A Pictorial History of the Movies: 1913 – Fantomas
I’ll fully admit to this being a bit of a compromise. There was one serial I wanted to have on this list (I’m sure everyone who knows me or the blog knows exactly which one it is), but it wasn’t from 1913. And the year it came out, there’s a choice that has to be used, which means I wasn’t able to.
So, I compromised and put my serial here. Which actually works out. Since 1913 isn’t the strongest of years. There’s no definitive choice. Plus it’s perfectly situated between the two-reel films and features, which works given the type of film the serial is.
And plus, serials are such an important part of film history, and are essentially the forerunners of television, so they had to be represented somewhere. And this serial is really famous and was directed by the same guy who directed the serial I wanted to use, so really it all worked out.
The serial was actually a really popular form in all types of entertainment. Charles Dickens wrote his novels in serial form. People loved going to see the continuing adventures of what were essentially comic book characters and what sorts of cliffhangers they would be left with. There were serials made of many famous characters in the 30s, and they’d play before other films in the theaters. Batman had a serial in the 30s. Dick Tracy. Tarzan. Arsene Lupin. Superman. Captain America. Flash Gordon. Zorro. And I’m sure everyone has at least heard of The Perils of Pauline. These serials were sci fi, adventure, crime, western, you name it. The stuff pulp novels were made of. Serials are responsible for the creation and tone of the Indiana Jones movies. So they have to be talked about at some point when discussing film history.
It’s like the drive-in movie. People tend to ignore the B movie and the campy movies they showed for teenagers going to drive-ins. So this is me, trying to shed some light on one of the more important, yet under-discussed, pieces of film history.
Fantomas, for those who don’t know, which I imagine is most of you, is a thief. A master criminal. And the story is about him, constantly avoiding an inspector who is always on his tail. Fantomas always has a way of escaping from tight situations, and always manages to leave audiences with a cliffhanger until the next episode…
The brilliance of the serial is that the adventures can just start and stop at any time. And there is really no beginning, middle and end. It’s like TV. You can have an overall story, but each episode doesn’t necessarily have to move that plot forward. It can also repeat the same scenarios. You’re in for the characters rather than a set story.
Plus, Feuillade was terrific at staging sequences (some of his location shooting is absolutely astounding. For all his serials, not just this one). There’s a shootout in the second episode by the water’s edge, with a bunch of barrels, that just looks incredible. There are a lot of shots in his work that you look at and go, “Wow… look at that.” He was really great at staging, even if at first glance, some of his shots look a little tableau and simplistic.
Fantomas is a good serial, but it’s not Feuillade’s best. That would be Les Vampires, which is just a masterpiece. But, for reasons that will become apparent two days from now, I couldn’t put Les Vampires on this list (no matter how much I love it). So we put Fantomas here instead, and used this year to highlight the fact that the serial is both a very important part of early cinema (and a forbearer to television), and also used on my list as a nice transition between shorts and features. Everything works out quite nicely, even if I couldn’t talk about the one I wanted to talk about.