Back in the day, a Saturday matinee was an event. For as little as twenty-five cents patrons did not just pay to see a movie, they were entertained by cartoons, informed about what was going on in the world through news reels and before the main feature started there would be a serial film.
A serial film, or most commonly known as "serials" was another film broken down into fifteen or twenty minute chapters to be shown before the main feature film every week. An average serial would last as long as fifteen weeks before the story was brought to a conclusion. The trick was in order to get the audience to return the next week, each chapter had to end with a cliffhanger which always seemed to ask the question, "Will the Hero save the damsel in distress?" Or "Will the Villain escape the Hero's grasp?" Only by attending the following week's motion picture, would the audience know what happened next in the serial.
The birth of the serial came around the same time as motion pictures. Europe was one of the first, if not the first, country to produce serials with directors such as Fritz Lang, who made serials of various lengths. Meanwhile in America, Thomas Edison produced the first American serial, "What Happened to Mary" (1912). The serial starred Mary Fuller and it was released with a corresponding story in McClure's Ladies World magazine. This lead to a popular trend of females starring in a number of serials as heroines of action.
The popular "The Perils of Pauline" serial starred stunt woman and silent film actress Pearl White. She would perform some of the riskiest stunts performed at that time. Some of them included her being in a burning house or in a runaway balloon. Her most famous stunt being tied to a railroad track and having to be rescued from a rapidly approaching train. It has since been famously referenced throughout pop culture and the place where it was supposedly shot in New Hope, PA is known as "Pauline's Trestle." But a physical copy of the episode has never been found.
After the Silent Era gave way to the Talkies, the serials became even more popular with soon-to-be famous faces getting their own start in serials, most notably John Wayne. After his first feature film "The Big Trail" (1930), "The Duke" John Wayne was featured in a few serials including "The Hurricane Express" (1932) and "Shadow of the Eagle (1932). His last serial before becoming an icon was "The Three Musketeers" (1933) which was about the French Foreign Legion.
The Golden Age of Serials happened between the period of 1935-1945 with the genres of serials expanding to comic strip serials that included Flash Gorden, The Green Hornet, The Lone Ranger, The Shadow and Zorro. In this period we saw some of the other classic serials such as the comedy "Blondie" which ran from 1938-1942 and was based off of the comic strip of the same name. The most famous of the serials during this time was "Dick Tracy" that made a total of 60 serials and became the longest running serial in history.
But unfortunately, it was by the end of the 1940s that the studios gradually stopped producing them because the population was losing interest. The advent of the new technology otherwise known as television, sealed the fate for future serials. Thus 1956 marked the last of the serial films ever to be produced with "Blazing The overland Trail." It was a 15-chapter western that turns into a battle over the frontier between hostile Indians, a gang called the Black Raiders and the Calvary.