The Cinema Serial —-early twentieth century verse in praise of a silent film


Jot cinema very early scottish cinemaFound interleaved in an exercise book inscribed ‘ Recitations ‘, which contains a variety of both original material and copies in different hands of extracts from published recitations that were the staple of Music Hall acts from the late Victorian period to around the time of the First World War, is this piece of doggerel entitled ‘The Cinema Serial’.

The piece, which is probably original, describes the experience of viewing the ninety–third episode of an imaginary  thriller entitled ‘ Philip’s Phantom Quest’ in a ‘large suburban’ picture palace, probably in Scotland. The whole item is of interest to historians of the Cinema, not only because the film’s subject matter  reflects the contemporary panic surrounding the ‘ Yellow Peril ‘, but also because the preamble to the filmic action tells us something about the experience of visiting a cinema in the  early twentieth century:

‘ In a large suburban palace with the

Latest films portrayed,

Where in darkness hands are clasped

And cupid’s hits are often made

Fair maids their heads on manly shoulders

Ceased awhile to lean

For the title of the next film

Has appeared upon the screen

There’s a buzz of approbation

From the young folks one & all

In excitement one wee laddie

Swallows half a butter ball.

Love’s whisperings subside

As folks prepare to gaze with zest

For ‘tis Episode the ninety-third

Of Philip’s Phantom Quest…’

The verse continues with an account of Philip’s enemy, a Chinaman humorously named Ah Choo, whose ‘average of weekly murders stands at four point three’. This villain is evidently modelled on the protagonist of Sax Rohmer’s famous novel The Mystery of Fu Manchu, which had been published in 1913. The narrative continues thus:


Fresh characters come in each week to help keep on the play

For Ah Choo kills the old ones off in such a wholesale way

3) Last week we left the heroine , the lovely Geraldine

With both her ears fixed firmly in a glass-cutting machine

While as for handsome Philip, he seemed on a loser too

With his neck tight in a printing press while Ah Choo turned the screw.

Ah here we are, here’s this week’s start, see Philip short of breath

As the press grows tighter, tighter, slowly printing him to death.

But look, before the final turn by Ah Choo can be made

A hand steals through the casement & it holds a long thin blade

4) Old Ah Choo snarls in Philip’s face & dashes through the door

And Philip by the strange masked maid is rescued yet once more

Now see the scene is changed, here’s Geraldine awaiting doom

For she’ll shortly die in rashers in the great glass-cutting room.

Not yet, not yet, the door’s dashed in –how frail they make them now

And as the keen blades reach her she is snatched away somehow

‘Tis Philip who arrived there, ask not how,for I don’t know

But you see, she‘s gotto be saved, for nine parts have yet to go… 


5) Ah ha, again we’re switched away, here’s Ah Choo tall & grim.

He’s making bombs  & poisons, just a pleasant little whim

That Ah Choo beats all shorthand systems none can ever doubt

For he writes a four page note in fourteen ticks or thereabout

This note enticing |Geraldine to come straight to his lair

And she hies her to the trysting place above the turret stair

But she she’s dropped that letter by the ancient castle moat

And Dan Murphy the detective sees it snapped up by a goat.


6) He rescues it & reads it, then for help he hears a call.

It’s his chauffeur being stabbed, for Ah Choo’s average mustn’t fall

Dan springs aside & stands quite flat against the castle tow’r

( Presumably to make folks think he’s just a climbing flow’r)

 But Geraldine we left proceeding up the turret stair

And now we see her entering a chamber grim & bare

Immediately she’s gagged & bound by several men there-in

And Ah Choo stands before her with his most satanic grin


7)He presses on a panel and an aperture yawns black

And the party passes through before the panel glideth back.

They drag her with them to a point upon the mountain top

Then on an awful valley’s brink the merry party stop

Old Ah Choo hurls her downward towards the cruel rocks beneath  


But see in her descent she grips a boulder with her teeth

Oh will she yet be rescued from the terrible abyss

Well all that’s plain to every person there is simply this

For seven days she’ll dangle by her molars from that peak

For on the screen appears To be Continued here next week.’


Incidentally,the criminal mastermind Ah Choo is not to be confused with Ah Choo, a Chinese immigrant who works as a delivery boy for a pharmacy in the early 1940s Hit Comics.

From a list of these ‘ film serials ‘ dating from 1910 – 20,  which can be found online, we learn that ‘The Adventures of Kathlyn ‘(1913), which consisted of 13 chapters, is considered to be the first ‘ cliffhanger ‘ serial. In 1914 ‘The Hazards of Helen ‘, which at 23 + hours and 119 chapters is thought to be the longest serial ever made, exceeds in length the serial in which Ah Choo is the anti-hero, but a Chinese peril does seem to figure in a much shorter serial of 1916 entitled ‘ The Yellow Menace ‘. Perhaps the writer of the verse had this in mind.


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