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 (most of which were notoriously poor).
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.
See Featurization for the practice of editing a serial down into a single feature film.
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.
- B-Movie / Exploitation Film: Many serials were genre stories such as Westerns, Space Opera, Mad Scientist etc., or were based upon pulp/genre characters (Flash Gordon, Captain Marvel et al).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 / Badass in a Nice Suit: 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:
- The Perils of Pauline (1914, General Film Co): notable for not featuring chapter-ending Cliffhangers. That aspect of serials came later.
- Fantômas (1913, Gaumont): There was another one made in the United States in 1920, which is now lost.
- Les Vampires (1915, Gaumont)
- Judex (1916, Gaumont)
- The Phantom Empire (Mascot, 1935): Genre-Busting effort combining Western, Musical and Speculative Fiction elements. Also notable as the first theatrical starring role for Gene Autry, the Singing Cowboy.
- (The Amazing Exploits Of) The Clutching Hand (Weiss Productions, 1936): Noteworthy as the last theatrical adaptation of pulp character Craig Kennedy, Science Detective (or Super Detective, as he's referred to herein), and based upon the final novel featuring same.
- Flash Gordon (1936, Universal): starring Buster Crabbe (who also played Buck Rogers).
- Undersea Kingdom (1936, Republic): starring Ray "Crash" Corrigan. A few episodes appeared on Mystery Science Theater 3000.
- The Lone Ranger (1938, Republic): The first of Republic's serials that year.
- The Fighting Devil Dogs (1938, Republic): notable for including the very first costumed villain, The Lightning, who's said to be the main inspiration behind Darth Vader.
- Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939, Republic)
- The Phantom Creeps (1939, Universal): starring Bela Lugosi as a Mad Scientist. Also appeared on MST3K.
- The Green Hornet (1940, Universal)
- The Green Hornet Strikes Again! (1940, Universal — but at the very end of the year, so most episodes aired in 1941)
- Terry and the Pirates (1940, Columbia): Based on the famous comic strip.
- The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941, Republic)
- The Batman (1943, Columbia): the Caped Crusader's first foray into live action. Also credited with creating the Batcave.
- The Phantom (1943, Columbia)
- Jungle Queen (1945, Universal) — Ruth Roman, who played the eponymous jungle queen, later became an A-list movie star.
- The Purple Monster Strikes (1945, Republic) — mostly notable for being the last Republic serial to exceed 13 chapters.
- Lost City of the Jungle (1946, Universal)
- The Mysterious Mr. M (1946, Universal) — 137th and last Universal film serial
- King Of The Rocketmen (1949, Republic): kicked off the Commando Cody franchise, even though "Cody" himself does not appear in this film.
- Flying Disc Man From Mars (1950, Republic): A semi-sequel to The Purple Monster Strikes (although about the only thing they have in common is the Stock Footage); generally considered one of the weakest examples of the genre.
- Captain Video: Master of the Stratosphere (1951, Columbia): Based upon the television series.
- Radar Men from the Moon (1952, Republic) — another one featured on MST3K, this is the second Jet Pack serial and uses lots of Stock Footage from King Of The Rocketmen.
- Zombies Of The Stratosphere (1952, Republic): "starring" Leonard Nimoy! Though technically part of the Commando Cody franchise, note again the absence of the actual character Cody.
- Commando Cody: Sky Marshal Of The Universe (Republic, 1953): Aired on syndicated television and starred Judd Holdren, who was also the lead in Zombies Of The Stratosphere and Captain Video.
- King Of The Carnival (Republic, 1955): The last serial produced by Republic; general consensus is that this one drove the final nail into the format's coffin, due to over-reliance on Stock Footage (primarily from Daredevils Of The Red Circle). Despite the similar title, has no connection to the aforementioned King Of The Rocketmen; Republic just liked using heroes named "King" for the sake of Epunymous Titles (King Of The Mounties, King Of The Texas Rangers, etc.).
- Spoofed and homaged in the comedy film J-Men Forever (1979, Pan Canadian Film Dist.), which uses re-dubbed Republic serials (including Commando Cody, Spy Smasher, Captain Marvel and Captain America) to show various superheroes fighting a plot to conquer the Earth with Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll.
- Another Affectionate Parody was The Adventures of Captain Proton, a holodeck Show Within The Show in Star Trek: Voyager riffing on Flash Gordon and Commando Cody.