Zombies of the Stratosphere

Zombies of the Stratosphere ★★

Genre Killers (4/31)

In the 1800’s, hardback-bound books were considered a luxury item in both American and European corners, preventing readers from poorer boroughs to enjoy the many illustrious stories being published and hailed as the pivotal works of storytelling defining their century, thus dividing the quality commercial pieces of literature only between the upper and middle classes without any ability to appeal towards those who couldn’t afford such a luxury. Publishers were concerned about this, feeling that authors should have the privilege to allow their works to earn a much wider readership than the tactics employed in printing a single, costly volume of a novel (mostly out of a desire to make more money but it’s a win-win scenario for business/author here, let’s not get too hasty), and a plan was devised to create a way for readers to buy chunks of a story at a time, pacing out a book’s worth of content over a few months or even over a year’s time, so that poorer readers could afford shorter volumes, hereby called installments, thus greater profits for publishers. The serial novel was born, allowing long stories to be paced out in weekly/monthly periodicals like newspapers, literary periodicals, etc., and sustaining economic control in both Victorian-era Britain/emerging Civil War-era America long enough for the format to be immensely popular, and indeed an unstoppable way of life for the new domestic authors of the early 1800’s to reconsider their craft and figure out how to write by the seat of their pants, building mythos and pathos one brick at a time. This, too, also had its benefits for publishers, if a serial novel did particularly well, they could justify binding a single volume together for the author to fix and edit mistakes, if not, they didn’t have to waste money printing a known failure, and many classics did come out of the serialized format, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Jules Vernes’ 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and dozens more that treated their episodic storytelling as enough of a great advantage to capitalize on, and worthy enough of stitching together in such a way that most modern readers, or enjoyers of their multiple adaptations, aren’t aware of their sliced-up origins. The serial format had its limits and points of criticism, however, the need to fill weekly space and ensure each reader got their time’s worth meant many installments could be plagued with excessively long texts, too much repetition, and an author losing grip on their story to meet deadlines could run afoul into making too many exaggerated and/or flat characters, or creating plotlines that don’t make sense when potentially combined into a single whole. The serial novel had a fierce opponent once the 20th Century unfurled itself, as radio programs could not only provide the same components the serial novel provided, they did so with sound that made the experience feel far more alive and lively than their paper equivalents were capable of, and while the 1930’s is when serial novels would have to admit their slow, painful defeat, radio was not the only thing that novels had to compete with. Where radio offered readers thrilling stories with sound, the cinemas were also ready to offer sight and, eventually, sound to tantalizing eyes.

Film serials followed on the same traditions and stepping-stones their written counterparts conveyed, creating installments for attendants to feel encouraged to visit their local theater-house every week, lest they miss an important part of an ongoing story, and were part of slim package deals much like the magazines and periodicals that Dickens, Verne, or H.G. Wells were commonly found in. During the early days of cinema, around 1930 to 1947 based on the limited specifics of a timeline I could find, theater-houses really took advantage of films becoming embraced as more than a novelty, stuffing a whole night’s worth of entertainment into a single matinee and convincing patrons to make repeat visits if it meant seeing the new offerings each week provided. Cartoons, newsreels, short comedies and dramas harkening to the modest-sized films from the age of the nickelodeon, films became more robust as more reels became added to the experience in order to amp up attendees for the feature attraction (or in some cases, the starless B-movie attraction attached to a major film in the hopes of boosting profits and making a program feel like an even bigger bang for patrons’ bucks), offering promotions for new films and segments of what’s happening outside in the real world to keep momentum alive, and the weekly film serial was particularly good at keeping people on their edge of their seats, lasting well into the 50’s cliffhanger-after-cliffhanger before seemingly subsiding into a relic of cinema’s history. 1952 was when the film serial reached a point horizon, a point of banality that signaled it had become too much of a prisoner of its customs to last much longer, and though it’s not the end, nor the most notorious, of the death of film serials, Zombies of the Stratosphere is perhaps the best way to symbolically show just how the genre met its brutal demise the way it did, in its unforgiven progression of chases, fights, captures, and escapes that proved too tiresome for people to crawl out their homes anymore.

So that begs a question, a cliffhanger for you and I to ponder for a few more paragraphs: Why THAT one, specifically?

To call film serials a “genre” is admittedly pretty misleading terminology, it was instead a format and style that was so lax in its definition (just cut up a single story week-after-week and call it good) that nearly every genre of the time was mimicked and turned in multi-part thrillers, the action-packed melodrama, the western, sci-fi, supernaturally-tinged horror, jungle, aviator, crime, if it existed from 1910’s to the 1950’s, a genre wasn’t exempt from serialization, though depending on which decade one looks at trends and frequent patterns do emerge from the wetworks. The 1910’s in particular was a prolific time for the “woman in danger”, as female stars suffering till suffrage got a minor victory for dazzling movie-goers week-after-week, performing daring, risky, and hair-rising stunts that audiences couldn’t get enough of while making national-recognized superstars out of the starlets that could be found. Edison Studios pulled through with the first American serial, What Happened to Mary, starring Mary Fuller and aligning itself prominently with the serial’s roots as novelizations of the stories from the screen were published per month within Ladies' World Magazine in tandem with Edison’s episodes, but the format wouldn’t truly be codified until the 20-episode 1914 serial The Perils of Pauline, turning title-star Pearl White into a queen of the format as, while performing most of her own stunts, she dazzled as an action heroine threatened with whirling buzzsaws, burning homes and (apocryphally and unconfirmed) oncoming railroads tied to the tracks, each time escaping by her wits and strengths, as would many serial queens in the span of the decade. Grace Cunard became a mystery-darling once she became featured in such serials as Lucille Love, Girl of Mystery and The Broken Coin, Helen Holmes, and later Rose August Wenger (or, as the studio rechristened her, Helen Gibson), headlined in the longest serial of all time The Hazards of Helen, notably autonomous and enjoyed without any overarching story tying all 119 reels together and instead having the two actresses face impeccable danger such as leaping from high-rise water-towers, plunging through the sky from airplane, and many segments that focused on railroad-themed dangers including, yes, one of the Helens being tied to the railroads as a trail barrels closer to her, and Marie Walcamp frequently traded in spurs and saddles for her serial exploits, featuring prominently in Westerns such as Liberty and popularizing the subgenre with her own daring Western cavalier, Tempest Cody. The distress these female actors offered were able to satiate many serial fanatics, but alas, the next two decades wouldn’t be welcoming for the serial queens as studios now found themselves darting their eyes towards the burliest, manliest heroes to take on the serial mantle, and even then the ability to create new stars slowly whittled down to a few competitors.

Joe Bonomo, Jack Mulhall, Francis Ford, William Desmond, Franklyn Farnum, Walter Miller, these were among the rugged faces that populated the serial landscape come the late 20’s/early 30’s, and were among the faces surviving a format that was subsidizing itself from the mini-major studios down to exclusively three studios able to afford to make these weekly serials at a costly yet mildly-impressive budget, Mascot Pictures, Columbia Pictures, and Universal Pictures. The talkie revolution meant only those who could afford both the equipment and the studio space necessary to make living and vocal beings come to life could have a slice of the serial pie, and the three studios run pretty similar paths that make consolidating the story for the sake of getting to this marathon’s prompt a bit easier, units from each of these studios became established purely for the sake of making these weekly adventures, B-grade actors and writers became mainstays in order to ensure the market would stay continuously perched alongside the long-form movies being made on the same lots, and cheats would be made in order to keep these serials on-budget, beginning a trend where the same cliffhangers, sets, stunts, and special effects would start to become reused quite a bit, indescribable to the untrained eye but becoming far more noticeable of a problem come the 40’s and 50’s when these cheats started to outweigh originality. While the next Ace Drummonds, Western desperados, or Dick Tracy-a-likes were being filmed, the rise of television was causing concern for the film serials of the late 40’s and 50’s, the technology was becoming more mobile, its art becoming more accessible to those within postwar suburbias, and the once densely-packed entertainment packages of the movie palaces were now being sliced out and supplemented into television programs, able to compartmentalize what the masses wanted right around when television shows began to gain enough of a sophistication and quality that they could not only look and sound like the films of the era, they now could offer the film serial format for consumers for free, at home, and without the need to watch another film afterwards if the consumer didn’t feel like it. Rural dramas, electrifying high-stakes televised theater, professional wrestling, game shows, children’s programming and cartoons, even the Westerns so popular in the serial’s heydays, these were the things television began to offer to consumers that convinced them not to leave the house, and while in 1948 film serials weren’t in total jeopardy, only 1% Americans could afford and bother with owning these large tube-amp sets, that number steadily and hastily increased until 1955 saw 75% of all Americans owning televisions. This would have a dire effect on film serials and the massive rise of television does coincide with the massive fall of serials, but to pin blame on just television feels like a bit of a red herring. The film serial had already been killed and co-opted for the age of the boob tube well before the last American serial painfully petered its way into theaters in 1956, and it is a concept that is so vague that one could argue the serial merely evolved rather than burned out if looking at it through a cut-and-dry historical lens. What I’m after, then, is the point in which the classic film serial became a shell of itself, a victim of its overpopulation, the point in which the format needed to have a slight increase in production costs to keep the format alive, and when exactly it found itself unable to evolve with the world of cinema that the rest of the 50’s set the foundation for. Universal could be an angle to study but they petered out well before the serial’s oversaturation in the public’s mind, and Columbia is certainly compelling to blame in regards to their later, pitifully subpar serials of the 50’s, but they were able to adapt pristinely to the new landscape of television, their long-standing history of producing some of the finest two-reel comedies/short subjects meant they understood the concept of half-hour/hour-long content incredibly well and invested $50,000 to acquire Pioneer Telefilms (later renamed to Screen Gems), selling many, many programs for television that would offer the studio a chance to survive well beyond the 50’s. To understand the death of the film serial in greater detail requires looking at the film studio that offered a third of the serials from the 20’s to 50’s and yet wouldn’t be able to make it into the 60’s onward in any capacity. The downfall of the film serial rests its unfortunate tarot card onto Herbert J. Yates and shifts our story exclusively towards the tragic fate of Republic Pictures.

Dismissing Republic Pictures entirely doesn’t seem right, they were able to produce such classics as Johnny Guitar, The Quiet Man, Rio Grande, and Orson Welles’ Macbeth in one of the few times God gave Orson a break and allowed his film to be a financial success (we’ll come back to this example later on), but the amount of films under their belt are heavily overshadowed by their contemporaries and you’d have to stretch definitions in order to count how many Republic films are in any way notable with more than two hands. They were a very dominant and massive B-movie studio for their time, but they specialized in just that, B-movies which were exempt from the stars of Classic Hollywood the people wanted to see and lacked the higher budgets needed to stand out from the crowd, which wouldn’t stand out if not for Herbert Yates promising exactly that when he acquired the six studios that made up the backbone of Republic’s resources. Yates owned a film lab called Consolidated Film Industries, which lent materials out to Monogram Pictures, Liberty Pictures, Majestic Pictures, Chesterfield Pictures, Invincible Pictures, and, pertinent to our story, Mascot Pictures, all of whom owed Yates a lot of money once the Great Depression rolled around and all of whom would become merged into one mega-studio, each of these former six studios able to offer something to the table and trying their best to navigates Yates’ whims once all financial backers left the newly-established Republic Pictures shortly after its formation. Yates would eventually make the money necessary to give certain films a luxury price tag, but this was more out of brute force and quantity rather than quality, as he instructed all his new employees to crank out as many films as they could as fast as possible, resulting in what remained of Mascot Pictures making more serials than ever before, all with the explicit insistence that none of the films tip-toe past the regulations made out by the Hays Code in order to avoid delays and political censorship damage the pace of his studio’s filmmaking, a tactic nearly every other film studio in Hollywood tried to dodge or outright avoid out of sheer hatred for the Code (this perhaps explains why Republic’s films tends to be considerably less-remembered than other mini-majors of the era). Yates got lucky with landing a name or two that would become a star in due-time, and the work performed by the crews under his wings certainly could be stellar given their imposed limitations, but any good times the serial crews could make do with were doomed once 1950 entered their visage, and Yates had to figure out how to adapt with a public that seemed to desire television more than the dashingly courageous flights of fantasy from the heroes and villains of his film serial.

Universal and Columbia were initially hesitant in jumping into the television bandwagon without at least putting up a fight with their film units, but Yates saw potential and recognized that the sci-fi, crime, and western serials he produced not only needed mere timing adjustments to fit perfectly with the usual programming stations offered, no adjustments for content were necessary either in order to fit within the Federal Communications Commission’s media policies, especially with the whole “Anti-Communism” vibes the nation exerted throughout the 50’s (the FCC, incidentally, had a safeguard that prevented them from granting accused Communists licenses to broadcast subversive content over VHF and radio wires/signals, which is probably why people think the 50’s were as squeaky-clean as they were in this nostalgia for an age that wasn’t properly reflected on the media). Still, for as much content as Republic could license, they didn’t have the budget to add a whole lot of TV shows to their schedule and as such became behind-the-times once other film studios relented and joined forces with television in an uneasy alliance, meaning more pressure was applied to Republic’s disjointed crews now having bigger opponents beyond those they shared marquee billing with and now with dwindling profits to pay for this mess. By 1950, the ability to acquire the rights of radio and comic book heroes like Dick Tracy, the Lone Ranger, and Captain America were kaput, massive action sequences couldn’t be filmed in the same splendor as previous serials and thus highlights from old serials/movies were reused, and the market for people wanting to go outside for serial action waned and waned until 1958 when Yates, in tears, announced to investors that there would be no more films made by Republic Pictures anymore. The film serial was completely dead, and he didn’t have any idea who was to blame for it besides himself and his hubris for trying to continue when others began to bail ship.

Any of Republic’s serials from 1950 to 1956 could those share the blame in being “genre killers”, the problem with the genre became that there were so many serials thrown towards a market that slowly didn’t want them and too many were made with the thought to get them done rather than with the thought to entertain. 1950’s The Invisible Monster, 1951’s Don Daredevil Rides Again, and 1954’s Trader Tom of the China Seas were all dismissed at the time as “quickies”, and serials like 1950’s Flying Disc Man from Mars, 1953’s Jungle Drums of Africa, and 1954’s Man with the Steel Whip were all that year’s most expensive serials from their respective years, averaging about $175,000 to cost at most which seemed like absolutely nothing compared to the rising funds of the major Hollywood productions, and stretching that monetary value thinner and thinner considering these were also the average budgets for Republic serials a full decade prior when the dollar was stronger and Republic could afford more extravaganzas. The problem with finding one stand-out is that they all masterfully blend together in an oasis of crap, the film serial completely drowned under the uncaring, anxiety-riddled watch of Republic Pictures (this is not to say Columbia Pictures didn’t have their own struggles keeping the film serial on life support, but they had backup plans to fall back-on) and is a weird example for my purposes given that there is a definitive endpoint that blew itself up into pieces and was a complete dead-zone for shareholders, but it’s tricky trying to discern which serial ended it all. We could look literally with King of the Carnival, Republic’s last-ditch efforts to combine Cold War terror with spy action that wound up being the final serial period from the company, but at that point we’re looking at a genre zombie that’s not gonna be able to tell us much with such vivid detail why the film serial had to die as viciously as it did. For that, I think it is best looking at the 1952 serial that was shot in the exact same amount of time as their final serial, 17 whole days, the shortest shooting schedule of any Republic serial, and had less reason to rush production. We have to look at when Republic wanted to make Buck Rogers without the rights or budget to make Flash Gordon.

In 1949, Republic made a serial called King of the Rocket Man, a moderately-decent story that had enough original flair to it to stand as one of the last glimmers of innovation from the studio’s serials, with a hero that could have only come from America’s postwar technological might and a villain that, well, was pretty lame given the lack of any elaborate costuming but the chases, spills, and stunts were about on par with what one would expect from a serial by this time. Most misremember the star of this serial as the daring Commando Cody, adorned with the ability to fly through a rocket-powered jetpack and a bullet-shaped helmet to disguise the identity underneath his sleek leather jacket, which in reality is a half-truth, KotRM starred a character by the name of Jeff King, or Rocket Man, whose costume and stunts would be reused immediately the next year for Radar Men from the Moon, a serial that was noticeably tackier and padded its footage with that of KotRM, as well as 1945’s The Purple Monster Strikes, as a sign of Republic’s beginning of their financial woes and struggles to compete with other markets. Radar Men from the Moon could be seen as a downgrade, but nothing that felt too grave for the style to take immediate notice and frustration with, as opposed to 1952’s Zombies of the Stratosphere that jettisoned all forms of rationale with its footage resampling, and expected its attendees to accept the fact that this character they’d followed for two serials now was suddenly a completely different character, with a completely different actor, than the two different characters/actors that had performed as the Rocket Man beforehand. By this point Republic Pictures was cannibalizing everywhere just to meet end’s meet, not only is footage from the previous two “rocket man” serials abundant in this one, so is footage from 1936’s Undersea Kingdom and 1940’s Mysterious Doctor Satan, and audiences began to finally feel their patience tested by having to see the same stunts they saw year-after-year, losing faith in Republic Pictures and beginning the quick process of abandoning them. Republic tried to use whatever assets they had from Radar Men from the Moon to make a proper TV show, this time actually allowing Commando Cody to be the star as opposed to the two boring pseudonyms the superhero profiled under, but the damage had been done as Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe had lasted a mere single season, 12 episodes long enough to make up their own film serial but pitiful compared to one of Republic’s biggest moneymakers a decade prior, The Lone Ranger, whose own television series lasted a whole 9 years and offered 221 thrilling half-hours that Republic could now only dream of. Republic would continue henceforth from ZotS, but by that point they had been beat and whipped into submission, television was no longer their safeguard and the film serial had failed its purpose by giving audiences the same events over and over and over again for too long. The death of the film serial came from copying upon copying upon copying a formula too much that it became a trend no studio wanted to get involved in unless they were in too deep, and though Columbia would escape poverty row in spite of their serials, Republic Pictures stands as a warning: if you don’t fuck with the formula often enough, the faith and goodwill you earned with that formula will slowly fade away until there’s nothing left to do but to ridicule and lampoon.

Larry Smith, with his friends and his rocket-powered jetpack, is called upon the government to track and prevent mysterious activities from being committed, unbeknownst to them that their quest requires stopping a Martian H-bomb that can threaten to destroy the planet. Like many serials around this time, there's really only about 20 minutes worth of story here that's rinsed-repeated 12 times, an effect obviously less noticeable when viewed the intended way but stiched together highlights how little content there is beyond just the pure attempts at swell thrills and superhero action Larry tries to perform, except Larry's kind-of lame in that he gets pummeled and knocked-out at the end of nearly every single cliffhanger, all of which are incidentally blatant cheats as each time Smith, or his associates, find themselves waking up just in time to escape certain doom come the next chapter, a repetitive narrative that gets old increasingly fast and stretches the logic of this serial further than necessary. Of course, with a story that involves Martians using robots to help rob banks and trying to make train getaways in order to obtain uranium, this is not at all the type of film that warrants intellectualization, its B-movie cheesiness at its most gooey, and while it's impossible to not get a mild kick out of seeing Smith fly for the first time, nor the boat chases, robot fighting, and gunplay that someone injures no one (nor do any hats get blown off, even during fights, methinks to hide stuntmen with as little care as possible), the serial format reveals the weaknesses of relying solely on these fantasy elements quickly as without anything to shake things up, three hours' worth of time really starts to feel much longer than it has any right to.

Maybe it's also due to the fact that these special effects look....crap, I-I mean, here's the thing, a thin line tends to be firmly established when it comes to me looking at some of these low-budget affairs of the past, if a chintzy effect manages to work well enough with its surroundings I'm very forgiving, if an effect is so laughably bad I can't help but be enamored at its shoddy craftmanship I can respect a film for eliciting some joy. Somehow, this serial lands in the deadzone between the two lines, seeing such blatant attempts at greenscreening Smith on-top of a movie vehicle, the limited scale in making a mine-cart dash and boat-fights seem in anyway real, the blatantly fluid movement of a human representing a robot (or "robit" as everyone tends to call it), they all fall flat and only offer really boring facsimiles of the low-budget charm from this decade, perhaps especially burdened by the monotony of the serial (there are a LOT of sequences of baddies packing things up in big vehicles to pad out the runtime, once would be frustrating, twelve times is goddamn tedious) but it lacks any spark that would make the picture sizzle in the type of younger-crowd energy the serial's clearly aiming for, but there's nothing that would entertain those without those rosy glasses of watching this as a young ward before one actually realized there were more films beyond the superheroes and supervillians conflict they'd eat up like breakfast. I guess it does have some moments (Sue, Larry's female companion, having to deal with secret-base invaders by firing a handgun in every direction BUT the intruders' elicits a chuckle), but it's a thin layering to say the least.

Unlike the serials of literature, Zombies of the Stratosphere does not work at all when jammed together, nor does it really work beyond a single installment, once you've seen the first chapter, like clockwork, the rest of the serial's chapters play out exactly as predicted and as such it's very easy to zone out from all the smoke bombs and crummy spaceship sets it can provide. The general influence of serials can be found everywhere on television, it's a given, you slice something up, find enough of a formula to lean and tweak for a few seasons, for most television shows this works quite well, but the thing is, television rarely feels as redundant as this, for the most part television writers know not to give you the exact same thing each and every episode, and this serial, while not literally performing such an audacious act, feels so beholden in getting it done on schedule that it becomes a numbing pattern of fists, stiff flying, and evil plotting. No wonder the film serial died off the way it did if all it could provide was more-of-the-same ad naseum.

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