Sunday, March 18, 2012

Saturday Matinees

When I was a young teenager, the local movie house ran Saturday afternoon matinees. For 26 cents, I could get a cold drink, a box of popcorn and admission to the theater for an afternoon that took me far from my quiet suburban existence. The fare consisted of a cartoon, a movie serial and a couple of “B” movie features. My brother and I would hurry through our chores in the morning to earn our ticket money and be through in time to ride our bikes down to the old “Lake Shore Theater” in time for the 1:30 start.

Serials were short subjects that were related to pulp magazine serialized fiction. They were extended motion pictures broken into a number of segments called "chapters" or "episodes." Each chapter would be screened at the same theater for one week. Each episode would end with a cliffhanger in which the hero and heroine would find themselves in a perilous situation from which there apparently could be no escape. That brought us back each week to see the cliffhangers resolved and to follow the continuing story. We would do almost anything not to miss the next week. We still see that today in network television where the season finale usually ends with the apparent or imminent death of the prime character.

Many of the serials I saw back then were inexpensive to film Westerns. There were also the great science fiction serials which were a different financial story. The Flash Gordon serial with Buster Crabbe as flash and Jean Rogers as Dale Arden in their struggle to save earth from the evil emperor, Ming the Merciless, was a major production for its time. I eagerly anticipated the movie when it came out in 1980 and was not disappointed in that it maintained the campy look and feel of the 1930s serial. Melody Anderson did a great job of reprising Jean Roger’s role of Dale Arden in that movie.

Another film genre that was often serialized was the jungle movie serials. Buster Crabbe and Johnny Weissmuller took their shots at playing Tarzan adapted from the Edgar Rice Burroughs books. Of course, Tarzan had his gal pal Jane and the ever so famous Cheetah. I saw a news article recently where one of the chimpanzees that played Cheetah recently passed away in Florida, living longer than the human actors that performed with him in the movies.

Watching the Tarzan serials got me interested in the Edgar Rice Burroughs books and that led me to John Carter of Mars. Debuting in 1912 magazine serial, John has endured through the years with his fabulous Martian Princess, Dejah Thoris. John and Dejah marry and become the parents of a son, Carthoris, and daughter, Tara. Carthoris played a secondary role in The Gods of Mars and The Warlord of Mars, and is the protagonist of Thuvia, Maid of Mars. Tara is the heroine of The Chessmen of Mars (1922), and the mother of Carter's granddaughter Llana, heroine of Llana of Gathol. All were great reads.

When Disney Studio decided to break out their centennial movie production of John Carter I was really curious to see how they were going to handle the character of Dejah. Burrows described her as a breathtaking beauty, towering scientist and formidable fighter; she was undefeatable when she picked up her swords. But most intriguingly, in the books, Dejah never wore a stitch of clothing. The character of Dejah Thoris was such an influence on the science fiction genre, that she is referenced in many works by other authors over the years since Edgar Rice Burroughs created her. I knew that the movie version of Dejah would be clothed but could they meet my adolescent fantasies of this intriguing woman. I must say, after seeing the movie, Lynn Collins with her flashing blue eyes, statuesque figure and ability to handle herself in battle, in the laboratory and in John Carter’s arms lived up to my expectations. They had their Dejah Thoris. Oh MY!

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