The Heroic Serials of Republic Pictures

Eclipse is a selection of lost, forgotten, or overshadowed classics in simple affordable editions.  Each series is a brief cinematheque retrospective for the adventurous home viewer.

Eclipse LogoMovies serials were an iconic part of the cinema experience and none did it better that Republic Pictures and filmmaker William Witney.  Filled with spectacular stunts, break-neck editing, and iconic clashes of good and evil, these serials entertained young and old and their legacy is still felt in the summer blockbuster, special effects bonanzas that sell-out theaters today.  Collected here are three of Republic’s greatest efforts adapted from comic books and inspired by pulp literature, sure to entertain with their daredevil feats, magnificent sets, and cliffhanger endings.

Adventures of Captain Marvel

Radio reporter Billy Batson works to keep a powerful weapon out of the hands of evil mastermind the Scorpion, needing only call out the magical word “SHAZAM!” to transform into the nigh-invulnerable Captain Marvel when fists are thrown and bullets fly.

Spy Smasher

America may not yet be at war, but that is no deterrent to independent agent Spy Smasher fighting the Mask and his Nazi agents both at home and abroad in this jaw-dropping, stunt-filled spectacular by William Witney.

Perils of Nyoka

Nyoka, while searching for her missing father in northern Africa, agrees to join an expedition searching for the lost Tablets of Hippocrates and finds herself and her colleagues racing  against the wicked queen Vultura and her conspiring mole Count Benito Torrini through a series ancient traps that protect untold treasure.

With notes of the films by film critic and historian Leonard Maltin.

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Of the many internet discussions on gaps in the Criterion Collection and of titles deserving of inclusion, serials seem to never get promoted.  It’s a comment on how disrespected and, consequently, forgotten the form has become.  Serials were once a significant part of the cinema experience, along with B-features, cartoons, and newsreels.  The movies were organized such that you could spend your entire Saturday at the theatre with a parade of content to enjoy.  B-movies have since found reconsidered respectability thanks to academics and cinephiles while cartoons have remained alive in our imaginations thanks to rebroadcast by TV.  Newsreels have been relegated to indexical markers of a time and place in period productions for film and television, and movie serials seem to have all but vanished from popular culture, at least in their original form.

Movie serials, that is movie plays divided into separate chapters and circulated for theatrical viewing usually presented as a new episode each week or so and airing before the main feature, were staples of the cinema from the silent period until they stopped being produced in the 1950s.  Their legacy was revived in the 1970s and ’80s by filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, who purposefully sought to return the spirit of the serials back to the movies.  Films like Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981) restored to movie theatres the struggles between good and evil and the emphasis on high adventure that thrilled youngsters in the ’40s and ’50s but became lost to cinemas in the decades that followed.  Current action/adventure spectacles like the Marvel Comics movie franchises carry on the serial tradition into this new millennia and this second century of cinema.  The Criterion Collection is committed to “publishing the defining moments of cinema for a wider and wider audience.”  Movie serials were once a key component to filmmaking and exhibition and represent the origin to a film legacy that has dominated the hearts, minds, and wallets of audiences at large.  Their absence from the Collection is a real and substantive omission that should be remedied and the Eclipse format is a perfect forum for that reappraisal.

William WitneySelecting where to start with a Criterion Collection introduction to serials is actually remarkably easy.  Republic Pictures was the uncontested king of movie serials, spending more and producing better quality than any of its competitors, and William Witney was its prolific master.  Witney got his start in serials as an editor and a second-unit director filming location footage for Dick Tracy (Alan James and Ray Taylor, 1937).  When one of the directors on The Painted Stallion (Alan James, Ray Taylor and William Witney, 1937) was fired for alchoholism, Witney was asked to step in given that he was the only person on set who knew the script, and when a replacement never showed, Witney continued directing for nearly 40 more years.  Quentin Tarantino has long promoted Witney as one of American cinema’s “forgotten masters,” a genre film director whose talent and ambition carried his career beyond the demise of serials and on to B-Westerns, television, and a handful of features for American International Pictures before concluding his career with the Blaxploitation comedy Darktown Strutters (1975) and the independent Western Quell and Co. (1982).  Witney is most famous for devising modern fight choreography.  Frustrated by the results of simply setting up a camera in wide shot and letting stuntmen flail at each other, Witney was inspired to film the components of a fight separately and connect them into a coherent exchange through editing after he watched Busby Berkeley film music and dance numbers with the same methodology.  The result was a hit with audiences and stunt men alike, as individual action moves could be planned, better executed, and be more easily appreciated on screen.  Hopefully MMC! will have further opportunities to discuss the career of William Witney, as his extensive filmography is full of work deserving of a wacky “C.”

Fans of the Criterion Collection should understand that there is no universal standard of quality for cinema.  Films need to be judged on their individual merits and the works of Douglas Sirk, Stan Brakhage, Roberto Rossellini, and David Cronenberg have their own generic and authorial qualities.  The same, of course, applies to movie serials, where spectacle and pace are prized and some stiff acting or narrative liberties are forgivable.  It’s worth noting that the real stars of these serials are William Witney and his team of stunt people, particularly legends like David Sharpe, Carey Loftin, and Yakima Canutt.  Serials also struggle with the home-viewing, binge-watching context of the present day, perhaps explaining the low-profile of the mode in popular culture and academia, as the dated style and repetitious aspects of the narratives inhibit appreciation of the thrills and chills experienced by film fans waiting all week to see the outcome of a destroyed bridge or a raging inferno.  Our advice is to sit back, way back, and take in the speed, the heights, and the impacts of these serials.  There is a scale in these works that is wondrous when attended to, as they are performed by real people in truly dangerous situations.  The height of a fall, the speed of a motorcycle, the wide arc of punch are essential components of a successful movie serial and one needs a certain degree of distance from the screen to take in the grandiosity of these action.  Attending to these aspects will attune the viewer to what movie serials offer and the charming remainder will thereafter fall into place.

Presented here are three of Witney’s best heroic serials adapted from comic books and inspired by pulp adventures.  Their legacies to present day cinema are easy to spot, and so they are an influential part of film history that makes them essential viewing to film fans and a worthy addition to the Criterion Collection.  In the spirit of Captain Marvel, a bright red and yellow colour scheme to an Eclipse set would serve the titles just fine.

Credits:  There are plenty of movie serial websites out there, so we’ll leave you to discover them for yourselves.  Instead, we’ll use this space to promote William Witney’s autobiography In a Door, Into a Fight, Out a Door, Into a Chase: Moviemaking by the Guy at the Door.  Witney’s reflection on his movie career, including his directing 23 serials for Republic Pictures, is uniformly celebrated as an insightful, informative, and highly entertaining account of a career in Hollywood.  Leonard Maltin is an avowed fan of movie serials and a past contributor to the Criterion Collection, so there can be no one better to provide liner notes for this package.

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