We conduct regular inspections of our nitrate motion picture collections. This week the list included a wonderful 10-part silent serial preserved in 2001 by the Eastman House, titled THE CHINATOWN MYSTERY.
What is a serial film? Basically it is a series of films telling a continuing story where the audience needs to return to the cinema week after week in order to see the entire plot. In order for this to work, producers of these films knew they had to create enough suspense and drama in their plots to keep the public interested. If someone in the audience missed a week, a foreword was usually added to remind the audience of the previous action. In modern terms, think of such television shows as Lost or Flash Forward. Both shows start each episode with a summary of the show plot, and ends with a twist, making the public demand more and more from the creators, and extending from season to season.
But what makes a successful serial? According to In the Nick of Time: Motion Picture Sound Serials by William C. Cline, “The basic ingredients of a good serial-already clearly ordained in the silent form-consisted of a Hero, a Heroine, a Villain, his Henchmen, a Prize, and the Perils. ….Optional additives were to make the Hero or the Villain-or both-a mystery figure whose identity was revealed only in the final episode, to give the Hero an able and compatible Assistant, to place in jeopardy a likable Pawn, and to surround the protagonists with a substantial cast of believable solid characters.”
What makes THE CHINATOWN MYSTERY a good serial is that it has all these characteristics. A strong Hero (played by Joe Bonomo) who finds himself in the center of the action:
A lovely heroine (played by Ruth Hyatt [sp]) whom is vulnerable, but anxious and willing to help our hero:
Our Villain (Francis Ford) who is attempting to make a formula to create diamonds:
And our case of believe side characters to help move the story along:
What will happen next? Will our Hero save the Day? What, or who is the Mysterious Figure in the Chinatown Mystery? I won’t give it away, but I will mention that in its heyday, audiences were definitely in for an on-the-edge-of-your seat ‘to be continued…’ thrill ride. See you next week!
Deborah Stoiber is the Nitrate Vault Manager at The Louis B. Mayer Conservation Center. She graduated from The L. Jeffrey Selznick School in 1998. After graduation, she spent time at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY working on their 16mm collection.