Monday, January 18, 2021

Books: Days of Thrills and Adventure

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the old movie serial The Adventures of Captain Marvel. It was the first serial I had ever watched, and despite its questionable plot structure and two-dimensional characters, it had action to spare and was entertaining, in its way.

Serialized fiction has made a comeback in the 21st century, not just in movies, but in television and books. A single story, told in multiple installments—as opposed to multiple stories featuring the same characters, like Andy Hardy or Lassie—has become more enthralling than episodic stories to modern audiences. 

Why? Here’s one theory, which boils the explanation down to the natural evolution of the medium. The storytelling style of the Marvel or Star Wars movies has its roots in the serials of the Golden Age, from the silents through the post-war era.

In 1970, Alan G. Barbour wrote a coffee-table book about those serials called Days of Thrills and Adventure. This was another gift from my librarian pal Bibi, sent last Christmas. It’s an overview of the classic movie serials, great and small, packed with photos, written more as an appreciation than as a critical analysis.

Movie serial actor Buster Crabbe
Serials followed a basic formula—good guy/bad guy dynamic, cliffhangers at the end of every chapter, constant action—which audiences of the day adored, especially children. Cowboys, detectives, federal agents, pulp heroes, spacemen, jungle men and others engaged in outrageous adventures, nabbing villainous masterminds and their lackeys. 

Barbour charts them all, describing not only the stories and the actors (and actresses) who starred in them, but also the filmmakers and the studios who brought them to life. He devotes a chapter to the talented stunt men and gives shout-outs to key crew members in fields such as special effects and model making. Don’t expect deep criticism here; this is written from the fan perspective, and that’s okay.

Days has tons of photographs. To someone unfamiliar with serials, they provide a sense of the variety of action to be found, as well as the often exaggerated, larger-than-life scenarios, often done on the cheap, as quickly as possible. 

Serials almost never reached the heights of the average John Ford or Howard Hawks film in terms of art, but their aspirations were different. With them, entertainment came over and above everything else, and audiences of the 30s and 40s were more than satisfied.


  1. Over the winter I became enthralled with Daredevils of the Red Circle which was airing on a local channel. I looked forward to each Sunday instalment and was bereft (that may be overstating it) when it ended. My guys were circus performers but when they turned crimefighters (revenge or justice was involved) they did all their stunts in full suits!

  2. I’ll add it to the list. I wish I had thought of writing about serials last year.


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