Monday, April 20, 2009

The Serial Squadron

The technological wonders of the Web continue to foster a wide array of fascinating and important new social networks. Communication concepts once considered sci-fi are now common place on our home computers.

Comprehensive histories on most any topic, once locked away in private collections or someone’s brain, today are being collaborated into virtual online repositories of instantly accessible knowledge. This is a stunning and welcome new reality for those who cherish classic movies.

The Serial Squadron, aka The Academy of Cliffhanger Arts & Sciences, has been evolving online since 1998 and is dedicated to the preservation and perpetuation of classic movie serials. Not just the sound cliffhangers, mind you, but every single serial ever made that still exists or can be rediscovered.

This compelling website is a growing galaxy in the cliffhanger universe buzzing with interactivity. Admission is free and upon joining you are invited to assume an alter ego like Doctor Daka, Pa Stark, Barcroft, the Black Tiger, Brick Bradford or 39013. As Zorro the Fox recently welcomed a new member: “I hope you join the rest of us in having fun sharing our love of all things serial.” This includes online forums and chat rooms, restored serials on DVD, newly reconstructed lost serials, trailers, YouTube chapters and clips, books, radio serials on CD, brand new serials created by fans, and on and on.

The Serial Squadron was designed and continues to be maintained by Eric Stedman -- better known on the Squadron forum and chat boards by his alter ego, Dr. Grood. Eric took time out from preparing for SERIALFEST 2009, the annual Serial Squadron film festival devoted entirely to classic cliffhangers, to answer a few questions.

How did you become interested in serials?

My first exposure was in 8mm silent home movie form. Serials were run frequently by my father as entertainment for the gang of kids in our neighborhood and I often played piano or created recordings to accompany them. Funny, I'm still doing pretty much the same thing today! Zorro's Fighting Legion and Perils of Nyoka episodes were also run once a week on a local Philadelphia UHF station when I was about 10 years old and we watched them all.

I filmed an original one-reel serial spoof called THE PERILS OF PAUL on Standard 8 when I was in 6th grade which featured a villain in cape and top hat throwing knives at the unsuspecting, oblivious hero (played by my younger brother) whose fortune he wanted to claim, and trying to poison him with water colored green with food coloring and baking soda and vinegar in it so it would froth and foam. We could not get any girls to participate in the film (there were few in the neighborhood) so my friend Jonathan Struble from down the street appears in a dress and wig for one scene (LOL). My first exposure to serials made me think of them as fun onscreen entertainment for groups of family members or friends -- nobody ever watched them alone in our house -- and I still see their highest and best use for similar purposes today.

How and when did the Squadron originate?

My father Raymond William Stedman, author of THE SERIALS, SUSPENSE AND DRAMA BY INSTALLMENT, published in 1970, coined the name of the website which had originally been planned as something I would maintain to advertise printed material related to serials we had developed together and which was intended to be a central meeting place for fans to discuss cliffhangers.

There was no such thing in existence in 1998 and we remain the hub of online cliffhanger-fan activity today. Whether they love us or slam us, everyone interested in cliffhangers reads the Squadron forums and pays attention to what we are up to.

The website-club developed into a real-life club with the SERIALFEST all-cliffhanger film festival in 2001 and expanded into publishing DVDs, including the first published edition of Zorro's Fighting Legion in 2002, which was actually one of the first serials ever distributed on DVD.

What highlights from past SerialFests are among your fondest memories?

Two, without a doubt: 1) Showing Daredevils Of The West last year, first time in a theatre since the 1940s to a galvanized, awed crowd who knew they were participating in a once-in-a-lifetime experience brought to us courtesy of the knowledgeable Jim D'Arc of the BYU film archive, and 2) Watching a 35mm original of Nyoka And The Tigermen while sitting next to the sun goddess herself, Adrian Booth, in the same theatre, and listening to her comment about the actors as if it were the day after the film was shot. (By the way, she says the original colors of Vultura's skirt and cape were purple and green, respectively, with gold trim and turban)

(Cast of the 2002 serialFest Stunt show. Eric Stedman as Rocketman on the far right)

Tell us about The Serial Squadron’s restoration work.

We reconstructed the entire 15 episode Lone Ranger Rides Again serial from the subtitled Spanish print which had almost no opening or closing material, and the cliffhangers were all cut together. We restored every sound effect and all the music cues and subtitling for King of the Mounties. Another project was reassembling Beatrice Fairfax from negative footage all stored on reels out of order, as prepared for lab color-tinting. We are still working on the greatest serial puzzle which has ever come my way, The Masked Rider, approximately 1/3 of the pieces of which were either deliberately cut out, lost, or had decomposed. These things are worth preserving and putting back into approximations of their original form. They deserve to be presented in a way they can be enjoyed again, possibly by someone who's never seen a serial at all.

Do you get much help in your serial restorations from the Hollywood studios?

Chapter plays are at the bottom of the barrel of Hollywood's "preserve and restore" list. Few people even know that anything besides Flash Gordon and perhaps The Perils of Pauline ever existed. Although high-profile items such as Houdini's The Master Mystery have been given some attention, very little regard, even by the studios that made them, is paid to saving original cliffhanger serials and making them available to the public. More than historical or "nostalgia" items, serials are fun films that can still be enjoyed with the family as well as "collected" by fans. There are plenty of publishers out there now releasing serials on DVD from wherever they can find them, but few would have attempted some of the difficult jobs we've taken on.

Which serials from the silent and sound eras would you recommend for introducing someone to the serial genre?

Beatrice Fairfax or Perils of Nyoka for the ladies (It's a pity most of Pearl White and Ruth Roland's serials have disappeared -- those ladies did things in those films that haven't been done since even by modern actresses). The Masked Rider, Gang Busters, The Spider's Web and maybe a simple Western like The Rustlers Of Red Dog or Buck Jones' The Red Rider for the adult guys.

Flash Gordon, Zorro’s Fighting Legion, The Phantom Empire, and maybe Batman also for the kids because people would be familiar with the character and the old serial version will still be enjoyable long after the current mean-spirited Batman movies are forgotten. I saw bits of Batman as a kid and knew we had been at war with Japan when it was filmed; its non-PC nature did not pollute my sensibilities.

Captain Marvel's unprecedented lapse of judgment with his machine gun shooting spree in Chapter 1 of The Adventures Of Captain Marvel did, however, shock me and, despite the great tomb-discovery buildup scene with Shazam and the golden scorpion etc., turn me sour to the character. He really jumps the shark at that point, though he cleans up his behavior a bit later on. Even kids know that in war you don't shoot people in the back while they're running away. And there's no war on in that serial! So when I was little I did not take to Captain Marvel because he fought dirty! Luckily, there are better role models out there to be found in other serials, such as Zorro, who in Zorro’s Fighting Legion fought FOR the rights of the local natives -- in that case, the Yaqui Indians -- not against them.

Are any superheroes or henchmen among the Serial Squadron staff?

Prince Barin does a very efficient job shipping books and DVDs and also helps seek out original film prints for transfer. David "Dr. Daka" Sorochty often assists with research. Many others such as Packard enthusiast Ken "Six Figures" Chapman of Missouri and longtime serial collector Don "Red Racer" Michals of Indiana sometimes contribute stills & memorabilia from their collections. Serial trivia expert and host of our annual Serial Jeopardy competition Marc "Ace Drummond" Provost and author Len "Dr. Zorka" Kohl, among others, have contributed commentary to various DVDs. Terry Harbin, the unofficial historian of Ithaca, NY, where many very early serials were filmed, contributes invaluable scans of historical memorabilia and commentary for use in the Beatrice Fairfax series. Tom McGeeney, grandson of Patrick S. McGeeney, who ran Shamrock Motion Pictures in San Antonio, where The Masked Rider was originally filmed, has contributed immensely to background on that release. Other talents involved include stuntman/trainer Rick Deacon, lead-actress Allyson Malandra, actress/voice artist Brittany Kirkpatrick, actor and pirate re-enactor Matt Imparato, Stunt actor/fighter Colin Gordon, actor/TV entrepreneur Brian Albert (that's Brian in the photo above re-enacting a mad scientist), and many other local pro and non-pro actors and technical folks who help with re-creations and new productions.

Do you have a favorite among the Serial Squadron video releases?

I am partial to the silents and those serials which were the innovators, be they crude or polished. I am more likely to take on the job of restoring a damaged serial that exists only in partial condition which I think has historical value than something which is less unique just because a print might be found in "mint condition." In fact, I might even put that print aside because it's in less danger of being lost to decomposition than many others.

Beatrice Fairfax is a great series and spawned many "girl reporter" serials, The Masked Rider is an eye-popping original and undoubtedly influenced The Mark of Zorro which appeared the next year. King of the Mounties is a masterpiece of smooth shooting and editing, The Phantom Empire operates in a unique universe of its own, and there's nothing else like it. I also like The Voice From the Sky which, though not much is left of it and it doesn't always operate entirely logically, is still engaging and fun. The Adventures of Tarzan also continues to amaze me with its almost constant scenes of numerous lions and other animals interacting with the performers under conditions where no safety precautions were taken at all. The serials that interest me the most are the ones that started something, that included "firsts" or amazing "real" elements such as stunts performed without any camera tricks whatsoever, or the ones that are like no other.

What upcoming projects are you excited about?

I really like putting together the issues of the new SerialFest DVD Magazine, which allows serials to be enjoyed in installments as they were intended to be with the suspense leading up to the next thrilling chapter.

This summer we plan to film some episodes of the forgotten 1916 serial The Mysteries of Myra. This virtually lost serial was extremely influential because it brought almost everything related to the occult to the screen all at once. The plan is to approach the original script as if sound and color film had never been invented and silent films were still being shot, and see what comes of it. It will be a genuine "moving picture" without words, which I believe will still be capable of holding audience attention, and not only because the new leading lady is a genuinely striking beauty.

Some things which have been lost can and should be revived and this series -- an innovative 1916 cross between The X-Files and The Perils Of Pauline -- is one of them. The original serial was shot in Ithaca, New York, and we will be traveling there to shoot new scenes at some of the still-existing original locations.

Can you sum up the goals of Serial Squadron?

Give me your splicy, your incomplete, your tired, your poor 35 or 16mm prints and we will do what we can to bring them back to health and back into the "now" for new audiences of all ages. Among our goals is to provide reviews and commentary on all serials ever made in conflict-and-spam-free forums; to encourage new serial-makers and performers, and to produce new and worthwhile original Serial Squadron projects designed to introduce future generations to the world of classic cliffhangers.

Zorro's Fighting Legion was produced three decades before I first experienced it, but it was new to me. It'd be nice to think 10 year old kids in 2009 might be able to experience it as something new to them in the same way today.

SERIALFEST 2009 - the world's only all-cliffhanger film festival will be held at the Sheraton Bucks County in Langhorne PA, Thu-Fri-Sat-Sun May 14, 15, 16, 17, 2009. Film showings will include Drums Of Fu Manchu - The Secret Code - The Return Of Chandu - The Devil Horse - Isle Of Sunken Gold - Trail Of The Octopus - Beatrice Fairfax and much more. Plus a live presentation of the final chapter of The Mystery Mind, Valhalla’s Pirates visiting and sword-fighting in person, Serial Jeopardy, panel discussions, and the live stage melodrama THE BLACK CANYON with special guests Brittany Kirkpatrick and Tom McGeeney. If possible -- Attend -- and remember that nothing is impossible in the world of serials. No matter how hopeless, good will always triumph!

Here is a brief sneak peek at what’s in store for you in the third edition of The Serial Squadron’s SerialFest DVD Magazine. It’s an excerpt from The Serial Squadron’s restoration-in-progress of the first talking serial: The Voice from the Sky (1930)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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