Matinee Melodrama: Playing with Formula in the Sound Serial

Author: Scott Higgins
Published: February 2016


Long before Batman, Flash Gordon, or the Lone Ranger were the stars of their own TV shows, they had dedicated audiences watching their adventures each week. The difference was that this action took place on the big screen, in short adventure Printserials whose exciting cliffhangers compelled the young audience to return to the theater every seven days.

Matinee Melodrama is the first book about the adventure serial as a distinct artform, one that uniquely encouraged audience participation and imaginative play. Media scholar Scott Higgins proposes that the serial’s incoherent plotting and reliance on formula, far from being faults, should be understood as some of its most appealing attributes, helping to spawn an active fan culture. Further, he suggests these serials laid the groundwork not only for modern-day cinematic blockbusters like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, but also for all kinds of interactive media that combine spectacle, storytelling, and play.

As it identifies key elements of the serial form—from stock characters to cliffhangers—Matinee Melodrama delves deeply into questions about the nature of suspense, the aesthetics of action, and the potentials of formulaic narrative. Yet it also provides readers with a loving look at everything from Zorro’s Fighting Legion to Daredevils of the Red Circle, conveying exactly why these films continue to thrill and enthrall their fans.

About the Author:

SCOTT HIGGINS is a professor and chair of the College of Film and the Moving Image at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut. He is the author of Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow: Color Design in the 1930s and Arnheim for Film and Media Studies.