The Silent Film Serial and Soap Opera Connection

In our last post, we talked about how the soap operas are kindred spirits with and have a connection to precode films. That’s not the soap opera’s only connection to classic cinema, though. One more important connection must be made: that to the silent film serials.

Long underappreciated in film history, the silent film serial not only made big business for the movie industry, but created many of the dramatic and soap opera tropes we are all familiar with now. Packed with melodrama, scheming villains and cliffhangers, the line from the serials to the soaps is clear. Even when the genres don’t quite match up, the material under the hood still remains the same.

The first American serial, What Happened to Mary? was even compared to a soap opera by Ed Hulse in the seminal book Distressed Damsels and Masked Marauders. And it does indeed sound just like a soap:

Popular screen ingenue Mary Fuller took the title role of naive country girl Mary Dangerfield, whose greedy uncle (played by Charles Ogle) keeps her from the knowledge that she is an heiress. Upon turning 18, a defiant Mary leaves home and flees to the big city, where she has numerous adventures–and close calls–while making her way in the world. Although the situations in What Happened to Mary? smacked of what would later be called “soap operas,” they gradually shifted emphasis as the series progressed.

This series had more in common with soap operas than just melodrama and a similar type of storyline. It was also the first signs of the audience loyalty that are vital to soap operas. Mary’s character was so popular that it appeared in another soapy series, Who Will Mary Marry?, in which several suitors turned rivals vie for the hand of Mary in marriage. That audiences wanted more and more of Mary Dangerfield was a big deal, and it may be the most important aspect of soap operas. Soaps thrive on the loyalty of the audience, creating characters that the audience comes to know and love like family over time.

The Mary series started this trend. Pearl White, the queen of serials, took it to a different level.

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White had her breakthrough part in serials with the smash success of The Perils of Pauline. While the series was more adventure than anything else, White did establish a strong female character not unlike what one would find in soaps and precodes. There she played a well-to-do woman who is an aspiring author.

What Pearl White did after The Perils of Pauline is one of the strongest examples of audience loyalty to be found outside of soap operas. What followed was a series of three serials that ran so continuously, it seemed more like one long series instead of sequels. White played Elaine Dodge in The Exploits of Elaine, The New Exploits of Elaine and The Romance of Elaine, alongside her lover Craig Kennedy. With audiences so attached to the two main characters, the series just had to keep on going, with plenty of melodrama along the way. By the end of New Exploits, it appears that Kennedy may be dead, but Elaine is determined to find him alive in Romance. It’s no wonder that White became known as the queen of serials. She brought a loyalty and familiarity that is the lifeblood of both serials and soap operas.

And that wasn’t even the longest running of all the serials. The Hazards of Helen far surpassed anything White ever made as far as length, running a grand total of 119 episodes. It’s sometimes not considered a true serial due to usually having standalone episodes, but that audiences became attached to the main character and loved her adventures cannot be denied. The series lasted so long that the main character was even played by two different actresses.

Yes, silent serials even dealt with the soap opera problem of actors leaving parts. The Hazards of Helen change looms large, but a big one appeared in The Romance of Elaine as well. Lionel Barrymore (who also appeared in the previous series), did not last until the end of series as the lead villain. He was replaced by Warner Oland, who went on to become a big name serial villain. Jumping periods of time and rapidly aging, a common joke about soap operas, can even be found in silent serials. Between the first and second episode of Neal of the Navy’s, eighteen years pass.

At its core,  the silent film serial looked to achieve the same goals as the soap opera. They are both contingent on building audience loyalty and love of the characters over a long period of time. Along the way, they also seek to keep the audience coming back through melodrama and cliffhangers that leave them begging for more. And when that is achieved, both serials and soaps are as compelling as entertainment can be.