Rep Diary: The American Serial: 1914-1944
The first image I saw upon entering Light Industry’s 12-hour marathon of American serials was of a couple dangling over the edge of a mountain. This literal cliffhanger from The Perils of Pauline (1914) heralded the adrenaline-pumping series of death-defying stunts to come. Over 30 serial productions were represented in 16mm, one single-reel episode apiece, roughly spanning the genre’s history from 1914 to 1944 and shown in chronological order. The day provided a crash course in the development of action choreography, revealing the origins of the modern blockbuster. A typical cheapjack production adapted pulp material into a dozen 20-minute episodes, which would screen along with newsreels before the main feature. Each episode would inevitably end in a spectacular unresolved stunt, luring patrons back for next week’s chapter, keeping them in a perpetual state of movie-mad arousal.
Ever since George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were able to secure A-movie budgets for the sort of serial tales they loved as kids, pulp has dominated the box office. The originals, though, languish in public domain purgatory, circulating in washed-out DVD transfers. They’ve been bootlegged so much that no studio will ever bother investing in a proper restoration. Viewing them on film, however banged up, is a revelation. At Ed Halter and Thomas Beard’s program, one $7 entry fee allowed you to wander in and out of Light Industry’s Greenpoint white box over the course of the day (11 a.m. to 11 p.m.), though there were rarely more than 10 people present at any given time. The small size lent a feeling of unspoken unity, a group of pulp penitents awaiting their absolution to the whirring of the projector.
The Hazards of Helen
The marathon opened with “Queen of the Serials” Pearl White, whose roles in Pauline and The Exploits of Elaine (1914) found her to be a limp rag in constant need of rescue. Far more exhilarating was Episode 33 of The Hazards of Helen (1914), in which star Helen Holmes goes to great lengths to foil a pair of common thieves. Whereas Pearl depends on the kindness of strangers, Helen starts fire from scratch to escape imprisonment and tosses an engineer off a moving platform to save a life. Pauline’s style is as conservative as its gender politics, still processing the parallel editing introduced by D.W. Griffith; Helen has already fully embraced Griffith’s advances, along with dissolves and huge close-ups to further encourage audience identification. With director J.P. McGowan’s ramped-up cutting speed and its aggressive female action star, Hazards of Helen was the most modern movie I watched all day.
Trail of the Octopus
Watching all these disconnected episodes brought to mind André Breton’s Surrealist practice of entering movies in the middle and leaving before the end, using cinema as a “lyrical substance simply begging to be hauled in en masse, with the aid of chance.” He cites Exploits of Elaine as one such substance, and for great stretches I sat looking out for disorienting images as he might have. There was the parrot chirping “Look out for the Iron Claw!” (in The Iron Claw, 1916), the double exposure of disembodied eyes staring out of a wall in the gloriously demented Trail of the Octopus (1919), and a dead girl’s hair in A Woman in Gray (1919), cascading down the side of a bed.
The Leather Pushers
More traditional pleasures were to be had in The Leather Pushers (1922), about a down-and-out boxing trio in NYC. Reginald Denny plays the son of a disgraced aristocrat who vows to win his family’s fortune back through the sweet science. He lives in a grubby apartment with his sparring partner and manager, the latter of whom dispenses with exposition in a jaunty direct address to the camera. The episode I caught had a shaggy charm, as well as fascinating location photography of Central Park in the 1920s. The title writers go overboard with New Yawk slang, pitching the city as exotic as the Orient; a gym is introduced as “one of the melting pots of fistiana.”
When I returned from the disappointing reality of a lunch break, sound had arrived. Tom Mix was on horseback chasing what looked to be a prototype of the Predator drone. It turned out to be The Miracle Rider (1935), from Poverty Row studio Mascot. As technology became more murderous, the serials did too, introducing world domination as a theme while way back when Helen was kept busy busting jewel thieves. Not wanting to totally revamp genre codes, many serials simply incorporated the new futuristic forms of violence into the old. This explains Undersea Kingdom (1936), a Republic Pictures effort in which the Lost Kingdom of Atlantis is discovered using a hi-tech submarine. Atlantis happens to look exactly like Lone Pine, California (where they shot most of their B-Westerns), except with tin-can robots tottering alongside the horses. Republic was a prolific incubator of talent in this period. Joseph H. Lewis (Gun Crazy) was an editor there, along with William Witney, one of the great unsung action directors who with partner John English directed some of the most kinetic serials of the era.
Daredevils of the Red Circle
Light Industry showed four of Witney and English’s films, including my favorite, Daredevils of the Red Circle. A trio of circus performers is chasing a criminal mastermind who killed one of their brothers. Each member of the troupe has a particular skill that can be highlighted during fights. Gene Townley provides the brains, Bruce Bennett the brawn, and David Sharpe the acrobatics. The narrative is set up so that outrageous stunts become the norm—much as in the Crank films. In the first chapter a young boy is burned to death during a stunt-dive gone wrong—a scene that apparently almost saw the actor going up in smoke along with his character. In his autobiography, Witney recalls, “I ran my hand over the kid’s head to be sure his hair wasn’t on fire. His hair was singed, and I could smell it.” Witney’s films always have that whiff of danger, as he pushed his stuntmen to new and dangerous heights, all shot with the clear lines of action he learned to preferred to work with as an editor.
Adventures of Captain Marvel
The lessons of Witney seem to have gone missing in most of his blockbuster offspring. Simply compare a random chapter of his Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941) to the jumble of The Avengers for evidence. But my day at Light Industry proved that these scratched up, low-budget, unselfconscious serials still have the power to captivate. I emerged in a delusional stupor, scanning the floors for trap doors in the fear that my wife was secretly trying to push me into a hidden gator pit to inherit my nonexistent fortune. It was the kind of cinephile fugue state that Breton described in 1951: “the devolved faculty of the first-comer to abstract himself from his own life when he feels like it, at least in the cities, as soon as he passes through one of the muffled doors that give on to the blackness.”