Monday, November 28, 2011

An Introduction to Sound Serials Part I:

From my unpublished "Next Week at This Theater"

"Most of us actors wanted to do our own stunts … and most of the stuntmen wanted to be actors” … actor Pierce Lyden

"There were times when I would have to pretend to shoot a man off a balcony. Then, when the scene was over, I would change wardrobe and go up on the balcony and fall off" … stunt man Tom Steele

Thanks to Jack Mathis and his life's work, the four volume "Valley of the Cliffhangers," "Valley of the Cliffhangers Supplement," and "Republic Confidential Volumes 1 and 2," we have an accurate accounting of how the leading chapter play producer, Republic Pictures, created their 66 serials, and although minutiae probably varied (costs certainly did), both Universal and Columbia most likely employed similar methods. Republic, as we shall see, inherited much of their serial-making expertise from Nat Levine's Mascot Pictures, which had been incorporated into the new Republic Pictures in 1935.

By 1936, with the tremendous success of Universal’s Flash Gordon and with Republic’s purchase of the screen rights to Chester Gould's popular comic strip Dick Tracy, serials were once again becoming a force to be reckoned with, a fact that brought Columbia Pictures into the fold the following year. It may be useful to quote Jack Mathis at some length here:

“Although the snobbish class distinction between features and serials remained a lasting stigma, chapter play profits helped make possible many a highfalutin production. As the Golden Age of the sound serials approached mid-life in 1940, major studios gazed enviously at the 100% to 300% grosses above their negative costs being regularly accrued by the cliffhangers. So astonishing were the percentages that [Republic studio head] Herbert J. Yates defied any feature produced on an equal investment to match these figures, a challenge echoed by his competitors Harry Cohn at Columbia and Nate Blumberg at Universal."

An amazing result, really, for a product sold on the free-for-all States Rights market for as low an amount as $10 an episode (in its hey-day Mascot charged as little as $5, and even lower than that if competition from Universal proved especially tough).

During the first decade of its existence, Republic's annual release usually consisted of two "streamline" 12-chapter serials and two "super" 15-chapter serials to satisfy the need of theaters for a full season of weekly entertainment. (Columbia stuck with 15 chapters whether or not the story demanded it, which it truly never did.) Running times for the opening chapter was set at 30 minutes in the first decade of operations (20 thereafter), with each subsequent installment running 15-18 minutes until the mid-1940s when chapter-lengths were standardized to an exact 13:20. Like no other Hollywood producer, Republic anticipated television and 13:20 plus commercial breaks would come to exactly 15 minutes, the standard length of syndicated television programs in the early 1950s.

Titles were a management decision but likes and dislikes of exhibitors and audience reaction mattered greatly. With the exception of literary adaptations, titles adhered more to exploitation possibilities than anything else (a harbinger of things to come in the teen-market craze of the 1950s) and the writers then had three months to come up with a proper story and screenplay to fit title and concept.

Filming at Republic and on location took three to eight weeks according to the length of the serial, with editing accomplished at one week per chapter. Scoring, dubbing, printing and other post-production tasks were then added before a release date was set. This strict sausage factory method of serial-making meant that first-run serials actually began playing in theaters before post-production of the entire serial had been completed. In many instances, the opening chapter of a new serial followed right after the resolution of the current presentation, ensuring that kids everywhere would be profitably hooked for another 12 to 15 weeks.

to be continued...

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