Friday, April 5, 2013
What We Learned at the Movies
Even though they were vicarious experiences, movies provided the most thrilling moments of my childhood. I started going with friends about second grade. We lived a couple of blocks from the Menominee Theater in the old Opera House, and I'd go there each Saturday for the matinee. Then, on Thursdays after school, the D.A.R. Boys' Club had a movie time for kids. It usually featured a full-length western (e.g., Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy), but the most exciting part was the 15-minute serial which preceded the main feature. The serial was always about a lone hero (or superhero) battling hordes of vicious bad guys, and nearly every episode ended in a calamity in which the hero was apparently destroyed or was facing imminent death. Miraculously, by the next week’s show the hero had dodged his demise and was off on a new spine-tingling adventure. Hollywood produced about 95 such serials during the 1940’s: war, crime and detective stories, jungle adventures, aviation, the Old West, sci fi, etc. Here’s a quick peek at some of the most popular offerings.
The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941, 12 episodes)
Captain Marvel was my favorite for a long time, and this was the very first superhero serial. Based on the comic books, an ancient wizard gave teenager Billy Batson the capacity to turn into Captain Marvel by uttering the magic word “Shazam”. Captain Marvel battled against the Scorpion, an evil hooded figure who, with his army of blood-crazed demons, strove to destroy the world with the most powerful weapon ever known.
The Green Hornet (1940, 13 episodes)
When the city is beset with a menacing crime wave, crusading newspaper publisher Britt Reid dons a disguise and, with the aid of his brilliant Korean valet Kato, fights back against the Leader, the criminal mastermind who is behind the Syndicate. The Hornet and Kato take on an auto-theft ring, a crooked insurance racket, and a dishonest flying school among others.
Jack Armstrong (1947, 15 episodes)
Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy, and his friends try to rescue a famous scientist and inventor of a revolutionary atomic engine from the clutches of Jason Grood, an arch-villain who is bent on dominating the world with the death ray on his spaceship. The quest takes Jack and friends to a remote island where they must deal with a fierce tribe led by Princess Alura as well as with Grood's evil henchmen. We kids poked fun at Jack because he was so All-American.
Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. (Republic Pictures, 1941, 15 episodes)
Originally a comic strip by Chester Gould, Dick Tracy featured a hard-hitting police detective who used forensic science to track down the bad guys. Critics regard “Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc.” as "one of the best serials ever made." Tracy battled the Ghost, an evil master criminal who possessed the ability to make himself invisible. One of the Ghost's plans was to destroy New York City by dropping bombs along a fault line to create a huge tidal wave engulfing the city. Viewers held their breaths.
The Phantom (1943, 15 episodes)
In a serial based on the comic strip, Professor Davidson and his daughter Diana are trying to find the Lost City of Zoloz in Africa to establish an archaeological site. However, a local crook is also searching for hidden treasure there, and a Nazi agent plans to destroy the peace of the native tribes and build a secret German air base. Diana's fiancé, Godfrey Prescott, who is also the Phantom, sets out with Ace the Wonder Dog to restore peace to the jungle and put a stop to the treasure hunters' and the Nazis' wicked plans.
The Shadow (1940, 15 episodes)
The movie serial was based on the 1930's radio series and on pulp magazine stories. Having the "power to cloud men's minds so they cannot see him," the Shadow posed as Lamont Cranston, a wealthy young man about town. Margo Lane was his love interest and crime-solving partner. In the 1940 serial the Shadow battled The Black Tiger who had the power to make himself invisible and was trying to take over Earth with his death ray.
Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940,12 episodes)
Based on the 1930's sci-fi comic strip, “Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe” was the last of three Flash Gordon serials made between 1936 and 1940. Buster Crabbe starred in the title role. The evil villain Ming the Merciless created a deadly plague by dropping "Death Dust" in the atmosphere. Flash and his companions travel by spaceship to the planet Mongo, eventually finding an antidote which they bring back to Earth. Ming sends an army of robot bombs after Flash, and the respective groups battle until Ming is killed. His last words were, "I am the universe," but one of the good guys observes that Flash Gordon has conquered the universe.
Son of Zorro (1947, 13 episodes)
Jeff Stewart returns home from the Civil War to find that corrupt politicians have taken over the county and are terrorizing the citizenry. Donning the costume of his ancestor, the famous Zorro, Stewart sets out to bring the criminals to justice.
Batman (1943, 15 episodes)
In his first screen appearance, the Caped Crusader (a.k.a. Bruce Wayne) and his junior partner, the Boy Wonder Robin, battle Prince Daka, the Japanese mastermind of a wartime spy-sabotage group which is located in Gotham City's now-deserted Little Tokyo. Daka has a death ray that turns American scientists into electronic zombies who do his bidding.
Superman (1948, 15 episodes)
Superman, of course, is the superhero of all superheroes. This first live-action film portrayal of Superman tells his story from the beginning when he is rocketed from Krypton to Earth as a newborn infant. When mild-mannered Clark Kent takes a reporter job on the Daily Planet, his alter-ego Superman soon tangles with The Spider Lady who considers herself the Queen of the Underworld and who obtains possession of a meteor fragment from Krypton, the only substance that can render Superman helpless.
Movies are entertaining in their own right, but they also provide moral instruction about the nature of the human condition, the world we live in, and our roles in society. More than anything else, I’d say that these 1940’s serials have to do with gender roles and socially sanctioned violence. We learn that the world is a dangerous place where powerful enemies – Nazis, criminals, murders and kidnappers, saboteurs, rustlers, inner city thugs, evil geniuses bent on world domination – constitute a threat to communities and law-abiding citizens. Basically, the world is split into the in-group and various dangerous, malevolent out-groups. Moreover, conventional institutions like the police are powerless in the face of overwhelming threats to the social order. It’s only the extraordinary individual who possess the ability and fortitude to battle the dangerous evil-doers. And, despite harrowing calamities and constant near-disasters, good always triumphs over evil.
For the most part, these are stories for and about males. Most of the heroes are men, as are most of the villains. We learn that ideal adult males are powerful, independent, courageous in the face of extreme danger, highly skilled and capable of physical force and violence, and willing to put their lives on the line for God and country. Perpetrating violence against the enemy is not only justified but glamorized and idealized. Most of the serials also include a secondary woman character who is the friend, companion, and/or love interest of the hero. She’s typically beautiful, good, charming, and loyal. Often in peril, she’s dependent on protection and rescue by the male hero.
The cultural messages we receive as kids, whether from the media or other sources, center on preparation for adult roles. A lot of content of these old-time movie serials consists of subtle and not-so-subtle messages about the role of the sexes in a patriarchal society. These, of course, reflect traditional stereotypes and gender norms. We could argue that we've come a long way as a society since the 1940's. However, when I think about the content of many action thrillers we’ve seen in the 2010's -- also predominantly male-centered and pro-violence -- I'm more struck by the stability of certain basic themes over the decades. I do like to go to the movies a lot, but these serials from years ago remind us that we need to reflect upon and be cognizant of what we're being told.