Serial Art

Here’s a not too brief discussion of what I’ve been up to, and why.

Batman dies at the end of Batman’s Last Chance, chapter 10 of Columbia’s 1949 serial. During his punch-up with a gang of The Wizard’s thugs in a downtown office building, Batman is thrown through a window and plummets to the sidewalk below. We clearly see the caped hero plunging through the air. No one could possibly survive the fall. And yet, the serial is called Batman and Robin, and there are five more episodes to come. Not even the most naïve viewer would believe that the hero has missed his last chance so early. Despite all the evidence, there must be a way out.

I am embarking (and have been embarking for the past year or so) on a new project – a book length study of sound serials of the 30s-50s. It will not be a complete guide to the genre, or an episode-by-episode commentary, or a survey of the great heroes and villains of the matinee screen. Plenty of those have been written, many of them sharp and detailed, for the ever-active serial fan market (see here:, and I hope instead to produce a historically informed study of the sound serial as an art. I am following the “historical poetics” model of scholarship as described by David Bordwell; an approach that privileges formal concerns while rooting analysis in proximate aesthetic, economic, technological, and cultural contexts. I am trying to understand how serials work as a mode of popular cinematic art, and to explain why a disreputable form, churned out quickly on low budgets and pitched to children, should be so fascinating.

Despite their repetitive formulas, I find sound serials eminently watchable. They had a good run. Over 200 12-15 part chapter plays were produced between 1930 and 1956 by studios like Columbia, and Universal, small but stable producers like Republic, and tiny houses including Mascot, Regal, Screen Attractions and Wonder Pictures. This was a minor but remarkably sturdy production trend that folded only when its target audience of 8 to 16 year old boys migrated to television and the studio system was finally dismantled. So why are they worth studying?

Anti-Classical or Super Hollywood?

Serials encourage historical and theoretical inquiry into classical Hollywood cinema as it is widely understood. In an essay on plot structure in the contemporary action film, I’ve argued for the relevance of “situational dramaturgy” to action-oriented genres from the 1920s onward. Situational dramaturgy is the name for melodramatic plot construction of 19th century stage spectacles, and early feature films discussed by Lea Jacobs and Ben Brewster in their groundbreaking history of filmmaking in the teens From Theater to Cinema. In this model, screenwriters conceived of their task as combining pre-formed “situations” or crises that characters could move through in exciting ways. The emphasis was not on goal-oriented protagonists struggling to achieve their aims, so much as a conglomeration of spectacular scenes stitched together by coincidence. Links between “Blood and Thunder” stage melodrama and the silent serial have been firmly established by Ben Singer in his important book Melodrama and Modernity, and by the best piece of research I’ve found on the sound serial, Rafael Vela’s PhD dissertation With Parent’s Consent. Clearly, Flash Gordon, Batman and Robin, and The Undersea Kingdom were Blood and Thunder for the junior set. Episode after episode, heroes and innocents were maneuvered into apparently inescapable crises, to be resolved in the next chapter.

This observation begs some questions. For one, how was it that in the heart of the classical Hollywood cinema, room existed for a melodramatic mode that rode against the standards of protagonist driven, causal narrative we associate with the feature film? More to the point, was the serial’s narrative form actually so opposed to the classical norm? Is Blood and Thunder melodrama actually “anti-classical,” or has the case for tightly causal classical plotting been over stated? On the surface it seems wrong to draw a hard line between Hollywood classicism and a long-running production trend like the serial. The serial was, after all, part of the studio system and its mode of production shadowed that of features. If studio feature production was as factory-like, serials were doubly so. The repetition of formula, the division of the output into genres, the employment of specialized talent enabled by a continuity blueprint, are central to serial production. In a sense, the serial was a case of “super-Hollywood” production; tightly controlled and rationalized practices made it possible for studios to pump out a five hour film in about six weeks. The more I watch and think about serials, the more I recognize a complex relationship to classical standards. They can shed light on what we mean by “classicism” by highlighting popular cinema’s melodramatic inheritance. Serials may be worth studying if only for what they can tell us about the nature of more mainstream Hollywood output, and they might modify our assumptions about studio era cinema.

Cash for Curiosity

The sound serial is also a window into the workings of a fundamental cinematic structure and spectator emotion: suspense. The cliffhanger ending was an invariable part of the sound serial formula; each episode was designed to leave the viewer in suspense until next week. As Vela and others have noted, cliffhangers had a commercial imperative; they guaranteed a return audience week after week and built a steady following. One thing that distinguishes the sound serial is the sheer quantity of suspense. More than any other Hollywood product, the sound serial was an intensive laboratory for putting viewers on the edges of their seats. Screenwriters had to wedge suspenseful situations into their episodes at regular intervals. The opening resolved the previous week’s cliffhanger, the midpoint delivered an action set piece (usually a fight or chase) that hinged on suspense, and the final few minutes left the viewer with an unsolvable puzzle. How on earth did Batman survive that fall?  Vela points out that there were basically two ways to resolve any cliffhanger. Either the hero turns out to be surprisingly invulnerable to whatever physical calamity befalls him (as when Captain Marvel or Superman simply walk away from guillotines and train wrecks) or some crucial bit of evidence that explains the means of escape has been left out and will be revealed next week.

This strikes me as a particular kind of cinematic suspense, more like a puzzle left for the viewer to solve than a nail-biting uncertainty about the outcome. The experience is akin to viewing a magic trick. The magician convincingly shows you the impossible, and yet you remain acutely aware of its impossibility and pine for the revelation of the “trick.” The secret, of course, is available, but at a price. The contemporary equivalent to this sort of suspense might be the Youtube videos of young magicians who offer to trade or sell the secret of getting a coin inside a bottle (see here: Curiosity is converted into a commercial transaction. As far as I know, the serial is unique in its heavy reliance on this quite specific structure. This raises larger questions. Why do we, as thinking creatures, find such puzzles so engaging? Is there a cognitive or cultural (or other) basis to the appeal of the trick? Why should we return, over and over, to the same kind of puzzle when we know, more or less, the kind of secret that is being withheld?

The issue of suspense has a historical component as well. The serial episode’s closest progenitor is not the feature film, but the one-reel action melodrama of the 1907 – 1913 period. These films, exemplified by D.W. Griffith’s Biograph shorts, packed nickelodeons by offering twelve to fourteen minute stories built around inescapable crises and races to the rescue (my favorite of these is Griffith’s Unseen Enemy: see here Sound serials lift these very old structures almost unaltered: crosscut last-minute rescue scenes that hinge on the delay and interruption of a “fatal gesture,” Tom Gunning’s term for the trigger of the death trap that ensnares the victim, were the bread and butter of the serial. The longevity of such basic structures, and the fact that they predate the narrative feature film, suggests that serials tap into a fundamental cinematic power. The sound serial may be a sort of aesthetic way station between the origins of popular film narrative and our own action films, which regularly employ the same situations in their third-act climaxes.

Problem and Solutions

By nature, genre production involves filmmakers in game of innovation within constraints. How filmmakers play this game, where they push for distinction and where they cling to convention, can tell us a lot about the nature of popular creative work. Serials were hyper-formulaic. Even across genres (sci fi, western, jungle film, detective, super hero) the format for each episode and for the overall arc was remarkably consistent. All the usual questions of genre-studies (definition, convention, audience appeal) find ample material in the sound serial. From a producer’s perspective, though, the sound serial can throw into relief patterns of artistic development, which Bordwell frames as “problems and solutions.” The serial comes with a rather particular problem for the screenwriter and director: how to create and then resolve an apparently unsolvable crisis for the hero. A virtuosic filmmaker might strive for the delicate balance between a seemingly unsolvable problem and a plausible solution (one that doesn’t reach too far outside the viewer’s range of expectations). It doesn’t seem that the sound serial was home to many virtuosi; I have yet to find anything resembling Hitchcock’s command of expectation and misdirection. As Vela points out, cliffhanger solutions fell into two categories, and completely cheating the ending was par for the course (see here ). Still, whenever intensive work is devoted to a well-defined area of film craft, it yields artistic refinement, elaboration, and experimentation (think of the martial arts sequences of Hong Kong cinema from the 1970s – 1990s).

In sound serials, the problems of setting up and resolving cliffhangers, of wedging suspense sequences in every ten minutes, and simply of varying the formula enough to keep the form fresh, could yield bizarre and ingenious solutions. Gene mixing that brought the Wild West smack up against lost civilizations, ray guns, robots, and musical comedy (as in the delirious Phantom Empire) is a good example. Subtler, perhaps, are the narrational convolutions that screenwriters undertook to keep suspense alive.  Batman and Robin episode 10 takes the standard practice of concealing an important action from the audience. In chapter 11, however, the cliffhanger resolution must backtrack several scenes to reveal the trick. It was not Batman who plunged from the window, but Vicky Vale’s ne’er-do-well brother who has stolen Batman’s costume after the superhero was shocked unconscious by an electrified doorknob. The revelation reorients viewer knowledge about the replayed sequences in a manner approaching a noir flashback. I have yet to find the “master” of sound serial storytelling (and maybe I won’t), but an aesthetic history can sort through the development of craft practices (the problems and solutions) that led some serials to baroque complexity.

Child’s Play

Their intended audience further distinguishes serials from the mainline of Hollywood product. Vela offers a convincing account of the origins of the Saturday matinee in popular early 20th century theories of childhood (the playground movement and the vitalist tradition), reformer concerns about the corrupting atmosphere of movie theaters, and in exhibitor’s desire to sell more adult fares in the evening shows. By the 1930s, film serials became a socially acceptable form of children’s entertainment, despite the fact that they were not regulated under the Hays code. The genre was remarkably well suited to introducing (some would say indoctrinating) America’s youth to commercial culture. Following a serial meant joining a fan community complete with merchandise (toys and costumes) that fostered participation in the fantasy. In borrowing from melodrama, the sound serial effectively manufactured weekly situations that could be rerun in the nation’s playgrounds and back yards. Designed to be continued off screen, serials provided roles and rules for imaginative play.

The relationship between viewer and genre invites speculation on its social function. Serials offered a child’s fantasy of adulthood: the hero may seem timid (Billy Basten or Clark Kent), but this hides a super confident and effective alter ego (Captain Marvel or Superman) for whom the adult world is a playing field free of complex emotion and responsibility. Like the Historical Adventure Films examined by film historian Brian Taves in The Romance of Adventure, serials proffered a code of values involving honesty, forthrightness, justice, and “the American way.” They also could engage in unabashed racist and orientalist stereotyping and remarkably narrow gender roles. From our perspective, the sound serial’s version of adulthood is a troubling fantasy, but also one in line with white American culture of the era. And yet, serials could not afford to limit themselves to children. They played as well to adult action fans in neighborhood and rural theaters. I am keen to understand the dynamics of this appeal, perhaps to an adult nostalgia for child’s play, perhaps to a sort of “innocent” violence and Manichaeism. Why do so many of us, both children and adults, find the serial world worth returning to?

Assorted Pleasures

After a presentation on serials at a recent conference, a colleague commented to me that narrative was but one pleasure offered by the form. He recalled that watching Batman and Robin involved, primarily, looking for Robin’s bald spot in hastily framed high angles. It is a fact that the sound serial has become a cult object, valued for its perceived excesses and camp potential. While serials are by no means “open texts,” they can encourage “perverse” or at least skewed viewing, partly because of their straight-faced absurdities and partly because they are so long and repetitive.  Even a casual viewer is likely to notice that the Phantom Empire and the Undersea Kingdom feature the same robots, or that Gene Autry is referred to by his full name (first and last) by major characters in the first several episodes of Empire, or that the scientific principles behind The Wizard’s cosmic rays in Batman (combining the remote control ray with the anti-remote control ray creates… invisibility) do not approach the meager standards of nonsense. And why does aviator g-man Ace Drummond sing the same song in nearly every episode? Sound serials overreached the limitations of their budgets and production schedules with stock footage and formal shortcuts, which gives them an air of confident inadequacy. Their narratives were prone to lurch to a stop, the better to demonstrate the operation of a high-tech gadget. They also give viewers plenty of time to appreciate their shortcomings. It is tempting to attribute perverse viewing to jaded adults who wish to proclaim their superiority to juvenile entertainment, but I also think the films build in a kind of self-mockery that helps protect them from pomposity. Like the adventure films of Fairbanks of Flynn, the sound serial walked a line between self-awareness and sincerity, a balance that helps them to cross demographic lines.  My aim in analyzing these films is to take them at their word, to engage them on their own level, but this does not mean ignoring the complexities of their address. Ultimately, I suspect the assorted pleasures of the sound serial are important to their continued relevance and, perhaps another area of continuity with contemporary cinema.

Cross/Inter/Trans Media

Though the situational and cliffhanger formulas have a substantial cinematic history, the sound serials were also enmeshed in the contemporary media culture of the 1930s – 1950s. Comic strips, radio shows, and even television shows, pre-sold properties for the youth of the day, served as the primary source for serial material. These media trafficked in the same sort of youth-oriented action melodrama, and serial producers were eager to tap into the commercial communities of sponsored radio series and comics readers. From radio came a new level of merchandising to children and the ambition to bind them to products through the power of narrative. But it is the relationship with comics that most intrigues me. Serials were prescient in adapting detective and super hero comics; a trend that finally came to fruition in the past decade and a half. Unlike radio episodes, which were self-contained, the comic narrative sprawled across long arcs, and were interrupted at suspenseful turning points to help sell daily and weekend papers nationwide. Films have traditionally been more like other films than the sources they adapt, but the comic strikes me as a potentially formative force for serials. I want to study the story-structure of the comic strip in comparison to the sound serial. Perhaps it could shed new light on the serial’s departure from classical norms, and it will certainly provide a new layer of historical perspective on cinema’s interaction with popular media.

Formal Legacies

The era of the sound serial officially ended in 1956 with Columbia’s final entry Blazing the Overland Trail. The genre’s reach and influence, however, can be summed up in two words, Star Wars. When I was nine, the target age for the original serials but thirty years too late, George Lucas fired the opening volley of Hollywood’s commercial assault on my (and every subsequent) generation. Star Wars was the first film that I saw repeatedly in the theater; it swiftly became a ritual that lasted all summer as I followed the film from multiplex to multiplex. Four years later it happened all over again with Raiders of the Lost Ark, a movie of such import that my friends skipped school to catch the opening matinee. The debt of Star Wars and Raiders to the sound serial is widely remarked, and Lucas and Spielberg explain that they were inspired by their own Saturday matinee memories. I will conclude by book by arguing that these two films, and the franchises they spawned, forge a direct link between contemporary action cinema and juvenile blood-and-thunder of the 30s – 50s. Lucas and Spielberg managed to revitalize serial thrills and conform them to a feature format. They brought the fantasy of participation, the merchandising, the community building, the action-melodrama plotting, and the play value of the sound serial to the contemporary context. This project, then, is an occasion to return to my own formative matinees for a detailed discussion of form and narrative. I hope to deepen our view of popular action cinema by highlighting the flexible resilience serial conventions.

I’ll be living with serials for foreseeable future, and as sabbatical rounds the corner next semester these thoughts and questions will surely make themselves at home with me. The deeper I get, the more I appreciate outside perspectives and ideas. So, if you share an interest in the sound serial, do pass along your thoughts.

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