Pearl White plays the perpetually imperiled heroine of this iconic serial. She’s set to inherit a fortune but her evil guardian wants to make sure she won’t live to claim it. Looks like he’s going to have to pull some perils out of his bag of tricks.
A circular argument
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. That’s even better than being first, right?
A few things before we move forward:
I am a pretty big fan of the cliffhanger serials of the 1930s-1950s. Because of this, I will be judging Pauline against the tropes and iconic elements of other serials.
Many scenes that people associate with this serial actually occur in the numerous sound films that share its title. And yes, I am referring to the notion that Pearl White was tied to the train tracks in this film. No. She. Wasn’t.
The Perils of Pauline is not known to exist in its original form. Originally twenty episodes, the serial was recut and retitled for 28mm release in France and the copies currently available come from this re-translated edition. Apparently, the English-to-French-to-English title cards ended up a bit… wacky. Weird grammar, typos, you name it. (I’m sure Mark Twain would have appreciated the humor of the situation as it was the very thing he spoofed in his 1903 book The Jumping Frog: in English, then in French, then clawed back into a civilized language once more by patient, unremunerated toil.) How wacky are those titles? Well…
(If you know anything further about the survival of this serial and whether more 1914 elements have surfaced, please be sure to let me know.)
Pearl White claimed that she did all her own stunts. All I know is that there are three things certain in life: death, taxes, and movie stars claiming they do all their own stunts. Pass a grain of salt, please.
The plot of The Perils of Pauline is simple: Pauline Marvin (Pearl White) is an heiress set to inherit a fortune. However, if she dies before she marries, all the money will go to her guardian, Koerner (Paul Panzer). Naturally, he can’t resist the temptation and decides to knock her off before someone puts a ring on her finger. (Koerner was originally called Owens but was given a more Germanic name due to the First World War.)
Normally, this would not be a problem. You see, Harry Marvin (Crane Wilbur), is Pauline’s foster brother and he has popped the question. (The Marvins apparently keep everything in the family. Everything.) Problem solved! Pauline can marry a guy she likes and her money will be safe. Unfortunately, our heroine is in no hurry to marry. She wants a year to make up her mind and use the time to lead a life of adventure. Harry is horrified at a woman wanting such a thing (oh yeah, a swell husband he’ll make) but he has no choice. That’s a nice little narrative device the filmmakers have created: Pauline wants to be independent but this independence just might kill her. Subtle in their message, aren’t they?
And so we get to the guts of the story. 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.
Basically, Pauline, Harry and Koerner are in some kind of bizarre narrative arms race to see which of them is the more idiotic.
Pauline makes an attempt to become her own woman but the screenplay makes it clear that this is just a whim and she won’t be truly happy until she embraces Harry as her brother-husband. (For more information on this plot device, I highly recommend Shelley Stamp’s essay on serial heroines found in The Silent Cinema Reader.)
The biggest blow to the notion of Pauline as an intelligent character is the fact that she never so much as suspects Koerner. I mean, he is literally the only person on the planet who will benefit from her death. Harry has his own inheritance and his only way to get hers is to marry her, not kill her. And yet we are subjected to episode after episode of Pauline completely ignoring a glaring clue. She and Harry seem to have absolutely no interest in discovering who is planning to kill her. While some of her perils look like accidents, there are also plenty of masked men dragging her away to her doom. Most people I know would at least ask for a police investigation.
To add insult to injury (spoiler) Koerner’s nefarious deeds are uncovered by a side character who happens to spot him sabotaging Pauline’s boat in the final episode. She never catches on. Ever. That’s pretty bad storytelling.
Harry, for lack of better word, is a manipulative jerk. He is grabby, at one point Pauline has to beat him off with a tennis racquet, and he has no interest in finding the person who is trying to kill her. Dude, if she dies, you won’t be getting any sugar from your (retch, gag) foster sister. That’s how this works. Harry doesn’t discourage Pauline from adventure because someone is trying to kill her but because he wants her to marry him now, now, now.
This notion of “Oh, how cute, she wants to be independent” was explored in an equally infuriating manner in The Penalty but at least that film had a female government agent to make up for it. Harry’s controlling manner toward Pauline is just awful and every time he treated her like a wayward child, I wanted to smack his face.
For his part, Koerner hires new henchmen every few episodes, each time promising a share of Pauline’s fortune in return for their help killing her. But since these minions never succeed and never get arrested, one wonders how many shares of the fortune Koerner has promised. After paying off all his henchmen, he will probably be left with a grand total of $0.64 and some lint. And then there is the fact that he is always cheerfully celebrating Pauline’s apparent demise. One would think after a few disappointments he would learn to hold off until he has seen the body.
See what I mean? Not a single one of these characters has two brain cells to rub together.
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.
It doesn’t help that the story elements are so very silly. Koerner is able to find colorful seadogs, bands of roving Hollwoodized gypsies, promises of buried treasure and other only-in-the-pulp-novels elements. We also have a tribe of generic movie Native Americans who see Pauline emerging from a hole in the ground and decide this makes her a goddess. (Um, whaaaaaaaaat?) Are we to believe that these people have never seen someone climb out of a hole AND that they have never seen a blonde woman? I mean, they live a mile or two from a train station, I am pretty sure they have seen copies of Harper’s Bazaar.
You too can write an episode of The Perils of Pauline! Let’s do this Mad Libs style!
Pauline decides that she will take up (sport), much to Harry’s displeasure. Koerner overhears and hires a band of (ethnic group or profession) to (crime). However, Harry arrives at (place) just in time to save Pauline from the (adjective) (plural noun). Koerner feigns shock at Pauline’s peril and we return to starting positions for the next episode.
It was cute the first five times. Wait, no, it wasn’t. To be honest, I am a little relieved that the original twenty chapters are lost. Nine go-rounds was more than enough for me.
(Obligatory Obscure Star Trek Reference: This thing’s a Cardassian novel!)
The Perils of Pauline is famous but I cannot imagine why. Usually, I can put myself in the shoes of past audiences to figure out why they liked something even if it’s not my personal cup of tea. But this time? Not a clue. Why this serial instead of the dozens of others released around the same time? Where is that magic little spark that captured the public’s imagination? I can’t find it but then again, I never understood the appeal of Seinfeld so perhaps I am not the best judge of these things.
Due to its name recognition, this serial is likely to be picked up by newcomers and the very idea of it being someone’s first foray into silent makes me a little queasy. It’s like someone’s first Star Trek episode being Spock’s Brain. Not exactly best foot forward, eh?
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. If you want to see a good silent serial, I beg you to head to the French cinema department and watch Judex or House of Mystery. If you want to stay in the U.S. of A. then I recommend Helen Holmes as a superior serial queen. Just don’t watch this without knowing what you’re in for.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★½
Where can I see it?
The Perils of Pauline has been released on DVD by several different companies. Watch the runtime as some versions are feature-length (about an hour) instead of serials.