Before episodic television series, there were film serials at the movie theatre.
These serials were divided into chapters, about 10-20 minutes each, with a new episode each week. There were roughly 12-15 chapters per series, and each one ended in a cliffhanger with an endangered hero/heroine and gleeful villain.
These serials were often geared to children and shown during Saturday matinees, along with cartoons and a feature film or two. It was a shrewd business move, a way to fill theatre seats on an otherwise dead Saturday.
Indiana University Cinema quotes a moviegoer’s reminisces of these matinees: “The theatre was packed, nearly every seat filled with noisy, bratty kids eating sweets and popcorn…with hardly any adult supervision. It was a blast! We were in our element, our world, where we were king!”¹
Serialized films began during the silent era. Genres included westerns, crime thrillers and sci-fi adventures, among others. Perhaps the most famous serial was The Perils of Pauline (1914), which was later retooled by Universal Studios in 1933, starring Evalyn Knapp.
The 1933 version of The Perils of Pauline is a 12-part serial about a Professor (James Durkin) and his daughter, Pauline (Knapp), who begin their adventure in China.
On the day a popular uprising starts, the Professor realizes he must go to a temple – today – to find a disc on which is written a formula for a dangerous gas. The Professor has been searching for this artifact for 20 years, but Today he suddenly knows where to find it.
However! The Professor must be on the lookout for Dr. Bashan (John Davidson), an evil scientist who also wants the disk. Dr. Bashan’s desire is to be – quote – “the Emperor of the Universe!”
See? It’s good to have goals in life.
Dr. Bashan, though, doesn’t like to get his hands or clothes dirty, so his assistant, Fang, gathers intelligence and kills people when necessary. Dr. Bashan also wants Pauline and her father to locate the disk, so he can swoop in and steal it – mwahaha!
Alas! The disk, written in Sanskrit, was broken in two and hidden in different countries. Our heroes must find both halves to get the complete formula. Pauline and her crew, which includes the Professor and a railway engineer named Bob (Craig Reynolds), form a chic search party. They journey from China to Borneo to India and, finally, New York.
Many questions arise: Can Pauline keep their discoveries safe? Can the Professor test the formula before Dr. Bashan steals it? And: Will Bob return to China to finish building his railway?
There are three fascinating aspects to 1933’s The Perils of Pauline.
First, the cinematography: It is stunning. The use of light and shadow is the stuff of big budget flicks.
Second: Filmmakers integrated a truly interesting selection of stock footage, including a busy Chinese city, military aircraft and exotic wildlife, although this footage is oft repeated.
Third: Hollywood’s hubris, and it’s hard to know where to begin. First, there are non-Asian actors playing Dr. Bashan and Fang, which is annoying, to put it mildly. Filmmakers also use footage of African animals when the group is still in southeast Asia. (We had to backtrack to see if we somehow missed the group travelling to Africa, but no.) Then there’s the implication that people in other countries are inferior to Pauline’s stylish crew.
Plus, most episodes end with Pauline in danger, and Bob the Railway Engineer has to rescue her. You name a serial after a gal and she doesn’t get to be the hero? What a ripoff!
Now, we know this is only a serialized movie, and based on the previous descriptions/shenanigans of the target audience, maybe we should cut filmmakers some Slack. But we also think attention to these things would make an enjoyable story even better.
The Perils of Pauline is kind of addictive. We planned to watch a couple of episodes, and we binge-watched the whole thing. If you’re curious to see how film serials were handled, pre-television, you should give it a go.
The Perils of Pauline: starring Evalyn Knapp, Craig Reynolds, James Durkin. Directed by Ray Taylor. Written by Ella O’Neill, Basil Dickey, George Plympton, Jack Foley. Universal Studios, 1933, B&W, 230 mins.