What Happened to Mary (1912)

What Happened to Mary (1912)

While the dawn of streaming has tended to allow people to watch what they want, when they want, popular TV series will still occasionally release a new season of episodes weekly, enticing the audience to tune in next week to resolve the latest cliffhanger.

This technique of drawing an audience back for more dates back to the 1910s, with the advert of serial films. However, rather than tuning in from the comfort of your sofa, you would have been expected to get out to the cinema to catch the latest episode of your favourite serial... and if you missed it, good luck finding a re-run.

Serial films were likely first conceptualised in Europe, perhaps with the 6-episode Nick Carter run from 1908. It is thought that the introduction to the US was with What Happened to Mary in 1912.

What Happened to Mary tells the story of a young girl (called Mary) who is abandoned at birth and left in the care of Billy, a shopkeeper, who is promised $1000 if he marries her to a village boy. Fast forward to Mary turning 18 years old, and Billy tries to cash in on the promise, only for Mary to set forth on several adventures.

The serial was created after the editor of The Ladies' World, Charles Dwyer, met the manager of the Thomas Edison studio. Together they created the 12-part serial which was released alongside a supporting magazine.

The popularity of serials exploded over the next few years, including one, The Hazards of Helen, which reached 119 episodes over its two-year release cycle from 1914. The cost of producing serials increased considerably during the sound era, before the advent of the television era finally saw the end of film serials.

At least seven of the episodes of What Happened to Mary survive, but are held by the Museum of Modern Arts and Library of Congress and certainly not widely available.

However, What Happened to Mary also produced a sequel in 1913, Who Will Marry Mary?. While most of this serial is thought to be lost, EYE Film Instituut Nederlands uploaded its copy of episode one, A Proposal from the Duke to YouTube in 2013. You can watch this below.

Source: Titlecard image from Wikimedia


  1. Some of the serials were also "novelized" and included weekly in newspapers, usually in the Sunday women's section.


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