficult beast to define, not least because its many strands depict it as something of a 'broad church', but it is certainly true that one of its themes is the introduction and impact of new technologies, and by that definition the above film is definitely science fiction, notwithstanding any dismissal of it as 'a one-minute piece of trick photography'. And if, as many commentators now agree, the first real work of science fiction (not counting proto-SF forms) is Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein (1818) and/or that Jules Verne's work from the 1860s on is SF, then it follows that from that perspective moving pictures and the associated technology is itself a science fictional development. Certainly most of Shelley's contemporaries would have considered film to be just pie in the sky. Besides, moving pictures are, by definition, 'trick photography' in that film is a succession of still images shown so rapidly that the eye is tricked into seeing motion.

By 1897 the Lumieres had been joined by the equally pioneering George Melies, who made Chirurgien Americaine, or A Twentieth Century Surgeon, in which several transplants take place until the first patient/actor is entirely replaced by a new person, and also Gugusse et l'Automate, or The Clown and the Automaton, which features what we now call a robot; and were also joined by George A Smith, who made X-Rays, or The X-Ray Fiend, which incorporated the then cutting edge technology of x-ray photography. X-rays were first discovered by Sir William Crookes, their penetrative qualities first demonstrated in 1895 by WA Roentgen, and x-ray cinematography first shown (to the Glasgow Philosophical Society) by Dr.John McIntyre in April 1897; Smith's film was made in October of that year. By 1900 some 19 or 20 SF films had been made, covering trips to the Moon, giant insects, flying machines and the transformation of matter, and the initial pioneers had been joined by such as Wallace McCutcheon, Arthur Marvin, Ferdinand Zecca, James A Williamson, Edwin S Porter and Walter R Booth.

So why are these recommendations from the twentieth century? Well, at the one end most films of the 19th century were only 1-3 mins long and represented only the first faltering steps in the new medium. However in 1902 Melies made Le Voyage dans la Lune at a staggering 21mins, and the plot combined elements from Jules Verne's De la Terre a la Lune (1865) and HG Wells' First Men in the Moon (1901), both undeniably science fiction. As such the film has a claim to being the first 'real' SF film. At the other end of the century, it can be argued that only from the perspective of a decade or so on can we see which of the offerings from the final years of that century have had any real impact – perhaps in the form of numbers of cinema tickets sold, numbers of rentals or sales of DVD and video, or even of legacy, either in the form of sequels since produced or of achievement of 'cult' or 'classic' status (i.e. do people still talk about them, or have they been largely ignored or forgotten?). Perhaps, more relevantly, it is just that for many the 20th century is, as yet, the most science fictional of centuries and, from a cinema perspective, represents the triumph of SF films. From very humble beginnings, and through all the decades in which SF was seen as escapist trash, second-class films loved only by nerds, SF has since taken over the world (to be dramatic about it), when every month sees an SF blockbuster coming out, and SF in general has permeated our society to the extent that its tropes have been used to sell everything from lager to spectacles to banking facilities. Even comedy routines regularly reference SF films, secure in the knowledge that the audience will 'get it'.

However, as stated above, science fiction is a broad church – there are pure SF films, SF-fantasies, SF-horror films, SF-westerns, SF-detective films, SF-thrillers, SF-comedies, even SF-musicals. Science fiction has also always been associated with independent filmmaking, or with production companies not associated with major studios. The genre also has close ties to the horror and fantasy fields. Even taking all that on board, it is probably worth spending a few words explaining the criteria for inclusion in this admittedly short list. Included are many films that many would see as horror, plain and simple. If Frankenstein's creation is referred to as a 'monster', then surely monster = horror, QED. But unlike Dracula, a vampire, who can only exist if one supposes supernatural forces exist, the monster was brought about by purely scientific means, no 'demons' or 'gods' or 'dark powers' are necessary. Or take zombies. If a zombie is raised by voodoo or witchcraft, then supernatural forces are in play, but if a zombie is raised by manmade or alien environmental change, or a corpse re-animated by some scientific means, then 'magic' is unnecessary. Or take mental powers like telekinesis or precognition; if they're 'god-given', then they're supernatural, but if they are as a result of genetic mutation or whatever, then they are science fictional. To some the point might be moot, but it is a limiting factor, always accepting that there will be exceptions that prove the rule. There are two major exclusions. One is the 'medical thriller'. The clue is in the second part of the name… Medical thrillers often revolve around what is called a 'McGuffin', a term coined by Alfred Hitchcock to describe a device which is the reason for, but not intrinsic to, the plot. So whether in any particular film the McGuffin is a technique or device or disease or whatever, the plot actually is about those who wish to keep it secret or disseminate it, cover it up or expose it, and not about the thing itself. The second exclusion is the 'super spy' (which genre has been known to use a McGuffin or two itself). The problem is, firstly, that no amount of nifty gadgets in themselves necessarily makes for science fiction but also, secondly, that there are so many of them! If you include, say, 'James Bond' (who can and does have entire books devoted to him alone), then you'd also have to include 'Derek Flint' (James Coburn), 'Matt Helm' (Dean Martin), 'Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin' (Robert Vaughn and David McCallum), 'Harry Palmer' (Michael Caine), 'Maxwell Smart' (Don Adams), and so on.

Of course, I hope it goes without saying that this will not just be a list of my favourite films, so I will be 'recommending' plenty of things I do not personally like…

 

Part One: Before the Golden Age (1895-1949)

The first half of 20th century SF cinema was an on-going experiment with a couple of major interruptions, two world wars, disrupting the development of the field. And it is not like all other areas of film weren't similarly afflicted, but mainstream cinema could proceed without any fancy techniques or special effects, and horror could get by for the most part with make-up and prosthetics. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, I can actually get this first list of recommendations down to a 'top ten' (not counting sequels, remakes and serials). Which is not to say that you can't branch out from here to discover other films of interest.

For instance, the first adaptation of the novel Frankenstein was Edison's 1910 version starring Charles Ogle and, together with the later Der Golem (1920), it had an influence on Universal's famous version (as did many other 'expressionist' films such as The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari (1919). It could be argued that Aelita (1924) influenced the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials, and 1930's Just Imagine, whose model set was more expensive than that of Metropolis, actually contributed footage to Buck Rogers. Pre-World War II SF films also included the fantasy-based King Kong (1933) and well-thought of films such as The Invisible Ray and The Man Who Could Work Miracles (both 1936), the curious comedy Gladiator (1938), based on Philip Wylie's more serious book, and the likes of Humphrey Bogart in The Return of Dr. X (1939) and, after the war was over, Bing Crosby in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1949).

So what might the SF fan look out for from the time dominated by the mainstream and, arguably, Universal's horror films? Let's look at the feature films (and their sequels/remakes) first, before taking a look at the serials.

Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902) dir. Georges Melies. At 21 minutes long this can claim to be the first SF epic film, all others up to this point being a mere 1-3mins. The inspiration comes from thef Jules Verne's novel De la Terre a la Lune (1865) and H. G. Wells' First Men in the Moon (1901); from the former Melies took the huge cannon that fires the ship, and from the latter the 'selenites' the crew encounter under the Moon's surface. Melies himself took the role of Professor Barbenfouillis who conceives the trip and oversees the work at the foundry for the construction of the great cannon. The projectile is loaded by a line of dancing girls and, once fired, hits the 'Man in the Moon' in his eye (an oft reproduced still). When it starts to snow (!) the astronauts take refuge in a crater, find their way into the Moon's interior and, amid giant mushrooms, are captured by the selenites. These creatures explode in puffs of smoke when struck, so the escape is fairly easy. The astronauts return to Earth and 'splash down' (67 years before anyone would actually do so) before enjoying a victory parade. This film is an astonishing achievement and most that immediately followed would stay at very short lengths, with only Melies producing films at 20mins or more, right up until about 1913 when Herbert Brenon's Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde hit 30mins, and J. Wallett Waller's A Message from Mars came in at a full hour. Le Voyage dans la Lune can still be found today, over a century later, and is often played at planetariums and the like.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916) dir. Stuart Paton. Based on Jules Verne's novel Vingt Milles Lieues Sous les Mers (1870). The first film adaptation was in an 18min film in 1905 (credits unavailable); then in 1907 Georges Melies made Deux Cent Milles Lieues Sous les Mers, accidentally increasing the number of leagues by a factor of ten, and this was also 18mins. But in 1916 came the full-length (113mins) version of Stuart Paton – it combined the stories of 20,000 Leagues… and The Mysterious Island novels and featured stunning and innovative underwater photography for its day; the originators of that equipment going on to work on the 1929 Mysterious Island film. Allen Hollubar plays a distinctly Indian-looking Nemo (as is correct) using his super-submarnine to destroy nations' warships, but the film also follows the character being re-united with his daughter. Both Verne and Wells provided plenty of material for early SF cinema, as we will see, but probably the best remembered adaptation of this film is the 1954 Disney version.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1920) dir. John S Robertson; Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde (1932) dir. Rouben Mamoulian; Dr Jekyll and Mr.Hyde (1941) dir. Victor Fleming. Robert Louis Stevenson's novel The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) has inspired a huge number of adaptations, variations and pastiches over the years, starting in 1908 with a 16min version produced by William Selig. There followed The Duality of Man (1910) 9mins, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1912) dir. Lucius Henderson 15mins, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1913) dir. Herbert Brenon 30 mins, and three versions in 1920, one a very loose updated adaptation directed by Louis Mayer 40mins, one (now 'lost') a German version by FW Murnau (Der Januskopf). The other, Robertson's, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, is a classic of silent cinema at 63 mins. It starred John Barrymore in the title role(s) and was produced by Adolph Zukor. While a fairly faithful adaptation it borrowed much of its structure from Richard Mansfield's 1897 stage adaptation. Barrymore grimaces his way through the role of Hyde, with a great transformation scene achieved with blue make-up and filters (in black and white the scene as shot through the filter would not show the make-up but, as the filter was removed, the make-up would show and alter the shape of Barrymore's features), but it is the photography that makes the atmosphere. This version is widely available, but with many different soundtracks. The 1932 version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, starring Frederic March (who won an Oscar for Best Actor – the film was also nominated for two more in the Writing and Cinematography categories), is probably the best. Shot before the introduction of the Hays' Code (a self-regulatory censorship code) this is a sexual and cruel version at 98 mins, but following 1934 was cut to 90 or even 81 mins; the latter two are readily available, the former is not. The essence of this version is the tension between Jekyll's desire for his fiancee (Rose Hobart), constantly denied him by her father (Haliwell Hobbes), and Hyde's lust for a prostitute (Miriam Hopkins), and is as much a comment on the 'morality' of the times as it is about the duality of man. Wally Westmore spent four hours per day on March's Hyde make-up. Victor Fleming's 1941 version starred Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner and was a strange choice of subject for the director of The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind (both 1939). While a glossy 'studio' production (MGM), with undoubtedly fine performances, this is little more than a Victorian literary romance, though Joseph Ruttenberg's lush cinematography shines through (he was nominated for, but did not receive, an Oscar). Since then there have been any number of adaptations and variations. Among the more interesting are Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) with Ralph Bates as the doctor and Martine Beswick as Hyde; the inevitable 'blaxsploitation' version, Dr.Black and Mr.Hyde (1975); and the comedic Dr Heckyl and Mr Hype (1980) with Oliver Reed.

The Lost World (1925) dir. Harry Hoyt. Based on the 1912 novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, this classic of silent cinema which took seven years to make featured the early stop-motion effects work of Willis O'Brien, creator of King Kong. Professor Challenger (Wallace Beery) finds a lost world atop a South American plateau, full of dinosaurs, and brings a brontosaurus back to London. Available in several versions, the original running time is 106mins, black & white and tinted, with various soundtracks. This film has the distinction of being the first ever in-flight film, shown on an Imperial Airways flight from London to Europe in April 1925, and was also used by the German Air Service Company in 1926. Remade poorly in 1960 by Irwin Allen, starring Claude Rains and Michael Rennie, with photo-enlarged dinosaurs. Then again in a TV film in 1992 directed by Timothy Bond, starring John Rhys-Davies and David Warner – this had a sequel, Return to the Lost World. Then there was a US-Australian TV series that ran for three seasons (1999-2002). And then another TV film in 2001, this time from the BBC, starring Bob Hoskins, Peter Falk and James Fox. None of these to be confused with Jurassic Park II: The Lost World (1997).

Metropolis (1926) dir. Fritz Lang. For many this is the first true 'landmark' SF film, and it is not hard to see why. Everything about this film is big: it took 16 months to make when most films took a few weeks, it had a cast of over 37,000 people, and it cost a staggering DM7million (that is 1926 Marks). The full length version is 184 mins, though the most common lengths these days are 150 mins, 128 mins, and 83 mins. However, even the 'long version' is 150 times shorter than the amount of actual footage shot – of some 2 million feet of film only a little over 13,000 was screened. John Fredersen (Alfred Abel) runs a mammoth city in the year 2026 but, fearing a revolution to come, decides to bring it about himself in order to have an excuse to crush the workers. They are being kept in check by the angelic Maria (Brigitte Helm), who is loved by John's son, Freder (Gustav Frolich). John has Maria kidnapped in order for mad scientist Rothwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to make a robotic copy of her, which he will use to incite the workers to riot. The duplication scene is one of the most iconic in SF cinema. During the riot the lower levels of the city are flooded, killing many and threatening the workers' children. They are eventually saved by Freder and Maria and, ultimately, Fredersen and the workers are reconciled. Though the script, by Lang's wife Thea von Harbou, is appallingly sentimental, the effects, cinematography, imagery, choreography and sheer visual intensity of the film would remain unequalled for decades. Its influence on subsequent films, robots, cityscapes and the like cannot be overestimated. A true classic.

Frankenstein (1931), and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) both dir. James Whale. Based, somewhat loosely, on the 1818 novel, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. For some commentators and critics Shelley's Frankenstein is the first 'true' SF novel and, insofar as there are no overt supernatural elements, there is some justification for this. Certainly it is the archetype for re-animation and creature creation stories and films. Many confuse the monster with his creator, and most see the Frankenstein monster as a warning against scientific hubris, rather than as the product of neglect and abuse as his creator, Shelley, intended. Whatever the confusions that may exist, one thing is beyond doubt: Frankenstein/the monster has inspired and starred in more films than Godzilla and James Bond put together! There are British, US, Mexican, Spanish, French, German, Swedish, Italian, and Japanese versions (to name but a few) and these have been SF, horror, comedy, action, exploitation and both soft- and hard-core porn versions (again, to name but a few). Only Dracula, as a character, comes even close to the popularity of the Frankenstein creature as a cinematic subject – and often one can trace an almost one-for-one correspondence with Frankenstein and Dracula films appearing almost simultaneously (which could make for a huge number of interesting double bills). The first celluloid outing for the monster and his creator was a 16min film produced by Thomas Edison in 1910. Adapted and directed by J. Searle Dawley, it starred Augustus Phillips as Frankenstein, Mary Fuller as his fiancée and Charles Ogle as the monster. However, it was in 1931, with the James Whale film starring Boris Karloff that the Frankenstein monster's cinematic story really starts. Whale, an Englishman, brought a European style to the American studio, most especially influenced by expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari and Der Golem. Colin Clive is Frankenstein, and Dwight Frye his assistant, obsessed with creating life in the iconic laboratory, full of the devices of Kenneth Strickfaden, much of which appeared in the Mel Brook's film Young Frankenstein (1974), and which set the tone for all 'mad scientist' labs to come. Karloff and his equally iconic make-up which took four hours to apply, created by Jack B Pierce, is the most recognisable monster ever, and his pathos-driven performance draws sympathy from even the most horrified viewer (at least, of 1931). The monster is hunted by villagers and seemingly destroyed at the end of the film. But Frankenstein grossed 100 times what it cost to make (US$25million compared to US$250,000) and no studio, least of all Universal, was going to let a cash cow like that languish for long. Accordingly Whale was pressed into making the 1935 sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, which is a masterpiece on its own terms, though its injection of black humour has horrified purists. This is strange as the film actually bothers to depict a part of Shelley's story completely left out of its predecessor – the monster's request that his creator produce a mate for him. Elsa Lanchester, who also appears as Mary Shelley in a 'prologue' sequence with Byron at the Villa Deodato, explaining that the monster did not die at the end of the first film, is the 'bride' to be. Her make-up was so stiff that she had to be fed through a tube while filming, and Karloff's make-up was more elaborate, taking seven hours to apply rather than four. Ernest Thesiger is the perverse Dr. Pretorious, who keeps miniature homunculi in glass cases, his own attempt at creating life. With the unsubtle persuasion of the monster (Karloff), he convinces Frankenstein (Clive) to create the creature's mate, but when Lanchester's she-creature rejects him the monster runs amok and both creations and Pretorious die in the resulting conflagration. Except that the original monster didn't, of course, and went on to star in .Son of Frankenstein (1939), Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945) and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) (with Lon Chaney jr., Bela Lugosi and Glenn Strange variously playing the monster).. The 1950s saw the beginning of the Hammer adaptations, but these laid more emphasis on the creator than his creation.

Island of Lost Souls (1932) dir. Erle C. Kenton. Loosely based on H. G. Wells' novel The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), Philip Wylie's script does take some liberties with the original, not least making Dr. Moreau a sadist rather than a dedicated scientist. This upset Wells but, it has to be said, made for a better film. Charles Laughton is the doctor and Richard Arlen the shipwrecked sailor he tries to mate with his 'panther-woman' (Kathleen Burke). Bela Lugosi is a 'wolf-man' and Leila Hyams is Arlen's fiancée coming to his rescue (unusual that a woman should be a heroine in the thirties). The sadistic cruelty of the film, with the vivisectionist 'House of Pain', and the often horrific make-up effects got this film banned in some countries (including Britain) for a number of years.

The Invisible Man (1933) dir. James Whale. Based on the novel The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance (1897) by H. G. Wells. Claude Rains takes the title role which made him a star which, considering he is unseen for most of the film, is a testament to his expressive voice and sheer acting ability. Invisibility seems to go hand in hand with megalomania and Rains, as scientist Hawley Griffin, spirals down into madness until people unite against him. The film spawned a number of, increasingly bad, sequels, including The Invisible Man Returns (1940) dir. Joe May, starring Vincent Price; The Invisible Woman (1940) dir. A Edward Sutherland; The Invisible Agent (1942) dir. Edwin L Marin; and The Invisible Man's Revenge (1944) dir. Ford Beebe. The Invisible Boy (1957) dir. Herman Hoffman was more a vehicle for Robbie the Robot than an actual invisibility film, though he does make an invisibility potion for the boy (Richard Eyer). A mid-seventies TV series starring David McCallum had its pilot released as a film. The theme continues throughout the century with 'The Invisible…' being slapped in front of just about everything including …Avenger (1958), …Dead (1970), Kid ('88), …Killer (1940), Maniac (1989), …Menace (1937), …Monster (1950), …Strangler (1976), and …Woman again (1983). 1992 saw Chevy Chase in Memoirs of an Invisible Man, dir. John Carpenter, a pretty lightweight comedy-thriller that had moments of genuine fun, and 2000 saw the release of Paul Verhoeven's darker Hollow Man.

Mad Love (1935) dir. Karl Freund. Following 1925's The Hands of Orlac, this is the second, and generally agreed to be the best, adaptation of Maurice Renard's Les Mains d'Orlac (1920). Dr.Gogal (Peter Lorre) is in love with the wife (Frances Drake) of a pianist (Colin Clive). When the pianist's hands are severed in a railway accident, Gogal grafts the hands of a knife-throwing murderer (Edgar Brophy) onto his arms. He then tries to drive the pianist mad by pretending to be the murderer come back to life, trying to convince him that he now is a murderer too – he is a suspect in the knife-killing of his father. In one of the most famous scenes in cinema Lorre (as Brophy) reveals first the metal hands he wears and then the metal neck brace supposed to support his own grafted on head! When Drake does not respond to Lorre's advances he attempts to strangle her with her own hair, but is knifed by Clive. Mad Love too is also known as The Hands of Orlac, as is the poor 1960 version (which itself is also known as Hands of a Strangler), and the equally poor 1963 version is Hands of a Stranger.

Things to Come (1936) dir. William Cameron Menzies. Based on H. G. Wells' novel The Shape of Things to Come (1933). This film, split into three sections, begins in 'Everytown' in 1940 with the outbreak of, a then still fictional, World War II and predicted, among other things, the use of chemical and biological weapons. Then, in 1970, the war has reduced society to feudalism and Ralph Richardson's evil 'Boss' rules the town until Raymond Massey arrives with 'Peace Gas'. The final section, set in 2036, sees a technocratic utopian society on the eve of its first space mission. Cedric Hardwicke argues for a return to a rural idyll, but eventually compromises with Massey and their son and daughter are sent on the mission to start a compassionate society together. This film is a bit slow, even by 1936 standards, but remains an important milestone in the history of SF cinema. One of its minor distinctions is that Sir Arthur Bliss's music was the first complete film score to be issued on records. In 1979 there was a film called H. G. Wells' The Shape of Things to Come directed by George McCowan starring Jack Palance, but it had nothing to do with either the book or Menzies' film.

 

The Serials

Being 'middle-aged' (in the early 21st century) has many perils, at least one of which is forgetting that there are people in the World who are younger than yourself and who, therefore, do not know and cannot remember what you know. Another blind spot is forgetting that though someone may be the same age as you, that doesn't mean they're familiar with the same things as you. That is, they might just be new to the field. So please bear with me while I explain that there used to be something (at least in Britain and the US) known as 'Saturday Morning Cinema'. What this meant was that busy parents had somewhere they could pack off the kids to while doing the shopping or whatever. The two big cinema chains in Britain were the Odeon and ABC theatres. However, both ran basically the same format as far as content goes (and I'm led to believe by US friends that the same was true there). After singing the 'club' song, there would be a couple of cartoons, an episode of a film serial, and then a film (often a Western). Given that most of the serials were superhero and SF-related, these were the big draw to come back week after week. Little did most of us kids in the early sixties know (or care) how old these things already were.

As previously mentioned, there was an undignified little dust-up in Europe at the end of the thirties through to the mid-forties. Hardly surprising that cinema suffered, but it also represented an opportunity of sorts, since it was ridiculously easy to raise money for cheap propaganda, and equally easy to gain approval for 'patriotic' films. Given the (justified) paranoia that accompanies war, it is hardly surprising that 'Hollywood' was full of stories about saboteurs and invaders and the like. Heroes at the cinema included Bulldog Drummond, Dick Tracy, Dick Barton and Brick Bradford (all of whom were also both radio and comic strip stars), but these went hand in hand with SF adventurers and superheroes.

I think it is worth mentioning some of these serials for two main reasons. First of all they are cliffhanging fun and fans really should be familiar with them, and secondly they seem relevant to me, given the last decade-or-so of heavily CGI'd (computer graphics-ed) comic-book hero adaptations. Not that superheroes have not appeared often in the intervening period, far from it, but I think the current crop of films neatly 'bookend' the latter half of the twentieth century. So, given that I know for a fact that all of the following are still available, here is a brief selection of serials from before the golden age…

Flash Gordon (1936) dir. Frederick Stephani; Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938) dir. Ford Beebe & Robert F Hill; Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940) dir. Ford Beebe & Ray Taylor. Flash was created in 1934 by Alex Raymond as a newspaper strip, five years after Buck Rogers, but beat Buck to the silver screen by three years. The first 13-part serial was very close to the original story. Flash Gordon (Larry 'Buster' Crabbe), his fiancée Dale Arden (Jean Rogers) and scientist Hans Zarkov (Frank Shannon) fly to investigate the planet Mongo when volcanoes start erupting on Earth. There they encounter Ming the Merciless (Charles Middleton), his daughter Aura (Priscilla Lawson) and the planet's rightful ruler Prince Barin (Richard Alexander). Through floating cities and underground caverns Flash and co. have various adventures before saving the day.

In 1938 Ford Beebe (eventual director of the Buck Rogers serial) and Robert Hill re-united the cast for a 15-part serial in a trip to Mars, where Ming has teamed up with the evil queen Azura (Beatrice Roberts), who can turn humans into clay people. They are stealing the nitrogen from Earth's atmosphere, but Prince Barin and some tree people help to set things right. In 1940 Carol Hughes replaced Jean Rogers as Dale and Roland Drew takes over as Prince Barin, but otherwise the cast was the same, as was the director, Beebe, this time teamed up with Ray Taylor. The Purple Death is being spread on Earth in this 12-parter in which Ming's ally is the evil Sonia (Anne Gwynne). So it is off to Mongo once more, with the usual results and, this time, Ming is killed for good. Flash took to the small screen in 1951 for a 39 episode series starring Steve Holland, but didn't surface again until the soft porn parody Flesh Gordon (dir. Michael Benveniste) in 1974, with special effects by Jim Danforth (as Mij Htrofnad).

The final big screen outing was the 1980 Flash Gordon that starred Sam Jones as Flash, Melody Anderson as Dale, Topol as Zarkov and Max von Sydow as Ming, directed by Michael Hodges. Though it also tried to be faithful to the original, the acting was wooden (with the exception of Brian Blessed's performance which was simply over the top), as was Hodges' direction, the effects were rushed, and only the engaging Queen rock group soundtrack emerged with any honour.

The first three Flash Gordon serials also appeared as features in edited-down form. They were: Spaceship to the Unknown (1936) and Perils from the Planet Mongo (1936) – the first and second halves of the first serial; The Deadly Ray from Mars (1938); and Purple Death from Outer Space (1940). However, the stories are best seen in serial form (i.e. with the cliffhanger endings to the serial parts) and, thankfully, they do often turn up on TV during school holidays and the like. Flash has also appeared in many radio broadcasts (1935-6), novels by Alex Raymond (1937) and by Ron Goulart and Carter Bingham (1974) and various comics (1947-1995).

Buck Rogers (1939) dir. Ford Beebe and Saul Goodkind. Created by Philip Nowlan in the novella Armageddon 2419AD (1928), Buck became famous after appearing in America's first SF newspaper strip in July 1929. Universal's success with their film serials Flash Gordon and Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (the second of these directed by Beebe with Robert Hill, and both starring Buster Crabbe) prompted a 12-part serial for Buck. Larry 'Buster' Crabbe plays Lt. Anthony 'Buck' Rogers who is inadvertently transported 500 years into the future, with his companion Buddy (Jackie Moran), after crashing a dirigible into a mountain and succumbing to 'nirvano' gas, which puts them into suspended animation. Teaming up with Wilma Deering (Constance Moore) and Dr.Huer (C Montague Shaw), not to mention a helpful race of Saturnians, they fight evil ruler Killer Kane (Anthony Warde) and his Mongols.

Edited versions of the serial were released as Planet Outlaws (1953) and Destination Saturn (1965). There was a short-lived juvenile ABC TV serial (1950-51) with first Ken Dibbs, then Robert Pastene as Buck but, following the success of Star Wars, Buck was revived for a better produced, though still largely juvenile, NBC television series (1979-81) Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979) Daniel Haller directed the pilot for that show. Starring Gil Gerard as Buck and Erin Gray as Colonel Wilma Deering (times had changed), they fight a demoted Kane (Henry Silva) now henchman to Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley). Buck also acquires an irritating robot sidekick, Twiki (Felix Silla), a cross between R2D2 and C3PO; Tim O'Connor takes over the role of Dr. Huer. Like the previous year's Battlestar Galactica, the film (and series) was high on action, low on plot, though there were moments for the fans such as Buster Crabbe turning up as pilot Col. Gordon, having fun at Gerard's expense, and messages paging Adam Strange (a DC Comics' character). However, it is the original 1939 serial that most deserves to be seen, especially as it features the beautiful set from Just Imagine (1930), which will save you from actually having to see that piece of rubbish!

Batman (1943) dir. Lambert Hillyer; Batman and Robin (1949) dir. Spencer Bennet. The first of these is a 15-part serial from Hillyer, a B-film director responsible for The Invisible Ray (1936) and many westerns, starring Lewis Wilson as Batman and Douglas Croft as Robin. But the star of the show is J Carrol Naish as the evil Dr.Daka. Though 'politically incorrect' these days, Daka belongs to a long line of 'yellow peril' villains, but it was 1943 and the Japanese were the enemy, so this can be forgiven. Daka zombifies his victims into helping him steal America's radium until the dynamic duo stop him. The second, 1949, 15-chapter serial is generally considered inferior, though Bennet had made a creditable job of the 1948 Superman serial (see below). Robert Lowery and John Duncan took over as the heroes and this time they are up against the villainous Wizard (Leonard Penn), who can become invisible and stop traffic with a ray machine.

Superman (1948) dir. Spencer Gordon Bennet. Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, initially they say in 1933, but he debuted to the world in Action Comics 1 in June 1938. By 1940 he had made it into cartoon format in the celebrated Max and Dave Fleischer Paramount series, and onto radio also. But it was Columbia's 15-part serial in 1948 that brought the man from Krypton to the silver screen, played by Kirk Alyn. In this his now familiar origin story was retold (rocketed to Earth while still a child, adopted by the Kents, as an adult joins the Daily Planet newspaper in his identity as reporter Clark Kent, and so on) before he gets to face the evil Spider Woman (Carol Forman) who, like all good villains, wants to kill Superman and rule the world. Spider Woman has a chunk of kryptonite to achieve the first aim and steals a deadly 'reducer ray' to further her second. Sadly producer Sam Katzman did not exactly pour money into the serial and flying effects were achieved with animation – nowadays it looks kind of cute. Noel Neill played Lois Lane, Clark's fellow reporter, Tommy Bond was photographer Jimmy Olsen and Pierre Watkin was editor Perry White.

In 1950 a second 15-part serial followed, Atom Man vs. Superman (but I do not know if this is still available {editor: Yes it is and a link is attached.]), also directed by Bennet, with much the same cast plus Lyle Talbot as Lex Luthor, who gets to shoot Lois into outer space. In 1951 came Superman and the Mole Men (definitely available) directed by Lee Sholem, and introducing George Reeves as Superman and Phyllis Coates as Lois. This promoted thenew TV series, after the first season of which Neill came back as Lois replacing Coates. However, Superman was not seen on the big screen again until 1978 (see Part Four of this series).

King of the Rocket Men (1949) dir. Fred Brannon. This relatively late 12-part serial from Republic is one of the best and most fondly remembered. Tristram Coffin is Rocket Man (a possible inspiration for The Rocketeer) and I Stanford Jolley is Dr. Vulcan, a hero and villain respectively who both work at Science Associates (though naturally their identities are secret). Mae Clarke is the newspaperwoman on the trail of both. The controls of Rocket Man's jet pack are deliciously simple, being on/off, up/down and fast/slow, but he and it are more than a match for the evil Dr. Vulcan who first tries to steal the 'Sonutron', a device for disintegrating rocks, then destroys New York with a tidal wave, with footage courtesy of 1933's Deluge. Much of this serial's footage was extensively re-used in Flying Disc Man from Mars (1951), Radar Men from the Moon (1952) and, most notably, in Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952). The serial itself was released in shortened feature form in 1951 as Lost Planet Airmen.

Sadly I have no idea if certain other serials are still available, for instance The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941) (Editor: It is, see the title link) dir. William Witney and John English could still be found in the late 1970s, but I have not seen it since (except in the form of the 1953 re-issue The Return of Captain Marvel). Tom Tyler was excellent as the hero, and he did not mind killing the bad guys (for instance, by throwing them off a cliff!). John English also teamed up with Elmer Clifton for 1944's Captain America, which took some liberties with its source material, but still turned in a good romp. Irony struck the star, Dick Purcell, shortly after completing the fifteen-part serial. His energetic performance and super-heroic status could not save him from the heart attack that killed him!

So that concludes our look at the first half of the twentieth century. There are loads more interesting films out there for the dedicated fan, but the ones above constitute the ones I would personally consider the 'must see' films.

Tony Chester

Tony Chester was one of the Science Fact & Science Fiction Concatenation's founding co-editors. Though he retired from the editorial team in 2009, he still occasionally contributes the odd piece.

To come shortly…  Next: Part Two – The Golden Age (1950-59).

 

 

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