Between 1936 and 1955, you didn't just go to a movie; you went to a whole evening's entertainment, with cartoons, newsreels, two features, and a serial -- a cliffhanging, 12-15 chapter adventure, Western, or science fiction series designed to fill the seats week after week as audiences wondered "How will the hero get out of this jam?"
Three main studios, Columbia, Republic, and Universal, churned out dozens of serials every year, so they needed lots of action heroes. Some became famous later, in feature films and on tv, and others faded away quickly, but they all offered buddy-bonding and occasional glimpses of biceps and bulges. Here are the top 10 musclemen of the movie serials:
1. Buster Crabbe may have died in 1983, but his fame -- and exceptional physique -- live on. He was a beefcake staple for 30 years, playing Tarzan and Tarzan clones (1933), cowboys Red Barry and Billy the Kid, and futuristic space heroes Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. Lots of scripts called for him to get his shirt ripped off.
Herman Brix competed in the Olympics as Bruce Bennett, then gave Buster Crabbe some competition with the serials The New Adventures of Tarzan (1935) and Tarzan and the Green Goddess (1938). He also stripped down to play Kioga in Hawk of the Wilderness (1938).
3. Former college athlete Charles Starrett was best known for the Durango Kid series, but he also got torn out of his clothes in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), to be tortured and turned into a zombie (left).
The Green Hornet in the 1941 serial.
5. Kane Richmond played the adult mentor/boyfriend to teenage Frankie Darro in a series of 1930s "Thrill-o-Ramas," plus some Charlie Chan mysteries, Westerns, and beefcake-heavy boxing movies. His main serial was the superheroic Spy Smasher (1942). He retired to open a hair salon.
Clayton Moore became identified with the Masked Man (1949-1957), he had a long career in movies and serials, mostly Westerns, naturally.
9. Kirk Alyn never disrobed on camera, but his muscular frame was displayed in a Superman costume in the only serials about the original superhero, Superman (1948) and Atom Man v. Superman (1950).