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Serial Films are some of the earliest forms of film during the silent era through to the 1950s, often episodic in form (usually with 12-15 parts) and simplistic in plot, that were shown over a period of weeks or years. The multi-part films consisted of episodes that could be anywhere between fifteen and twenty minutes in length. The segments were presented one chapter at a time in weekly installments over
the course of time. Serials were usually included during the shorts projected in a neighborhood movie theatre, offered before the feature film, B-western, or Saturday afternoon ‘kiddie’ matinee. They were often scheduled along with lots of cartoons, newsreels, other two-reeler, and theatrical trailers/previews.
Serials would generally include attractive heroines, action heroes, and villains (the Scorpion, the Dragon, and the Spider, to name a few) in melodramatic sequences that often ended with a suspenseful (and manipulative) cliffhanger ending – that promised to be continued the next week to bring the ticket-buying audience back for more. The heroes and heroines would courageously fight for justice and honor,
and the diabolical villains with evil devices would struggle against them. Action sequences would predominate with chases, jumps off buildings or trains, terrifying falls, narrow escapes, fist-fights, close calls and hair-raising situations, and other exciting, death-defying stunts, involving runaway trains, fires, sawmills, other natural disasters, and explosions. In all serials, the truth was often exaggerated or stretched in order to keep the hero alive from week to week.
[Serials are distinctly different from film series (films with a recurring set of perfrmers and identical plot routines, such as The Thin Man (1934), the James Bond films, or the Tarzan series), or from sequels (follow-up films that continue the plot with similar characters and events, such as the Planet of the Apes sequels). See this site’s feature on the Greatest Series Franchise Films of All-Time.]
In modern times, Hollywood studios have borrowed the lucrative idea of using cliffhangers and serialized installment plans or multi-part stories for their largely self-contained epics, e.g., The Matrix trilogy, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Star Wars (1977) sequels and prequels, Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park flicks, the Kill Bill volumes, and the Back to the Future trio
. These are not pure serials, but stand-alone, full-length movies with many chapters, volumes, or parts, and exciting serial-like sequences. Many modern-day soap operas and well-known TV series, such as Lost in Space and the soapish Dallas, have used the cliffhanger ending as enticement to tune in again.
Serials in Europe:
There was a parallel tradition of serials both in the United States and in Europe. In Europe, the motion picture serial was a close relative to today’s TV series, with longer, self-contained episodes or segments. France, with pioneering auteur director Louis Feuillade, provided several magnificent chapter plays, including the five-part Fantomas (1913-France), the influential 10-part masterpiece
Les Vampires (1915-France) with Musidora as villainous Irma Vep, the 12-episode Judex (1916-France), and Tih Minh (1918-France). Germany contributed the popular six-episode silent serial Homunculus (1916-Germany). Also, in the 1920s, Fritz Lang
made the following two silent films in two-parts: the crime thriller Dr. Mabuse (1922-23), and Die Nibelungen (1924) (in two parts: Siegfried, and Kriemhilds Rache, aka Kriemhilde’s Revenge)
The Earliest US Serials:
The first American serial was the groundbreaking 12-reel What Happened to Mary? (1912), a production of Thomas A. Edison’s Company, that starred Mary Fuller (the first true serial queen), and was released concurrently with the serial story “What Happened to Mary?” in McClure’s Ladies’ World Magazine. Each film chapter was released simultaneously with the corresponding story in the magazine,
one story per month, beginning July 26th, 1912. The series was followed with the six-episode Who Will Marry Mary? (1913), and with another twelve episode series, The Active Life of Dolly of the Dailies (1914).
The most popular stars of first serials were female, many of whom were western figures or action heroines. Over sixty serial-queen melodramas were released between 1912 and 1920. From 1912 to 1913, Louise Lester portrayed Calamity Anne in a series of comic westerns. The 13-episode action serial The Adventures of Kathlyn (1913), considered by some to be the first true American serial, produced
by Selig, starred blonde actress Kathlyn Williams – its first episode was released on December 29, 1913. Harold MacGrath’s novel The Adventures of Kathlyn was published in early 1914 – it was the first novel based on a movie — with stills from the film, and was concurrently sold in bookstores.
Pearl White as Pauline in Peril:
The most famous star of the silent serials was Pearl White. The silent serial queen was an early star in a lengthy series of films, beginning with the well-known, multi-chaptered, much-celebrated, archetypal play The Perils of Pauline (1914) – originally 20 episodes in length (but many have since been lost), and now existing as a condensed 9-episode version. The daring, athletic and active female star performed some of the riskiest, hair-raising stunts in her films (on the side of a cliff, in a runaway balloon, in a burning house, etc).
Her most famous stunt was reportedly in this serial – in which she was tied to railroad tracks and had to be rescued from a speeding, rapidly-approaching train. The scene was supposedly filmed near New Hope, PA at a place now known as “Pauline’s Trestle.” Unfortunately, a copy of this episode has never been located, and written film plot summaries do not describe the scene. More famously,
a year earlier in 1913, Mabel Normand was tied to train tracks and cried out for rescue in the Keystone comedy Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life (1913), and the scene was also enacted in Mack Sennett’s Teddy at the Throttle (1917).
Following her success in 1914, White was also featured the next year in an immensely popular and successful 3-part series of ‘Elaine’ films:
- the 14-chapter The Exploits of Elaine (1914), battling a madman villain named the “Clutching Hand”
- the 10-episode The New Exploits of Elaine (1915), battling evil Chinese opium dealers – and a new villain named Wu Fang
- the 12-part The Romance of Elaine (1915), battling master criminal Doctor X
Then, the indefatigable star made six more, low-budget serials (containing between 15 and 20 chapters each) over the next four years:
- The Iron Claw (1916)
- Pearl of the Army (1917)
- The Fatal Ring (1917)
- The House of Hate (1918)
- The Lightning Raider (1919)
- The Black Secret (1919)
Pearl White’s final American serial was the 15-chapter Plunder (1923).
Other Serial Queens in the Silent Era:
Another heroine of serials was Grace Cunard (nicknamed “The Serial Queen”), who made her Hollywood debut in 1910, later joined up with actor/director/writer Francis Ford at Universal, and soon became Universal’s top action heroine.
[Francis Ford was the younger brother of famed director John Ford. Ford was an actor before serving an apprenticeship as a director and actor for Thomas Ince in the early 1910s. In 1913, he transferred to Universal.] Together with Ford as her screen partner, they created numerous silent film serials and westerns. Some of their best-known serials included the 15-chapter Western serial Lucille Love, Girl of Mystery (1914) – Universal’s first serial, the 22-episode The Broken Coin (1915), and the 15-episode The Adventures of Peg o’ The Ring (1916).
Another female queen of the serials was Ruth Roland, who appeared in serials such as T
he Red Circle (1915), the 15-episode The Adventures of Ruth (1919), and the 15-episode The Timber Queen (1922). And Universal star Marie Walcamp starred in a series of “spur and saddle” tales in 1919 as the western character Tempest Cody (e.g., Tempest Cody Rides Wild (1919)).
One of the longest running serials was the melodramatic, 119-episode The Hazards of Helen from the Kalem Film Manufacturing Company, which played from 1914 to 1917. In almost half of the installments, the plucky heroine was played
by Helen Holmes, followed by Helen (Rose) Gibson, Elsie McLeod, and briefly by Anna Q. Nilsson. Some of the sub-titles of the series were: In Danger’s Path, The Pay Train, The Leap From the Water Tower, Wild Engine, and The Open Track. The scene of a heroine awaiting rescue while tied to railroad tracks with a runaway train approaching, was derived from this serial.
Serials During the Talkie Era:
By the late 1920s and during the 1930s, more US serials featured male heroes, such as body-building strong man and stunt double Joe Bonomo, Jack Mulhall, Francis Ford, William Desmond, Franklyn Farnum, and Walter Miller. Four studios, including several independent ones, were responsible for producing most of the serials during the sound era: Mascot,
Universal, Columbia, and Republic, while major studios (such as MGM, Fox, Warners, and Paramount) declined to produce sound serials. RKO-Radio’s sole sound serial was The Last Frontier (1932).
Released as a silent film with talking sequences, Mascot Pictures Corporation’s first serial, the 10-episode The King of the Kongo (1929), starring Walter Miller, was a big success. The first all-talkie, synchronized-sound serial was Universal’s
12-chapter western The Indians Are Coming (1930) with Francis Ford. And Tom Tyler starred in the early 10-chapter B-Western serial The Phantom of the West (1931), Mascot’s first all-talking serial.
Jungle and Aviator Adventure Serials:
Jungle and aviator adventure serials were also popular. Famed animal trainer Clyde Beatty encountered the dangers of the jungles of Africa in Republic’s 12-chapter serial The Lost Jungle (1934) and in the 15-episode Darkest Africa (1936). To counter their popularity, Frank (nicknamed ‘Bring ‘Em Back Alive’) Buck starred in Columbia’s 15-part
The Jungle Menace (1937). One of the best jungle serials was the 15-part Jungle Girl (1941), based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel and starring Frances Gifford (in her sole appearance in a serial). A submarine voyage to the underwater world of Atlantis was featured in the 12-chapter fantasy The Undersea Kingdom (1936).
William Desmond appeared in Universal’s 15-chapter aviator serial Tailspin Tommy (1934) – the first serial based on a comic strip. Tom Tyler starred in Univeral’s leading aviation serial The Phantom of the Air (1932). Mascot’s Mystery Squadron (1933) with exciting aerial stunts and fights starred cowboy Bob Steele who was battling a mystery aviator-pirate villain known as
“The Black Ace.” And John King starred as daredevil pilot Ace Drummond in Universal’s 13-chapter Ace Drummond (1936). The thrilling Universal serial The Adventures of Smilin’ Jack (1943) was a 12-chapter tale about daredevil stunt pilot Smilin’ Jack (Tom Brown). Republic’s 12-chapter serial action film Fighting Devil Dogs (1943) featured a villain named the Lightning.
Westerns became the staple subject matter for serials (and many feature-length films) for the first full decade after the coming of sound. Buck Jones, a western star in the 1920s during the silent era, was demoted to low-budget pictures and serials once talkies emerged. He starred in 19 westerns for Columbia from 1931 to 1934, and then in 22 westerns for Universal from 1934 to 1937.
Jones’ best known 15-chapter cliffhanger serials for Universal included:
- The Red Rider (1934), an adaptation of W. C. Tuttle’s novel The Redhead from Sun Dog, with Buck Jones as Sheriff Red Davidson (who lays down his tin star), and Walter Miller as the villain (although Miller had usually been cast as the hero in the silent era)
- The Roaring West (1935), with Buck as Montana Larkin
- The Phantom Rider (1936), with Buck as Buck Grant
Another major western serial star (and star of B-grade westerns during the 30s and 40s) was Johnny Mack Brown who found himself turning to small-scale serials – and to low-budget westerns (for smaller independent studios such as Mascot, Supreme Pictures, and Monogram) after appearing in MGM’s semi-successful, big-budget feature film Billy the Kid (1930) (based on the saga by Walter Noble Burns)
with director King Vidor. He starred in 16 low-budget pictures for Supreme Pictures in the mid-to-late 1930s before going to Universal. Some of his more notable serial films included the 12-chapter serial Fighting with Kit Carson (1933), the 15-chapter Flaming Frontiers (1938), and the 15-chapter The Oregon Trail (1939).
Tom Mix was also one of the great American cowboy super-stars (as producer, actor, and director). Three of his best feature films were The Great K&A Train Robbery (1926), Riders of the Purple Sage (1925), and the talkie My Pal,
The King (1932). Ken Maynard experienced a short career as a western star in the silent era, marked by trick riding on his horse named Tarzan. His action-packed silent westerns included Senor Daredevil (1926), Red Raiders (1927) and Cheyenne (1929). His career faded into the 40s, although he was well-known for his role in In Old Santa Fe (1934).
In the late 30s and early 40s, legendary B-movie cowboy Tim McCoy, was famous for his serials in which he portrayed the ‘Lightning Bill Carson’ character in the late 30s, and a lawman named ‘Trigger Tim’ in the early 40s. He also co-starred
(in second-billing) along with western hero Buck Jones in the early 1940s in the low-budget series of eight feature-length western films known as The Rough Riders, until the series ended with Jones dying in a nightclub fire (at the Cocoanut Grove in Boston in Nov. 1942).
|The Rough Riders|
(8 Films from Monogram Pictures)
|Arizona Bound (1941)||Down Texas Way (1942)|
|The Gunman from Bodie (1941)||Riders of the West (1942)|
|Forbidden Trails (1941)||West of the Law (1942)|
|Below the Border (1942)||Dawn on the Great Divide (1942)|
|Ghost Town Law (1942)|
Republic’s 12-episode serial western adventure The Adventures of Red Ryder (1940) starred Don “Red” Barry as Red Ryder, a cowboy hero derived from the comic-strip and radio, and King of the Royal Mounted (1940) told a tale of Canadian Mounties. King of the Texas Rangers (1941) similarly was an adventure serial about the Texas Rangers.
Monogram Pictures continued with another string of eight B-westerns (from 1943-1944):
- The Trail Blazers, starring Ken Maynard and Hoot Gibson (in Wild Horse Stampede (1943), Law Rides Again (1943), Blazing Guns (1943), Death Valley Rangers (1943), Westward Bound (1944), Arizona Whirlwind (1944),
- Outlaw Trail (1944), and Sonora Stagecoach (1944)) – there were three more unofficial films with Gibson and Bob Steele (who had replaced Maynard): Utah Kid (1944), Marked Trails (1944), and Trigger Law (1944)
Early Tarzan Serials:
The first “Lord of the Jungle” was actor Elmo Lincoln – he started the trend in 1918 during the silent era with Tarzan of the Apes (1918). There were a couple of 1920s Tarzan silent serials: the 15-chapter serial
The Adventures of Tarzan (1921) with Elmo Lincoln, the 15-chapter serial Tarzan the Mighty (1928), and the 15-chapter serial Tarzan the Tiger (1929). Others who played Tarzan before Weissmuller were Gene Pollar, P. Dempsey Tabler, Jim Pierce, and Frank Merrill.
The first Tarzan serial talkie, Tarzan The Fearless (1933) from Principal, starred the 1932 Summer Olympics gold-medal winner Larry “Buster” Crabbe in his first serial. It was released in two forms: (1) as a 12-chapter serial and (2) as a feature-length film. Of the almost 100 Tarzan films about the English nobleman raised by apes in the African jungle, the most memorable and enduring were
the MGM-Johnny Weissmuller/Maureen O’Sullivan feature-length versions of the early 1930s. To bring his own creation to the screen, author Edgar Rice Burroughs formed his own movie company and produced The New Adventures of Tarzan (1935)
(aka Tarzan’s New Adventure). It was issued as both a low-budget serial and as a 75-minute feature that starred Olympic decathlon medalist champion Herman Brix (aka Bruce Bennett). Herman Brix was Edgar Rice Burroughs’ personal choice to play the ape man. It was later re-edited, and reissued as Tarzan and The Green Goddess (1938).
Actors and Real-Life Heroes in Serials:
Soon-to-be-famous actors and prominent real-life heroes were also featured in serials. Bela Lugosi starred as the supernatural-powered mystic/magician Chandu in the 12-chapter The Return of Chandu (1934) and Chandu on the Magic Island (1934) (the feature version of The Return of Chandu, based on chapters 5-12 of the serial). And Lugosi appeared as evil Dr. Zorka in the 12-episode serial The Phantom Creeps (1939).
Early in his film career, John Wayne appeared in many B-movie westerns and adventure/action serials especially after his first feature film, The Big Trail (1930), failed at the box-office. He appeared in the 12-chapter
The Hurricane Express (1932), and the 12-episode Shadow of the Eagle (1932) as a daredevil skywriter for a carnival. Wayne’s last serial was the 12-chapter The Three Musketeers (1933) about the French Foreign Legion.
Cowboy crooner Gene Autry (in his first starring film role) was featured in Mascot’s influential, western/sci-fi 12-episode The Phantom Empire (1935) (aka Radio Ranch). It was credited for inspiring Universal’s Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials.
A 12-episode serial The Galloping Ghost (1931) starred real-life football great Harold ‘Red’ Grange as a college football star. Death-defying magician and illusionist Harry Houdini’s first film was the serial The Master Mystery (1918), and boxer Jack Dempsey (“The Manassa Mauler”) appeared in the 15-part serial Daredevil Jack (1920) from Pathe.