Did you know that before he became a big western star in movies like Stagecoach and Man from Monterrey in the 1930s, John Wayne starred in a series of cliffhanger serials?
I didn’t, at least not until recently when I ran across the John Wayne Cliffhanger set while browsing through the DVDs Netflix has to offer.
I should take a moment to explain here for younger readers exactly what a cliffhanger serial is.
A serial essentially was a three-hour action film cut up into segments of 15 minutes or so. In the days before television (often referred to as the Dark Ages), they were shown on a weekly basis, thus giving you not only the feature movie (sometimes two as a double-feature) but a serial, cartoon and newsreel as well.
When we went to the movies back then, we didn’t go “on” a Saturday afternoon. We went “for” a Saturday afternoon.
So much for the serial part.
The cliffhanger comes in because each of the segments ended with the hero or his girlfriend (more on her later) in some sort of peril (Thus The Perils of Pauline, which spawned the genre).
The last scene would show him, or her, lying on railroad tracks with a train bearing down, trapped under an overturned car that has caught on fire or is about to, or struggling with the controls of an airplane headed for a crash. He (or she) might even be hanging from a cliff.
Then the first scene of the next chapter (after a minute or so of catching you up on how the previous episode had ended) would show that the hero (or his girl) had rolled out of the way of the train, leaped from the car before it rolled over, or donned a parachute and jumped from the plane at the last possible second.
Whew. That was a close one!
You might think that because the story was told over a period of three hours or so that the scripts would feature great plot lines with interesting dialogue and innovative twists. You would think wrong.
The plots seemed to follow similar lines.
There would be a hero and a girl, who was his love interest but not in a sexual way, and she would have a widowed father (mothers apparently just got in the way) who was in some sort of trouble, wrongly accused of some dastardly deed by a group of men who once had been his friends or at least business associates.
The hero also would find himself being wrongly accused at some point, or points, as well. But he eventually worked his way out of it.
In the final episode, after a series of chases, crashes, standoffs, false arrests, fist fights, and narrow escapes, the villain would be unveiled and everyone, presumably, would live happily ever after.
There were certain staples:
-- The hero had the ability to knock out bad guys (but not their mysterious boss) with one roundhouse punch. The mysterious boss, however, usually got out of the room before being punched, until possibly the last episode.
-- It took getting hit over the head with a lead pipe before the hero could be knocked out. But no fear. He would be out only a couple of minutes and wake up without even a headache, let alone a fractured skull. Even bad guys had similar recuperative powers.
-- The mysterious boss had a catchy name and you didn’t know who he was for sure until he was unmasked at the end.
-- Cops (or sheriffs) always were after the wrong guy (the hero) for most of the story. They also were easily fooled and unable to keep anybody in a jail cell for long.
-- Everybody, even crooks, wore ties (except in westerns).
-- They pretty much all smoked, too.
-- When accused of some wrongdoing, the person accused would react by drawing back his fist and lunging at his accuser and saying, “Why, you... ”. But he usually would be stopped before getting off a punch. He would do this even if they were in a police station at the time and he was surrounded by six other people, including some with guns.
-- Everybody was a good shot, even bad guys. A bad guy could take a pistol and hit the tire of the good guy’s car in the middle of a chase. The good guy shot people only in the hand to knock away the bad guy’s gun. And it didn’t matter if they were six or sixty or six hundred feet away.
By today’s standards, hey, even by the standards of the day, serials are pretty hokey stuff, but they’re kind of fun to watch. Part of that fun is to see what the California landscape looked like back in 1930s when the John Wayne Cliffhangers were shot. Many outdoor scenes back then had to be done on location.
From time to time, you can spot the same shots from one serial, like cars and trains going over cliffs, explosions, brawls, etc., in other serials from the same studio. These were not high budget productions, to say the least.
But apparently they did help give John Wayne his start.
One drawback to watching them on today’s DVDs is that each episode is a separate entity, which means you have to sit through the recap of the end of the previous episode before getting on with the story.
The circus music that introduces each chapter of Shadow of the Eagle began to wear on me after a while.
The quality of the film on Shadow of the Eagle also isn’t too good, but that just adds to the campiness of the experience. Hurricane Express, which begins on Disc Two of the set and which I am in the middle of now, seems to be better quality both in sight and sound.
As I write this, the last time I saw John Wayne’s character he was lying between the rails of railroad tracks as a train approached.
I wonder how he gets out of that!