‘Serial Land is a funny old place:’ March 16-31, 1923

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had some affectionate fun with movie serials:

A season of the black-and-blue drama, otherwise known as serials, seems to be setting in with unusual severity. They are high-browing up some of the serials to be sure, by giving them a shot of history here and there, but in the main the good old stand-by thrillers are still with us. Some folks dote on serials. These are such as love blood with their gore, and just can’t bear a picture that hasn’t at least half a dozen fights and one or two murders in it.

The cartoon they illustrated her article with was meaner than she was, calling them impoverished and old-fashioned

Kingsley remarked that “serial land is a funny old place,” and at the moment most prevalent plot was about the poor old inventor (who “makes Marconi and Edison look like a sick snail”), his beautiful daughter (always motherless), the tall, strong hero (“his sole occupation in life seems to be looking out for the heroine”), and the masked gang (called something like “The Order of the Itching Palm”) that is trying to steal the inventor’s work. She snarked:

 True, just what his invention is, is always rather nebulous. It is spoken of in hushed subtitles as ‘that which would destroy the earth’s life in twenty seconds,’ or is a marvelous machine that can do anything from recording thought to doing the family wash….The gang is always trying to steal the invention, though why, it’s hard to tell. They spend far more money, trouble, time, and effort on the darned thing than it can possible be worth.

The plot she’s describing had a lot in common with The Radio King (1922), a ten-part Universal serial. Here’s Roy Stewart as the master criminal

Naturally, the masked gang had a leader, and

the master crook is the fellow that runs the subterranean hotels with the trapdoors, torture chambers, etc. If we were to believe the serials, our fair country is full of the underground devils, our land is honeycombed with caves full of villains, torture chambers, secret doors, dear little devices to chop off your head, cisterns to drown you in, and other cheerful things for the villain to play with.

Louise Lorraine played the trusting heroine in The Radio King

The heroine is always trusting:

no matter how often she gets kidnapped….She always forgets all about the last time she was kidnapped and nearly drowned in the cellar before the hero came along and found the combination to the plumbing, or that time she was nearly beheaded by the neat little device in the Chinese den. Not that she would have greatly missed her head probably. It never seemed to do her any good. No, she certainly didn’t inherit her pap’s brains.

Gee, that plot has been pretty durable over the years! Kingsley considered continuing her rant, but since it was “time for the fifty-ninth chapter of The Poisoned Bathing-Suit,” she had to leave for the theater–she just couldn’t miss it.

Serial plots that lacked originality were easy to poke fun at; this was a film writer’s evergreen topic for the whole life of their popularity, from the 1910s-1950s. Their sameness was the point: people wanted to see the familiar stories.

Her article was a sign of how the film business had settled down by 1923. Kingsley needed to write a trend piece about something for the Sunday paper, and this was the best she could do. It ran on the front page of the stage and screen section, right beside an interview with director William de Mille, who was mostly complaining about the “sapheads” in the New York offices killing any original ideas (what a perennial!), and an article by editor Edwin Schallert in which he complained about actresses wearing too many riding habits in movies—he thought that few could pull off such “mannish garb.” What a wonderful time it was, when these were the film world’s biggest troubles!

3 thoughts on “‘Serial Land is a funny old place:’ March 16-31, 1923”

    1. I’ve only seen them at Cinecon — they were a fun break between the features. People have put some up on YouTube. For instance, here’s the first episode of one of the most famous ones, The Perils of Pauline:

      Liked by 1 person

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