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Film Serial

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A special kind of film that was a mainstay in cinemas from the 1910s to the 1950s.

The basic structure is a film that is presented in consecutive installments in a theatre, with the expectation that the audience would come each week to see the whole story through. As such, it was famous for its fight scenes and its cliffhangers.

The genre first started with such serials as the silent film The Perils of Pauline. Although some big studios like Universal played the field with the Flash Gordon serials, the most famous and renowned producer of serials was Republic Pictures, especially with the director team of Whitney and English, who produced classics like Daredevils of the Red Circle and The Adventures of Captain Marvel (the first Super Hero film).

Eventually, the genre petered out against the competition of television. Furthermore, a common criticism during the genre's waning years was that the focus had shifted from plot and character development to action and stunts, highlighting the importance of the Cliffhanger as a gimmick tool (and also underscoring said gimmick's flaws to boot). But the spirit of the Film Serial lives on whenever a TV show episode cuts to commercial with a cliffhanger — and even more so in the modern era of arc-based plots, or whenever a last-second twist at the end of an episode entices viewers to keep watching. Of those, the first incarnation of Doctor Who (1963-89) is the early example of this programming format with the stories' serial format.

The influence of these serials also led to film series such as Star Wars and Indiana Jones, and deliberately campy TV series like Batman (1966).

See Compilation Movie for the practice of editing a serial down into a single feature film.

See also Two-Fisted Tales, for the print counterpart of the film serial.

Tropes common to this format include:

  • As You Know: Characters would routinely remind one another about the overarching plot in order to keep audiences up to speed, in case they missed a previous instalment or just needed a refresher.
  • B-Movie: Many serials were genre stories such as Westerns, Space Opera, Mad Scientist etc., or were based upon pulp/genre characters (Flash Gordon, Captain Marvel etc.).
  • Camp: You can't take these things too seriously.
  • Car Chase: see also Fight Scene.
  • Cliffhanger: Putting the protagonist, or someone close to him, in immediate, deadly danger.
    • Cliffhanger Copout: It's common for many cliffhangers to show a protagonist failing or outright dying at the conclusion of one chapter, only for the next chapter to begin with the protagonist doing something that they weren't shown to be doing before, which changes their fate.
  • Fedora of Asskicking: Many of the adventure serial heroes wore one, which is why Indiana Jones does.
    • Aside from being standard fashion of the time, the use of hats had a practical purpose — it hid the transition from the actors to the stuntmen in the fights. Notice how the hats rarely come off during fights. In fact, some of them were secured with chinstraps during action scene shooting.
  • Fight Scene: Expect at least one of these in every episode, whether it be a fist fight, gun/sword/exotic weapon fight, or even a Car Chase. Such scenes nearly always led into the Cliffhanger.
  • Find Out Next Time: Depending on the studio. Universal and Republic serials averted this trope, going straight from the cliffhanger to the To Be Continued screen. Columbia serials, however, used this extensively.
  • Neutral Female: Due to the era in which they were made, women rarely occupy a proactive role.
  • Lost Episode: A lot of these serials are lost completely.
  • Previously on…: By necessity, though each studio's approach to this differed.
  • Proto-Superhero: Several well-known examples were adapted to film in this format.
  • Recap Episode: Commonly, one episode (usually close to the end of the story) would be spent summarizing the story up to that point, using Stock Footage. Some serials had 2-3 recap chapters to keep the show on budget.
  • Sharp-Dressed Man: Also a product of the genre's era, a time when men generally wore suits, ties and hats as a matter of course (at least, for works that were contemporary in setting). The Hero, in particular, never seems to get his suit smudged no matter what he goes through — which gets particularly notable when the Hero wears the exact same outfit throughout the story, in order to facilitate Stock Footage.
  • Standalone Episode: Surprisingly, early serials tended to fall into this trope - silent serials from the 1910s/1920s tended to have unrelated episodes with a common storyline thread running through the series.
  • Stock Footage lifted from previous episodes helped stretch the budgets. Exaggerated when serials started lifting footage from other serials.
    • Exaggerated further by the 1950s where entire serials were written and cast around the use of stock footage. New footage in these serials tended to be used to segue to massive amounts of stock footage.
  • To Be Continued: Arguably, the Trope Maker; each episode (except for the last one, of course) encouraged the viewers to return to the theatre next week to view the next chapter in the story.
  • You Can't Thwart Stage One: These things had to go on for twelve or so episodes, you know.
  • Zeerust: Naturally for any such set in the future, like Buck Rogers, or in space, like Flash Gordon.

Notable Film Serials include: