Thrills! Chills! Mystery in the Air!

In the 1930s and ’40s, heroic pilots engaged enemy aircraft — every Saturday morning.

Over 15 episodes, Captain Midnight survived bombs, fire, near drowning, and more, before delivering criminal mastermind Ivan Shark to the police — a departure from the comic strip, in which Shark was devoured by a polar bear. (Courtesy Bill Allen/Allen Airways Collection)
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Was it Lindbergh and his solo flight across the Atlantic or dashing stunt pilot Frank Clarke who finally made airplanes the stars of Saturday morning movie serials? In the first serial with an aviation theme, the 1928 Eagle of the Night (a title echoing Charles Lindbergh’s nickname “Lone Eagle”), Clarke continued a tradition he’d begun in the 1921 silent film Stranger Than Fiction, in which he flew a Curtiss Canuck biplane off the roof of a 10-story building. After Clarke blazed the trail, almost 20 aviation-themed serials were made. Many of the kids who watched the Saturday morning thrillers would have those scenes in mind when they trained a few years later for aerial battle in World War II.

Nearly forgotten today, movie serials were wildly popular with audiences from the 1910s through the 1950s. The Edison Company produced the first serial (What Happened to Mary?) in 1912, and the format’s immediate success led to dozens of copycats, including The Perils of Pauline, which helped introduce the cliffhanger as a plot device. Most serials ran for 12 to 15 episodes, letting the plot slowly unfold every week over several months.

Directors of aviation serials were eager to hire real pilots. The 1937 serial The Mysterious Pilot starred the record-setter Frank Hawks, billed as the “fastest airman in the world.” (He died in 1938, shortly after the serial’s completion, when he crashed his Gwinn Aircar.) And the first Tailspin Tommy, in 1934, starred Maurice “Loop-the-Loop” Murphy (world-record holder for 120 consecutive loops), a stunt pilot from Howard Hughes’ 1930 film Hell’s Angels.

But the serials’ realism didn’t extend to aircraft: A single scene might feature an actual airplane, a model, and stock footage—all of different aircraft.

The era of serials featuring a dashing aviator came to an end in 1952, with Columbia Pictures’ Blackhawk. While less than 10 percent of Americans had taken even one commercial flight by then, putting pilots on the big screen no longer seemed the stuff of adventure. And so, to recapture the same wonder inspired by early aviation, serial storylines turned to space pilots and interplanetary travel.

Based on a comic-strip representation of American World War I ace Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, the character of Ace Drummond is as suave a hero as you’ll find in aviation serials. Drummond, writes Rickenbacker biographer W. David Lewis, “was essentially a projection of Rickenbacker’s inner vision of himself, living out a fantasy life based on his own experiences and his faith in technology as the master key to progress.” John King, a vocalist who bursts into song during each installment, plays Drummond in this 1936 serial, in which an evil mastermind known as “the Dragon” tries to drive International Airways and its Clipper Ship air service out of Mongolia.

“For movie audiences at the time,” says Mark Taylor, the motion picture archivist at the National Air and Space Museum, “the Clippers represented the leading edge of air transportation, similar to showing the Boeing 747 or Concorde in movies of the 1970s and 1980s. In both cases, these aircraft represented the epitome of luxurious long-range air transportation.”

Best line:
Ace Drummond to Peggy Trainor:
“We’re gonna crash! Duck under the cowling!”

In this 1941 serial, pilots in a World War I daredevil squadron, the Sky Raiders, have reorganized as aircraft manufacturers under the leadership of Captain Robert Dayton, their former commander. They’ve developed a pursuit ship (which appears to be some kind of modified Ryan with a Ranger engine) and a bomber that is very loosely based on the Bell XFM-1/YFM-1. Ruthless international spy Felix Lynx is determined to obtain both for an unnamed foreign government. He’s aided in his quest by the use of a Kellett KD-1 autogiro, which he keeps parked on the roof of his luxurious penthouse office for fast getaways.

“Autogiros were much in the news for rooftop operations the year before this was released,” says Roger Connor, the Museum’s vertical-flight curator. “Given that this was a Universal production, they had ready access to newsreel footage to splice in. [There was a lot of] attention surrounding Post Office autogiro airmail trials, most notably in Philadelphia—which also featured a KD-1, and which may be the one seen in the serial.”

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