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Among the most interesting silent film serials is one that was never actually produced or released. In 1923, Florida-born race filmmaker Richard E. Norman conceived the idea of a so-called “race” serial, originally entitled The Fighting Fool and later renamed Zircon (titles that sometimes were used interchangeably). From his experience producing and distributing his earlier race features—that is, pictures that were black-cast, black-themed, and produced largely for black audiences—Norman knew that black theaters were eager to acquire good first-run race films. He realized that, if offered an entire serial for a reasonable price, they would be likely to book it. Norman also believed that establishing and cultivating a “true black star” with visibility and name recognition in what he called his “Star Series” would not only benefit him but also bring increased attention to the race film industry.

Black characters, who had never before been prominently featured in a serial (much less one as thrilling, action-filled, and ambitious as Norman’s promised to be), had occasionally appeared in recurring minor roles in early films produced largely for white audiences. Those films, however, only reinforced contemporary racist comic stereotypes of figures that film scholar Daniel J. Leab described as “subhuman, simpleminded, superstitious, and submissive” to whites, frequently childlike in their dependence, with foolishly exaggerated qualities, including an apparently hereditary clumsiness and an addictive craving for fried chicken and watermelon. That type was best exemplified by characters such as Sambo or Rastus, who became a generic name for black stooges on screen in pictures such as How Rastus Got His Turkey (1910), How Rastus Got His Porkchops (1908), and Rastus in Zululand (1910).

Florida-born filmmaker Richard E. Norman became one of the best early race film producers.


Although Norman promoted the serial widely, it was never actually produced.

The ambitious “Colored Serial Supreme” that Norman had in mind, though, was a radical departure from such early cinematic fare. Comprising fifteen two-reel episodes “Teeming with Big Fights, Thrilling Situations, Suspense, Mystery, Adventure, Love,” it would showcase black actors in serious starring roles rather than in the low-comic supporting parts to which they were usually relegated.

An advance flyer that Norman developed especially for distributors, theater owners, and theater managers offered a fuller description of the episodes of Zircon, which centered on the adventures of John Manning, a young chemist and mining engineer at the Egyptian Potash Company, and his sweetheart, Helen Desmond, the daughter of his employer. After discovering a remarkable new substance that he names “Zircon,” Manning finds himself repeatedly threatened by “The Spider,” a criminal hired by the rival Potash Corporation. The Spider, who has secured a sample of Zircon, is determined to learn both the formula and the secret of its manufacturing process.


Over fifteen episodes, The Spider relentlessly pursues Manning and Helen across several continents, placing them in a variety of compromising situations. In the opening chapters, Manning is left for dead on the spinning hub of one of the monstrous wheels of the potash pump and nearly suffocated by a poison cloud released in his laboratory. Revived, he journeys to the desert to uncover new deposits of potash; but he and Helen are captured by The Spider and left to die, first in a raging sandstorm and then in an ancient tomb. Afterward, they evade an attack by an army of crocodiles, only to be recaptured by Spider’s gang, taken aloft in the airplane, and doomed to certain death after the pilot abandons the plane and parachutes out. A fall into the ocean ensures their survival, but the ship that rescues them is the very one on which The Spider is fleeing with the Zircon formula, which he has stolen and which he plans to sell to foreign interests, double-crossing the Potash Trust that originally engaged him. Although Manning regains the formula, The Spider ensnares him and Helen in the hold of a sinking ship that has been set on fire. Employing a raft to escape, Manning is forced to fight for his life with an enormous tiger shark. After making land, however, the pair is recaptured by The Spider and bound to trees to be devoured by a giant snake. Following yet another escape, Manning gets stuck in quicksand but escapes in time to save Helen from being dishonored by their criminal nemesis.

The Spider, it appears, has more tricks to play. Using a mysterious substance that makes him invisible, he attempts to flee again. Fortunately, Manning’s one-legged friend “Peg” secures some of the invisibility powder, and, rendering himself invisible, rescues Manning from the cabin in which he is being held just before it explodes. But this time, there is no escape for The Spider. He is killed by a piece of rock debris, and his gang is rounded up and captured. Manning is able at last to marry Helen, and with the rich deposits of potash he has discovered in the desert and the secret formula of Zircon, he forces the rival Potash Trust out of business and becomes a millionaire.

Some of the details of the episodes were familiar, drawing on names, scenes, and plot points from Norman’s earlier films. But Zircon aimed to exploit audience curiosity in other interesting and novel ways, particularly through its depictions of exotic but dangerous locales and of new technologies like airplanes, which figure prominently in two of the projected episodes.

Although Norman had self-financed his earlier films, he realized that the production of a multi-part serial would be a significantly more expensive proposition. Claiming that each episode, or “chapter,” would cost almost as much as a feature film to complete, he settled on a different method of capitalizing his project. To each theater owner who bought into the “Profit Sharing Rental Franchise,” Norman promised double revenues: “first, from increased business in his theatre, and second, a participation in the net profits of the rental earnings of the serial, according to the pro rata amount of his rental.”


The “profit-sharing coupon” that Norman created to finance the serial promised big returns to theater owners and managers.


The actual franchise terms and contract prices, which varied from city to city and even from theater to theater, were based on a ratings system that Norman created. In turn, the response from exhibitors and theater managers was overwhelmingly positive. Requests for franchise pricing, schedule dates, and other booking information flooded in from theaters as far south as Florida, Louisiana, Georgia, and Texas; as far north as Michigan; and as far west as Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma.


To ensure the serial would be a success, Norman recognized that he would first need to find skilled performers who would excite his audience and keep them coming back to the theater for each new chapter. He turned almost immediately to actor Clarence A. Brooks, whom he considered “a fine fellow” because he worked hard and who was already very popular with audiences. As an inducement to take the role, which Norman suggested would fit Brooks “like a glove,” he added that he would contact Anita Thompson, Brooks’ co-star in the Lincoln Motion Picture Company’s By Right of Birth (1921), about playing the role of Helen Desmond.

Given that Brooks was an accomplished actor who would draw moviegoers into the theaters, Norman was anxious to move ahead with production. At the same time, he understood that a fifteen-part serial, with two reels per episode, was a “risky experiment,” since it meant making the equivalent of six five-reel feature pictures. Compounding that experiment was the matter of distribution, which, even with strong advance bookings from race theaters, would be a huge challenge for an independent film producer. So, given the limitations of his own finances and the uncertainty of the future of race pictures, Norman abruptly abandoned the project, advising Brooks that he had decided to wait until things were “more ripe before springing [his] Star Series” and “the field was more open for Colored Pictures at a fair price.”

Norman hoped to star Clarence Brooks (pictured here with actress Anita Thompson) in the Zircon serial.


Norman filmed many of his pictures at his studio in Jacksonville, Florida.


Although Norman continued for years to promote, advertise, and even accept contracts and bookings for Zircon, he would never again come close to the possibility of serial production. He did, however, resurrect various plot elements from Zircon in his later films—Regeneration, for example, was a South Seas adventure that incorporated a number of island scenes from the proposed serial, and The Flying Ace drew on the flight episodes. But sadly, the landmark race serial picture that he hoped to make would never be produced or released.



Survival Status: Never produced or released.

Director: Richard E. Norman (projected)

Release Company: Norman Studios (projected)

Cast: Clarence Brooks (proposed)

Episodes: (proposed) 1. The Spider’s Web. 2. The Wheel of Death. 3. The Poison Cloud. 4. The Desert Trap. 5. The Living Tomb. 6. The Crocodile’s Jaws. 7. The Sky Demon. 8. The Ship Killer. 9. Flame of Fear. 10. Tiger of the Sea. 11. Jungle Death. 12. Sands of Death. 13. Trail of The Spider. 14. The Vanishing Prisoner. 15. Millions.