Hanging Off Silent Cliffs --- Part Two
It was easy laughing off silent serials with buffer passing generations supplied. Philip K. Scheuer reviewed Days Of Thrills and Laughter for The Los Angeles Times in 1961 and chortled that they seem as funny, if that's possible, as the old comedies. Here's what shifting context could do to defang perils lots more intense when chapters were all there and emotional investment complete. If serials were so absurd as Scheuer proposes, would adults during the teens and twenties have consumed them so avidly? --- and yes, they surely did, as trade journals gave pride of place to forthcoming chapter dramas, and no one laughed at sheer volume (and profits) these generated. I looked at one called Zudora the other night. Its corps of villainy worshipped a brass ape god (Dun't Esk!) whose personnel problems were resolved in a room with closing walls. I'd aver most instruments of torture and dispatch we know from movies were introduced first in serials, and that thrill merchants since have merely copied them. Had chapter-plays survived better, we'd know far more ways to dispose of expendable characters, or at the least means of doing so more colorfully.
Women weren't just equal in serials ... they dominated. Historians say this reflected struggle in distaff patron lives. Would wing walking over canyons secure them the vote? I'd not say gals were exploited as to costuming. The Pearls, Helens, and Graces offered not a peep beneath gunnysacks they wore. Quicksand was particularly disadvantageous thanks to heavy attire invariably worn, but modesty in that age was valued perhaps over life itself, and did increase stakes already high for serial heroines. One incident in particular caught my breath. The lady ... don't remember who and does it matter? ... wades hip deep in a grotto filled with alligators. None seem bereft of appetite, and there looks to be a score swimming around her. I wondered what sort of money or promise of fame reasoned this woman into such genuine harm's way. Well, who persuaded male counterpart Elmo Lincoln to stand still for a pair of lions leaping upon him from rocks above in a Tarzan serial where such dangers were commonplace? Exciting as their adventures were, I never observed Johnny Weissmuller or Gordon Scott taking on two cats in tandem (means one after t'other). Competition between sexes in serial terms translated to who could easier walk away from vehicles spiraled over cliffsides or falls down mining shafts. No one then seems to have designated a "weaker" sex. Pearl White's resilience was a given, and with her doing all the stuntwork, who'd cry foul over situations she wriggled out of?
Make no mistake. A Pearl White functioned as heroine and even more so as role model, being a lot of people's very favorite star. An adolescent Norma Shearer jumped onto White's running board as the actress auto-toured through Canada. That was in the late teens when titles of her serials bore Pearl's name which had itself become shorthand for breathless thrills. Action got more sophisticated as writer/directors honed the chapter art. Talent on ways up began with serials. W.S. Van Dyke got to being a specialist with them. John Ford started out helping older brother Frank on ones the latter made with screen partner Grace Cunard. Pearl White's serials evolved into romantic actioners with accent on the star's increasing aptitude for comedy. In The Lightning Raider, she cat-burgles a museum and exits down drainpipes (Pearl's always preferred means of egress), then spars with a leading man after seizing his limousine for a getaway. All this plays like screwball comedy minus dialogue, and frankly doesn't need it. Pearl White and kindred alarm modern viewers who think they've seen everything along lines of girl power. Who'd expect a leading lady to bulldog a heavy off his horse and finish the job with her fists? The serial sisterhood regularly withstood hazards of fire and floods. I've looked at a half-dozen stood helpless in burning rooms where you'd think the smoke alone would get killing done. Whoever made it to old age among this bunch must have done so with full complement of aches and pains to remind them of dangerous days before the cameras.
There were guys like Charles Hutchinson known for performing with utter disregard for life and limb as ads claimed, a virtual rag doll thrown against walls for however many chapters engaged him. If you got famous dare devilling elsewhere, serial producers would surely come calling. Escape artist Harry Houdini broke bonds and doffed straightjackets over umpteen segments of The Master Mystery, which I defy anyone to explain in terms of storyline, but who cares when there's Harry with circa 1919 robots dogging his path? Gentleman Jim Corbett headlined a serial, as did Jack Dempsey. I'd guess they boxed villains silly in each, but how can we know with their handiwork gone to dust? It's best not thinking about all the serials you can't see. Consider instead ones that are available on DVD, primarily from Eric Stedman's Serial Squadron, ground zero for modern-day cliffhanging and the place I've gone for most everything my 8mm Blackhawk shelves didn't yield. An ideal start point they offer is called Lost Serial Collection, two discs made up of trailers, excerpts, and surviving chapters from over thirty subjects. This is a real lollapalooza, as are serials offered in fuller form. These include The Jungle Princess and Adventures Of Tarzan, thumpingly scored with jungle themes and sound FX that enhanced both for me. There are more silent chapter-thrillers the Squadron has forthcoming, Trail Of The Octopus and The Hope Diamond Mystery (Boris Karloff again!), plus long-awaited sound rarities Daredevils Of The West and Drums Of Fu Manchu, the latter from original elements (and on Blu-Ray). Looks like months ahead will be rich with cliffhangers on DVD, thanks to The Serial Squadron.