By Barbara Tepa Lupack
Although derided or dismissed by some film critics today, serial motion pictures, or “serials,” played a vital role in early cinema history. Typically two-reel thrill-packed films that ran for ten, fifteen, or more installments, they often ended with a cliffhanger that left the heroine or hero in a perilous situation and a promise to the audience “to be continued next week.” Episodically structured and suspensefully plotted, serials served as precursors of the popular installment dramas and crime procedurals that have become staples of modern network and cable television programming. By teasing their narratives in clever ways in order to sustain filmgoers’ curiosity until the release of the next installment, they also anticipated the extended incremental story-telling methods and “thrilling episodes of inescapable fatality and hair-breadth escapes” that later filmmakers would exploit in commercial blockbusters such as the Star Wars series and the Indiana Jones and Marvel movie franchises.
By the 1910s, motion pictures had moved from the vaudeville stages and seedy nickelodeons where they had their beginnings to the new theaters that were being built to include more heterogeneous audiences, including the working class and immigrant population that had supported the incredible nickelodeon boom. As they evolved from an inexpensive, fleeting amusement into the nation’s first truly mass medium and a respectable form of entertainment for people of all backgrounds, their visual grammar, narrative paradigms, industrial structure, and audience all solidified. And serials played a considerable role in that transition. With their fast-paced, expansive, action-filled extended story lines, they were, as Richard Koszarski wrote, “among the first attempts to develop very long and complex screen narratives, and they served as a useful bridge between the short film and the feature” during the crucial years of the early to mid 1910s.
Serials also helped to forge a strong link between the print and the film industries. Drawing on the same devices as the serialized fiction of the late nineteenth century—from the elaborate and often improbable plot twists and cliffhangers to the blatantly melodramatic appeals to the emotions—they roused the interest of their audiences and ensured their regular attendance.
At the same time that film serials harked back to their nineteenth-century literary roots, however, they looked ahead, creating exciting synergies across multiple media. The cross-promotions, cash-prize contests, and numerous tie-ins to newspapers and popular magazines greatly expanded the movie base, as did print serializations of the film stories. As Shelley Stamp observed, because movie fans “were encouraged to connect together various versions of the story available in print tie-ins and on screen, asked to sustain their engagement over multiple installments, and invited to enhance their enjoyment by cultivating an interest in the star’s private life,” the fans themselves became a central catalyst in the narrative.
Serials, moreover, had a vital cultural and social impact. Shown in big-city movie houses and small-town theaters nationwide, they helped to Americanize immigrants and foster a sense of community, while simultaneously creating an awareness of global culture. With the looming threat of war in the 1910s, their furious action and unambiguous characters provided a much-needed diversion for adults and children alike, for whom movies proved to be the most affordable, available, and influential form of entertainment in the early decades of the twentieth century.
In particular, serials served to increase patronage by women, who only recently had come to regard film-going as a respectable activity. In fact, by the mid-1910s, female moviegoers were attending the pictures in record numbers, in large part to enjoy the adventures and the perils of serial heroines, the modern “New Women” who sought increased autonomy. For young urban working girls and rural wives and mothers alike, those heroines offered new models of independence, ambition, and athleticism, and illustrated the freedoms and opportunities to which they aspired.
As early film historian Lewis Jacobs observed in his pioneering critical history The Rise of the American Film, those heroines were especially influential because their physical prowess and daring had a real-life analogue. In many ways, it paralleled “the real rise of women to a new status in society—a rise that became especially marked on America’s entrance into the war, when women were offered participation in nearly every phase of industrial life.” At the same time, serials revealed what Ben Singer called “the oscillation between contradictory impulses of female empowerment and the anxieties that such social transformations and aspirations created in a society experiencing the sociological and ideological upheavals of modernity.” Serials thus mirrored the enormous social, economic, and ideological changes that were occurring in the early decades of the twentieth century as well as the tensions those changes had wrought.
The serial form can be traced back to an early twelve-part Edison production, What Happened to Mary, whose first installment was released on July 26, 1912. Though more accurately considered a series rather than a true serial, Mary had a narrative line that was composed of a distinct beginning, middle, and end, and its dozen one-reel episodes were filled with considerable physical action and suspense. Those episodes, however, were autonomous and lacked the sequential continuity that defined the serial genre.
Most film historians now agree that the first true motion picture serial was The Adventures of Kathlyn (1913), produced by the Selig Polyscope Company of Chicago, in which the young heroine Kathlyn travels to India in search of her adventurer father. Once there, she must resist the predations of a native prince, who kidnaps her and tries to force her into marriage so that he can inherit the throne to which she is heir.
Many of the serial productions that followed from other studios employed a similar formula: a beautiful young heroine in distress, threatened by a villain who covets her fortune or some other object of great value. Universal’s first serial Lucille Love, the Girl of Mystery (1914), for example, had been converted virtually overnight from a two-reeler into a fifteen-part spy drama. Played by Grace Cunard, the eponymous heroine is pursued around the world by a spy intent on stealing the top-secret military documents in her possession. Kalem’s popular The Hazards of Helen (1914-1917), which—at 119 installments of twelve minutes each—was the longest serial ever produced, featured a quick-thinking heroine, an exceedingly capable and clever telegraph operator. No matter how dangerous or dramatic the situation in which she found herself—whether confronting bandits or stopping runaway trains—Helen resolved it by her own wits, rarely relying upon a man for assistance or protection. Another Kalem series, The Ventures of Marguerite (1915), starred Marguerite Courtot as a young heiress who attempts to escape the many schemers, foreign agents, and kidnappers who want to steal her inheritance—one of the most common plot lines in early series and serial pictures. And Edison’s Dolly of the Dailies (1914), which was based on stories by New York Sun drama critic Acton Davies and serialized and syndicated to sundry newspapers, capitalized on the new trend of women in the newspaper world. Even though Dolly—after many exciting adventures—decides to marry her editor and leave the paper on which she is a “star reporter,” the serial demonstrated the possibilities newly available to women in the workplace and in society.
Initially considered little more than a novelty, the serial quickly became an all-out craze. Terry Ramsaye, in his landmark study A Million and One Nights, likened its spread to a “break out of smallpox” in a village in midwinter. In furious competition with each other, studios rushed to get their own versions into production. Thanhouser Film Corporation, for example, released The Million Dollar Mystery (1914), in which a secret society tries to gain control over the fortune left to the heroine by her father, a former member of the society. In the sequel Zudora (1914), the heroine’s guardian schemes to seize control of the multi-million dollar gold mine she has inherited. And the Wharton Brothers, Theodore and Leopold, working out of their own independent studio in Ithaca, New York, introduced intriguing character types, topical themes, and advanced special effects into their landmark works, which included The Exploits of Elaine (1914), its two sequels The New Exploits of Elaine and The Romance of Elaine (both 1915), Beatrice Fairfax (1916), The Mysteries of Myra (1916), and Patria (1917). The Whartons not only expanded the possibilities of the serial form and established many of its conventions; they also provided a model for incremental storytelling and holdover suspense still employed by filmmakers and television producers more than a century later.
The serial best known and most remembered today, however, is Pathé’s The Perils of Pauline (1914), which popularized the cliffhanger ending and heightened interest in the genre. It also immortalized its star, Pearl White, the first and greatest of the so-called “serial queens” (who became part of a “serial sisterhood” that included, among others, Mary Fuller, Ruth Roland, and Grace Cunard). Although it was neither the finest nor the most innovative of the early silent serials, The Perils of Pauline remains the most emblematic of the American serial craze and has even become part of the vernacular.
“A to Z of Silent Serials” provides an introduction to these and many other silent serials of the 1910s and 1920s. It highlights some of the most prominent and influential serial actresses, actors, and directors. And, above all, it confirms the importance of the serial genre to American cinema and social history.