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Serial Films

Entry updated 18 July 2022. Tagged: Film, Theme.

In the early days of Cinema there was a considerable vogue for serial films divided into chapters or episodes intended for separate screening in weekly instalments, a famous nonfantastic example being the 20-part General Film Company/Eclectic Film Company melodrama The Perils of Pauline (1914), directed by Louis J Gasnier and Donald MacKenzie with the much-menaced Pearl White in the title role. Later serials introduced the tradition of breaking off at cliffhanger situations to be resolved in the next instalment. Studios well known for serial films include Columbia, Republic Pictures – "I'm not a Republic serial villain," protests the revealed arch-machinator in Watchmen – and Universal. A number of sf and Comics/Superhero serial storylines duly appeared.

The sheer number of lost silent films blurs the record, but the first serial film seems to have been the German Arsène Lupin contra Sherlock Holmes (1910, 5 episodes) (see Maurice LeBlanc; Sherlock Holmes), directed by Viggo Larsen. Next is probably the US What Happened to Mary (1912, 12 episodes), directed by Charles Brabin; then The Adventures of Kathlyn (1913, 13 episodes), directed by Francis J Grandon, considered the first to have used "cliffhanger endings". The first serial of which all episodes are known to survive is Fantômas (1913-1914, 5 episodes) directed by Louis Feuillade, an adaption of the novel Fantômas (1911) by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre. Feuillade would go on to create several more serials, most notably Les Vampires (1915-1916, 10 episodes), which was popular, loathed by French critics (though drawing praise from André Breton) but is well respected now. None of these were genre – the iconic Les Vampires scene of a woman in skin-tight Vampire clothing is from a play within the serial. The first serial with sf elements was probably The Exploits of Elaine (1914, 14 episodes).

Further genre-related serial films covered in this encyclopedia are, in chronological order: Homunculus (1916; vt Homunculus der Führer); The Son of Tarzan (1920) and several further Tarzan Films (which see) in serial form, 1921-1935; The Phantom Empire (1935; vt Gene Autry and the Phantom Empire); Flash Gordon (1936) and its sequels; Buck Rogers (1939) (see Buck Rogers in the 25th Century); Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941); Batman (1943) (see Batman Films); Captain Midnight (1942); The Phantom (1943) (see The Phantom); Captain America (1944; vt Return of Captain America, 1952); The Purple Monster Strikes (1945); Brick Bradford (1947); Superman (1948); Batman and Robin (1949) (see Batman Films); Bruce Gentry: Daredevil of the Skies (1949); Flying Disc Man from Mars (1950); Captain Video (1951); Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952; vt Satan's Satellites); Commando Cody – Sky Marshal of the Universe (1953); Radar Men from the Moon (1951); and The Lost Planet (1953; vt Planet Men).

Serial World was a 1974-1984 Media Magazine devoted to such films. A late addition to this modest canon, albeit using a different medium, is Josh Whedon's three-part webcast Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (2008). [DRL/SP]

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