Anyone that has ever cursed at their TV set when a graphic appeared at the end of a program with these words, to be continued... probably never realized that the practice of serial stories began a long time ago. Although it was most likely the French novelist Honoré de Balzac who first began serializing his works in newspapers, it's Charles Dickens who propelled the practice of telling a story one piece at a time when wrote his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, in twenty installments back in 1836. Eventually other writers followed suit. Harriet Beecher Stowes Uncle Toms Cabin and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1880) and Crime and Punishment (1866), as well as countless others were first presented to the public in parts and published in periodicals.
With the advent of silent motion pictures the practice of stories told in parts continued on and eventually became a genre of film know as the cliff hanger.
In 1912 Edison Studios began releasing a series of twelve one reel films called "What Happened to Mary". Each film being a complete entity itself telling the story of Mary Fuller in search of her biological parents. But it was the following year that a series of films were produced by the Selig Polyscope Company called The Adventures Of Kathlyn that the concept of a dangerous cliff hanger ending for each episode was spawned. The chapters of the film were released biweekly and the story was also printed as a newspaper serial in the Chicago Tribune and other newspapers despite the Tribune being in favor of abolishing nickelodeans (the precursors to movie theaters) just five years earlier. The collaboration proved to be a huge hit and the Tribune saw their circulation rise by 10%.
The following year the Pathé Frères company introduced the world to the Perils of Pauline. Pauline has often been remembered as a famous example of a damsel in distress and despite popular associations, Pauline was never tied to railroad tracks in the series, an image that comes instead from contemporaneous films such as the Mack Sennett comedy short "Barney Oldfields Race For Life".
The affordability of making these shorts saw an explosion of production during the silent era, with many studios cashing in on their popularity at the box office. The arrival of sound technology made it costlier to produce serials, so that they were no longer as profitable. Only one serial specialty company, Mascot Pictures transitioned from silent to sound film making. Universal Pictures also kept its serial unit alive through the transition. But the serial genre wasn't quite done yet. In the late 30's through the early 50's The films took on a different form in that they were geared toward a young audience with heroes that were portrayed as crime fighters, adventurers and eventually space explorers.
Saturday matinees at the neighborhood movie house would always screen an action packed adventure prior to the feature film that week. Thrilling escapades from characters like the Lone Ranger, Mandrake the Magician, Dick Tracy, the Green Hornet or Buck Rogers were huge hits with kids coming back week after week to see how their heroes made it out of what seemed to be certain death being inflicted on them by villains like Ming the Merciless, the Wasp, and the Black Widow.
By the mid-1950s, however, episodic television series and the sale of older serials to TV syndicators by all the current and past major sound serial producers, together with the loss of audience attendance at Saturday matinees in general, made serial-making a losing proposition.
Luckily TransistorTV has a treasure trove of some of the best serials ever made stashed in our video vault. Stay tuned to see what happens in the next chapter. Same transistor time, same transistor channel...