Moving pictures

Why did adventure film “serial queens” disappear by the 1920s?

Kathlyn Williams, star of "The Adventures of Kathlyn."

Women were flourishing in all aspects of the American film industry before the onset of World War I, when the movie-making business was in its early days. During the early 1900s and the 1910s, women were often the starts of “serial” or “chapter” films, a format in which the lead character appears over routinely-released installments to provide cohesion to ongoing or episodic plots, according to a piece on the genre by The Atlantic.

We’re familiar with the concept now as it’s used across many mediums but before male-centered “features” took over the film industry in the 1920’s, “serial queens” were the unmatched stars of the screen. Between 1912 and 1920, 60 action serials with female protagonists — who moved in and out of danger and action — were released, making at least 800 episodes that ordinarily ran between 15 and 20 minutes. The Atlantic says these films relied on magazine and newspaper advertisements, therefore catered to women from the onset. Mary Fuller, Grace Cunard, Pearl White and Helen Holmes embodied the active and capable “New Woman” role in their respective works, while other women worked in all levels of serial filmmaking as writers, actors, directors, producers, and theater managers.

From "The Adventures of Kathlyn." (Wikimedia commons)

From “The Adventures of Kathlyn.” (Wikimedia commons)

By the time women won the vote in 1920, the popularity of serials had declined, replaced by longer features, as the United States became the world’s premier creator of popular films. Hollywood was suddenly big business, The Atlantic notes, and became a boys’ club wherein women were pushed to the sidelines, causing a major gender imbalance in the industry. If recent discussions about the need for robust, heroic woman characters speak to American desires for change in what they see on screen and behind the scenes, perhaps another dramatic shift is in order yet again.

Read the full story at The Atlantic.

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