A Tale of Two American Silent Serials

We’ve talked a lot about silent film serials on here this year, but we haven’t actually reviewed any so far. Finding silent serials, especially American ones, is no small feat nowadays. Plenty of famous serials exist in incomplete form. At best, those only give a little glimpse of what they were like. Foreign serials, considered the best of all, are more often extant: DVD releases of Fantomas, Les Vampires and House of Mystery are available. 

But what about the American serials? An important part of film history at the time, they deserve a compete and critical look. And so, we will take a look at two American silent serials that do exist in complete form. In some ways, these are the ideal two to look at, as they represent two different eras of serials. One, A Woman in Grey, is sometimes referenced as the last of the adult serials. With elaborate complex mysteries, it’s very much in line with the critically popular serials of the previous years. The other, The Mysterious Airman, represents the shift to more action based serials, something that continued into the sound era. 

A Woman in Grey (1920)

 If you’re looking for a good mystery, A Woman in Grey delivers in spades. It’s a well layered mysterious tale with a lot going on. A man inherits a house of a deceased relative, empty since her murder. A mysterious woman in grey called Ruth Pope (Arline Pretty) takes an interest in the home, while everyone takes an interest in her true identity. Both the murderess and the witness who put her in jail have a mark on their left hand, the hand Pope always keeps covered. Is she the murderer or the long lost witness? There’s also a fortune to be found in the home, one that can only be accessed by combining two codes. Pope has one, and the equally mysterious J. Havilland Hunter (Fred C. Jones) has the other. Frequent battles for the second code ensue.

Within those two major plot points, there’s several additional subplots and developments: romance, jealousy, more mysterious identities, surprising twists. While there are a ton of moving parts, it’s never hard to follow and stays mostly within believable realms. Part of what makes it so easy to swallow is that the mystery is grounded in only a few very real possibilities. From very early on, the audience knows there are only two real possibilities for Ruth Pope’s identity. That amount of information creates a unique type of suspense. There’s just enough info to make very educated guesses, while also being confident that the film won’t pull a dumb twist out of left field. 

That’s not to say the serial doesn’t have its problems. It did not need to be 15 chapters, for one. Cutting a couple out would eliminate some repetitive moments and cut out the film’s only weak subplot. But it still generally moves and works very well.

The entire serial is well directed and looks great, made even more impressive that this was an independent production–the company never even made another film. Filmed on location in Scranton, PA, all of the real location shots add to the film. There’s very few set pieces to be found. Real mansions were used, as were real scenes out of outdoor Scranton.

For a taste of what American serials were like at their peak, you can’t go wrong with A Woman in Grey. It’s got the right smarts and thrills to keep an audience hooked.

The Mysterious Airman (1928)

Unlike the previous serial, The Mysterious Airman is notable for who made it: the Weiss Brothers. From the early 20s and well into the 30s, the Weiss Brothers churned out dozens of serials. Many of these were of the western and jungle variety. And by the 30s especially, the were pretty cheap and not that good. But The Mysterious Airman is none of that. It’s just fun, action packed chapters.

The plot all centers around some airplane Macguffins. An inventor comes up with new technology for one airline company only. This prompts plenty of tension from rival companies, as well as from a masked Pilot X who will shoot planes down if he has to. It’s all very silly, especially when it gets down to the specific unrealistic details. That just means it’s not a high brow deep story, but it is a lot of fun.

The fun really comes in from the action. Each of the ten chapters is all about daring airplane feats, and every episode delivers. The flying scenes look fantastic, surprisingly slick given what must have been a limited budget. Once these action scenes are going on, it doesn’t much matter that the story isn’t about much that important. It’s just an action packed great ride at those points.

At only ten chapters, The Mysterious Airman is the perfect length for such a light, breezy tale. There is still some plot intrigue, as the serial does a good job of building up who Pilot X will be. But mostly, you’ll just be happy to come along for another wacky and wild chapter. While the conventional wisdom of these latter serials is that they’re of lesser intellect quality, The Mysterious Airman is still plenty enjoyable while being action based. The “adult” serials may have ended, but both these serials are great in their own ways.