Todd Gault's Movie Serial Experience

Todd Gault's Film Serial Experience: Movie serials, cliffhangers and reviews. A gallery of movie serial stars.
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"The Chinatown Mystery"; Syndicated, 1928.

In the serial world there is no other man who could be said to have had a bigger impact on the genre specifically, and film in general, than stuntman/ actor Joe Bonomo. The son of a Coney Island candy manufacturer, Bonomo came to film in a roundabout way. Winning a Modern Adonis contest, first prize was a thousand dollars, and an appearance in a film.

From there the "Strongman of Film" quickly became known for his stunting ability, doubling Lon Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) in some of the more dangerous leaps. It was from this point that Bonomo came to the attention of Universal, which signed him to star in their serials.

Starting with The Iron Man (1924), Bonomo would become known for his fantastic leaps across great distances, and his phenomially daredevil executions of transfers from one moving vehicle to another. His most lasting image to his fans is his amazing ability to hold a two hundred pound man above his head with one hand while battling off other attackers.

But the one thing that the "Cinema Colossus" did that has had the most lasting effect on film history came out of cost cutting efficency. During the silent era most movies were filmed in the order they happened in the script. You started at the beginnning and filmed each sequence as it came up. Bonomo's business savy mind came up with the concept that is still used today. He broke the script down so that all scenes using a specific set were filmed at one time, exteriors first, interiors last. Though the great length of serials caused some confusion about what was going on for the actors, it saved a lot of money for the studios and soon became standard practice thorughout the industry.

Bonomo followed up his first success for Universal with a loose adaptation of the classic Swiss Family Robinson, retitled Perils of the Wilderness (1925). His third and last starring serial for the company was The Great Circus Mystery (1925). After that he left the company and began freelancing. His final portrayal of hero was in the Syndicated Pictures serial The Chinatown Mystery (1928).

The reason for this was because Bonomo had started going down the ladder in Hollywood. His next serials were playing villains for Mascot in The Golden Stallion (1927), Heroes of the West (1927), and King of the Kongo (1929) in which he played a gorilla. Never a tempermental star he took the villain roles as they came and continued working.

Disaster struck with the coming of sound, which showed that Bonomo's thick Brooklyn accent was ill suited for the movies. Still he garnered henchmen roles in Mascot's Phantom of the West (1930) and The Vanishing Legion (1931), as well as appearances in Universal's adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost Special (1931) and RKO's only serial, The Last Frontier (1932).

Though his straight acting career was starting to fizzle, Bonomo continues stunting. His most famous during this time was the half gainer he performed off a rooftop in a gorilla suit for Murders In the Rue Morgue (1932). But it was becoming increasingly obvious that the writing was on the wall and Bonomo dropped out of the film world and returned to the family's taffy business, while also running a publishing project of his own, becoming a serious rival to Charles Atlas in the muscle man magazine industry.

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