Friday, March 6, 2020

Handsome Heroes and Vicious Villains

The Avenging Arrow (1921)
The motion-picture serial, routinely dismissed, overlooked, or undervalued by mainstream film historians, finally receives the acclaim it deserves in two meticulously and well-researched books, Distressed Damsels and Masked Marauders, and Handsome Heroes and Vicious Villains by Ed Hulse. Originally meant to be one large book documenting the entire history of cliffhanger serials during the silent movie era, Ed's project took on a life of its own and became the subject of two books. The second, picking up where the first left off, just arrived in my hands this week. I am pleased to say that Handsome Heroes and Vicious Villains is as good as the first book.

Together, Ed Hulse's two books on silent serials make up the one and only reference you will ever need focusing on the pre-1930 cliffhangers.

Personally, I find the silent cliffhanger serials much more adult in appeal, closely mimicking the blood and thunder and yellow peril adventures of the printed page during that time. When sound came into motion-pictures, movie studios went back a decade because microphones (from the initial sound era) were not mobile and therefore the early talkies were not as sophisticated in production. As Lillian Gish once said, "People were willing to see a bad sound film than a good silent film." It can sincerely be said that by the 1950s, most cliffhanger serials were dumbed down for a juvenile audience.

The Hazards of Helen (1914-1917)
What Ed Hulse set out to do was to document every aspect of the silent era of cliffhanger serials from The Perils of Pauline to The Hazards of Helen. Every major studio producing silent serials are covered, from the Arrow Film Corporation to the Weiss Brothers. Jungle pictures, Vitagraph, one-shot oddities and the stars that defined the genre are all included. The second book covers Mascot Pictures and Universal, as they began making the transition from silent to sound. 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 cliffhanger serials originate from the silent era. That was why Ed's two books, many years in the making, is worthy of purchasing and reading. 

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.

The Perils of Pauline (1914)
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.  

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