Tuesday, November 29, 2011

An Introduction to Sound Serials Part II:

From my unpublished "Next Week at This Theater"

Writer Jon Tuska has observed that the filming of the West was effected by a comparatively small group of people, around 200 in all. The same could be said of the sound serial. You spot the same names again and again in chapter play credits – approximately twenty writers seem to have penned all of them, flitting from one studio to the next – and more so than any other genre chapter plays depended on a specific type of director who knew how to translate the often telephone-book thick "treatments" into practical film blocking, be able to guide both action and more intimate scenes and keep everything on or preferably under budget. It quickly became clear that one man could not possibly do all that without sacrificing something important and team work became more or less standard operation.

The best of the directorial duos was undoubtedly Republic's William Witney & John English, who reportedly divvied up the chores with Witney taking care of the action and English concentrating more on the performance. (Surviving serial star Adrian Booth remembers no difference between them, however.) Other teams would work on alternate days, the down time usually spent blocking the following day's scenes. As a sad comment on the changing times and economics, most post-WWII serials were again directed by single directors, with Fred C. Brannon or Franklyn Adreon helming all of Republic's final chapter plays. According to actor Walter Reed, Brannon “was fast. He used to be a prop man and … he couldn’t direct. He was a nice guy, but very macho you know. He thought he was a tough guy.”

What Brannon and the others had in common, however, was an ability to edit in camera, making everything so much easier and less time-consuming in post-production, and an overall capacity to work fast. No one was faster than Spencer Gordon Bennet, who directed more serials, silent and sound, than anybody else. As Bennet told the writer Francis M. Nevins:

“When I went over to Republic [they] used to shoot their master scenes right through. They'd wreck the set. Then they'd have to set it up and do it over. I didn't do it that way. I would take it in four segments. I would say, 'From here to here I want a certain routine.' I'd let [the stunt men] work it out because they knew what they had to work with, they'd see what was there on the set. So they'd go ahead and work out the routine from there to there… then I'd match in the principals in the second
segment. Then the doubles would match the way they went out. That's why it was easy to shoot those fights that way, because I had capable men who knew how to do it.”

Another prolific director, Ford I. Beebe, who spent most of his serial career with Universal, always maintained that his ability to get things done on time and under budget prevented him from obtaining work in more mainstream fare. Starlet Kay Aldridge, who worked with both Witney & English and Bennet, later told her biographer, Merrill T. McCord, that they

"were real men. I had a feeling that they were really more like the old-time directors must have been. They really had to work hard. They knew how to handle crowds."

Much overlooked in the annals of film history, the serial directors were a hearty lot that often managed to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

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