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Movie Serials

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ALL RIGHT, PICTURE THIS: IT IS SATURDAY MORNING. YOU’VE JUST STOOD IN A LONG LINE IN FRONT OF THE STATE THEATER, and now you’re waiting in another line for your dime box of popcorn—no need to choose a size. There’s only one. You and your friends find your seats—near the front of the theater, of course—sit, and wait for the show to begin.

You’re not here to see main feature, though it is a Western and you love those. You’re here to see the next installment of an exciting serial that began last week. It left the hero in a terrible situation. You see, he’d been discovered eavesdropping on the bad guys as they made their plans. They overpowered him, injected him with a fast-acting poison, tied him to a chair in a room with a sleeping rattle snake, lit the fuse of a bomb, and fled. In the final two screen shots you saw last week, the rattler was crawling toward the hero's legs and the minute hand of the bomb’s clock moved to detonation time. The flash of a huge explosion then filled the movie screen over which the words to be continued appeared. You’re not a novice to the serial format and are fairly confident the hero will escape, but you are curious to discover how he’ll do it.

Yep! It's a Saturday Matinee of our youth: a B-western, several cartoons, newsreels, theatrical trailers or previews, shorts on famous people or exotic locations, and, of course, the next chapter in the latest, thrilling serial—a film type that was older than we were!



THE HEYDAY OF THE SERIAL FILM WAS UNDOUBTEDLY THE SILENT ERA, which began in 1912. At this time most films were short subjects, usually only two reels in length, which did not provide much time to develop elements such as plot or characterization. A few producers were experimenting with longer "feature" films, but this was very expensive and resisted by some studios. The serial format allowed a compromise between the two by combining individual short episodes (or chapters) into a longer narrative. These would be shown in weekly or monthly installments that were stretched out over a period of time. (Occasionally, an enterprising theater entrepreneur would run a serial chapter throughout the week, to maximize attendance.) Over the years, many of these serials gained their own devoted fan bases, as moviegoers returned to the cinema regularly in order to find out what happened next. Hundreds of serials were produced during this time, but few have survived to today.

By the late teens and early 1920s, a fairly rigid format for serials had been developed. Aimed mainly at adults, serials ran from twelve to fifteen episodes, with the first one usually a half hour in length. Its purpose was to set the plot and to introduce the protagonists and their adversaries. Subsequent episodes typically ran 20 minutes.

Though the serials encompassed a variety of settings—jungle, crime, Old West, science fiction to name the most popular—the plots were, typically, the same. A beautiful heroine and a handsome hero would face one trap after another before finally defeating the evil villain. 

Simplistic and similar though the plots may have been, the action was continuous. Hazardous chases, perilous jumps off buildings or trains; terrifying falls; narrow escapes; fist-fights; close calls; hair-raising situations; and exciting, death-defying stunts involving runaway trains, fires, sawmills, natural disasters, and explosions filled the movie screen. It’s fair to say that reality was often compromised or exaggerated in order to keep the female and male leads alive from week to week.

Movie producers quickly realized that to assure continued audience attendance an “open” ending was wise. Each episode, except the final, ended with what the industry termed a take-out and later dubbed a cliff hanger – a scene of violent peril from which the hero and/or heroine could not possibly escape. The next chapter would pick up the action at the same point, but reveal a “way out” for the lead character(s). This might be a trap door offering a convenient escape, a jump from a moving car, or breaking free from a fiendish device created by the serial’s chief villain. These finales were hoped to keep viewers returning to discover the latest plot twists, character developments, and of course, how the main characters had escaped from the previous week’s peril.   

Women were the undisputed stars of the early silent serial and were thrown into situations of continual danger. They did not, however, always play the “damsel in distress” role that now is identified with the genre. Many heroines were dynamic, independent, and adventurous and were allowed to solve the predicaments placed before them by their own resolve and intelligence. Oftentimes, it was the heroine who rescued the hero from danger.





Mary Fuller
What Happened to Mary

Kathlyn Williams
Adventures of Kathlyn

Pearl White
The Perils of Pauline

WOMEN WERE THE UNDISPUTED STARS OF THE EARLY SILENT SERIAL and were thrown into situations of continual danger. They did not, however, always play the “damsel in distress” role that now is identified with the genre. Many heroines were dynamic, independent, and adventurous and were allowed to solve the predicaments placed before them by their own resolve and intelligence. Oftentimes, it was the heroine who rescued the hero from danger.


Mary Fuller (1888-1973)
Beginning her acting career on the stage at age 18, Mary Fuller quickly moved from stage to film with the Vitagraph Studio in 1907. Three years later, Fuller relocated again to the Edison Film Company where she starred in the first film version of the Shelley novel Frankenstein. Although she appeared in several movies from her debut and authored a number of screenplays, she is only remembered as the star in Edison’s What Happened to Mary (1912), the forerunner of the adventure serial.

What Happened to Mary was a series of twelve, monthly, one reel episodes or chapters -- each a complete entity in itself. It was released concurrently with a serialized story of "What Happened to Mary" in McClure's Ladies' World Magazine –- also a first. The duo splash generated a great deal of enthusiasm and excitement in the public.

Scene from What Happened to Mary

The first chapter of the serial begins with baby Mary found on a doorstep of a small town storekeeper with a note attached that stated he would receive $1,000 for raising and marrying her to a local boy. Five hundred dollars was included in the basket. Eighteen years later, Mary wishes to leave her boring little town and move to the big city; but instead, her adoptive father attempts to marry her off to collect the promised reward. Mary knows nothing of this arrangement and continues to refuse the matchmaking. While searching through a chest, Mary stumbles on the original note and decides that she must leave home immediately and flees to the big city.

The eleven chapters which follow detail how she makes a life for herself in the city despite the schemes of a dastardly villain. Interestingly, no chapter-ending cliffhangers were employed in this production although they would later become synonymous with the medium.

Unfortunately, only summaries of the monthly episodes remain; the entire film series of What Happened to Mary is lost.

As the popular leading lady of the pioneering Edison Company, Mary Fuller was a major movie star who, by 1914, rivaled Mary Pickford in popularity. Fuller's career, however, was over by 1917, and she disappeared from public view. As time went on, the question of "What Happened to Mary Fuller?" seemed increasingly unanswerable.

Fuller apparently suffered a nervous breakdown following a failed affair with a married opera singer and went to live in her mother's home in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, the death of her mother in 1940 brought a second nervous breakdown. After being cared for by her sister, Fuller was admitted to Washington's St. Elizabeth's Hospital on July 1, 1947, where she remained until her death in December of 1973. When Fuller died, the hospital was unable to locate any relatives, and she was buried in an unmarked grave in Congressional Cemetery. In the 2010s, her grave was identified, and a memorial bench with a Hollywood Star of Fame was installed; it bore the inscription, "A Personality of Eloquent Silence."


Kathlyn Williams (1879-1960)
Kathlyn Williams, known for her blonde beauty and daring antics, was an American actress who performed on stage as well as in early silent films. In 1910, she joined the Selig Polyscope Company and quickly became its leading actress. From the start, Williams played an action heroine and confidently appeared with wild animals in Selig films; this earned her the title of "Kathryn the Unafraid."  

Scene from Adventures of Kathlyn

In September of 1913, William Selig, the company’s founder and inspiration, announced the imminent release of Adventures of Kathlyn, a thirteen-part series of spectacular wild animal drama starring their celebrated actress Kathlyn Williams. The film was produced at Selig’s animal farm. Each episode of the serial, except the concluding one, ended with the plot incomplete; and the heroine, and or hero, at the mercy of certain destruction. Thus, the audience would be forced to return to the theater to learn the fate of the characters.

This trick proved so successful that it became standard to all subsequent serial productions. In fact in response to these endings, the serials themselves were often referred to as cliffhangers for often the characters were, literally, left hanging from a cliff. Unlike the Fuller serial, What Happened to Mary, Kathlyn left its episode unresolved each week; and therefore it is considered the first cliffhanger serial. The ploy worked and led to overflow crowds at theaters and forced some managers to add additional screenings

Harold MacGrath's novel, Adventures of Kathryn, on which the film was based, was released a few days before the film and was in book stores at the same time as the serial was playing in theaters. In addition to the publicity this generated, Selig paired with a major newspaper syndicate to serialize the novel/film in print. Newspaper sales soared as a result.

Virtually every review praised the film for its expensive look, thrilling action and adventure, and rare footage of India. The Motion Picture News review stated that the most troubling part of the film was the concluding statement, “To be continued.” Unfortunately, except for the introductory chapter and a few excerpts, most of the Kathlyn series has been lost. 

Harold McGrath’s novel and, of course, the film is set in the mythical Indian kingdom of Allaha. Kathlyn, the beautiful daughter of an explorer, searches for her father who has been abducted by a handsome Eastern prince. The serial’s thirteen episodes chronicle Kathlyn’s perilous encounters with wild beasts and with the agents of the insidious Council of Three as she rescues her explorer father and frees the enslaved population. She obtains help in her quests from a white hunter and from the native servants she befriends. 

According to the January 21, 1915 Daybook, the popularity of The Adventures of Kathlyn led the following items being named after the film or after Kathlyn Williams: five babies, a cocktail, face powder, perfume, slippers, shirtwaist, cigar, hair-dress, a baby elephant, puma, lion, the Kathleen pool at the Selig Zoo, a watch charm for single men, and the songs Kathlyn, Dear Kathlyn and the Kathlyn Hesitation Waltz.  

Williams later appeared in numerous films before retiring from acting in 1932. Williams died of a heart attack in Los Angeles at age 81.

Introductory Episode of Adventures of Kathlyn



Pearl White (1889-1938)
Pearl White began her acting career at age six by playing Little Eva in Uncle Tom's Cabin to earn money for her poverty-stricken family. In 1907, she left high school to tour with a stock company and then worked for various film operations as a rather anonymous actress. Her breakthrough role came when she signed with the American branch of the French Pathé Frères Company to play Pauline in their first serial film, the melodrama: The Perils of Pauline. It made her an international star, and today is considered the most famous suspense serial in cinema history.

Pearl White in The Perils of Pauline

The twenty chapters of The Perils of Pauline were filled with intrigue, danger, and cliff-hanger situations; and their main theme was, simply: the heroine-in-jeopardy. Pauline was menaced by assorted villains and required to perform a variety of acrobatic stunts to escape the many perils that were forced upon her. The film has often been cited as a famous example of a damsel in distress,  although some analyses hold that her character was more resourceful and less helpless than the classic damsel stereotype. In any case, captivated audiences were compelled to return the following week for the next chapter. 

Neither Pauline nor its successor, The Exploits of Elaine, used the common cliffhanger format in which each episode ends with an unresolved danger that is addressed at the beginning of the next epesode. Although each chapter placed Pauline in a situation that seemed certain to result in her imminent death, each installment revealed how she escaped the danger.

The Perils of Pauline’s success was fueled by immense publicity due to the collaboration between Pathé and William Randolph Hearst’s publishing empire. After the original run, it was also reshown in theaters a number of times—sometimes in edited, shortened versions, through the 1920s. Today, The Perils of Pauline is known to exist only in a shortened nine-chapter version. In 2008 the classic film was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Pearl White performed her own stunts as Pauline as well as in her future roles, and the dangers she exposed herself to were real. She fought gypsies, pirates, Indians, rats, sharks, rolling boulders, and her dastardly guardian. She flew airplanes; raced cars; and swam across rivers. Fate found her stranded on the side of a cliff, in a runaway balloon, and in a burning house. Her undaunted and adventurous persona became symbolic of her career and for later serial queens. As a result, she became known as the Pathé Frère Company’s “Peerless Fearless Girl” or the “Heroine of a Thousand Stunts.” Unfortunately, she suffered a number of injuries that forced her to begin using a double in her later films. Studio publicity, however, claimed she performed all stunts herself.

Savvy audiences, no doubt understood that even if it looked real on the screen, some thrilling actions, like falling from high cliffs, had to be faked. White’s fearless image was severely tarnished in 1922 when a stunt double was killed while attempting a dangerous stunt for her. A rumor immediately spread that she had been killed, and a slight scandal arose when it was revealed that she had used a stand-in

White’s extensive career adds up to over two hundred titles, including five or ten minute films (referred to as split-reels and one-reelers), serials, and features. The few films that have survived, including the serials, are scattered over a number of archives, although the majority are in the Library of Congress.

In the 1920s, serials lost popularity with the rise of the feature film, and White failed in her attempt to make the transition to the new genre. She had earned an estimated $2 million in her short but arduous career and had invested it wisely. She moved to Paris and retired to a life of luxury. A spinal injury suffered in a fall while filming of The Perils of Pauline may have hastened her early death in 1938. She was buried in the Passy Cemetery in Paris; her tombstone bears only her name.

The Perils of Pauline Introductory Chapter
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The Perils of Pauline to be continued





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