Skip Navigation

Frame by Frame

Posts Tagged ‘Serials’

Radha Vatsal in The Atlantic – Forgotten Female Action Stars

Wednesday, March 30th, 2016

Serial star Ruth Roland in an advertisement for Hands Up! (1918)

Writing in The Atlantic, Radha Vatsal has a fascinating piece on early women heroines. As Vatsal notes, “in the current movie landscape, female action heroes tend to be so few and far between that their mere existence seems like an accomplishment (think: Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, Rey in Star Wars, or the four stars of the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot).

But more than a century ago, before women had even won the right to vote in many countries, actresses headed up some of the U.S’s most popular and successful action movies—even if they performed stunts in skirts that ended only a few inches above their ankles.

During the early years of cinema in the 1900s and 1910s, men starred in action films such as westerns, but women dominated the so-called ’serial’ or ‘chapter’ film genre. These were movies in which the same character appeared over several installments released on a regular basis, with plots that were either ongoing or episodic.

The story lines typically featured female leads getting into danger, getting out of danger, brandishing guns, giving chase in cars, and battling villains. The film scholar Ben Singer estimates that between 1912 and 1920, about 60 action serials with female protagonists were released, totaling around 800 episodes.

What’s most striking about the category, Singer says, is its ‘extraordinary emphasis on female heroism.’ Protagonists exhibited traditionally ‘masculine’ qualities like ‘physical strength and endurance, self-reliance, courage, social authority, and the freedom to explore novel experiences outside the domestic sphere.’ Then, by the early 1920s, those films and their stars, the so-called ’serial queens,’ disappeared.

What happened? The answer may have to do with the early film industry’s short-lived tolerance of greater female involvement at all levels of the filmmaking process—a phenomenon that helps explain why today, even after women have shattered so many cultural barriers, action movies still continue to be dominated by male stars.

To understand what happened in the 1910s, it’s necessary to put the emergence of the serial film into context. During this period, two film formats jostled for dominance: what we’d now call ’shorts’ and ‘features.’ But short films weren’t labeled as ’short’ at the time—they were simply the industry standard, and were usually described by their length (in number of reels).

Features, meanwhile, were the newcomers, with higher production values, more ambitious plots, and greater production costs. Serials were something of a bridge between the two formats. Each episode in a serial was the length of a 15- or 20-minute short film, but over several weeks, a serial could tell a more complicated story.

Serials focused on women action heroes from the start, possibly thanks to the format’s tie-ins with magazines and newspapers, which aimed to draw female readers because they were attractive to advertisers. In 1912, Thomas Edison’s film company teamed up with Ladies’ World magazine to put one of the earliest instances of a serial film, What Happened to Mary, into print.

This example of cross-promotion would continue as other ‘chapter films’ were serialized in newspapers. The Chicago Tribune printed the story of The Adventures of Kathleen (1913) while the film episodes played in theaters. (Incidentally, Kathlyn was the first film serial to have a narrative thread that continued from week to week instead of relying on the same leading character to provide cohesiveness.)

Why do the 2010s lag behind the 1910s in terms of a robust body of films with female action leads? The focus on heroines seems also to correlate with the film industry’s fascination with the ‘New Woman.’ ‘She wore less restrictive clothes,’ the film curator Eileen Bowser notes, ’she was active, she went everywhere she wanted, and she was capable of resolving mysteries.’

The proliferation of women in all areas of the film industry during the 1910s—not just as actors, but as screenwriters, theater managers, gossip columnists, film producers, and directors—reflected the increasing number of women in the American workplace, and also the efforts of the vocal and energetic women’s suffrage movement.”

Fascinating stuff – and not well enough known – read the entire article here.

Godfathers of Comic Book Films

Friday, November 27th, 2015

Before the Marvel and DC Universe, these were the pioneers who created the comic book film.

In this one astonishing shot, taken at a nostalgia convention in 1973, some of the greatest action directors of all time stand with cast members, a cinematographer, and stunt men who helped to create such classic serials as Spy Smasher, Captain America, Superman, Batman and many others – in their original versions as Saturday morning serials in the 1940s and 50s – working for most part for Republic Pictures, the studio that created the modern action film.

From left to right, director William Witney, who helmed numerous serials with his friend and colleague John English, in addition to directing a stack of classic Westerns – and incidentally, he’s Quentin Tarantino’s favorite director; Billy Benedict, a reliable sidekick in numerous action films of the era; Spencer Gordon Bennet, dean of serial directors, with hundreds of films to his credit; and Bud Thackery, sporting a goatee, an ace action cinematographer who later finished up his career at Universal in the 1960s.

Continuing on, stuntman George DeNormand stands in the back; Frank Coghlan Jr., who played the role of Billy Batson, Captain Marvel’s alter-ego in the serial of that name; Kirk Alyn, the original Superman in two serials, both directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet; legendary stuntman “Crazy Duke” Green, whose specialty was running up walls and then launching himself into space during a fight scene; the equally capable stuntman and actor Tom Steele; and stuntman Davey Sharp, whose credits as a stunt double number into the thousands.

Just watching these amazing professionals at work, knocking out three and four hour serials in 30 days on budgets in the $200,000 range, or lower, is an amazing sight – a look into the past of motion pictures, before CGI and motion capture replaced feats of genuine athleticism and skill. None of these people thought twice about working twelve hour days, or longer, six days a week, for decades at a clip, to deliver the thrills that entranced audiences in the middle part of the 20th century.

Let’s not forget them now – they created the comic book film.

Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941)

Sunday, January 20th, 2013

Captain Marvel was the first comic book superhero to hit the screen.

A lot of people probably don’t know that Captain Marvel, originally a comic book character for Fawcett Publications, was the first superhero whose exploits were adapted for the screen, in a Republic Pictures serial from 1941, directed by William Witney (Quentin Tarantino’s favorite director) and John English. With an epic running time of 216 minutes, the serial played out in 12 chapters, spread out over 12 Saturday mornings, when it would run as a continuing feature as part of the Saturday matinee program at movie theaters. Serials in the sound era ended production in 1956, and the genre had been around since the silent era, but among serial aficionados, Republic’s serials have a special place of pride as being the most slickly produced and directed, with superb special effects by Howard and Theodore Lydecker, and non-stop, pulse pounding action.

As Wikipedia notes of Captain Marvel’s genesis and production, the “Adventures of Captain Marvel is a 1941 twelve-chapter film serial directed by John English and William Witney for Republic Pictures, adapted from the popular Captain Marvel comic book character then appearing in Fawcett Comics [. . .] during an archaeological expedition to Siam, the Malcolm Archaelogical Expedition unearths the lost Golden Scorpion, an ancient, multi-lensed statue with a curse attached, which has the power to transmute base metals into gold, but also to destroy those who seek to misuse its power. Billy Batson [Frank Coghlan, Jr.], a young man who has tagged along on the expedition, meets the ancient wizard Shazam, who grants him the power to become Captain Marvel [Tom Tyler] and protect those who may be in danger from the Scorpion’s curse.

The lenses from the Golden Scorpion are divided among five scientists of the Expedition, but a black-hooded villain known as the Scorpion then attempts to acquire all of the lenses and the Scorpion device itself. Several expedition members are killed in the Scorpion’s quest despite Captain Marvel’s continual efforts to thwart him. Deducing that the Scorpion always seems to know what goes on at all the meetings with the scientists, Billy later confides his suspicions to his friends, Betty Wallace [Louise Currie] and Whitey Murphy [William Benedict], that the Scorpion might be one of the archaeological team.

The Scorpion later discovers the connection between Billy and Captain Marvel. After capturing him, the Scorpion interrogates Billy for the secret. Billy transforms into Captain Marvel and reveals the Scorpion to be one of the last surviving scientists, who is then killed by an angry Siamese native. Captain Marvel tosses the scorpion statue into a volcano’s molten lava to prevent it from ever being used for evil. Once it is destroyed, Captain Marvel is instantly transformed back into Billy Batson [. . .]

Adventures of Captain Marvel was budgeted at $135,553, although the final negative cost was actually $145,588 (a $10,035, or 7.4%, overspend) — [still a mere $2,330,151.43 in 2012 dollars]. It was filmed between December 23, 1940 and January 30, 1941 under the working title Captain Marvel. The serial was an outgrowth of Republic’s failed attempt at a serial which would feature National Periodical Publications [today known as DC Comics]’s Superman. When DC refused to grant Republic the rights to the character, Republic approached Fawcett Comics, and struck a deal to bring Captain Marvel to the screen. Captain Marvel was actually more popular the Superman as a comic book character at the time, outselling Superman by a a considerable margin.

Director William Witney was, however, skeptical about trying to film Captain Marvel after the legal problems with Superman, but the serial went ahead on schedule. DC attempted legal action to prevent the filming, citing Republic’s previous attempt at a Superman serial, but was unsuccessful. Adventures of Captain Marvel was a huge success at the box office, and is considered by many to be Republic’s finest chapter play of the 66 serials the company produced. About a decade later, following a legal battle with DC and a declining market, Fawcett ceased publication of all its comic series. In the 1970s, the Captain Marvel family of characters was licensed and revived (and ultimately purchased) by DC Comics.”

The problem with Republic serials for the contemporary viewer, however, is that almost none of them are available in DVD format. When VHS tapes were first introduced, Republic put out most their serials in excellent two-tape transfers, necessitated by the long running time of each production, but when DVDs were phased in, for some reason, the serials never made the jump to the new format. Happily, Adventures of Captain Marvel is the exception to that rule, and is readily available on a legal DVD from Artisan Releasing and Republic Pictures, in a sparkling transfer.

If you’re interested in the history of comic book films, this is indispensable viewing.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

RSS Recent Frame by Frame Videos