In BATTLE PT. 1, I asserted that "serial melodrama" was not granted any particular legitimacy by critics of the silent-film era, and that the only ways in which it ever come close to such legitimacy was when the serious works of the period were being parodied:
If Berlatsky is correct that at some point "highbrow" critics venerated any sort of melodramas, it would only be through this arguably distorting lens, as ironic or comic takes on material that was originally meant to be taken seriously, at least in terms of rousing strong emotional involvement.
I will admit that I'm no expert on the era of silent films. However, I do know where to find experts, and I found three in the 2004 collection of academic essays ACTION AND ADVENTURE CINEMA, edited by Yvonne Tasker.
First up we have Jennifer M. Bean, whose essay "Trauma Thrills" examines in part the use of shock tactics in early action cinema, which the trade papers of the period labelled "sensational melodrama" or "thriller melodrama." Bean's express interest in "hysteria, or shock, or astonishment as a key aesthetic effect of early film" is rooted in her "dissatisfaction with the way that both traditional and revisionist historians have told the story of cinema's turn to a predominantly narrative form." She examines, among other things, the series THE HAZARDS OF HELEN, and concludes that "far from a homeostatic model that "aims at... the regulated order of the spectacle," this narrative machine is calibrated for spectacular excess"-- a remark that I find to be in line with my own observations about the relevance of Bataille's concept of "expenditure" to popular fiction. She also notes that the highbrow film-maker Sergei Eisenstein is known to have studied HAZARDS OF HELEN for the purpose of "his experiments with shock-like montage techniques."
Second, Richard Abel examines "The Culture War of Sensational Melodrama," asserting that according to the trade papers of the period, most of the audience for "sensational melodramas," whether in serial form or not, was "the ordinary moving picture audience," as opposed to the more well educated upper classes. He mentions, too, how cinematic melodramas usurped the popularity that had once belonged to stage melodramas of the late 1800s and early 1900s, though his chief concern is to point out how American audiences had an early flirtation with melodramatic movies from France. However, the audience's interest in exotica waned in deference to home-made products, and Abel notes that the audiences of the time rejected what is probably the only silent French film that's anything to conjure with these days, 1913's FANTOMAS.
Finally, Ben Singer offers the most complete picture of "serial melodramas" within the greater context of general film melodramas. Today one of the greatest short-hands for silent-film thrills is that of the feminine beauty tied to the train-track-- winsomely spoofed in the cartoon DUDLEY DO-RIGHT-- but Singer mentions a male character, a "tenderfoot," who gets tied to a train-track in 1907's THE BAD MAN, and is for good measure rescued by his girlfriend.
More importantly, Singer points out that D.W. Griffith, "the finest director of melodramas in the feature-film era," learned his craft while working on "blood and thunder melodrama" with his short films for the company Biograph, roughly from 1908-09. Many of these have not survived, but Singer, drawing on trade journals, presents a panoply of effects that are not especially comic in tone: "extreme moral polarity, abduction, brawling, brutality, binding and gagging, murder, and 'infernal machines' (intricate death-dealing contraptions used to prolong suspense.)" In keeping with Bean's remarks on the transition from early sensational melodramas to films with a "predominant narrative form," there's something satisfying about knowing that Griffith, often lauded as the Father of Film-as-Art, once did a melodrama, THE FATAL HOUR, in which a detective was doomed to be killed by a pistol tied to a ticking clock.
Singer provides a summing-up that ought to put paid to any notion that sensational melodramas were regarded, by audiences or contemporary critics, as comic in tone. Rather, "they epitomized a new, or at least newly accentuated, cultural appetite for powerful stimulus." It was an appetite that did not conveniently disappear once the relatively more sophisticated works of the feature-film era, for even the more restrained dramas never entirely got away from the need to stimulate and thus direct its audience with the allure of the forbidden and the illegitimate.