What are we watching now at the movies, or on television or Netflix for that matter? Serials – though now they’re called franchises, or mini-series, or “cable dramas,” but they have the same structure, and the same limitations, the same narrative predictability. What will happen, for example, in the next episode of Game of Thrones? Who will be slaughtered, who will survive, who will make yet another grab for power? What scheme will the fictional Walter White (Bryan Cranston) come up with in the next episode of the recently concluded Breaking Bad? You’ll just have to tune in next week and find out, because all we’re leaving you with this week is an open ended “conclusion” – whatever happens next, we’re not telling. But then again, when the trap is finally sprung, are the results all that surprising? Yet you keep coming back, week after week. You can’t stop watching.
Motion picture serials, the forerunner of today’s serialized television dramas, have been around since the earliest days of the narrative cinema. Exhibitors rapidly realized that in order to assure continued audience attendance, open ended “cliff hangers” were sure to keep viewers returning week after week, to find out the latest plot twists, character developments, and of course, how the hero or heroine had escaped from the previous week’s peril. The first real serial, with multiple episodes and a running weekly continuity, was Charles Brabin’s What Happened to Mary? (1912), starring Mary Fuller as an innocent young woman who inherits a fortune, while the villain of the piece tries to separate her from her newfound wealth.
There was, almost inevitably, a sequel to the serial, entitled Who Will Mary Marry? (1913), offering tangible proof of the new format’s success. But the real breakthrough came in 1914, with Louis Gasnier’s The Perils of Pauline, starring Pearl White. Pauline established the hectic, action-packed formula that would persist until the production of the very last serial, Spencer Gordon Bennet’s Blazing the Overland Trail in 1956. Fistfights, non-stop action, minimal character exposition and a sense of constant, frenetic danger permeated The Perils of Pauline, and it generated a host of imitators.
Soon the “damsel in distress” format used in Perils of Pauline was being employed by a number of other serials, including Francis J. Grandon’s The Adventures of Kathlyn (1913), starring an equally athletic Kathlyn Williams, and Louis Feuillade’s epic mystery Fantômas (1913). Early serials were shown in weekly installments, a practice that continued throughout the lifetime of the genre, but early serial chapters could run as long as an hour, particularly in the case of Feuillade’s Les Vampires (1915), one of the most popular of the silent serials.
These weekly screenings usually took place as a major part of the cinema program, and early serials were aimed at both adults and children. Occasionally, an enterprising entrepreneur would run a serial chapter throughout the week, to maximize attendance. Some of the earliest serials made were sci-fi efforts, including Robert Broadwell and Robert F. Hill’s The Great Radium Mystery (1919), Otto Rippert’s Homunculus (1916), and Harry A. Pollard’s The Invisible Ray (1920); all were successful with the public, who clamored for more.
But by the late teens and early 1920s, a fairly rigid structure had been defined through trial and error. Serials ran 12 to 15 episodes, with the first episode usually running a half hour, to set up the situation, and introduce the protagonists (and their adversaries) to viewers. Subsequent episodes clocked in at roughly 20 minutes. Each episode ended with what the industry termed a “take-out” – a scene of violent peril from which the hero or heroine could not possibly escape. The next chapter would pick up the action at the same point, but offer a “way out” for the lead character; a trap door offering a convenient escape, jumping from a moving car, or breaking free from some sort of fiendish device created by the serial’s chief villain.
The central characters in serials were more often types, rather than fully fleshed-out characters. Yet there is a real and welcome feminist edge to the early serials, in which the heroine took genuine chances doing the many stunts required by the genre. In the early silents, women were the protagonists of many of the action serials, thrown into situations of continual danger until the final reel unspooled.
With the advent of women’s voting rights in the United States in 1920s, sadly, the lead character in serials became, more often than not, a heroic male; blindingly handsome, independently wealthy, and often endowed with above average mental acuity (as an investigator, adventurer, or soldier of fortune). In short, the patriarchy attempted to reassert itself, and at the time, almost no one noticed. To retain some measure of feminine interest, a female companion was now introduced to support the hero’s efforts, with the possible addition of a young boy or girl “sidekick” to encourage adolescent identification with the serial’s characters. The hero was also aided by a number of associates, who usually worked as a team to support the lead’s efforts.
The most important figure in serials, however (for the leads in serials were usually rather bland) was the criminal mastermind, often masked, whose identity was not disclosed until the final moments of the last chapter. He was often cloaked in a role of respectability – a college professor, perhaps, or a judge. Known in the trade as the “brains” heavy, this leader, in turn, would be aided by a variety of henchmen, or “action” heavies, who would unquestioningly – one might more accurately say blindly – carry out the orders of their leader in a campaign of mayhem and violence that kept the serial’s narrative in constant motion. For this, of course, was the staple element of serials; action, spectacle, and constant danger. Serials were far more violent – fistfights, explosions, death rays, gun battles, scores of deaths – than early television fare, consisting almost entirely of extreme, non-stop action, propulsive music scores, and rather incredible stunt work.
One Republic stuntman, William “Crazy Duke” Green, became famous for running up the side of a wall and then launching himself into space during a fight scene. Dave Sharpe was famous for his spectacular dives off piers, cliffs and the like; Tom Steele was an all around utility man. Dale Van Sickle often coordinated the action, sometimes working with Yakima Canutt, who famously performed an extremely dangerous “drag” under a team of horses for John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939). Younger directors took notice. When Steven Spielberg made one of his first television movies, Duel (1971), he used Republic stuntman Carey Loftin as the unseen driver of the enormous truck that tries to run Dennis Weaver off the road for most of the film.
Serials embraced nearly every genre – jungle serials (Jungle Menace  with Frank Buck); crime serials (Alan James’ Dick Tracy  with Ralph Byrd); the supernatural (Norman Deming and Sam Nelson’s Mandrake the Magician , with Warren Hull); westerns (William Witney and John English’s The Lone Ranger Rides Again , with Robert Livingston); and, of course, science fiction and comic book superheroes. But unlike most television series, which are open-ended – concluding only when audience interest has evaporated – serials were designed as a “closed set,” fifteen episodes and out, shot on breakneck schedules of 30 days or less, for completed films that could run as long as four hours in their final, chapter-by-chapter format.
On almost all these projects, two directors were assigned to a serial, because of the sheer bulk of material involved. Sometimes directors worked on alternate days, to keep from becoming burnt out; in other instances, one director would handle all the action scenes, while another would shoot all the narrative exposition sequences. Serial scripts were immense, often running to 400 pages or more (or four times the length of an average feature), yet shooting schedules and budgets were often miniscule, and directors were expected to shoot as many as 70 “set ups” (a complete change of camera angle and lighting) a day to stay on schedule.
Nat Levine, head of Mascot Studios, a prime purveyor of serial fare until his company merged with Republic Pictures, arguably the most accomplished of the sound era serial makers, used ruthless cost-cutting to bring in such films as The Phantom Empire (1935), a 12 chapter science-fiction/western hybrid serial directed by Otto Brower and B. Reeves “Breezy” Eason, starring a young Gene Autry. Pushing his directors and crews to the limit, Levine also cut corners on actors’ salaries and other production costs, so that every dime he spent showed up on the screen. Actors, directors, and stunt men were left to fend for themselves; all that Levine cared about was finishing on time and on schedule.
In between setups, Levine had an improvised dormitory set up on the Mascot lot in some vacant studio space, where exhausted stuntmen, actors and technicians could catch a few minutes sleep, and then grab a cup of coffee and some doughnuts to wake up, before being dragged back to the set. This arrangement also allowed Levine to keep an eye on his employees at all times, something like the production system used by the Shaw Brothers studios in Hong Kong in the 1970s. If you stayed on the lot all the time, Levine always knew where to find you.
Conditions at the other studios were little better. By now firmly consigned to the “kiddie trade,” where before they had also attracted adult audiences, serials were seen as being bottom-of-the-barrel product, and the major studios that churned them out (Columbia, Republic and Universal) saw them as strictly bottom line propositions. However, in many cases, viewers went to the theater each week not to see the feature attraction, but rather the serial, which kept them coming back for the next thrilling installment.
Always cost conscious, serials would usually spend most of their production budget on the first three or four chapters, to entice exhibitors to book the serial, and capture audience attention; subsequent episodes were then ground out as cheaply as possible. To top it off, the 7th or 8th chapter of many serials would be a “recap” chapter, in which expensive action sequences from earlier episodes were recycled for maximum cost benefit. Then, too, stock footage from earlier serials, as well as newsreel sequences, were often employed to keep costs down. Because of this, most serials were compromised from the start. But occasionally, a serial hero would emerge who would rate slightly better treatment than usual, often a comic book hero transferred to the screen.
Most serial historians agree that the most ambitious and successful serials were produced by Republic Pictures, with high production values and superb special effects by Howard and Theodore Lydecker, including John English and William Witney’s The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), Spencer Gordon Bennett and Fred C. Brannon’s dystopic The Purple Monster Strikes (1945), dealing with an alien invasion from Mars; William Witney and Brannon’s memorably sinister The Crimson Ghost, in which the titular villain attempts to steal a counteratomic weapon known as a Cyclotrode, in order to achieve the (somewhat predictable) aim of world domination; Spencer Gordon Bennet, Wallace A. Grissell and stuntman extraordinaire Yakima Canutt’s Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945) with its plot device of a “transformation chair” to bring to life the serial’s villain, one Captain Mephisto (Roy Barcroft, Republic’s go-to heavy in residence), and a plot centering on the theft of a “radioatomic power transmitter”; and Harry Keller, Franklin Adreon and Fred C. Brannon’s Commando Cody: Sky Marshall of the Universe (1953), the only serial directly designed as a syndicated television series, thus providing a link between the non-stop frenzy of the serial format, and the more intimate domain of domestic TV fare.
Using recycled footage from Brannon’s King of the Rocket Men (1949), Radar Men From the Moon (1952), and Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952), Commando Cody’s format was a definite departure from the usual serial template; each 30-minute episode was self-contained, and yet the series maintained continuity, so that each episode could be run as a “stand alone,” or as a group. Released theatrically in 1953, the series of 12 episodes was picked up by NBC as a network series, running from July 16, 1955 to October 8, 1955 (Hayes 2000: 124). However, despite this attempt to move into television, Republic’s operation was winding down; the company’s last serial was Franklin Adreon’s nondescript King of the Carnival (1955). Republic officially closed its doors on July 31, 1959 as a production entity, although it still exists today as a holding company and a distributor of past product, but, as we’ll see, most of their films never made it past an initial VHS release, and are seldom shown on television (McCarthy and Flynn 1975 : 324).
But by the mid to late 1940s, serials were becoming a reliable conveyor belt of action entertainment, and the format was showing signs of internal exhaustion. They had become a well-oiled machine, delivering predicable thrills on an assembly line basis, with characters that lacked depth, personality, or individuality. Serial leads were utterly interchangeable, as were serial heroines; they did their job, said their lines, and went home; the director knocked out the set-ups as fast as possible, and dialogue was confined almost solely to exposition – “what do we do next?” – with more and more repetition and recapitulation creeping in as the years passed by.
Universal had been producing serials since 1914, with 137 productions in all to their credit, more chapter plays than any other company, although not always of the finest quality, until the ignominious end finally came for the studio with 1946’s Lost City of the Jungle, directed by Ray Taylor and Lewis D. Collins, which was shot almost simultaneously with The Mysterious Mr. M, directed by Collins and Vernon Keays. Lost City of the Jungle has achieved a certain notoriety as famed character actor Lionel Atwill’s last film; the actor was fighting what would ultimately prove to be fatal bronchial cancer and pneumonia, and was forced to leave the film in the midst of production.
Ironically, Atwill agreed to film his “death scene” for Lost City of the Jungle as his last work in front of the camera, leaving much of his role in the serial incomplete. Atwill then departed the Universal lot, never to return, and died on April 22, 1946. To finish the serial, Universal used a double, created a new subplot to make Atwill’s character an underling instead of the “brains” heavy, and used outtakes for Atwill’s reaction shots. It didn’t work. Lost City of the Jungle was released the day after Atwill’s death, on April 23, 1946, to generally dismal results. When The Mysterious Mr. M, a nondescript science fiction serial was released to a similarly lukewarm reception, Universal called it quits.
Columbia fared little better. Lambert Hillyer’s incredibly racist Batman (1943), for example, the first appearance of the caped crusader on the screen, had a strong sci-fi element in the “mad lab” of Dr. Daka (J. Carrol Naish), a Japanese spy working to sabotage the allied war effort. The Superman serials from producer Sam Katzman’s Columbia unit, 1948’s Superman, directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet and Thomas Carr, and 1950’s Atom Man vs. Superman, directed by Bennet alone, were equally futuristic, featuring disintegrator rays, teleportation machines, and, of course, the person of Superman himself, played in both serials by Kirk Alyn, as “a strange being from another planet who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men,” as the narrative introduction for the subsequent Superman TV series would have it, in which George Reeves took over the title role.
But in the two Columbia serials, whenever Superman was called upon to fly to the rescue, the legendarily cost-conscious Katzman switched to two-dimensional animation rather than using live action footage, which would have been more expensive, seriously compromising the production as a whole. The television incarnation of Superman (running from 1952 to 1958) ultimately served the franchise much more effectively, with vastly improved live action special effects.
Thomas Carr, for example, whose career as an actor stretched back to the silent era, and who actually played the role of Captain Rama of the Forest People in Ford Beebe, Robert F. Hill and Frederick Stephani’s Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, switched to directing program westerns in the 1940s, and would go on to direct a number of the early episodes of the Superman TV series, bringing much of the serial sensibility with him. But viewers – particularly parents – criticized the first black and white season of the TV Superman series for its “excessive” serial-like violence; it took a regime change at the producer level to create a more “user-friendly” Superman for home consumption.
What had worked in the theaters, usually out of the view of parents and guardians on a Saturday morning, raised eyebrows when mom or dad watched along with their children in the family den. Television flourished, and the serial declined; by 1955 it was clear that theater attendance was declining, and in 1956, Columbia produced the last multi-chapter serial designed for theatrical playoff. This paved the way for the more clean-cut, sanitized television series of the 1950s, which offered “safer” thrills and a continuing storyline within the confines of a twenty-to-thirty minute template, and, just like the theatrical serials of the 1930s and 40s, kept audiences coming back for more week after week.
Today’s teleseries and web series are considerably more sophisticated, both in their technology and in their narrative structure, and the characters that inhabit them are, for the most part, fully dimensional human beings, not cardboard archetypes. And yet they owe a considerable debt to the serials, which inhabited a world of constant action, peril, and imagination, but were ultimately too simplistic for contemporary audiences. The half-hour television series format simply erased the serial from public consciousness; the theatrical serial had become obsolete.
People didn’t have to go out anymore to see the latest adventures of their favorite heroes and heroines; they could watch them on TV or the web. And so, just as serials routinely predicted much of our future technology (rockets, telescreens, the possibility of interplanetary travel), they also paved the way for the medium of television, with its chaptered format, rigorous schematic structure, and cliff-hanging plot lines now this is carrying over to Netflix serials such as House of Cards and other open ended multipart narratives. Actually, House of Cards can be called a serial in name only, since Netflix has now adopted the pattern of releasing all the episodes of the series at once, to encourage binge viewing.
But at the same time, the serials also predicted their own obsolescence. Television, and now the web, have erased the Saturday morning theatrical market, and with it, the entire social milieu that came along with the chapter play experience. The serials, with their world of constant, unrelenting danger and deceit, had run their course. Indeed, one might well say that life itself is a serial, as we live each day from moment to moment, uncertain – as we must inevitably be – as to when it will end, and how. It was oddly reassuring that one knew that a serial would inevitably last just 15 or 12 chapters, and then end, rather than grinding on endlessly forever, and that one would only have to vicariously live in that world for three or four hours in all, before returning to the uncertainty of everyday existence.
But perhaps the most ironic aspect of the demise of the serials is their complete disappearance from motion picture history, particularly since they were so influential in the creation of the episodic TV and web format which now dominates narrative programming. Nearly every contemporary television show is designed in a “serial format,” with cliff-hanger endings, cardboard villains, sudden death and destruction, as with such popular series as Game of Thrones. Yet the serials themselves, especially the Republic serials, easily the best of the lot, have made it beyond the realm of VHS, with the exception of the studio’s Captain Marvel, which can be purchased in an indifferent transfer – legally – on NTSC DVD.
For the rest, Republic released all 66 of their serials in VHS double cassette editions when home video first came on the horizon, but sales were indifferent, and so the jump to DVD, much less Blu-ray, never came. It remains curious that so little of Republic’s output is readily available. There are, of course, terrible copies on YouTube of some of the chapter plays, but that’s hardly a substitute for the real thing. As for streaming, you certainly won’t find them on either Amazon Prime or Netflix – they’ve just fallen between the cracks.
Meanwhile, there are no less than 456 episodes of Law & Order (1990-2010), to pick one obvious example that are constantly run and rerun, often in “binge” format, to say nothing of the series’ various spinoffs. Just like the perennially popular British sci-fi series Dr. Who, which has a total of 801 episodes produced between 1963 and the present – of which 97 are missing and presumed lost – it’s a serial that never ends. Indeed, this is also an index of audience impatience, as well as the desire to leave the real world behind for an immersive fantasy in other people’s “lives” – we can’t wait for next week any more. We have to see what happens now.
And yet, unlike any other structural format in commercial cinema, even the theatrical cartoon, the original iteration of the motion picture serial has vanished from contemporary view. Nevertheless, when one compares both the overall narrative structure of these chapter plays, as well as the elaborate fight scenes, exoticist sets, and – despite what some may say – the absolutely one-dimensional nature of the characters, one can easily see where the films in the current Marvel or DC “universe” came from – starting, of course, with the original Star Wars film in 1977, which was transparently formatted as a serial, replete with opening crawl title receding endlessly into infinity, and even an “episode number,” as if the entire film was just one section of a sprawling epic – which indeed it ultimately was.
Comic-Con, which now dominates the commercial film industry, with, for the most part the empty escapism of such films as James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – the runaway hit of the current summer – doesn’t want to admit it, but the truth of the matter is that these are films for children, as the serials were, and were relegated, in the 1940s and 50s, to Saturday morning entertainment. No one who made them had any illusions about them, and though they contained both the template for most contemporary Hollywood action and superhero films, they were designed to exist at the margins of the theatrical world, as something for adolescents to view before moving on to more demanding fare. Today, that more “demanding” cinema has all but vanished, as comic book cinema moves to the mainstream, and erases nearly everything else.
In this fashion, theatrical serials both pointed the way to the future of cinema as well as television, but also clearly outlined its limitations. William Witney – a director much beloved by Quentin Tarantino, for example – never thought he was making anything more than action fare for a price, to be consumed and then forgotten, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, as long as there’s something more substantial on offer at the cinema, or on Netflix or Amazon. But in a world of endless franchises, of which even the most jaded audiences are beginning to tire (see Barnes 2014), the serial’s own collapse may prefigure a warning for the unceasing procession of comic book films. Perhaps they too, one day, will be equally out of fashion.
And yet as long as action without character, narrative without resolution, performance as parody, and conflict as plot continue to dominate screenplays for such films as Patrick Hughes’ The Expendables 3 (2014) and others of its ilk, it seems the best we can hope for is stylized violence, brutality without consequence, and an utter indifference to the realities of existence. Those films that transcend the boundaries of narrative “cliff-hanging” are increasingly being marginalized, and what we are left with is a world of constant repetition, danger, and narrative certainty. The serials provided the blueprint, but they didn’t want to be the only show in town. Now, serials are simultaneously invisible and omnipresent – something that their makers could never have imagined. Indeed, we live a serial world – where everything plays out, until both we, and the narrative, are exhausted, or we find a new serial to divert us from our everyday existence.
Wheeler Winston Dixon writes regularly for Film International. He is currently working on a book on black and white cinema.
Barbour, Alan G. (1984), Cliffhanger: A Pictorial History of the Motion Picture Serial, Secaucus, NJ: Citadel.
Barnes, Brooks (2014), “Movies Have Worst Summer Since 1997”, The New York Times, August 29.
Ellis, John (1982), Visible Fictions: Cinema, Television, Video, London: Routledge.
Hayes, R. M. (2000), The Republic Chapterplays: A Complete Filmography of the Serials Released by Republic Pictures Corporation, 1934-1955, Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
McCarthy, Todd and Charles Flynn (1975), “Interview with Joseph Kane,” Kings of the Bs: Working Within the Hollywood System, New York: Dutton, pp. 313 – 324.
Witney, William (1996), In A Door, Into A Fight, Out A Door, Into A Chase: Moviemaking Remembered by the Guy at the Door, Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
 Portions of this essay originally appeared in a different form in the web journal Screening The Past; my thanks to Anna Dzenis, editor, for permission to use these revised materials here.