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Celebrating The Serial’s Centennial

Posted in Murania Press,Serials,Upcoming Books on December 29, 2013 @ 5:13 pm

Exactly one hundred years ago today, motion-picture emporiums in selected cities across the country played Chapter One of the first true movie serial, Colonel William Selig’s The Adventures of Kathlyn. Over the next 40-odd years, more than 500 serials — or “chapter plays,” as they were also known — flashed across American theater screens in weekly installments.

Readers of Blood ‘n’ Thunder are treated regularly to in-depth articles covering the great movie serials; many of these essays have been collected in  the still-available Blood ‘n’ Thunder’s Cliffhanger Classics. Today, a full century after Kathlyn‘s debut, we celebrate the form’s early years.

Popular screen stars who made early appearances in silent-era serials included Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Constance Bennett, Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff, Laura La Plante, Adolphe Menjou, Warner Oland, Esther Ralston, Milton Sills, Rudolph Valentino, Warren William, and Anna May Wong. Broadway favorites Billie Burke, Irene Castle, and Lillian Lorraine top-lined chapter plays, as did champion prizefighters Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Benny Leonard, and “Gentleman Jim” Corbett. Internationally known performers such as famed escape artist Harry Houdini and prominent vaudeville hypnotist J. Robert Pauline also starred in “cliffhangers,” adding new fans to their already sizable followings.

Future megaphone wielders James Cruze, Irving Cummings, and Robert Z. Leonard acted in early serials before taking up permanent residence behind the camera, where their achievements were considerably more significant. Journeyman directors W. S. Van Dyke, George Marshall, Richard Thorpe, and George B. Seitz enjoyed lengthy stints with major studios after helming episodic thrillers for Pathé and Mascot. Oscar-winning cinematographers Joseph August, Stanley Cortez, Linwood Dunn, Arthur Miller, and Leon Shamroy cranked cameras on serials before graduating to big-budget feature films. Playwright Philip Barry, whose Broadway hits included Holiday, The Animal Kingdom, and The Philadelphia Story, temporarily abandoned stage work to write a 1924 Pathé serial, Ten Scars Make a Man.

Notwithstanding the eventual prominence of the people named above, the serial’s importance in American film history cannot be attributed to the role it played in the development of those distinguished careers. The serial was consequential for other reasons. It changed the way motion pictures were advertised and distributed. It forged a much-desired link between newspapers and the film industry. It codified narrative devices still employed today in movies and TV series. And it made weekly theater attendance a habit for millions, thus facilitating the rapid growth of one of the nation’s most profitable industries.

Tom Santschi and Kathlyn Williams in THE ADVENTURES OF KATHLYN.

Now — finally, absolutely, and positively — I can announce publication of the long-delayed, oft-postponed Distressed Damsels and Masked Marauders, which goes to press shortly and will be available for shipping during the week of January 13. Without rehashing the turbulent history of this project, I’m prepared to promise that the finished product will please those of you who pre-ordered the book long ago and have been waiting patiently for it to materialize.

Today technically marks the chapter-play centennial, but 1914 saw the release of the most famous early serials, among them Pathé’s The Perils of Pauline, Thanhouser’s The Million Dollar Mystery, and Universal’s Lucille Love, Girl of Mystery. So in the coming weeks and months I’ll be celebrating their one-hundredth birthdays with posts in this space. The pioneering chapter plays, while hardly vital to the development of motion pictures as an art form, were enormously influential in making movie attendance a weekly habit for millions of Americans.

The serial’s success depended on the thrills, action, and suspense it generated with each weekly installment. In Distressed Damsels and Masked Marauders you’ll read about the real- and reel-life exploits of such daredevil chapter-play stars as Pearl White, Ruth Roland, Helen Holmes, Charles Hutchison, Eddie Polo, William Duncan, Joe Bonomo, William Desmond, Marie Walcamp, Francis Ford and Grace Cunard, Allene Ray and Walter Miller, and many more.

Only a relative few silent serials survive complete. Numerous others survive in fragmentary form. But I’ve seen just about all the existing footage and have painstakingly documented the making of the key titles. And I’ve illustrated the book with hundreds of rare stills, posters, ad cuts, and lobby cards. Many photos are candids, taken on location, and never before published. I’ll share a few with you in future blog posts, but for the bulk of them you’ll want to buy Distressed Damsels and Masked Marauders.

In the meantime, join me in wishing a Happy Hundredth Birthday to the American movie serial. Long may it be remembered!




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