The serial film has deep roots in cinema. These short subjects–the features before the features, as it were–told an extended, continuous story, shown in weekly or monthly “episodes” that were stretched out over a period of time. Over the years, many of these serials gained their own rabid fan bases, as moviegoers returned to the cinema regularly in order to find out what happened next.
The heyday of the serial film was undoubtedly the silent era, in which serials were an immensely popular and important part of the movie-going experience. Though the serials encompassed a wide variety of genres, the plots of many of these series were, by and large, quite similar–a lovely girl is imperiled, and a dashing hero must defeat the bad guy and rescue the fair maiden from certain doom. Over the years, a veritable fount of cliches have risen from the serial genre: the helpless female victim (the “damsel in distress”) tied to the railroad tracks, the mustache-twirling villain, the determined hero who vaults multiple obstacles to save his lady love. And the notion of a cliffhanger ending–which has become increasingly vital to the success of certain dramatic television series–has its roots in these early short pictures. If you want to see the hallmarks of the silent film serial, just watch any number of episodes of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle–the characters of Dudley Do-Right, Nell Fenwick, and Snidely Whiplash are pitch-perfect caricatures of the genre.
Women were the undisputed stars of the silent serial. And though the “damsel in distress” motif is now inextricably intertwined with the genre, in its earliest days, the serial heroine was proactive, independent, and adventurous, able to slip out of predicaments based on her own tenacity and wit. Oftentimes, the heroine was even the one who stepped in to rescue the hero from danger.
The film that is considered by many film scholars to be the first serial, 1912’s What Happened to Mary, centers around a female protagonist. Mary (played by Mary Fuller) is a teenage girl who escapes an arranged marriage by hopping a train and undertaking a quest to find her own mate. Filmed by the Thomas Edison studio, the series–twelve reels released into theaters over the course of a year–was accompanied by a monthly feature in The Ladies’ World magazine which also related Mary’s story. The next year, the series was followed by a sequel serial, Who Will Marry Mary?, which has sadly been lost over the years.
These serials made Mary Fuller a huge star, one whose popularity reached the level of that other famous silent Mary, Ms. Pickford. She had starred in other films before becoming the first “serial queen;” most notably, Fuller appeared in the first film version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1910. She was also a screenwriter, and several of her scripts were made into films during the height of her popularity. Sadly, Fuller’s career was short-lived; only four years after the release of the Mary serials, she was a Hollywood has-been. Her final film appearance came in 1917, and attempts to restart her career in subsequent years were unsuccessful.
In the wake of the immense popularity of the Mary films, other studios began to quickly churn out their own serials featuring similarly adventurous heroines. The most successful of these was 1913’s The Adventures of Kathlyn, produced by the Selig studios and accompanied by concurrent written features in the Chicago Tribune. Comprised of thirteen episodes released biweekly over the course of six months, the serial starred Kathlyn Williams as the titular heroine, a young American girl who goes to India upon inheriting a royal title and must grapple with wild animals and even wilder “natives.” Kathlyn, unlike its predecessor Mary, employed the use of the cliffhanger ending, and was by most accounts the first serial to utilize this trick to entice audience attention. Unfortunately, the Kathlyn series has been lost, but in 1916, the serials were revisited in feature-length form (a film also called The Adventures of Kathlyn), with most of the original cast returning to reprise their roles.
An interesting side note: according to some sources, the first-ever movie trailer was created to promote the Kathlyn serial!
Kathlyn Williams had been making films for Selig for more than five years when she was tapped to star in the serial. Promoted as the “Selig Girl,” Williams co-starred with Tom Mix in a number of silent Westerns, and after her foray into serials, would go on to appear in several early films directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Though she reached the height of her popularity as an actress in the silent era, Williams was ultimately able to maintain a successful career well into the days of sound, filming her last project, Rendezvous at Midnight, in 1935.
In 1914, Mary and Kathlyn made way for perhaps the most notable female-starring silent serial, The Perils of Pauline. Released in 1914 by French distributor Pathé, the series was immensely successful from the start. Initially comprised of thirteen episodes exhibited in theaters every two weeks, Pauline was expanded to twenty installments based on its popularity. Today, the original reels are considered lost, and only nine severely-edited chapters of Pauline exist.
Here, most of the tropes that would eventually define the serial genre are present in full force. Pauline is an innocent young woman whose guardian dies, leaving her a great fortune that she can only access once she marries her guardian’s son, Harry. But Pauline wants to be a writer and explore the world before tying herself down. Her guardian’s secretary, Raymond Owen, plots to kill Pauline before she marries so that he can get his hands on her money. What follows is a series of adventures in which Pauline finds herself in near-constant trouble, only to be rescued by Harry or to find a way out of the scrape herself.
Pearl White had found success starring in a number of short films prior to taking on the role of Pauline, but nothing could have prepared her for the popularity she would find as “the” serial queen of the 1910s. White did many of her own stunts while filming Pauline: whether it was swimming across a rushing river or flying an airplane, the actress enthusiastically jumped at the chance to get involved in the action. The popularity of Pauline made the young actress exceedingly wealthy, and she followed its success with another popular serial, The Exploits of Elaine, in 1914. White eventually retired from the screen in 1924. But injuries from years of stunt work drove her to alcoholism and drug use, and she died relatively young, at the age of 49, from cirrhosis of the liver.
These serial queens were, at least briefly, able to exercise a great deal of control over their own careers, but in the end, the need to leash their independence, both on-screen and off, led to the eventual demise of the woman-centric serial as a box-office draw. The stories were, in many cases, undeniably lurid, and the idea of placing “vulnerable” women in harm’s way was distasteful to some members of the public. Furthermore, the studios expressed concern that the athletic serial stars could be seen as overly masculine in the eyes of the public, so publicity about the stars focused on their feminine charms, highlighting their supposed love of beautiful clothes and graceful manners. Still, regardless of attempts to feminize the serial queen in the papers, her mere existence on-screen challenged the notion of what a “proper” woman should be. Ultimately, the genre could not sustain itself beyond those relatively few early successes, and within five years of the explosive debut of What Happened to Mary, the female-lead serial became a rarity rather than the rule.
As silence gave way to sound in theaters, so too did female serial stars give way to their male counterparts. In the 1930s, comic-strip favorites Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, and Buck Rogers became immensely popular, followed in the next decade by superheroes such as Batman and Superman. The adventures of virile male leads and their feats of derring-do were greatly appealing to audiences of the time, and with the exception of minor successes such as Brenda Starr, the serial became a largely male-dominated genre until its overall popularity ceased in the 1950s.