The serial film, also known as cliffhangers or chapter plays, were one of the earliest forms of motion pictures. They were shown before the main feature at movie houses, broken into usually 12 or 15 segments, with a new episode every week. The mostly ran about 20-30 minutes, and always had some sort event at the end of each episode that left you "hanging on the cliff," and waiting until next week to see how the protaganists escaped whatever diabolical problem had been lain in front of them.
The damsel-in-distress is one of the most important plot devices in the serial film, as she waits for the hero to swoop in and save her from harm. This was the primary theme of The Perils of Pauline, as well as many others.
The popularity of the serial really reached its peak during the 1930's and 40's .However, the advent of television, and the friendliness in which the serial's format lended itself to the new medium, began to spell the end of the serial. and by 1956 the format was all but dead.
There have been recent attempts to ressurect the genre, but all have pretty much failed to bring it back from the dead. They do remain very popular amongst DID enthusiasts for the purity of its damsel caricature, simplicity of the story, and of course, nostalgia.
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