DISCOVER--all the pulp sci-fi serials in chronological orderby jonabbott56 | created - 25 Jul 2013 | updated - 22 Jan 2016 | Public
Okay guys, here we go. You're vaguely aware of them, you've seen the stills, you've heard of the titles, you've thought about catching up with them one of these days... Now you have no excuse not to wallow in the wonderfulness of the pulp sci-fi Saturday morning serials.
Here they are, all the sci-fi titles of Republic, Universal, and Columbia, listed for you in chronological order. You like comics? You like sci-fi movies? This is where, and how, it all began...
Start anywhere, but if you've not seen Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, or Undersea Kingdom, start there... If you have, spread your wings...
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1. The Lost City (I) (1935)
Approved | 240 min | Sci-Fi
An evil scientist plots to take over the world from his base in Africa, where he has invented a machine that can cause earthquakes.
First of the super-scientific secret city stories where an advanced civilisation ruled by a mad tyrant threatens the world with a mad device, in this case, atmospheric disturbances causing unnatural natural disasters. Look out for Gabby Hayes and Billy Bletcher in supporting roles. I'm no PC whiner, but be advised that there are some brief but unfortunate racist aspects that were fairly typical for the 1930s that will make modern audiences wince. William 'Stage' Boyd is the bad guy Zolok. Kane Richmond and Claudia Dell to the rescue.
2. The Phantom Empire (1935)
Approved | 245 min | Action, Adventure, Music
When the ancient continent of Mu sank beneath the ocean, some of its inhabitant survived in caverns beneath the sea. Cowboy singer Gene Autry stumbles upon the civilization, now buried ... See full summary »
Deservedly better known than its predecessor (both were in production at the same time, racing each other to completion), this glorious exercise in camp insanity has western star and singing cowboy Gene Autry running his Radio Ranch over a valuable radium deposit sought by bad guys, and Frankie Darro and Betsy King Ross as his two young companions of the Thunder Riders. Way below the ranch and the radium is Art Deco super-civilisation Murania, run by loopy Queen Tika (Dorothy Christie) and treacherous Argo (Wheeler Oakman). The city exists solely for the guys and gals to have an adventure in, and in a tradition begun here, the entire population goes up in smoke at the end with not too many tears shed. Production company Mascot soon became the legendary Republic. Autry made his name with this, and a twenty year career of more traditional western fare followed, while the amazing sets, situations, and story led directly to Universal's Flash Gordon and Republic's magnificent Undersea Kingdom.
3. The Vanishing Shadow (1934)
Passed | 242 min | Action, Adventure, Thriller
A 12-episode serial in which a son avenges the death of his father at the hands of corrupt politicians. He develops a wide variety of complex devices in his crusade . . . ray guns, robots ... See full summary »
An invisible man tries to clear his name of murder while trying to bring the crooked politicians who drove his father to a premature death to justice. Onslow Stevens and Ada Ince are the heroes, Walter Miller the bad guy.
4. Flash Gordon (1936)
Approved | 245 min | Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Flash Gordon, Dale Arden and Dr. Alexis Zarkov visit the planet Mongo to thwart the evil schemes of Emperor Ming the Merciless, who has set his planet on a collision course with Earth.
Here we go. Although the first and primary influence was the pulps, the serials and the comics were virtually twinned from the start when Universal bought the rights to several King Syndicate newspaper strips, including this one, elegantly illustrated by the delicate lines of Alex Raymond. Utilising second-hand background music, sets from the Universal monster movies and un-used footage from the disastrous 1930 sci-fi musical Just Imagine, this was still one of the most expensive serials ever made, undoubtedly given lavish attention after the box office success of the two previous similar pulp yarns. Buster Crabbe is Flash, Jean Rogers the heroine Dale Arden, Priscilla Lawson space-babe Princess Aura, and legendary screen villain Charles Middleton (superb in Laurel and Hardy's Beau Hunks/Chumps) the definitive Ming the Merciless (although apparently he doesn't acquire the appellation until the sequel!). Several slightly different versions of this exist, some under the title Space Solders.
5. Undersea Kingdom (1936)
Approved | 226 min | Sci-Fi, Adventure
Crash Corrigan, a recent graduate of Annapolis, and Diana, a go-getting reporter, join Professor Norton for a search for the source of a string of earthquakes, Atlantis. They ride Prof. ... See full summary »
Filmed for only a third of Flash Gordon's budget, but crucially employing outdoors filming and the Lydecker brothers Howard and Theodore for the special effects, Undersea Kingdom is for me the who's-the-daddy of pulp sci-fi serials. Ray 'Crash' Corrigan is the hero, Lee Van Atta the young lad for the kids to identify with, C. Montague Shaw the kindly professor who is brainwashed into treachery, and Monte Blue the Ming clone gloriously named Unga Khan.
Lon Chaney Jnr. appears in an early role, Lois Wilde is the, let's face it, token woman, Smiley Burnette and Frankie Marvin the painful comic relief (clearly filmed separately much of the time). The plot is highly derivative, but the charm is in the detail. The Atlantean city, complete with sky despite being undersea, the life size tanks and robots (the 'Volkites' would return in other Republic serials requiring mechanical menaces), and the wonderful stomping music, are great.
6. Dick Tracy (1937)
Approved | 290 min | Action, Comedy, Crime
A master criminal called The Spider puts the famous detective's brother under a hypnotic spell and turns him against Dick.
The first of four action-packed serials featuring Ralph Byrd as Chester Gould's comic strip cop Dick Tracy, the main sci-fi element here is the superb stealth craft the Wing, an early incarnation of the Lydeckers' Flying Sub for Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Filmed outdoors under a real sky and on a wire, the Lydeckers' secret was to move the camera while the vehicle was moving as well, so increasing the appearance of speed while helping to obscure the wire. The storyline embraces several plots, including one to destroy the Golden Gate Bridge with sonic vibrations from the Wing.
After four serials, several B-movies, and a TV series, Byrd was so associated with the role that the TV series was cancelled rather than recast when the actor died in 1952.
7. Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938)
Approved | 299 min | Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
When a deadly Nitron ray strikes Earth, Flash Gordon and his friends travel to Mars to battle Ming the Merciless and his new ally Queen Azura.
He's back, and he's mad ("Why, you...!!"). No sooner does Flash return from space than he has to go back and kick Ming's butt again, this time for unleashing that old favourite, a weather-controlling machine. Fans of the original got exactly what they and everybody else wants from a sequel, which was more of the same plus extra, here provided by the teleporting Queen Azura and her sinister Clay People. Most of the previous film's main cast return, plus Beatrice Roberts as Azura, Donald Kerr as bumbling comic relief Happy Hapgood, and loads of familiar names from the serials in supporting roles.
8. The Fighting Devil Dogs (1938)
Approved | 204 min | Adventure
The US marine corps must battle a would-be world conqueror who uses electricity as a weapon.
Two Marines (Lone Ranger Lee Powell and Tarzan Herman Brix) pursue the Lightning, an evil bastard who destroys an entire fort full of men with his lethal remote controlled Thunderbolts. The Lightning, a superb villain, and one of the serials' finest, also has access to the Lydeckers' Flying Wing from Dick Tracy. This is all wonderful stuff. Tragically, Powell died a few years later, serving for real during World War II. Brix went on to act in supporting roles as Bruce Bennett.
9. Buck Rogers (1939)
Approved | 237 min | Adventure, Family, Fantasy
A 20th Century pilot named Buck Rogers and his young friend Buddy Wade awake from 500 years in suspended animation to find that the world has been taken over by the outlaw army of Killer Kane.
The Buck Rogers comic strip, created by pulp writer Philip Nowlan, actually preceded Flash Gordon, but wasn't filmed until three years afterwards. Lavishly produced by the same studio, Universal, they rather unimaginatively covered themselves by casting Buster Crabbe again in the lead, and even more absurdly, used him again in the third and final Flash Gordon serial. Nevertheless, this is good stuff, even if it is Flash Gordon in everything but name. What the end result lacked was a quality adversary. Here, we get the cliched Killer Kane, represented by Anthony Warde with a bucket on his head, not quite as impressive as Ming and co. This serial also inaugurated the irritating practice of including a cheater episode, a sort of serial equivalent of a clip show in which highlights from the story so far are repeated as characters discuss earlier events. Not all cinemas took this episode, and it is often omitted, but enough did for it to become standard practice in future productions from all studios.
10. The Phantom Creeps (1939)
Approved | 265 min | Action, Horror, Sci-Fi
A military intelligence officer and a pretty reporter try to find a scientist whose inventions can destroy the world.
Absolute madness, with Bela Lugosi as mad scientist Dr. Zorka, who has powers of invisibility, troublemaking mechanical spiders, and a leering, sneering, hideous robot in his arsenal of evil. Robert Kent and a very young Regis Toomey are the good guys, Dorothy Arnold the traditional girl reporter. The plot, like the robot, staggers all over the place absurdly, and as ever with Universal, nothing is built, filmed, or recorded if something that will do is already in the inventory, but you've gotta love it.
11. Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940)
Approved | 220 min | Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Flash Gordon, Dale Arden and Dr. Zarkov return to the planet Mongo for an antidote to the Purple Death, which wreaking destruction on Earth. However, Ming the Merciless has other plans for them.
Despite having just appeared as Buck Rogers, Buster Crabbe went straight into production of the third and final Flash Gordon serial, which despite excellent production values was starting to look a little tired. Carole Hughes replaced the unavailable Jean Rogers as Dale Arden, but otherwise the gang's all here.
12. Mysterious Doctor Satan (1940)
Passed | 267 min | Adventure, Action, Crime
A mad scientist plots the domination of America and only the masked hero, The Copperhead, can stop him.
Featuring an early example of the obliteration of a minion who has failed his evil boss, a later secret agent series favourite in Bond, UNCLE, and everything else, this little gem features Robert Wilcox as masked hero the Copperhead, and the wonderful Eduardo Cianelli as the titular bad guy, assisted by an Undersea Kingdom Volkite. Ella Neal as a perfect Lois Lane lookalike called, er, Lois, is all that remains of a script originally written for what Republic hoped would be a Superman serial before DC sold the rights to Columbia instead.
13. Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941)
Passed | 216 min | Action, Adventure, Fantasy
To protect a magic talisman from being used for evil, a teenage boy named Billy Batson is given the power to become an adult superhero, Captain Marvel, with a single magic word: "Shazam!"
Having failed to secure Superman, Republic strolled up the street and did a deal with rival publishers Fawcett for their Captain Marvel character. The storyline was more supernatural than sc-fi, with superb flying effects by the Lydecker brothers. One superb shot has a wire placed on the ground from the top of a tall city building. The life-size Captain Marvel dummy was then sent sliding downwards. With the film played backwards, a perfect take-off into the air was achieved. Tom Tyler took the lead, with Billy Benedict as Billy Batson.
14. Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. (1941)
Passed | 263 min | Action, Crime, Drama
Dick Tracy goes up against a villain known as The Ghost, who can turn himself invisible.
After two further Dick Tracy serials, Dick Tracy Returns and Dick Tracy's G-Men, this fourth and final serial returned to the sci-fi arena with yet another, if not one of the best, invisible man yarns, and what was rapidly becoming the template plot for the standard serial storyline--a group of men around a table, one of whom would ultimately be revealed as the secret identity of the bad guy threatening all. The villain here is the well-realised Ghost who plans to swamp New York with a tidal wave, courtesy of the much plundered 1933 movie Deluge (also later employed in King of the Rocket Men). Also known, bizarrely, as Dick Tracy vs. the Phantom Empire!
15. Batman (1943)
Approved | 260 min | Action, Adventure, Crime
Japanese spymaster Prince Daka operates a covert espionage organization located in Gotham City's now-deserted Little Tokyo which turns American scientists into pliable zombies.
Produced at the height of Pearl Harbour fervour, and thus laced with much anti-Japan sentiment, the first filmed adventure of Batman, the strip then just four years old, was quite late arriving, given the immediate impact of the comic. J. Carroll Naish was the evil Dr. Daka, a Japanese agent, with Lewis Wilson as Batman and Douglas Croft as Robin. William Austin is the first Alfred; no other comic book cast appeared, although we do see the Batcave. Female lead Shirley Patterson later worked under the name Shawn Smith. A 1989 video release of the serial featured racial remarks removed.
16. The Monster and the Ape (1945)
Passed | 295 min | Action, Adventure, Thriller
At the Bainbridge Research Foundation, Professor Franklin Arnold, displays his creation, the Metalogen Man, a robot, to Professor Ernst and three other colleagues. Shortly afterward, the ... See full summary »
Robert Lowery, destined to become the second screen Batman, appears alongside a robot whose head would be utilised for Atom Man in the second Superman serial in this silly yarn that boasts the splendidly oily George MacReady as the villain, and Crash Corrigan in his gorilla suit as the ape of the title. MacReady made a much more charismatic villain later in life (in shows such as The Outer Limits and The Man from UNCLE) after he had acquired a facial scar and a sinister rasping voice with age.
17. The Purple Monster Strikes (1945)
Approved | 201 min | Action, Sci-Fi
A Martian spacecraft crash-lands near the observatory of Cyrus Layton, designer of Earth's first spaceship. The survivor, forerunner of an invasion, can assume the form of any earthman. ... See full summary »
Not Invaders from Mars, not Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, but this loopy pulp sci-fi enjoys the accolade of being cinema's first alien bodysnatching yarn, in which a human is taken over by an extraterrestrial, a well worn plot device today. Roy Barcroft, a regular serial heavy, had just played a demented pirate in the slightly sci-fi Manhunt of Mystery Island, but fares less well in purple tights and reptilian accessories as the heartless alien invader, who callously kills friendly scientist Professor Layton and occupies his form at periodic intervals to wrongfoot heroes Dennis Moore and Linda Stirling. Like all Republic's alien invaders, Barcroft is assisted not by other aliens, but recruited gangsters as henchmen, although hilariously at one point, the P.M. is joined by a female counterpart named Marcia!
18. The Crimson Ghost (1946)
Approved | 167 min | Action, Adventure, Crime
A criminal mastermind known as the Crimson Ghost is out to steal a device called the Cyclotrode, which can short-circuit all electrical currents on the planet.
The Crimson Ghost, the Scooby-Doo-ish star of a hundred biker t-shirts, uses slave collars to control the scientists and others he kidnaps while trying to access the Cyclotrode, this serial's sci-fi McGuffin. It's wonderful fun and non-stop action, despite an over-reliance on the old 'leaping out of a crashing car at the last minute' cheat in the cliffhangers. Playing his henchman Ashe is future Lone Ranger Clayton Moore (Perils of Nyoka), while the classy Linda Stirling (Manhunt of Mystery Island, The Purple Monster Strikes, Zorro's Black Whip), best of the serial babes, supports hero Charles Quigley (Brick Bradford, The Masked Marvel).
19. Brick Bradford (1947)
Approved | 257 min | Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
An adventurer travels to the moon to stop a madman from getting hold of the Interceptor Ray, a weapon that could destroy Earth.
Wacky yarn from Columbia based on a comic strip, in which the heroes travel first through a crystal door to the Moon (a blue-skied Bronson Caverns), and then take a time top back to the past for encounters with assorted savages and pirates. Absolute tosh. Kane Richmond (Spy Smasher) is the hero, Charles Quigley (hero of The Crimson Ghost) the villain. A host of serial regulars make up the supporting players.
20. Superman (1948)
Approved | 244 min | Sci-Fi
Superman comes to Earth as a child and grows up to be his home's first superhero with his first major challenge being to oppose The Spider Lady.
Although there had been a radio show and a series of animated shorts, it took a full ten years for Superman to appear in the serials. Having failed to heed the well-worn advice that the first offer is usually the best offer (from Republic, back in 1940, where lookalike Tom Tyler might have been cast, with flying effects ala Captain Marvel by the Lydeckers), the Man of Steel ended up as a Columbia camp-fest, with the likeable but goofy Kirk Alyn in the lead and animated short cuts for special effects. Bizarrely banished after the initial release while the syndicated Superman TV series and the Salkind film series held court, the two serials, this and Atom Man vs. Superman, finally emerged from the vaults in 1989 for a VHS release (which I remember previewing for the long-gone Video Buyer magazine). Today, you can see them in all their glory on DVD. Noel Neill debuts as Lois Lane, Pierre Watkin is Perry White, Tommy Bond is Jimmy Olsen, and Carole Foreman is the evil Spider Lady in a stylish web-like hideaway. Early episodes relate Superman's origin, with Krypton, Jor-El and Lara, Kryptonite, and the Kents all present and correct. Among the supporting cast are Charles Quigley, Paul Stader, Leonard Penn, and Stanley Price. Audiences loved it.
21. Batman and Robin (1949)
Approved | 263 min | Action, Adventure, Crime
The caped crusaders versus The Wizard, black-hooded mastermind.
The huge success of the Superman serial made a return for Batman inevitable, but this second serial was another corner-cutting bodge by Sam Katzman. Today, the crap costumes and shabby sets add to the charm, as Robert Lowery's Batman, looking silly in an ill-fitting Batsuit, and John Duncan as an inappropriately too-old Robin, take on mysterious masked villain the Wizard. Naturally, Katzman couldn't resist using stock footage from the first serial, even though the costumes didn't match. Jane Adams is Vickie Vale, Lyle Talbot Commissioner Gordon.
22. King of the Rocket Men (1949)
Passed | 167 min | Action, Adventure, Crime
Jeff King in his experimental rocket suit battles the evil Dr. Vulcan.
While Columbia were humiliating DC's super-heroes, the superior Republic were creating their own, in the form of the wonderful Rocket Man. A slapdash affair, but with wonderful flying effects by the Lydeckers and their magic wires, both the title and the casting are bizarre. Firstly, there's only one Rocket Man, and secondly he's played by the late, great character actor Tris Coffin, who was too old and much better cast as villains. Female companion Mae Clarke was also over forty, and looked it. It was rather like watching your parents play at super-heroes.
23. The Invisible Monster (1950)
Approved | 167 min | Action, Adventure, Crime
Evil villain plots to take over the world using an army of invisible soldiers.
This is the usual rough stuff and runaround from Republic, with Crimson Ghost Stanley Price back as the somewhat less inspired Phantom Ruler, another invisible man. Cardboard Cagney Richard Webb (TV's Captain Midnight) is the hero, regular serials heroine Aline Towne his female assist.
24. Atom Man vs. Superman (1950)
Approved | 252 min | Sci-Fi
Superman battles Lex Luthor who is using a teleportation device and a new identity as Atom Man in his criminal plans.
The cast of the first Superman serial return for this sequel, with Lyle Talbot (Commissioner Gordon in Batman and Robin the previous year) as Lex Luthor, the Atom Man.
25. Flying Disc Man from Mars (1950)
Passed | 136 min | Action, Adventure, Crime
A hero single-handedly sets himself against Martians trying to assume control of Earth.
Who couldn't love that title? This is essentially the Purple Monster revisited, with Gregory Gay in the same suit, arriving in the same saucer, and meeting the same actor (although this time James Craven's scientist is in on the evil antics by choice, rather than a decent man having his dead body possessed!). Gay is the Martian Mota (atom spelled backwards), Walter Reed is the aviator hero, with Lois Collier as the female lead. Above average bit player Harry Lauter leads the hostile alien's earthbound allies.
26. Mysterious Island (1951)
Approved | 252 min | Action, Sci-Fi
Union prisoners use a balloon to escape a Southern prison camp near the end of the Civil War and end up marooned on a mysterious volcanic island with very unusual inhabitants.
The frequently filmed Jules Verne novel gets the serial treatment here, with Richard Crane as the heroic leader of the castaways, and Leonard Penn as a Captain Nemo sans Nautilus. Sam Katzman throws some aliens from Mercury into the mix, lead by sinister space babe Karen Randle. I've not seen this one yet, but it sounds mad as a bag of cats.
27. Captain Video, Master of the Stratosphere (1951)
Approved | 287 min | Sci-Fi, Adventure
Space hero Captain Video battles the evil Vultura on the planet Atoma.
1949's Captain Video was the first in what would turn out to be a long line of juvenile space-age TV super-heroes of the 1950s, and at the height of his popularity, Columbia decided to feature him in a movie serial, making his the first TV show to be turned into a film. Judd Holdren, who would later star in Republic's Zombies of the Stratosphere and Columbia's mental The Lost Planet, plays the Cap'n, with future casting director Larry Stewart as his buddy. Gene Roth is hilarious as the hapless bad guy Vultura, a Flash Gordon knock-off, and cheapo Sam Katzman has no qualms about dusting off the ridiculous robots from The Phantom Empire, which had already been laughed off the screen in 1935 to assist the wicked Dr. Tobor (presumably inspired by the level of invention that went into his name).
28. Radar Men from the Moon (1952)
Approved | 167 min | Action, Sci-Fi
Strategic targets on Earth are being destroyed by an unknown weapon. Government security head Henderson suspects it's an "atomic ray" originating from the moon! He assigns Commando Cody, ... See full summary »
The return of Rocket Man, now named Commando Cody and portrayed by avuncular George Wallace (the Iron Man-style helmet allowed the re-use of flying footage without having to show who was under the mask). Aline Towne is the female lead, and Roy Barcroft is Retik the Moon Menace. When the authorities suspect foul play, they ask Cody and co. to pop up to the moon and have a look round... So they drive out to their space rocket sitting in the desert, and off they go. The entire conclusion is lifted from The Purple Monster Strikes, with Barcroft obligingly climbing into the now well-worn costume to finish what his incompetent minions started by himself. Watch for Clayton Moore as another lead hood, and Peter Brocco in an early role as an alien.
29. Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952)
Approved | 167 min | Action, Sci-Fi
The invaders come to Earth to create an H-bomb to blast Earth out of orbit so that Mars can take its place.
Republic's third and final Martian invasion film throws in everything but the kitchen sink--Rocket Man flying around (this time it's Judd Holdren in the suit), the Volkite tin can robots from Undersea Kingdom, and the usual small army of hired hoods. Aline Towne must have locked all the other leading ladies of the period in a cupboard at around this time, as here she is again. The serial has gained minor notoriety for the casting of Leonard Nimoy, the future Mr. Spock of Star Trek, as one of the two Martian troublemakers (serial and western veteran Lane Bradford is the other one).
30. The Lost Planet (1953)
Approved | Sci-Fi
Two newspaper reporters battle a plot by the evil Dr. Grood to conquer the world.
Serial hero Judd Holdren hits his career low with this one, a nutty rip-off of previous Columbia sci-fi adventures with busy bit player Michael Fox as the mad scientist. It's TV-style stuff, but without the trade name of Captain Video or his imitators. Holdren and his fellow adventurers travel back and forth between Earth and the moon, at one point opening the windows in their spaceships to chat with each other on the way! This was a little naive, even for 1953!
31. Panther Girl of the Kongo (1955)
Approved | 167 min | Action, Sci-Fi
Jean Evans of an international wildlife foundation has made herself at home in Africa as the elephant-riding, vine-swinging, miniskirted 'Panther Girl.' On safari to film animals, Jean ... See full summary »
Giant creatures terrorise the African jungle, but fortunately, Jean Evans, the infamous Panther Girl, is there to sort things out. Phyllis Coates, the original Lois Lane in the earliest and best episodes of Adventures of Superman before the twee Noel Neill reclaimed the role, looks younger here than in her earlier roles, and quite appealing in her skimpy outfit, which allows re-use of stunt long-shots from Jungle Girl .
The last of the serials appeared in 1956, returning in spirit on 1960s TV screens ten years later in such series as Lost in Space, Star Trek, The Man from UNCLE, The Wild Wild West, The Time Tunnel, Batman, and Tarzan... More retro goodies to check out...
Jon is not on Facebook, but can reply to comments here, at the base of this list.
Obsessed with the popular culture of the 1960s and surrounding decades, Jon Abbott has been writing about film and TV for over thirty years in around two dozen different publications, trade, populist, and specialist. He is the author of several books, including
Irwin Allen Television Productions 1964-1970, Stephen J. Cannell Television Productions: A History of All Series and Pilots, The Elvis Films, Cool TV of the 1960s: Three Shows That Changed the World, and Strange New World: Sex Films of the 1970s.
See his Amazon author's page, and his other lists on the IMDB, all under the pre-fix DISCOVER.