Hanging Off Silent Cliffs --- Part One
A woman tied to railroad tracks pretty well sums up what many think movies were before talking rendered such action obsolete. But what of said woman bound to rails with an all-too real locomotive bearing down and apparently past point of being able to stop? This was landscape serials navigated before dialogue rubbed serrated edges off. Think monster movies gave kids nightmares? Those were pink teas compared with mayhem that drove chapter-plays of way yore. They called these cliffhangers because it was real people hanging off genuine cliffs and yes, sometimes they fell (deaths among performers and stunt folk were studiously underreported). A freewheeling teens and twenties hosted them, when anything went and before rules crystallized. Can't squeeze action into twelve chapters? Then go to twenty as Universal often did after cabling exhibs to expect more of a profiting thing. Thrill seeking 40's youth would groove on Spy Smasher, but knicker-clad forebears worshipped Riddle Riders, Flame Fighters, and Wolves of Kultar. These were wildest game and preserves stayed open week round, serials being fully integrated into prime playing time in best venues nationwide. Newspapers from the start (1913) ran print companions for chapters unspooling downtown, screen and page each promoting the other through breathless months of unfoldment. Mark down silent serials (mere handfuls survive complete) as most grievous loss of America's film heritage, with fact so few care making it sting all the worse.
Here I'm going again to lament fact that ones for whom these mattered most have passed beyond final chapters of their own. Who will write today (let alone after) of Allene Ray and Walter Miller with passion Edward Connor brought to The Serial Lovers, his look back at their exploits for August/September 1955's Films In Review? Won't be me, for I'd never heard of the team before reading Connor's heartfelt piece, but then ... I didn't grow up during the twenties like he did ... and those great serials Ed described are mostly gone to decomp reward same as his generation that loved them. For the record, Ray and Miller co-starred in ten chapter-thrillers between 1925 and 1929, being a fun couple dangled off airplanes, traversing lion dens, and generally doing things I'd lots rather watch than what archives these days save off nitrate. Are all the old serials gone? Well, maybe not if you dig. Robert Youngson did for Days Of Thrills and Laughter and salted close calls into his 1961 porridge that surely put blood back racing among boys now men too long deprived of a proper action fix. Forgotten (but not by them) Walter Miller was glimpsed there in frenzied pursuit of pre-being somebody Boris Karloff as the two engage fisticuffs over a lion pit. What was it between voiceless serial heroes and lions? Hanged if it doesn't seem almost sexual. Never mind that Miller goes directly from here to encounter with a giant lizard (no explanation given or required). All this and near-boyish Karloff too. Just when are we going to get our preservation priorities straight?
Youngson made his gesture for mine and several generations that had missed serials at their peak, but he'd be among last who'd bother. There was Kalton C. Lahue and a book he called Continued Next Week that came along in 1964. It remains standard text on a topic scarcely revisited since. Pretty discouraging to venture down research tunnels with so little surviving film to light the way. Lahue's access was limited as our own, having missed the glorious era in question, but he was assisted by fans still conversant and even serial queens Helen Gibson and Grace Cunard, among other principals who'd been there. A forward to Continued Next Week was penned by Blackhawk Films chief Kent D. Eastin, a fan turned rescuer who probably did more on cliffhanging's behalf than anyone before or since. Eastin described serial-going delights from half a century out, sure enough evidence of impact these had when new. Lamenting still the fact he'd missed final installments of Hands Up back in 1918 (because of the flu epidemic!), Eastin undertook a mid-life mission of putting chapterplays back in circulation through Blackhawk. You'd have to call his a labor of love, for how much profit could one realize selling 8 and 16mm prints of woefully incomplete The Lure Of The Circus, a WWI-period relic printed off odd (and mildewed) 35mm reels? I came across a print (on Standard 8) for a ten spot at Cinefest from a dealer not altogether sure of what it was (he and me both). Not unlike other Blackhawk subjects, this one spent miles of footage summarizing sections gone, the plot of those original eighteen chapters so labyrinthine as to defeat closest observance. Star Eddie Polo was, like so many others, a big noise silenced by flames his output was consigned to, and The Lure Of The Circus made no more sense than any subject of which less than twenty percent remains, but credit Eastin for making available that portion that does. Blackhawk released a fair number of serials through the sixties and seventies, with probably everything Eastin laid hands on ending up in his catalogue, a sentimental journey for which we're forever in this distributor's debt.
The best silent serials are exotic and often incoherent celebrations of modern life, close in ways to what patrons were experiencing in a rapidly changing culture, but inside out enough to keep them always guessing. Chapter-thrillers doted on planes, trains, and automobiles. These were exciting, if unpredictable, modes of travel for viewers many of whom were yet to sit aboard such conveyances, and in some cases, never would. Choo-Choos are everywhere in serials. Helen Holmes had a thing for them like male counterparts with beloved lions. Locomotives billow up like smoke-breathing dragons and I'm guessing an early 20th century public was at least somewhat wary of them (I am just from watching). Women (not stunt guys dressed as such) are forever doing transfers from atop boxcars to planes careening overhead, or attempting to board from speeding autos alongside. No sooner would serial folk embark upon trains than they'd want to get off ... and fast. Filming chapters in the east saw snow decoratively aground for much of the action, plus backdrops pleasingly drab and suggestive of fact these dreads could be visited anywhere and upon any of us. Occult elements were rife in serials, the dead frequently revived and pagan sites of worship dotting neighborhoods otherwise unpresupposing. Storylines were complicated and surprisingly adult. Scenarios got written barely ahead of chapters to be filmed, anything being possible as sleep-deprived creative brains raced against distribution clocks. Francis Ford and Grace Cunard plunged through serials wearing all hats needed to get done in time for Universal shipment. Where was chance for formulas to take root? Of silent serials I've looked at, no two are alike. They all play out of left field and are not to be confused with movies abiding by convention. If just half of them survived, we'd see a lot of film history necessarily rewritten.
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