Unlike series, serials are marked by continuous story lines. They emerged in the United States and France in the early 1910s, nearly always in melodramatic adventure mode. Prompted by the success of series films, and in the United States by the practice of showing one or two reels of multireel films on separate days, serial films drew as well on traditions of serialized storytelling established in the early nineteenth century and perpetuated in the early twentieth by mass circulation newspapers, journals, and magazines. The links between them became clear when episodes of What Happened to Mary? , often cited as the first US film serial, were published in prose form in McClure's Ladies World in 1912, and when Fantômas , an adaptation of a series of crime novels, was released in France in 1913 and 1914. Most of the episodes of What Happened to Mary? and Fantômas were in fact self-contained. The first true US serial, a form in which each episode ended in a cliffhanger, was The Adventures of Kathlyn . It, too, was serialized in prose form, as were Dollie of the Dailies (1914), The Million Dollar Mystery (1914), and others.
Between 1907 and 1925 Louis Feuillade directed over eight hundred films in almost every contemporary genre in France, but he is now best remembered as the producer, director, and writer of serials. His career in the cinema began when he was hired as a screenwriter by Gaumont in 1905, becoming Head of Production two years later. In 1910 he began making films in series. Fantômas , his first serial, went into production in 1913.
Based on a series of novels by Marcel Allain and Pierre Silvestre, Fantômas (1913–1914) details the exploits of an arch-criminal and master of disguise and the efforts of a detective and a journalist to catch him. Set and filmed in contemporary Paris, it involves multiple acts of villainy and numerous sequences of pursuit, entrapment, and escape. Building on these elements, Feuillade's next serial, Les Vampires (1915–1916), centers on a gang of arch-criminals. Putting even more emphasis on disguise and multiple identity, Feuillade stages the gang's exploits, entrances, and escapes in such a way as to suggest almost uncanny or magical powers. The film's most striking character, Irma Vep (Musidora), is a true femme fatale, a figure of fear and fascination alike.
Although championed by the members of the French avant-garde, both Les Vampires and Fantômas were vilified by those who wished to elevate the cultural status of film in France. As a result, Feuillade gave his next serial, Judex (1917), an uplifting moral tone. Musidora was again cast as the villain. But the eponymous detective is the film's central character, his signature black cape the equivalent of the costumes worn by the criminals in Feuillade's earlier serials. Other serials followed, but they have rarely been studied in detail. However, historians of film style have shown renewed interest in Feuillade.
For many years Feuillade was considered a director whose use of deep staging and single-shot tableaux rendered him a conservative, someone who resisted the tendency toward analytical editing evident in some of his contemporaries. Later film historians, however, have seen his work as a variant on a distinct European style, its subtleties lying in the choreography of action and spectatorial attention across the duration of shots and scenes. From this perspective, Feuillade's style, one built on continual transformations in the flow of appearance, complements his fascination with protean identity and with the potentially unending structure of serial forms.
Fantômas (1913–1914), Les Vampires (1915–1916), Judex (1917)
Abel, Richard. French Cinema: The First Wave, 1915–1929 . Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.
Bordwell, David. " La Nouvelle Mission de Feuillade ; or, What Was Mise-en-Scène?" The Velvet Light Trap , no. 37 (Spring 1996): 10–29.
Callahan, Vicki. Zones of Anxiety: Movement, Musidora, and the Crime Serials of Louis Feuillade . Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2005.
The centering of serials on heroines was a distinct US phenomenon, launching Kathlyn Williams, Helen Holmes, Grace Cunard, Ruth Roland, Pearl White, and other "serial queens" to stardom. However, although serials were produced in ever-greater numbers by the end of the 1910s, the principal attraction in cinemas was the feature film. Hence serials were increasingly
produced as low-budget specialties by second-string studios like Universal, Vitagraph, Pathé, and Arrow, and focused more and more on male rather than female protagonists. With the establishment of the studio system, the coming of sound, the advent of the B film, and then the economic difficulties of the Great Depression, serials remained the province of "Poverty Row" specialists like Republic and Mascot (the term "Poverty Row" refers to the section of Hollywood around Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street in which the offices of a number of specialists in low-budget productions were located), and minor majors like Universal and Columbia. Designed principally for children attending matinees on Saturday mornings, serials in the 1930s and 1940s often borrowed characters and story lines from comic strips and comic books (the Green Hornet, Dick Tracy, and Captain Marvel) and sometimes mixed genres ( The Phantom Empire , 1935) in order to augment their exotic appeal. Westerns, mysteries, jungle stories, science-fiction stories, aviation stories, and swashbucklers were otherwise the principal types. Serials like Flash Gordon (1936) were so popular that two sequels, Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938) and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940), were produced in serial form and edited feature-length versions made of all three.
Serial production continued apace during World War II, often featuring Axis powers and agents as villains, but began to slow down during the period of industry recession and audience decline in the late 1940s. By the early 1950s Columbia and Republic were the only studios making serials, and as serials old and new became a television staple, production for the cinema in the United States ceased altogether after the release of Perils of the Wilderness and Blazing the Overland Trail in 1956.