THE MYSTERIOUS AIRMAN (1928, Dir. Harry Revier)
Sprocket Vault DVD $19.99 (Available through Amazon.com)

THE PHANTOM TROOPER  (1931, Dir. Harry Revier)
Grapevine Video BD $15.95

DAREDEVILS OF THE RED CIRCLE (1939. Dir. Wm. Witney & John English)
Kino Lorber BD $29.95, DVD $19.95

Difficult for us to appreciate these days, but once upon a time, there was a movie theatre in most every neighborhood and the films changed three times a week; you could go to the same theatre on Monday, Thursday and Saturday and see a completely different show, with a feature, newsreel, cartoon and various entertaining or educational short subjects. As a way of keeping audiences coming back (“I loved tonight’s Louise Fazenda movie but that Lupino Lane picture that opens this weekend looks like a bubke, Cuthbert!”) film producers turned to a popular sales promotion from newspapers and magazines: the serial.

From What Happened to Mary? in 1912 and for nearly fifty years after, serials (also called chapterplays) adorned movie screens every week across America. In 1914, the most famous silent serial, The Perils of Pauline, was produced, and created the first serial movie star, Pearl White. One of the most overused endings of the time featured the beautiful young star tossed over a cliff, where she would be found at the beginning of the next episode hanging from a bush. Because of this, chapterplays became popularly known as “cliffhangers.” A staple of a full theatrical program or simply extra fodder for kiddie matinees, serials lasted through the mid-1950s, when they were finally killed off by their successor: television. Three examples of the format all been released on DVD/BD by three different companies, and they're a solid mass of thrills and fun.

First up is The Mysterious Airman, a 10-chapter Weiss Bros. independent production from the end of the silent film era. A gang of terrorists led by the mysterious, ever-smiling Pilot X is wreaking havoc with an air transport company that's invented a new range finder. Walter Miller and Eugenia Gilbert are our leads, and there's plenty of aerial excitement afoot (and a good thing, because in the chapters we've seen so far, the exposition and dialog crowds out any fisticuffs). It's a beautiful print of this rare serial, too, missing only the beginning of chapter 9 (stills and title cards fill in the blanks). The disc includes original censor and promotional materials, plus a featurette on early pilots. Not too many silent serials survive, particularly in such beautiful shape.

From the early talkie era we've got another independent serial, Harry Webb's The Mystery Trooper. A map to a hidden mine has been torn in half by the jealous miners, and when they get themselves blown up it's left to their heirs to try and dodge the French-Canadian villains long enough to unite the maps, find the mine and nab their vein of riches. A rather pedestrian serial, to be sure, that could've used a musical score but it's fun in its way (the best actor in this thing is a white horse that shows more, well, horse sense than anybody in the cast) and the Grapevine Blu-ray print (which bears the reissue title Trail of the Royal Mounted) is light-years better than the previous DVD release. 10 chapters.

By the late 1930s, the independent producers had left the serial field to the big boys, or at least the small big boys: Columbia, Republic, and Universal were the only studios that produced serials after 1937, with Republic renowned to this day for superior production values and tightly-edited action sequences. Daredevils of the Red Circle is one of the best and most popular of the Republics,

A trio of circus acrobats (Herman Brix, Charles Quigley, and stuntman supreme Dave Sharp) thwart evil mastermind 39013 (Charles "Ming" Middleton) with the assistance of a masked accomplish known as the Red Circle (what else?) across 12 episodes of pretty much non-stop action, with the first chapter somewhat of a legend amongst movie fans for sheer thrills (Quigley on a motorcycle outracing a flood through a traffic tunnel). A big bonus on the disc is a running commentary (across four episodes) with Michael Schlesinger, who demonstrates his love for serials (and this one in particular) and gives us ample background on the featured players and bit actors and crew members. Really good stuff, and all three serials are fun examples of a long-gone theatrical short subject staple. Rumor has it Republic's Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941) is on the horizon for BD, and hopefully some of our favorite cliffhangers, including Flash Gordon (1936), Spy Smasher (1942) and Batman (1943) will follow - from somebody!