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Serializing Mass Culture: Popular Film Serials and Serial Structures in the United States, 1910-1940

Sub-Project 9

The film serial constituted one of the most popular cinematic narrative formats in the United States and in Europe between 1910 and the 1940s. It emerged in the context of competing medial forms and gained momentum especially in competition with serial media: Film serials drew on serial novels, the serialized periodical press, on comic strips or radio serials, but they also influenced these serial formats in return. The complex structures of serial cross-reference that inform the film serial challenge established vocabularies of intertextuality or intermediality, as they were not only engendered by competing and converging medial forms and procedures but were tied up much more fundamentally in a mediatized mass culture.

Investigating a range of film serials from various genres (Fantômas, 1913-14; Perils of Pauline, 1914; Exploits of Elaine, 1914; Officer 444, 1926; Tarzan the Tiger, 1929; The Vanishing Legion, 1931; Hurricane Express, 1932; Flash Gordon, 1936/38/40; Dick Tracy, 1937/38/39/41, and others), the subproject considers the structures and practices of filmic seriality (cliffhanger, tableaux, repetition/variation, suspense management, audience address) in their intersections with the figurations and functions of a serialized mass culture (fashion/consumer practices, totalitarian/populist formats of politicization, community-building media ensembles).

Thus, the subproject does not focus solely on the selected serials' narratives but is interested in the expansive momentum of popular seriality itself: the spin-offs in the form of mass-produced extra-textual merchandizing, the multilayered medial interlinkages of various serial formats in film, radio, comics, etc., and the "serial" adjustment of audiences in the intersection of political propaganda and economic streamlining. Situated in the realm of cultural theory, the project is informed methodologically by approaches from film semiotics, narratology, and discourse analysis. Within the Research Unit, the project's foremost function consists in an exploration of the narrative and politico-ideological dimensions of a semantics of the serial, focusing on specific historical constellations and medial configurations.

This subproject explores the historical foundations of popular seriality as it is investigated in the Research Unit at large. It aims at reassessing the filmic material from the vantage point of seriality studies and, additionally, investigating this material's implications for a newly accentuated history of twentieth-century American mass culture. Its engagement with the film serial offers a point of departure for a critical revision of the media ecology from 1910 to 1940 (i.e., the subproject's historical focus). In doing so, the subproject provides the material and references for other subprojects within the Research Unit which investigate the media-historical premises for the following decades. The subproject follows research on processes of media change and media breaks conducted in the Research Unit's first phase.


Director: Prof. Dr. Ruth Mayer, American Studies, Hanover
Research Associate: Ilka Brasch, M.A., American Studies, Hanover