Hanging By A Thread
I have always had a fascination with the chapterplays, or the “cliffhangers”, the old serials of yesteryear. Having just recently finished the 1915 French serial Les Vampires (directed by Louis Feuillade and pictured at left), I was struck by how little the formula changed over the decades when the serials were at their peak and how much their motifs are still in use today. The serials lasted well over four decades, from the silent era until the mid-1950s (for a fairly complete listing of the major serials and their years of production, see this link): List_of_film_serials
In the silent era, the most famous American serial star was Pearl White, star of THE PERILS OF PAULINE and many others. Dangling from cliffs, speeding to her doom in runaway cars or plummeting to certain death was all in a day’s work for Miss White. Forget Mary Pickford – many a red-blooded American girl (especially in the constricting society of the 1910s and ’20s) wanted to be Pearl White. Therein lied one of the major attractions of the serials: for 15 minutes each week, you could get lost in the fast-paced adventure unfolding on your local movie screen, full of brave heroes and heroines, dastardly villains and inescapable death traps … or were they? There was only one way to find out – come back next week!
So with coin in hand, you would rush back to see how Pearl (or whoever) got out of her latest scrape. It usually involved a “cheat”, a crucial piece of footage not shown at the end of the previous chapter. You would groan and shake your head, but were willing to go along with the deception (and the continuing deception) for the next twelve to fifteen chapters, because it was so fun.
Pearl was the most famous of silent heroines, but she was by no means the only one. Other notable scrappy serial stars included Helen Holmes and Ruth Roland, as well as lesser-known stars Kathlyn Williams, Mary Fuller and Norma Phillips. The silent chapterplays were heavily female oriented, coinciding with the Women’s Suffrage Movement and the first wave of feminism, but with the coming of sound and the expansion into new subjects, that would soon change.
By the 1930s, the serial cliches were firmly set in place. The basic plot went something like this: hero/heroine (plus various comic relief sidekicks and red herrings) are on the trail of a treasure/invention that can be used for the good of humanity. Enter villain (who can be posing as one of the good guys/red herrings and is often hooded/masked/disguised) who will now Stop At Nothing to get his/her (yes, there were female villains, as well) hands on said treasure/invention (usually NOT for the good of humanity). As each death trap fails to kill off our stalwart heroes, the villain tries something even MORE outlandish until the final chapter, where he/she gets their final unmasking and comeuppance (and more often than not, meeting a horrible death at the hands of one of their own death traps). What was needed now was where to draw inspiration to keep the crowds coming back for more. Hollywood, always on the lookout for the Next Big Thing, took their cue from what the public was following – in the 1930s, that was the radio thrillers, the pulp magazines and the Sunday Funnies.
Tarzan, Tailspin Tommy, The Shadow, The Spider and more Western serials than you could roll a sagebrush at regularly made their rounds in America’s movie houses of this time. It wasn’t until 1936, however, that the chapterplays really hit paydirt. Those who worked in serials knew their core audience was mainly kids – they were the return customers who sweated it out every week to see how their hero escaped immolation, decapitation or worse. It was their hard-earned dimes that kept the movies going – especially during the Great Depression, when discretionary income of ANY kind was hard to come by. The studios knew what the kids wanted and who their most beloved heroes were, and so Universal gambled (and won big time) with Alex Raymond’s FLASH GORDON.
This one had it all – spaceships, swordfights, dinosaurs, Hawkmen, Lion Men, Shark Men … and the best serial villain of them all, Ming the Merciless (played to perfection by Charles Middleton). Olympic swimming champion Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe won the role of Flash and was forever wedded to the role. The serial was so successful, it spawned two sequels (the only serial with that distinction).
The serials thundered along into the 1940s, with every genre imaginable thrown up onto the screen. Like air battles? You could watch SKY RAIDERS, ADVENTURES OF THE FLYING CADETS, JUNIOR G-MEN OF THE AIR and more! Air travel make you sick? Prefer something at sea? There was SEA RAIDERS, THE HAUNTED HARBOR and DON WINSLOW OF THE NAVY to choose from. Keep in mind that America was now firmly embroiled in World War II, so Axis criminals abounded and saboteurs were running rampant! Ordinary heroes and superheroes had their hands full with the Nazi Menace and their cronies. From jungle adventures to spy thrillers, and from Mounties to Medieval heroes, the serials had their Golden Age during this era.
Sadly, all good things must come to an end. The children of the ’30s and ’40s had grown up, the harsh realities of a Depression and a World War had eroded a lot of the magic of the movies, and with the dawning of the 1950s, a new threat emerged – one that the serials could not survive: television. Serials were always made on a low budget; with the changing times, growing costs and fewer return customers, the writing was on the wall. The last serials were made in 1956 and then it was all over. Those who could, made the leap to television – veterans like director William Witney and John English (who co-directed my personal favorite serial, 1941’s THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL) and actors like Buster Crabbe continued and flourished in the new medium. Ironically, television became the center of the rebirth of the serial, both literally and figuratively. In the early days of TV, network programmers were starved for content and took to showing a number of the old serials in their afternoon time-slots. It was a perfect match and the kids loved it: a chapter a day, Monday – Friday, with plenty of time to squeeze in the all-important commercials.
Today? Take any given night on TV and look at the listings. Some of the most popular and highly rated shows are the serialized cliff-hanger dramas, the ones with a continuing “mythology” that people follow from week to week to find out what is going to happen to their favorite characters. A perfect example was the soap opera DALLAS. On March 21st, 1980, the season ended on a cliffhanger ending – and America demanded to know, “Who shot J.R. Ewing?” It was the highest-rated television episode in TV history at that time, and other shows quickly took notice. Many serialized shows (such as 24) now regularly end their season on a cliffhanger – following an honorable tradition that stretches back 100 years.
Walter von Bosau, Krasker Film/Video Services