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The Serials: An Introduction
by Gary Johnson -- page 2 of 5
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Helen Holmes prepares to jump onto a moving train
The Hazards of Helen.

The Beginnings
The history of serials starts in 1912 when McClure's Ladies World magazine devised a new strategy for building circulation: Each issue of the publication would feature a story about a continuing main character and a motion picture would show her exploits. The Edison Company produced the motion picture, entitled What Happened to Mary, and the results were startlingly successful. Soon afterwards other serials began to appear. (A separate serial tradition also developed in France and Germany, with Louis Feuillade giving us several magnificent chapter plays, including Judex, Fantomas, and Les Vampires. But for the purpose of this study we'll be looking solely at American serials.)

These early serials lacked true cliffhanger endings, as each episode told a resolved story while pointing toward further developments. By 1915, however, Pearl White, Ruth Roland, and Helen Holmes were on the scene, hanging from rooftops, diving onto moving trains, and leaping from speeding automobiles. In the most famous silent serial, The Perils of Pauline, Pearl White is pursed by villains who hope to stop her from gaining an inheritance. Their adventures take them all over the world. In The Exploits of Elaine, she faced the Clutching Hand, a madman bent on conquering the world.

Silent serials were initially dominated by heroines, but by the '20s, male stars such as Joe Bonomo, Francis Ford, William Desmond, and Walter Miller took the spotlight. Even Harry Houdini, Red Grange, and Jack Dempsey starred in serials, but by the end of the '20s the serial was virtually dead—a victim of oversaturation and the increasing sophistication of its audience. When the serials originated, they attracted a largely adult audience, but as the feature film slowly evolved, the serial failed to mature.

With the adult audience largely gone—and with the coming of sound to film—serial makers floundered. The serial seemed headed for extinction. Several independent companies produced serials in the early '30s but most productions were static and failed to grab a large audience.

Johnny Mack Brown prepares to punch out Roy Barcroft
Flaming Frontiers.

Westerns reigned as the most popular genre of serials during this period. Westerns weren't affected by the transition to sound. In fact the sound of horse hooves, rifle fire, and Indian war cries only improved westerns. Buck Jones was one of the best western heroes. He starred in several serials, such as The Red Rider (1934), Roaring West (1935), and The Phantom Rider (1936). Jones gave his characters a quiet strength similar to William S. Hart. Other western serial heroes included Johnny Mack Brown, Tim McCoy, Harry Carey, Tom Mix, and Ken Maynard. After Johnny Mack Brown starred in a big budget feature, Billy the Kid (1930), that failed dramatically at the box office, he turned to serials. Some of his best efforts included Fighting With Kit Carson (1933), Rustlers of Red Dog (1935), Flaming Frontiers (1938), and The Oregon Trail (1939).

Likewise, John Wayne's first feature film, The Big Trail (1930), bombed at the box office, leaving Wayne to continue his career in B westerns and serials. None of Wayne's serials placed him in the West, but they weren't short on adventure. The Hurricane Express (1932) found him battling an arsonist bent on destroying a railroad company. Shadow of the Eagle (1932) placed him in a carnival. And The Three Musketeers (1933) found him in the Foreign Legion.

During this time period, aviation serials and jungle serials were also popular. Among the leading aviation serials, The Phantom of the Air (Universal, 1932) starred Tom Tyler and Mystery Squadron (1933) starred Bob Steele. In 1934, Universal delivered Tailspin Tommy, the first serial based on a comic strip. Soon afterwards, Universal delivered Ace Drummond (1936), based on a Sunday comic feature with stories attributed to Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, a famous WWI fighter pilot who shot down 26 German planes.

Herman Brix practices his yell
The New Adventures of Tarzan.

Tarzan appeared in two serials in the early '30s. The first, Tarzan the Fearless (1933), was Buster Crabbe's first serial. And in 1934, Edgar Rice Burroughs decided to bring his own version of Tarzan to the movie screen. Disappointed with Hollywood's version of Lord Greystoke in the barely articulate persona of Johnny Weissmuller, Burroughs formed his own movie company and sent it to the jungles of Guatemala to film The New Adventures of Tarzan, with Olympic medalist Herman Brix starring. Filmed under some of the worst conditions imaginable with several members of the film crew succumbing to malaria and other diseases, the serial contains a rousing opening chapter and then promptly peters out, with scratchy audio, murky images, and hopelessly repetitive chases through the underbrush and long-lost Mayan cities. Other jungle serials soon followed with wild animal trainer Clyde Beatty in The Lost Jungle (1934) and Darkest Africa (1936) and Frank "Bring 'Em Back Alive" Buck in The Jungle Menace (1937).

Rounding out this early period, Mascot provided one of the most influential serials, The Phantom Empire (1936). This serial contained a little bit of everything on the Mascot lot--singing cowboys with a radio show, a kid's club of junior cowboys (who wore buckets on their heads and capes on their backs), and a scientifically-advanced civilization over 20,000 feet below ground. And it starred Gene Autry in his first movie role. Released over a year before Flash Gordon, The Phantom Empire paved the way for the deluge of science-fiction serials that were soon to follow. Republic cranked out two variations on the same story, giving us The Phantom Empire in a jungle--Darkest Africa--and The Phantom Empire undersea--Undersea Kingdom. All these serials gave us technologically advanced civilizations that still used swords and dressed like outcasts from Ancient Rome. But the stage was set for the next development--a development that would forever change the history of serials.

page 2 of 5

The Serials: An Introduction
Page 1: In the Theaters
Page 2: The Beginnings
Page 3: Enter Flash Gordon
Page 4: The Golden Age
Page 5: The Downfall

The Phantom Empire

Flash Gordon

Dick Tracy

The Fighting Devil Dogs

Zorro's Fighting Legion

The Shadow

Mysterious Dr. Satan

Spy Smasher

Perils of Nyoka

The Tiger Woman

Serials Web Links



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