“Cliffhangers” are a time-honored tradition of luring an audience back for the next episode of a series. It all stems from the one of the original movie serials, The Perils of Pauline in 1914 in which each 12-to-15-minute episode ended in the heroine’s being placed in deadly peril. Audiences couldn’t wait to get back to the theater for the next episode. Movie serials were extremely popular through the 1940s and into the 1950s. Even today, big-budget “serial” movies tend to end with some form of cliffhanger to excite viewers for the next film.
Serials were a staple of my early-years moviegoing. In my hometown, Rockford, Illinois, the State Theater showed Saturday matinee films aimed at kids…generally westerns…which always also featured a serial. Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Gene Autry, etc. Each episode, regardless of genre, would end with the equivalent of the hero/heroine bound to a chair with a ticking time bomb near by counting down the seconds to explosion. The camera would zoom in on the hero/heroine’s understandably concerned face, the diminishing number of seconds remaining—always less than 10—then a distracting shot of, say, the outside of the building, and then….BOOM!: the building dissolves in flame and debris. End of episode; come back next week, which of course you would, to find that at the last second the hero/heroine manages to free him/herself from the bonds, locate a trap door in the floor leading to a tunnel to safety, and get safely away before the bomb goes off. It never failed.
Movie serials were cranked out with little regard for niceties like logic or production values. An example that I still remember after all these years was an episode of a serial called, I think Nyoka, Queen of the Jungle. In it, Nyoka, our heroine—who, though ostensibly living her entire life in the jungle, always managed to look like she just stepped out out the beauty parlor—has been captured by the always-dastardly villain, trussed up, and thrown into a raging river just above a thundering waterfall. The next week we see Nyoka stepping out of the water below the falls, untethered, absolutely dry and not a single hair out of place.
Though major studios—Columbia, Universal and the quintessential B-movie king, Republic Pictures—produced serials, none cared much about logic or production values; that wasn’t the purpose of serials. Their purpose was to drag you back to the theater week after week, and they succeeded admirably from 1911 thru 1953, when Blazing the Overland Trail was the last serial from a major studio.
The tradition continues to this day with some serialized major productions: The Hobbit, Star Wars, etc. And those that don’t have specific cliffhangers always add “previews” of the next film in the series.
Television has picked up the gauntlet, especially now that most series are broken into two blocks…fall and spring, and are not above resorting to the Perils of Pauline tradition of having the hero/heroine in a seemingly impossible-to-escape disaster.
A classic example is the recently-aired cliffhanger for the popular show, Arrow. Our hero, for reasons too long and complex to go into here, finds him shirtless on an icy, snow-blown mountaintop facing an equally shirtless nemesis. Why are they shirtless? With bodies like that, how could they not be? Anyway, the duel rages until Arrow is run through with a sword and, falling to his knees, is pushed off the edge of the cliff to his seemingly certain death. I was a bit surprised the villain didn’t put a lit stick of dynamite in his mouth just to emphasize the point that his fate is sealed. So is it “goodbye, Arrow”? Uh…stay tuned.
Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday and Thursday. Please take a moment to visit his website (http://www.doriengrey.com) and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (http://bit.ly/m8CSO1), which is also available as an audiobook (http://www.audible.com/pd/ref=sr_1_1?asin=B00DJAJYCS&qid=1372629062&sr=1-1).