Today, theaters are dominated by film series and sequels, whether it’s superheroes, sci-fi/fantasy epics or teen apocalyptic action stories. While the big standalone movies were the ones winning awards decades ago, there were several movie series in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s that audiences flocked to again and again. These series movies featured the same characters in familiar situations, and might be predictable, but nevertheless sold tickets.
In 1919, Earl Derr Biggers wrote The House without a Key, set in Honolulu and featured a minor character called Charlie Chan, a smart Chinese detective who is portrayed in a positive light and was brave and noble. At the time, it was revolutionary, because all Chinese and other Asians were given roles where they were the villains or unpleasant, negative stereotypes. It is important to note that today, Charlie Chan is also seen as stereotypical because Chan still didn’t speak “idiomatic English,” had a subservient nature and was tradition bound. In any case, after being a minor character in three movies (the first based on Bigger’s book in 1926), Charlie Chan became a main character in the movie Charlie Chan Carries On (1932), while he was portrayed by an American actor (Warner Oland), rather than a Chinese one (another reason the movies today are not well received). In all, Charlie Chan appeared in over 58 separate productions, the majority of which were American but five of them were made in Chinese with Chinese actors, which showed the character’s popularity with the Chinese people themselves. The majority of the American series were released between 1932 and 1949, with 1973 adaptation and 1981 adaptations failing to gain the traction that the original series had.
In 1930, the comic strip Blondie appeared for the first time, featuring the characters of Blondie and her boyfriend Dagwood. In 1933, Blondie and Dagwood were married with much fanfare and became the comic strip we know today: the smart, wise Blondie is constantly flustered by her bumbling, scheming husband Dagwood. In 1938, Blondie was made into the movie Blondie, starring Penny Singleton as Blondie and Arthur Lake as Dagwood. The movies were careful to remain to the spirit of the comics, with little details, like Dagwood’s famous sandwiches and Dagwood running into the mailman, were included in the movies. Also, continuity was strictly enforced and Dagwood’s and Blondie’s children grew up to young adults, rather than staying the same age throughout. In all, Blondie and Dagwood appeared in 28 Blondie movies, from 1938 to 1950.
In 1940, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby appeared in a comedy movie called, Road to Singapore. In the movie, Hope and Crosby appear as sailors who return to the US after a long voyage. Of course, they immediately get into some tight scrapes and have to escape to Singapore. There, they meet a beautiful girl played by Dorothy Lamour. Both men fall in love with her and have several more zany adventures before the story ends. The movie was so successful it spawned six sequels, for a total of seven movies between 1940 and 1962. The Road to… movies typically featured two buddies getting into tight scrapes (usually as con men), having to escape and meeting a beautiful woman played by Lamour, and featured many running gags that appeared throughout the seven movies, including fourth wall breaks and promises that they would not get involved with a woman (which was immediately broken).
In 1934, William Powell and Myrna Loy appeared as Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man, a comedy about a retired, hard-drinking detective and the wealthy heiress he married. While the plot is a murder mystery (a friend of Nick’s is accused of murder, the titular “Thin Man”), the real reason for the movie’s success was the crazy interaction between Nick and Nora and their little terrier dog Asta and their “attempts” to settle down. The movie was a huge success and is regarded as a classic today. Trying to replicate the success of the first production, five sequels were released, for a total of six films between 1934 and 1947, which were mainly built on the interaction between Nick and Nora.
While today’s audience may complain that recent movies were nothing but sequels, the truth is that movie series were nothing new. These are just a few examples of popular movies series between the 1920s and 1960s. While some of Charlie Chan movies are lost to time, all of the Blondie, Road to… and Thin Man films are available for purchase (though some only in box sets). Check out these early movie series and the fascinating characters they featured.