Friday, June 12, 2015

Distressed Damsels and Masked Marauders

The motion-picture serial, routinely dismissed, overlooked, or undervalued by mainstream film historians, finally receives the acclaim it deserves in the meticulously researched book, Distressed Damsels and Masked Marauders, by Ed Hulse.

Drawing on the well-established conventions of pulp fiction and stage melodrama of the blood-and-thunder variety, "chapter plays" thrilled silent era audiences of all ages and, more importantly, made weekly movie-going a habit for millions of Americans. From Helen Holmes to Pearl White, Charles Hutchison and Ben Wilson, the stars of cliffhanger serials gave us so much... and left us wanting more. Produced for an adult audience during the silent era, it will come as no surprise to those who have watched many of the sound serials that cliffhanger chapter plays made a major transformation in the thirties toward a juvenile audience. Columbia Pictures knew the demographic -- why else would they have licensed such radio properties as Jack Armstrong, Hop Harrigan, Batman and Captain Video for their serials? Universal attempted to cash in on Buck Rogers, Smiling Jack and Flash Gordon with their entries -- the latter of which played a major influence on George Lucas and his Stars Wars movies.

Sadly, many of the silent serials are neglected by film buffs who do not share an appreciation for a visual art form that was crafted with a lack of a sound track... but the best of the serials stems from the silent era. That was why Ed's book, many years in the making, was worthy of momentarily dropping present-day projects to dig deep into his book, Distressed Damsels and Masked Marauders. Here, Ed offers a comprehensive history of serials from the halcyon days of The Perils of Pauline (1914) to the advent of talking pictures. His account is illustrated with hundreds of rare stills, posters, lobby cards, advertisements, and even frame blowups from surviving 35mm nitrate prints. The illustrations won't be found on the internet with a google search, adding value and appreciation to this fantastic tome. In debunking old myths and uncovering new information about vintage "cliffhangers," Ed provides an education for anyone who wants to learn all about the history of cliffhanger serials and for those who thought they knew all about them.

Ed explores the budgets and profits of the serials, distribution, billboards and one-sheets, the rise and fall of independent film studios, the celebrity status gained by the screen stars, stunt men and injuries, and much more. Even more fascinating was lack of preservation for many of the cliffhanger serials (UCLA lacked sufficient funds to preserve all of John Hampton's nitrate prints, and in the ensuing years some deteriorated beyond the point of no return) and how that situation has changed in recent decades. Still, much of the damage has been made which is what makes this book all the more important.  

The largest chapter in the book centers on Pathe Exchange, Inc., also known as "The House of Serials," and the factory that produced some of the classics we still observe on the big screen. Ed confessed to me that the book was so large by the time he completed his project that Distressed Damsels and Masked Marauders is the first half. A second half, Handsome Heroes and Vicious Villains, will be published soon. Looking forward to it.

You can check out Ed's blog, with tons of information about cliffhanger serials, along with how to purchase his book and magazine here: