Film International is pleased to welcome “Daredevils of the Red Circle and Other Cliffhangers,” a new blog on serials by Geoffrey Mayer. This blog will continue his work in his book Encyclopedia of American Film Serials (McFarland, 2017). Below Mayer discusses his book research and focus in upcoming entries.
Serials seem so simplified but, like a lot of genre storytelling, contain complexity in closer examination. Is this aspect a draw for you?
The film serial, in many ways, represents the essence of the mainstream, popular cinema. Whether it is the current Marvel franchise, Jaws, Star Wars and its many manifestations, or even Indiana Jones, as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas acknowledged, the similarities between the serial and the modern “blockbuster” are evident. The basic difference is budgetary as the film serial, which existed from 1912 to 1956, enjoyed only minuscule budgets and it was critically despised (“the black sheep” of the film industry, as silent director George Seitz described it). However, in terms of dramatic structures, characterisations, and themes, the serial and the blockbuster owe a debt to the nineteenth-century theatrical melodrama, especially the sensational theatrical
The serial, with its overwhelming emphasis on spectacle, thrills, suspense, and retribution, is a seemingly simple form. Its intent, above all else, is to viscerally involve its audience. This is achieved through a systematic narrative pattern that shows repeated obstacles and threats to the hero and heroine. In this sense the villain is crucial – he/she is the real “motor” of the narrative. The more powerful the villain the greater the emotional investment from the audience. Little time is allowed for character development or introspection. A physical response is required.
To this end the serial developed two techniques designed to intensify audience response – and, hence, encourage audiences to return week after week. The cliffhanger (which although used in 1914 and 1915, did not become the norm until 1919) and the “takeout.” Broadly, there were two types of cliffhangers. The “situation” ending, as described by veteran silent screenwriter Frank Leon Smith, involved a sudden character revelation at the end of the chapter (similar to many daytime soaps today). The second, and most important type of cliff-hanger, as described by Smith, was “holdover suspense” whereupon the chapter ends with the hero or heroine facing almost certain death. This involved graphic, physical danger to the point where there is no possibility of escape or survival. Of course, these endings were termed “cliffhangers” as a common ending involved the hero or heroine hanging from a high cliff or tall building. However, the term was broadened to include every type of perilous ending.
The takeout, a unique aspect of the serial, is the overlap footage at the beginning of every chapter, except the first, to provide a narrative bridge between two chapters as well as resolve the life and death situation of the previous week’s cliffhanger. There are three kinds of takeout. The first, the most creative, is the insertion of time expansion material in the form of additional images. The second was the “I lived through it all” that required little additional footage and placed great pressure on the audience’s sense of plausibility – such as chapter 7 of King of the Mounties (1942) where the hero falls from a plane and survives by landing on a haystack! The third type of takeout was even more unsatisfactory as it involved a “cheat” resolution as the action from the previous week’s cliffhanger is re-filmed to allow the hero/heroine to survive. However, it should noted that the first type, the most common, often involved considerable skill from the screenwriters, directors, cinematographers, and editors to extricate the hero or heroine without cheating the audience. In my Encyclopedia of American Film Serials I describe many examples of skillful resolutions. This includes the detailed use of the shooting script for the superior 1940 Republic serial Mysterious Doctor Satan, especially the cliffhanger for chapter 13 (“Disguised”) and the chapter 14 (“The Flaming Coffin”) takeout. Here I explain how directors William Witney and John English, along with editors Edward Todd and William Thompson, skillfully alter the composition of the images and their place in the narrative sequence to extricate the Copperhead. Similarly, chapter 15 (“Doctor Satan Strikes”) uses a delayed flashback to show how, again, the Copperhead survives. Seemingly simple – and exquisitely skillful.
Mysterious Dr. Satan sure sounds like an interested hybrid of genres. That said, which subgenre of serials best represents them? I’m thinking of the issue as it applies to newcomers to movie serials – what you think they should check out first.
In terms of someone coming new to the serial the first serials they should view are the “golden years” of the Republic serial – basically, from 1937 to 1944. Serials I would recommend include Drums of Fu Manchu (1940), the only sound serial where the villain escapes retribution, Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939, now available on Blu-Ray from Kino), The Lone Ranger (1938, find a good print such as the one from The Serial Squadron), Spy Smasher (1942), G-Men Vs. The Black Dragon (1943), Hawk of the Wilderness (1938), The Painted Stallion (1937), Dick Tracy Returns (1938), Dick Tracy’s G-Men (1939), Mysterious Doctor Satan (1940), Adventures of Red Ryder (1940), Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), Jungle Girl (1941), The Tiger Woman (1944), and Federal Operator 99 (1945). I would recommend Daredevils of the West (1943), with its thrilling action sequences, but the only existing print has sound missing from a couple of chapters. If anyone wants to visit the silent serial, which are quite different in tone and representation, Pearl White’s The House of Hate (1918) is a good start.
In terms of sub-genres, the serial covers the whole gamut from westerns, to science-fiction, jungle melodramas, propaganda serials from the Second World War and the anti-communist cycle of the early 1950s, to spy, police procedural, gangster, super-heroes, reporters, Royal Canadian Mounties, aerial and submarine serials, firefighters, marines, aliens – even Boy Scouts. Really, take your pick!
In your book, you do a good job of pointing out flaws in some of the series (in filmmaking and in the serials’ politics), while still highlights strengths in many of them. Were you concerned with an excessive focus on flaws?
I have immense admiration for the serial filmmakers who were often working under impossible shooting schedules and very limited resources. In the book I compare the production of The Lone Ranger, which had a negative cost of $168,117 and a shooting schedule which took place between November 28 and December 31, 1937 (with the budget only allowing seven days location filming in the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, California), with the RKO production of Gunga Din. The RKO film had a budget of $1,915, 000 that permitted a leisurely shooting schedule from June 24 to October 19, 1938, including copious time in the Alabama Hills. With its limited resources the running time of the Republic serial was 264 minutes compared to 117 minutes for Gunga Din.
The “flaws” in the serial often emanated from too little money and not enough time. Not necessarily from the skill of the filmmakers. The situation worsened in the early 1950s when Columbia and Republic resorted to reworking their old serials to insert footage from their libraries – for the costly action sequences. The filming of new material was limited to providing links between the old material – often this did not proceed in a seamless fashion and the flaws were evident.
The silent and film serial, like all imaginative works, are produced within a specific social, cultural, and political context. As a consequence they, in different ways, respond to these contexts. For example, one of the most exciting periods of serial production came at the very beginning, from 1912 to the early 1920s, when “serial queens” such as Pearl White, Helen Holmes, Ruth Roland and others dominated the serial and the box-office. The erosion of Victorian practices and perceptions in the early 20th Century, a process accelerated by the First World War with the rise of the “New Woman,” provided a social and cultural context for this cycle. In serials such as The Perils of Pauline (1914), A Lass of the Lumberlands (1916), Pearl of the Army (1916), and Ruth of the Rockies (1920), women occupied vocational roles and exhibited traits, such as physical strength and self-reliance, normally associated with men. Importantly, these serials were set within seemingly “masculine” settings, such as lumber camps, railway yards and factories. Equally important was the fact that little screen time was given to the domestic sphere and romance. Instead, the focus was on action and adventure.
The threat of sexual violation was not uncommon in the silent serial but it was virtually unknown in the sound serial as the bulk of the sound serial productions occurred under the stringent scrutiny imposed by Jospeh Breen after he assumed control of the industry censorship body, The Production Code Administration, in 1934. The exception to this was the phenomenally successful Flash Gordon in 1936, a serial dominated by lust and frustrated sexual desire. The threat of Emperor Ming’s (Charles Middleton) ravishment of the female lead, Dale Arden (Jean Rogers), is accompanied by the ardent desire expressed by his daughter, Princess Aura (Priscilla Lawson), for the frequently bare chested, blonde haired hero, Flash Gordon, played by former Olympic swimming champion Buster Crabbe.
Racism was a different matter. Both the silent and sound serials contain myriad examples of racial prejudice. African Americans fared badly, as they did in most Hollywood productions prior to the late 1940s. The otherwise superior Republic serial Hawk of the Wilderness (1938), for example, was marred by the stereotypical antics, involving cowardice and stupidity, of the token “comedy” relief played by African American actor Fred “Snowflake” Toones. The surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 unleashed a concerted prejudicial presentation of the Japanese in serials such as G-Men vs. The Black Dragon (1943) and The Masked Marvel (1943). The most outrageous racial presentation occurred in the first screen adaptation of Batman (1943) with J. Carroll Naish as the evil Japanese villain, Prince Daka. However, it gets worse. This serial extended beyond the comic book world of artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger’s creation, that first appeared in Detective Comics in 1939, to support and justify one of the most disgraceful episodes in American history. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 that resulted in the incarceration of 110,000 Japanese Americans in 10 camps in remote areas of the United States. Many years later this Order was condemned as unnecessary and driven by “racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”
One of the very best serials, Drums of Fu Manchu (1940), was based on Sax Rohmer’s (Arthur Henry Ward) creation, the “Oriental” master criminal Fu Manchu. The success of Rohmer’s novels emanated from a deep seated European fear of the “Yellow Peril.” Later the Japanese and the Germans (see, for example, Spy Smasher ) were supplanted as serial villains by the Communists in the early 1950s in serials such as King of the Congo (1952), Blackhawk (1952) and Trader Tom of the China Seas (1954). However, the anti-Communist period of the early 1950s also saw the release of the fascinating Columbia serial The Great Adventures of Captain Kidd (1953), the only sound serial with a downbeat ending. This ending may have been influenced by films such as High Noon (1952) with their generically “coded message” regarding the injustices and devastating effects of the blacklist within the United States.
Your book goes into nice detail in many of your entries. You really have seemed to find the right balance between concise and elaborate. How did you manage length without going to far on an entry? Did you set a longer word count for ones that needed it?
My initial aim was to write on every available serial – silent and sound. Unfortunately, this would have rendered the book commercially unviable as there was too much material. However, I did not want to reduce each film entry on the serials, the actors, directors, etc. to bare six-line outlines as I felt it was it was important to provide a historical context – both in terms of American society and the film industry, as well as relevant production information along with plot outlines. While the Republic serials have been justly celebrated, and I provide a detailed entry of every Republic serial (all 66 of them), I also wanted to include as many silent serials as possible as well as some of the more influential Universal serials such as Tailspin Tommy (1934); the creative, bizarre (and adult themes) of Flash Gordon (1936); and Gang Busters (1942). There was also much more to be covered – including the propaganda serials of the Second World War, such as the intense anti-Japanese sentiment of Columbia’s Batman (1943); the first live action appearance of Superman (1948); the dominance of the serial queens, such as Pearl While, Helen Holmes, Ruth Roland, from 1914 to 1920; and the exquisite special effects skills of the Lydecker Brothers at Republic who, at a fraction of the cost spent by the major studios, produced a wide range of superior effects. I wanted to highlight the high points (and in some cases, the low points).
Geoffrey Mayer teaches film studies at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia. He is the author of Historical Dictionary of Crime Films (Scarecrow, 2012), Encyclopedia of Film Noir (with Brian McConnell, Greenwood, 2007), and Roy Ward Baker (Manchester University Press, 2004).