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Movie Serials Essay, Research Paper

All but forgotten today, except by nostalgia buffs, movie serials were at one time one of the most popular pure entertainment forms in Hollywood and one of the most reliable for the studios in terms of making money, as well as a unique form of the filmmaker's art. From their beginnings in 1912, to the release of the last of the serials in 1956, serials were also one of the formative entertainment experiences for two generations of Americans, ending with the postwar baby boom. Essentially, the serial — or chapterplay, as it is also called — is a multi-episode film, intended to be shown over a period of months, its plot unfolding each weeks. The first such film ever made and shown was the Edison-produced What Happened To Mary, released in 1912 and serialized simultaneously on screen and in a national women's magazine. Ironically, the film was produced merely as an adjunct to enhance the audience for the identically named magazine series in McClure's Ladies World, and it succeeded beyond anyone's hopes. During 1914, the cliffhanger ending — in which a key dangerous plot element formed the basis for each weekly installment's ending, thus guaranteeing that audiences would return the following week — was debuted in The Adventures of Kathlyn. That same year saw the release of the first serial to achieve major international popularity — and which defined the genre both in terms of its content and name — The Perils of Pauline, starring Pearl White and produced by Pathe. Pearl White became the definitive serial star of the silent era, and the success of that first chapterplay led to the production of dozens of additional such films, not only at Pathe but also at other rival studios. Although Pauline's 20 chapters set the standard for such releases, many ran longer, and The Hazards of Helen was the most ambitious of all, drawing its audience back to theaters for 119 episodes for a year and a half between 1914 and 1917. By the early 1920s, there were upwards of three-dozen serials in production in American studios each year, all fed by audience enthusiasm and the attendant support of theater owners who relished the availability of weekly chapters that would guarantee them a paying clientele, regardless of the feature films they might be running. The American-spawned genre also took root in Europe, most notably in France before World War I and in Germany after the war. These silent serials were generally serious dramas, often spiced with adventure and action sequences but aimed at general audiences, including adults. The coming of sound saw a major change in the serial genre, as many production companies — their facilities and budgets already stretched by the introduction of sound — abandoned chapterplays in favor of feature-film production. The serials that went into production after the introduction of sound — with Universal's The Ace of Scotland Yard (1929) — were aimed primarily at children and intended to be shown on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, rather than with main features as part of a regular schedule. They were often long on action and on leading men, whose primary skill lay in their ability to read lines quickly and convincingly (with the help of good stuntmen) and to fight their way out of a room of evildoers — they were also short on character development, and usually included women only as objects for the hero to devote his attentions to in terms of rescue. The dominant serial producers during the talkie era included Universal, Columbia, and Mascot, which quickly developed effective low-budget production techniques, relying heavily on stock footage, very efficient stunt work, and a corp of the most productive — if not always subtle — directors in the business, among them Joseph Kane (who was later to distinguish himself in "B"-westerns) and B. Reeves "Breezy" Eason, who had served as a second-unit director on the 1927 silent version of Ben Hur. Mascot was merged with two other small studios in the mid-1930s under the auspices of Consolidated Film Laboratories, to form Republic Pictures under the presidency of former advertising executive Herbert J. Yates. Incorporating the best employees of Mascot, Monogram, and the other studios involved, Republic became a powerhouse in the field of low-budget "B"-movie and serial production and within three years, along with Universal, dominated the entire landscape. The economics of serial making during the sound era were relatively simple and very straightforward. A serial running 12, 13, or 15 chapters (only one, Republic's Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island, ever ran a different length, 14 chapters) would open with a first chapter running 25 or 30 minutes that introduced the major characters and the basic challenge to the hero. Subsequent chapters would run 20 minutes (post-World War II serial chapters were usually 15 or 16 minutes) for a total running time of between 250 and 315 minutes, presented once each week. Of this running time, 15 percent would be recapitulation material at the opening of each new chapter, repeating material from the previous chapter, and chapter 10 would routinely be a recapitulation chapter, summarizing the plot from the previous nine, just to make sure that the audience didn't lose track of any important plot elements over the previous two months of viewing. A serial would be shot quickly, over a period of six weeks with another two weeks for retakes, which meant that directors would do upwards of 30 or 40 camera set-ups each day (six or seven is a typical maximum on a feature film) and were dependent of finding actors who could get their lines and action right on a first take — when the formula worked, retakes were very rare. The finished serial would be budgeted at between $90,000 and $140,000 — although Universal's Flash Gordon serials reportedly greatly exceeded this maximum — with another $20,000 budgeted for promotion, publicity, and distribution. Republic had an edge in this regard, since, as part of Consolidated Film Industries, its processing and printing costs were lower than those of its competition (Consolidated did most of the film processing for the smaller studios, including majors like Universal — at one point in its history, it was owed so much by Universal that Consolidated was in a position to take over that organization, as it had previously absorbed Mascot and Monogram). Those 13 chapters were distributed by film exchanges to smaller, mostly second-run, neighborhood theaters throughout the United States, each of which paid $5 for a weekend's run of each chapter. With between 5000 and 10,000 theaters running serials during the 1930's, the potential earnings for a successful serial on first run could be as much as $350,000 or $400,000 on a $120,000 investment, not a fortune but a guaranteed income. The otherwise-unheard-of 14th chapter in Republic's Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island came about, incidentally, purely as a matter of economics when the producers realized that they were over-budget and would not earn enough with a 13-chapter serial. A 14th chapter was created immediately before release, assembled from outtakes, recapitulation sequences, and a day's retakes, and the additional week's revenues (about $25,000) from this "extra" chapter made the difference. It became increasingly common practice during the mid-1930s for studios to license the characters from popular daily comic strips for serial production, and the greatest of these, in terms of big-screen results, was Flash Gordon, Alex Raymond's interplanetary hero, who was brought to the screen by Universal in 1936 in the guise of Olympic Gold Medalist Larry "Buster" Crabbe. A tall, handsome blonde with an engaging personality and limited acting ability, Crabbe nonetheless excelled on screen in the role of Flash Gordon, an earth man thrust into a life-and-death struggle against the evil Emperor Ming the Merciless from the planet Mongo. He dominated the screen in every scene, played the action sequences convincingly, and became an American Siegfried, achieving almost mythic impact in the role. He had a great deal of help from Universal's facilities — although the Flash Gordon serial didn't have a huge budget by feature-film standards, its makers had access to the sets, costumes, miniature spaceship models, stock footage, music, and special effects not only of Universal, devised for large budget films such as The Bride of Frankenstein — but also licensed from such works as the 1929 science fiction/satire Just Imagine. The results were so impressive, that Flash Gordon yielded two sequels, Flash Gordon's Trip To Mars and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, both equally successful. Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe serial may, in fact, be the prettiest and most elegantly conceived chapterplay ever made. And, indeed, the Flash Gordon serials were unique — serials generally played neighborhood theaters on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, but the Flash Gordon chapterplays were shown in large, first-run theaters that normally didn't book serials, and the films were seen by adults as well as children. Republic never produced anything as successful as the Flash Gordon serials but did release a large, impressive body of chapterplays from 1937 onward, most notably the Dick Tracy serials and the dazzling science fiction serial Fighting Devil Dogs (whose mysterious scientist villain, the Lightning, bears a striking resemblance both to Marvel Comics' X-Men heavy Magneto and the Fantastic Four's nemesis Doctor Doom, as well as to Star Wars' Darth Vader). The studio had the best special effects department in Hollywood, run by Howard and Theodore Lydecker, who specialized in dazzling model work and photography. Howard later joined 20th Century-Fox and was one of the people responsible for the superb model work in Sink the Bismarck and Voyage To the Bottom of the Sea, and for Irwin Allen's subsequent television series of the same name, as well as Lost in Space. Additionally, Republic had the services of some of the best stuntmen in the history of pictures, including Yakima Canutt (who was responsible for the chariot race sequence in Ben Hur) and David Sharp, who was also an actor and sometime leading man in serials, most notably Daredevils of the Red Circle. Republic also had the services of two of the greatest serial and action film directors in movie history, William Witney and John English, who often worked as a team on chapterplays — Witney, in particular, had a knack for handling action and fight scenes that was second-to-none, but he could also get convincing performances from his actors that helped to make his serials among the finest ever produced. The two together were responsible for Drums of Fu Manchu and Jungle Girl, both among Republic's finest chapterplays, while Witney on his own directed what may be the best serial in Republic's output, The Perils of Nyoka (now in release on video as Nyoka and the Tigermen) starring Kay Aldridge and Clayton Moore (who later went on to portray the Lone Ranger). Witney also made some very impressive and enjoyable westerns with Roy Rogers, and some superb action, crime, and science-fiction films during the late 1950s, and is today treated by scholars as a would-be rival to such celebrated directors as Raoul Walsh. The other mainstay of the Republic directorial stable was Spencer Gordon Bennet, whose career went back to the days of the silents and made the classic chapterplay Manhunt In the African Jungle. No less a contemporary Hollywood figure than Steven Spielberg has acknowledged his debt to Witney and to Bennet and the Lydeckers and the Republic family in his Indiana Jones movies, whose plotting and structure borrow liberally from the Nyoka and Manhunt serials, among other sources. The serials generally reflected the elements of popular entertainment that most commanded the sense of wonder of the youngest viewers. During the early 1930s, aerial heroes such as Tailspin Tommy were among the most popular, and one of John Wayne's early starring appearances of the decade was in a chapterplay entitled Shadow of the Eagle, in which he played a daredevil stunt pilot trying to catch "The Eagle," a mysterious former World War I pilot who was sabotaging the circus where Wayne worked. Adventures on the ocean floor (Undersea Kingdom) and beneath the surface of the Earth (The Phantom Empire, starring Gene Autry) were also very popular, not only in the 1930s but, in the case of those two titles, for decades afterward. And jungle adventures were a mainstay of serials from the early 1930s onward, with Republic producing several of the best, including Jungle Girl and Manhunt in the African Jungle. Another notable title, Tim Tyler's Luck — based on a then-popular comic strip — was one of the finest action chapterplays ever filmed and featured not only a breathtaking pace and a dazzling array of villains and heroes (the smuggler Spider Webb vs. the Ivory Patrol) but a super-powered armored tank called the Jungle Cruiser. Although not officially in release due to rights problems, Tim Tyler's Luck, like many chapterplays including the Flash Gordon serials, is available from various private distributors that advertise in publications such as The Big Reel and Classic Image. Many of these underground video releases don't match the quality of studio releases — and the Flash Gordon serials have been available only in degraded editions ever since their original nitrate negatives were destroyed in a fire in New York during the early 1970s — but the power and pacing of the films themselves do come through. The serial's heyday faded with the end of World War II and the advent of television. Universal ceased serial production in 1946 as the market declined (the company's output and quality had also deteriorated from the 1930s glory days), but Republic and Columbia hung on, and the latter managed to bring the comic book heroes Batman and Superman to serials, with very mixed results — the Superman serials (now owned by Warner Bros.) are enjoyable, but the two Batman chapterplays are disappointingly slow and clunky. The first major postwar casualty was the western serial, which was completely supplanted by the television western series. As a new rival for childrens' attention, television forced a cut in the budgets of the serials that were made and later became a rival format — Superman endured through two Columbia serials that were very successful, but rather than appear in a third, the next important screen vehicle for comic books' Man of Steel was television, in the guise of George Reeves in a weekly series, after one successful low-budget film release (Superman and the Mole Men). Theaters began closing in ever increasing numbers during the early 1950s, and the economics of serial production declined. By 1955, not even half of the movie houses that had booked serials in the 1930s and 1940s still existed, and while the producers relied increasingly on stock footage and old special effects sequences to keep costs down, it became ever more difficult for chapterplays to earn a profit. Some good work was done in the late 1940s at Republic, most notably with the studio-created character the Rocket Man, the bullet-helmeted, jet-pack-wearing hero known variously by that name, Commando Cody, or Larry Martin in King of the Rocket Men, Zombies of the Stratosphere, and Radar Men From the Moon, made between 1949 and 1952. The direction was no longer as sharp, but the stunt work and special effects were still most impressive (chapter three of Republic's King of the Rocket Men ends with a phenomenal sequence, an aerial chase between the Rocket Man and a runaway plane with the heroine aboard, ending with the hero smashing through the door of the small plane at full speed in mid-flight), and at their best, these serials provided many hours of thrills to a new generation of youngsters. The best of the serial directors had left the field by the end of the 1940s, but the special effects, editing, and acting were all still up to standard (the acting also featured some future television and directorial luminaries; one of Leonard Nimoy's earliest featured roles was as a green-skinned Martian in Zombies of the Stratosphere, and Clayton Moore and George Reeves both appeared in serials before emerging as stars on television). By 1955, even Republic was going into television production, having seen its theatrical outlets dwindle, and the studio itself would cease to exist after 1959 except as a television distributor and later a video distributor. The last serial ever produced, Riding the Overland Trail, was released by Columbia in 1956. Fortunately, the early wave of baby boomers got to see these chapterplays in theaters, and the second wave from 1950 onward saw them on television; local stations were only too happy to license the serials for broadcast to fill out their afternoon children's programming, and by the early 1960s the airwaves were a virtual celebration of the movie serial, with Flash Gordon, Nyoka, and the rest of the chapterplays' pantheon of heroes and heroines performing their feats for a new generation of fans. There were still a few hundred small theaters in the United States willing to book old serials, and by the mid-1960s, with the success of the Batman television series, a theatrical revival took place for Columbia's Batman serials and other chapterplays. The growing interest in vintage films among college students, coupled with the birth of a film-revival circuit, helped keep the serials in distribution and fostered an audience, and with the birth of home video in the early 1980s the chapterplay became well-represented on videocassette. Beginning with releases by Nostalgia Merchant in the early 1980s and the subsequent releases of serials by Warner Bros. and Goodtimes Home Video, as well as many private collector-oriented labels, the serial found a new audience, assisted by the success of the Indiana Jones films. The surviving stars (most notably Kirk Alyn) are regular cherished guests at conventions of fans, and upwards of 50 serials are available on videocassette in the 1990s, with an additional two dozen available on laserdisc. But for most viewers, the serials' most familiar modern manifestation comes in the form of Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark and its sequels, and all of the movie and television variations that followed in their wake. Wherever heroes and heroines battle fanciful, secretive villains in an exotic (preferably period) setting, performing feats of derring-do that logic tells us are impossible, the serials are not far from their makers' minds or hearts.

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