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Serial Terms



* indicates New Definition


Terms & Cliches from of Movie Serials

MOVIE SERIAL, FILM SERIAL, OR CHAPTER PLAY was a was a motion picture broken into a number of segments or parts and shown in movie theaters, weekly or bi-weekly, in conjunction with a feature film.

* A FEATURE film, FEATURE-LENGTH film, FULL-LENGTH film or just plain FEATURE is a film with a running time of at least 40 minutes according the American Film Institute. The Screen Actors Guild definition sets the minimum length at 80 minutes. Features ususually tell the complete story unlike serials where the story is told chapter by chapter until it is complete.

A CLIFFHANGER was a plot device that left the hero or heroine in a perilous situation with no chance of escape at the end of the film. The audience had no choice but to return the following week to discover the outcome. Common endings found the characters: 
         (1). Hanging over a cliff, usually as the villain gloated above and waited for them to plummet
                thousands of feet to their deaths.

         (2). Trapped in a burning building 
         (3). Being trampled by horses,
         (4). Knocked unconscious in a car as it goes over a cliff,
         (5). Crashing in an airplane, and
         (6). Watching as the burning fuse of a nearby bundle of dynamite sparked and sputtered its way 
                towards the deadly explosive 


Besides the hero or heroine, some terms are used to define villains and supporting players:

  • The SADDLE PAL or SIDEKICK was the helper or assistant of the hero/heroine. That person was often a bumbling comic or a more serious, steady assistant.
  • The BRAINS-HEAVY was the man -- or, on occasion, woman -- who issued the orders to his henchmen. He often wears a suit, and pretends to be an upright, lawful member of the community. He usually had little to do until the last chapter except talk, snarl, or grimace.
  • The HENCHMEN were those followers who made up the brains-heavy's gang. They followed and died with unconditional loyalty.
  • The ACTION-HEAVY is the assistant or second-in-command to the brains-heavy who usually wore workmanlike duds, did the physical labor, and often had more brawn than brains. He went from one chapter to the next trying desperately to kill the hero with fists, knives, guns, bombs, or whatever else was handy at the time.
  • The OLDTIMER was the man who
             (1). The man who owned the ranch
             (2). The father of the hero/heroine)and often had a short film lifespan 
             (3). Those who wore a badge of a sheriff, marshall, or ranger.

  • The MIDDLE-AGED and OLDER performers who were judges, lawyers, storeowners, wardens, owners of the local newspaper, scientists, executives, or professors.


Over the years, a countless pictorial cliches have risen from the serial genre: the helpless female victim or the damsel in distress tied to the railroad tracks, the mustache-twirling villain, the determined hero who vaults multiple obstacles to save his lady love. Plots from The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and its characters of Dudley Do-Right, Nell Fenwick, and Snidely Whiplash are pitch-perfect caricatures of the genre.


The term TALKIE made headlines in 1927 when sound was added to parts of The Jazz Singer. By the mid-1930s, all films, features and serials, had synchronized-sound accompaning their motion pictures.


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