PERILS OF PAULINE, THE
(Louis J. & Donald MacKenzie Gasnier, 1914, USA, BW)
The Perils of Pauline (1914)
Directed by Louis J. Gasnier
Written by Charles W. Goddard
George B. Seitz
Cinematography Arthur C. Miller
Distributed by General Film Company & Eclectic Film Company
Release dates March 31, 1914
20 chapters (total of 410 minutes)
Country United States
The Perils of Pauline is a 1914 American melodrama film serial shown in weekly installments, featuring Pearl White as the title character. Pauline has often been cited as a famous example of a damsel in distress, although some analyses hold that her character was more resourceful and less helpless than the classic damsel stereotype.
Pauline is menaced by assorted villains, including pirates and Indians. Neither Pauline nor its successor, The Exploits of Elaine, used the cliffhanger format in which a serial episode ends with an unresolved danger that is addressed at the beginning of the next installment. Although each episode placed Pauline in a situation that looked sure to result in her imminent death, the end of each installment showed how she was rescued or otherwise escaped the danger. Despite popular associations, Pauline was never tied to railroad tracks in the series, an image that comes instead from contemporary films such as Barney Oldfield's Race for a Life.
The serial had 20 episodes, the first being three reels (30 minutes), and the rest two reels (20 minutes) each. After the original run, it was reshown in theaters a number of times, sometimes in edited, shortened versions, through the 1920s. Today, The Perils of Pauline is known to exist only in a shortened 9-chapter version (approximately 214 minutes), released in Europe in 1916. ' In 2008 The Perils of Pauline was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry, as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
The premise of the story was that Pauline's wealthy guardian Mr. Marvin, upon his death, has left her inheritance in the care of his secretary, Mr. Koerner, until the time of her marriage. Pauline wants to wait a while before marrying, as her dream is to go out and have adventures to prepare herself for becoming an author. Mr. Koerner, hoping to ultimately keep the money for himself, tries to turn Pauline's various adventures against her and have her "disappear" to his own advantage.
Pearl White as Pauline
Crane Wilbur as Harry Marvin
Paul Panzer as Koerner / Raymond Owen
Edward José as Sanford Marvin
Francis Carlyle as Owen's Henchman, Hicks
Clifford Bruce as Gypsy Leader
Donald MacKenzie as Blinky Bill
Jack Standing as Ensign Summers
Eleanor Woodruff as Lucille
The Perils of Pauline (1914), Pathe's silent film episodic serial, is considered the most famous suspense serial in cinema history. It is not the first serial, however -- that honor goes to Edison's What Happened to Mary? (1913). The Perils of Pauline premiered March 23, 1914 at Loew's Broadway Theatre in New York City. Pearl White was the most famous star of the silent serials, known for their archetypal cliffhangers that left audiences wondering what would happen in the next chapter. The main theme of each chapter was the heroine-in-jeopardy, although the chapters in this early serial were basically complete in themselves.
The daring, athletic and active female star performed some of the riskiest, hair-raising stunts in these films (stranded on the side of a cliff, in a runaway balloon, in a burning house, etc). Every second week in each new installment, Pauline (Pearl White) evaded attempts on her life - she fought pirates, Indians, gypsies, rats, sharks, rolling boulders, and her dastardly guardian.
There are numerous reports (some say they are only myths or legends) about her most famous stunt in this serial - in which she was tied to railroad tracks and had to be rescued from a speeding, rapidly-approaching train. Reportedly, the scene was filmed near New Hope, PA at a place now known as "Pauline's Trestle." Unfortunately, a copy of this episode has never been located, and written film plot summaries do not describe the scene. More famously, a year earlier in 1913, Mabel Normand was tied to train tracks and cried out for rescue in the Keystone comedy Barney Oldfield's Race for a Life (1913), and the scene was also enacted in Sennett's Teddy at the Throttle (1917) with Gloria Swanson.
Due to this serial's success, Pearl White appeared in an even more successful sequel, The Exploits of Elaine (1914), featuring a mystery villain named the "Clutching Hand," and then in two further sequels: the 10-episode (each 2 reels) The New Exploits of Elaine (1915) (with a new villain named Wu Fang) and the 12-episode (each 2 reels) The Romance of Elaine (1915) (a lost film), battling master criminal Doctor X.
The well-known, multi-chaptered, much-celebrated, archetypal play was originally 20 episodes in length (but many have since been lost), and now only exists as nine chapters (rearranged).
Episode One: Through Air and Fire (or Trial by Fire)
Episode Two: The Goddess of the Far East
Episode Three: The Pirate's Treasure
Episode Four: The Deadly Turning
Episode Five: The Aerial Wire
Episode Six: The Broken Wing
Episode Seven: A Tragic Plunge
Episode Eight: The Reptile Under the Flowers
Episode Nine: The Floating Coffin
THE PERILS OF PAULINE ( 1914) Ch. 1 Pearl White
THE PERILS OF PAULINE ( 1914) Ch. 2 Pearl White
THE PERILS OF PAULINE ( 1914) Ch. 3 Pearl White
THE PERILS OF PAULINE ( 1914) Ch. 4 Pearl White
THE PERILS OF PAULINE ( 1914) Ch. 5 Pearl White
THE PERILS OF PAULINE ( 1914) Ch. 6 Pearl White
THE PERILS OF PAULINE ( 1914) Ch. 7 Pearl White
THE PERILS OF PAULINE ( 1914) Ch. 8 Pearl White
THE PERILS OF PAULINE ( 1914) Ch. 9 Pearl White
An heiress finds herself being put into hazardous situations by her ward, who has designs on her fortune. There are indeed fantastic elements in this film, the most famous of the silent serials and the one that made Pearl White a star. However, he's most likely referring to the original serial in its complete form; my copy is an edited version that cuts the twenty chapters down to nine and since the episodes were more distinct stories in their own right rather than one long narrative, it looks like the stories that had the fantastic elements aren't present here. I don't know if the serial exists in its entirety, but these nine episodes seem to be the longest chunk of them still in existence. It's fun in it's way; Pearl White is quite appealing, and they come up with a good variety of perils for her to undergo, but those who desire fantastic elements would be better off waiting for a more complete version of the serial to manifest itself.
This early silent serial originated many of the familiar clichés of the later era – including the young woman who is frequently tied up and rescued, the heroic yet oblivious young man who allows her to get into perilous situations in the first place, and the diabolical masked villain who is actually close to the protagonist in ordinary life. Oh, and cliff-hangers. Lots of cliff-hangers. Pauline (portrayed by Pearl White, who had already done a series of “Pearl” movies and would later star in “The Exploits of Elaine”) is a young heiress, betrothed to the son of her former guardian, who wants a “life of adventure” before she settles down.
Her hero is the hapless Harry (Crane Wilbur, who later wrote horror classics like “The Bat” and “House of Wax”), who never manages to be around when she gets into trouble, but always has to arrive in the nick of time to get her out of it. The villain is the heavy-set Paul Panzer (whose career went on for decades, allowing him to appear in the 1947 remake, as well as “Mildred Pierce” and “Casablanca” in small roles), who is Harry’s father’s executor, and who hopes to pay off his gambling debts with Pauline’s inheritance, which reverts to him if she should die by some “misfortune” previous to her wedding day. Perils from which Pauline is either rescued from or rescues herself include a burning house, a runaway balloon, a blocked-in cave, a band of savage Indians, a ticking bomb, drowning at sea, drowning in a cellar, a sabotaged biplane, a sabotaged submarine, a poisonous snake, and various gangs of ruffians (especially gypsies).
Today, only nine of the original twenty episodes of The Perils of Pauline serial are known to exist (check your attics), and none of them are of the cliffhanger variety attributed to this early serial as they are all self-contained stories. These existing episodes are actually an edited re-release of the original serial re-titled The Exploits of Elaine from 1916. The opening episode sets the scene for the episodes to follow by having the benefactor of Pauline (Pearl White) die after stating in his will that she and her sizable inheritance must be protected by his faithful servant Koerner (Paul Panzer) until she marries her cousin Harry (Crane Wilbur). Koerner – the character’s named was changed from Raymond Owen in the original to make him sound more German – actually turns out to be an escaped prisoner who is blackmailed by a former accomplice (Edward Jose) into trying to kill Pauline in order to get his hands on her fortune.
The rest of the serial follows a predictable – and repetitive – formula, with Koerner suggesting that the adventure-loving Pauline – who’s delaying her marriage to Harry until she gets this yearning for excitement out of her system – embark on a highly dangerous escapade, much to Harry’s exasperation. You can understand Harry getting a little fed up with it all seeing as he’s the one who’s usually called upon to save Pauline from whatever predicament she – or Koerner – has gotten herself into, and wonder what he sees in her (other than a passport to a life of luxury seeing as how her benefactor, who happens to be Harry‘s uncle, left him nothing in his will). All she seems to do is ignore him when he warns of the danger she’s putting herself into, and then tell him to save her when the dangers he predicted come true.
It’s difficult to review older films like The Perils of Pauline because they were made for an audience that was far less sophisticated in terms of their demands from the movies than we are today. It’s tempting to wonder how Pauline and Harry could be so blind as to not see that every adventure Koerner suggested to Pauline proved to be almost fatal – and often involved Pauline being tied and gagged by a band of gypsies. You’d think the way Koerner jumped with surprise every time Pauline and Harry made an appearance after he believed them to finally be dead, or the way he’d angrily clench his fist each time a plan went awry would be something of a giveaway, but the two of them never seem to learn. For a serial that’s nearly one hundred years old, The Perils of Pauline still delivers a fair amount of entertainment, despite the sometimes shocking condition of the existing print. It’s easy to forget that it was groundbreaking entertainment in its day, but its influence extends to movies made as recently as the 1980s – the similarity between the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark in which Indiana Jones is chased by a giant boulder bears an unmistakable resemblance to a scene in The Perils of Pauline in which Pauline is chased down a hillside by a bouncing boulder.
The Perils of Pauline is interesting to discuss because any conversation about the serial begins with what it isn’t. It wasn’t the first serial, the first cliffhanger serial (it doesn’t even have cliffhangers), the first serial starring a woman or the first anything, really. What was it then? It can best be described as a phenomenally popular hit that helped cement the motion picture serial’s status as an international crowdpleaser. Its star, Pearl White, became one of the top serial queens, her name synonymous with the genre.
Basically, each chapter is the same story over and over and over again. Koerner either learns of one of Pauline’s exploits or manipulates her into going on one. He has hired people to make sure there is an… accident. But then (usually) Harry saves Pauline and Koerner’s celebration is cut short when he realizes that his ward is still alive. Curses, foiled again! Pauline and Harry pledge their undying love (but still no ring) and Koerner goes back to plotting. The same thing. It never changes. Frankly, it’s annoying after the second go-round and intolerable by the sixth or seventh. The serial really has more in common with episodic television: the goal of each episode’s resolution is not to deepen the characters or move the plot but to return everyone to their starting positions in time for the next installment.
The stunts are pretty impressive, though, with Pauline running in front of a huge boulder like a proto Indiana Jane or Buster Keaton. There are also runaway balloons, underwater escapes, plane crashes, etc. It’s done very well but without a strong plot to hang it on, they are just window dressing. I would say that this serial is to be watched for historical purposes rather than entertainment because it’s certainly no picnic to get through. The plot says that some critics have found Pauline to be a resourceful character. That seems pretty charitable to me. This is classic damsel-in-distress stuff. At times it's a little silly (Pauline must have an absolute death wish with some of the stuff she gets involved in), but it can be fun too and some of the stunts are really impressive. I would definitely recommend checking the first chapter, which gives you a taste for the series, which was certainly influential. After that it got a little repetitive for me, and many of the later chapters suffer from poor print quality. Still, an interesting look at early cinema.
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