Thursday, November 24, 2011

Serial Origins: The Silent Era

From my unpublished "Next Week at This Theater":

Most historians agree that the classic serial format emerged from What Happened to Mary?, a 1912 Edison Company series detailing the life and love of a plucky heroine (Mary Fuller, pictured left), each chapter a self-contained story. Short films featuring popular actors portraying the same roles had of course been made even earlier than that, mostly comedies. But Mary, with its prominent Chicago newspaper tie-in, became a turning point of sorts, and within a couple of years the holdover excitement of cliffhanging perils had become a regular part of the movie-going diet and the chapter play the domain of Pearl White, Ruth Roland, Marie Walcamp (pictured below right), Helen Holmes and all the other classic serial heroines frantically clinging to the rims of Ithacan gorges, wayward balloons and box cars, speeding automobiles, and boats adrift in the rapids.

That serials should be focusing on the plight of girls was no coincidence; women were most welcome behind the camera in the early silent era and downright dominant in front. It could even be argued that prior to the emergence of the dangerously exotic Latin Lovers in the 1920s leading men were little more than glorified props, essential for the thrust of melodrama but never very exciting. A notable exception, of course, was the cowboy and action stars: Broncho Billy Anderson, J. Warren Kerrigan, Tom Mix, Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart, and all their imitators. But early serials, although many technically set in the West, were Victorian melodramas at heart, and although they had barely yet earned the right to vote, women were front and center.

It has often been stated that in contrast to sound serials deemed suitable mainly for children and the uneducated, silent chapter plays were considered mainstream entertainment. That, however, is only partially true. Up until World War I, with short films the staple of the film industry and movie theaters often little more than mere storefront nickelodeons, serials did indeed appeal to general audiences, mostly women and recent immigrants, the predominant moviegoers at the time. To the point where even celebrated
Broadway personalities such as Mrs. Florenz Ziegfeld, Billie Burke, and Ziegfeld's much-ballyhooed mistress, Lillian Lorraine (pictured left), would partake in the fun, if only once. Irene Castle, of the celebrated ballroom dance duo of Vernon & Irene Castle, headlined in Patria (1917), by all accounts a muddled affair in 15 chapters depicting a nefarious union between Mexico and Japan that threatened pacifist America. Conservative newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst was behind this effort to change America's growing mood to join the Allied war effort in Europe but the serial tanked at the box-office and it was the last time the genre attempted to do much more than simply earn a healthy return. Both the New York-based Thanhouser Company and the American Film Company of Santa Barbara, California, produced "Million Dollar" super serials prior to WWI, The Million Dollar Mystery (1914), 23 episodes featuring ill-fated daredevil Florence LaBadie (Florence, pictured below right, who reportedly never met a speeding conveyance she wasn't willing to try at least once, perished in a car accident in 1917) and the 30 chapters The Diamond from the Sky (1915), ostensibly first offered to Mary Pickford but eventually starring her less talented sister, Lottie. Both made money but chiefly because of expensive exploitation efforts.

The great escape artist Harry Houdini turned to the serial screen in the independent The Master Mystery (1920), but although he initially drew crossover crowds, they quickly thinned out when each of the 15 chapters demonstrated all too well that what worked on the legitimate stage, such as spectacular escapes from handcuffs, sealed bank vaults or blocks of cement, did not necessarily translate to the more prosaic movie screen where these stunts came across as just so much special effect trickery. With adult audiences turning thumbs down, The Master Mystery lost money.

These serials and many others were often promoted as "high class attractions" that could stand on their own, but with the emergence of both the feature film and the movie palace in the latter part of the decade, chapter plays were increasingly relegated to a supporting role on the bill. The "grown up" reputation of such rare surviving serials as The Woman in Grey and Lightning Bryce, both released in 1919 by small independents, is due mainly to the overly complicated plots that modern historians feel few children could possibly have followed. Today's viewer is ill equipped to appreciate the often serpentine approach of pre-WWI pulp fiction. Moviegoers in 1919, especially in the hinterlands where theatrical barnstorming was still a commonplace phenomenon, most likely experienced little or no difficulty following the outlandish, long-winded plots. Oddly, modern critics routinely disparage the 1936 sound version of The Amazing Adventures of the Clutching Hand, a true silent-era serial at heart if judging by the few surviving examples of the real thing (and with a large cast of former silent stars to remind you), while at the same time heaping praise on the original Pearl White and Ruth Roland chapter plays seen by few, if any, still with us today.

Most of the serial producing companies of the 1910s were gone by the 1920s, victims of a stubborn decision to champion short films (Vitagraph, which did follow the feature film trend, lasted the longest), and serial production became almost wholly dominated by two distinctive firms: the strangely governed Pathé, a company run by committee much to its eventual ruin (but, ironically, operating a lot like today’s Hollywood conglomerates), and Carl Laemmle's sprawling if somewhat unfocused Universal. Pathé had the team of Walter Miller and Allene Ray (pictured left) in their corner, the main reason, it could be argued, for the company's longevity, while the Big U, the company that had launched the serial duo in the first place by teaming actor-director Francis Ford and actress-writer Grace Cunard, now heavily promoted the Western serials of first Art Acord then William Desmond. Other chapter play stars of the period were Elmo Lincoln (the original movie Tarzan),
Juanita Hansen (pictured right, who was advertized as the next Pearl White and paid a staggering $1,500 a week by Pathé until felled by a cocaine addiction), daredevils Eddie Polo and Charles Hutchison, actor-producer-director-writer Ben Wilson, and physical culture maven Joe Bonomo.

But with the possible exception of Pathé's fearless Hansen and Ray, and, to a lesser extent, Universal cowgirl Eileen Sedgwick, the era of the serial queen had come to an end. Suffering from failing eyesight and an old back injury sustained on the set of her signature opus, The Perils of Pauline, Pearl White made Plunder (1923) her cinematic swan song, but although heavily promoted by Pathé the highly anticipated comeback laid an egg at the box-office. Tarzan, meanwhile, now portrayed by athlete Frank Merrill, actually spoke, or rather yelled, in Universal's Tarzan the Tiger (1929), one of those hybrid part-talkies that jarred the senses before the emergence of The Indians are Coming (1930), the first true talkie serial.

Pearl White in her final serial, Plunder (1923)

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