When I was a kid in the 80s, I watched religiously each Sunday morning on PBS a little show called Matinee at the Bijou. The show ran serial movies from the early days of cinema each week. This is where I saw the Adventures of Captain Marvel or as he is known today as Shazam. At the time I was roughly 40 years removed from the original production dates of the movies. Today I am equally removed 40 years from the airing of Matinee at the Bijou. It’s a funny thing this time thing.
Cliffhanger! by Christopher Irving with a quick swoosh brought back those rushing memories of me clued to that TV waiting for the cliffhanger just like kids had 40 years earlier. Today you can just go through the cliffhanger with web access or streaming with a click of a button. Back then we had to wait a week to see those shows. I was hooked every Sunday with PBS. Back then that was our fix to a cinematic universe of superheroes such as Batman, Tarzan, Captain Marvel, Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, Buck Rogers, the Shadow, the Green Hornet, Captain America, Spy Smasher, and Superman. In those days studios were more concerned about budgets, there were no CGI tricks, and wires were visible, we did not care, we wanted more. Soda drinks kept coming with the popcorn. This was the breeding ground for future filmmakers. The studios knew back then about our insatiable appetite for superhero movies, they were just too cheap to give us quality.
According to our research department, the term “cliffhanger” is considered to have originated with the serialized version of Thomas Hardy‘s A Pair of Blue Eyes (which was published in Tinsley’s Magazine between September 1872 and July 1873) in which Henry Knight, one of the protagonists, is left hanging off a cliff.
Hold on tight as historian Christopher Irving explores the origins of the first on-screen superheroes and the comic creators and filmmakers who brought them to life.
Cliffhanger! touches on the early days of the film serial, to its explosion as a juvenile medium of the 1930s and ‘40s. See how the creation of characters like Superman, Captain America, Spy Smasher, and Captain Marvel dovetailed with the early film adaptations.
Along the way, you’ll meet the stuntmen, directors (Spencer Bennett, William Witney, producer Sam Katzman), comic book creators (Siegel & Shuster, Simon & Kirby, Bob Kane, C.C. Beck, Frank Frazetta, Will Eisner), and actors (Buster Crabbe, George Reeves, Lorna Gray, Kane Richmond, Kirk Alyn, Dave O’Brien) who brought them to the silver screen—and how that resonates with today’s cinematic superhero universe.
Of interest: Adventures of Captain Marvel, the greatest serial ever filmed