The Original Damsel in Distress

Charles W. Goddard was born in Portland, Maine, USA on November 26, 1879 and died in Miami, Florida on January 11, 1951. He began his career writing Broadway plays and later turned to film screenplays. He also adapted a number of his stage works to film. He adapted one of his most famous works, The Perils of Pauline, to a newspaper serial and later to book form. Goddard’s wife, Ruth, was the sister to famous screenwriters Basil Dickey and Paul Dickey and he often worked with them on projects.

Charles Goddard wrote such popular movies and serials as The Ghost Breaker, The Exploits of ElaineThe Goddess, and The Hope Diamond Mystery. But his most lasting fame has come from The Perils of Pauline which is credited as being the most well known of the “damsel in distress” serials as well as the origin of the term “cliffhanger” (because of the number of episodes of the 1914 serial which were filmed at or around the New Jersey Palisades).

The Perils of Pauline features the many misadventures of a young woman in search of adventure. Charles Goddard’s original work has been reworked several times. It was originally made into a 20 chapter silent film serial in 1914 starring actress Pearl White. This serial is considered a “lost” film because there is no known existing copy of all 20 chapters. However, 9 chapters exist and are available FREE in the Public Domain. Goddard also serialized the story in the newspapers as the film serial was playing and later condensed the story into book form which is also available FREE in the Public Domain.

The Perils of Pauline was next made into a 12 chapter serial in 1933 starring actress Evalyn Knapp. This version bares little resemblance to Goddard’s original story except for Pauline’s continuing skill at landing in trouble. This version is, unfortunately, not in the Public Domain.

The third film version of The Perils of Pauline was released as a 1947 color film starring actress Betty Hutton. In this version Betty Hutton is actually portraying silent film star Pearl White and her career especially during the production of the 1914 The Perils of Pauline serial. Luckily, this movie is available FREE in the Public Domain.

The fourth film version was a failed TV series proposal. The 3 existing episodes, starring Pamela Austin as Pauline and Pat Boone as George (a renamed version of the original Harry), were edited into a movie and released in 1967. This version bares the faintest relationship to Goddard’s original story and even features Pauline in space. This version is, unfortunately, not in the Public Domain.

In the coming weeks, I’ll view and review the 2 Public Domain versions: the 1914 serial and the 1947 color film. But for now I’m concentrating on Charles Goddard’s book version of The Perils of Pauline.

As far as I can remember I never saw any of the versions of The Perils of Pauline. Maybe a segment or 2 from Betty Hutton’s 1947 version. Mostly I’m familiar with the lampooning of the idea of the “damsel in distress”. I’ve seen many many cartoons and TV shows and other films where the image of the hapless damsel tied to railroad tracks by the scowling villain is mocked and made fun of. That scene of the damsel in danger from an approaching train actually never occurs in Charles Goddard’s screenplay or book or the film versions. A similar scene occurs in several Keystone comedies but somehow has always been associated with poor Pauline.

My image of Pauline was also of a rather ditzy and helpless female tottering into danger and constantly tripping over vile villains. But the serials were popular with female film fans of the time who looked upon Pauline as a liberated “New Woman” who was free to put off marriage and seek her own adventure. Goddard’s book version of Pauline is actually somewhat a mix of these various images.

Pauline is adopted by Stanford Marvin who made millions building motorcars and raised as a sister to Stanford’s son Harry. When Stanford dies unexpectedly, his estate is split between Pauline and Harry although her portion is overseen by old Stanford’s secretary Raymond Owen who has reason to resent both Pauline and Harry.

Pauline dreams of being a famous author but feels her privileged life has been too narrow. She yearns for adventure:

  • “I must see life in it’s great moments. I must have thrills, adventures, see people do daring things, watch battles. It might be best for me even to see someone killed, if that were possible.”

As you can see, Pauline is also a self-centered, uncaring, immature nitwit.

Yes, her situation and inheritance allow her to put off marriage. Her “brother” Harry has long been in love with her and is desperate to marry her but he is also willing, although extremely reluctantly, to allow her a chance to experience her adventures. But while film versions of Pauline often showed her in danger, they also actually showed her as taking charge and often out smarting and overcoming the villain’s various plots on her own. The literary version of Pauline has no such talent.

The literary version of Pauline is pretty much a doormat. Sure, she desires “adventure” but she never really DOES anything. She gets an inheritance, gets her future wedding to Harry postponed, claims to want adventure, but then basically sits around for weeks waiting for “adventure” to find her.

I was not very impressed with Pauline. She doesn’t even take a very active role even when she is in the middle of an “adventure”. She wants to fly in an airplane – but she never even makes it to the airport. She wants to get in a hot air balloon – but she is helplessly carried off. She wants to find buried pirate treasure – but the pirate is an obvious fake. She wants to visit a Chinatown opium den – but she panics in a corridor. She does not want to marry Harry – but gets raging jealous when he seems to take an interest in anyone else.

When Pauline is in danger, she mostly cries and sighs and dreams of Harry rescuing her. Which he does. Repeatedly. Now, admittedly, Pauline does take some action on her own when she has no other choice. She tries to save herself from the out of control balloon, she actually rides a race horse (although, of course, she falls off), she resists (helplessly) when various villains grab her, she runs away from kidnappers (but then gets grabbed by a gorilla). But most of her “adventures” are actually suggested by the wicked former secretary, Owen, who is really plotting to use the “adventures” to kill her off so he can get some of her inheritance.

Pauline is just really not my idea of a “heroine”.

And Harry the hero, is just a sap.

Sure, he “allows” Pauline to put off marriage to have “adventures”. But he also plots against her by trying his best to secretly derail her fun. Yes, he does always show up to rescue her but that is mostly because he is lurking nearby to make sure her “adventure” is derailed in the first place. He mopes and yearns to marry Pauline and seems to make some slight effort at managing his father’s business but mostly trails dejectedly after Pauline or races frantically about trying to prevent disaster. Oh, and he occasionally gets all manly and pummels some dastardly dolt.

And Owen the villain is secretly addicted to morphine and was promised an inheritance of his own which he needs to pay off massive debt. When his inheritance is lost due to the way old man Marvin dies, Owen does not do what most reasonable people would do. Such as actually ask someone: what about me? No, too easy. Instead he goes out and gathers some completely inept cohorts and repeatedly plans elaborate ways to get rid of Pauline all of which ultimately fail spectacularly. And then….. Well, it’s too terrible to tell. Suffice to say I am a big believer in reaping what you sow. I want my villains to get a thorough trouncing. Revenge is sweet. And Owen, after all his betrayals and machinations, is a huge disappointment for me.

The book version of The Perils of Pauline is written in an often wildly melodramatic style. Here’s a few examples from the book:

  • Mr. Marvin explains that he is dying. “He says I have exhausted my entire stock of nervous capital, that my account at the bank of physical endurance is overdrawn, nature has called her loans, and you might say that I am a nervous bankrupt.”
  • Mr. Marvin described opening up his Egyptian mummy. “I smell the dead centuries. I can almost feel their weight. The world was young when this woman breathed.”
  • Mr. Marvin gives advice to Harry. “You will find, too, that women are very reasonable. If a man gives his wife all he makes, plus the vote, and lets her do just as she pleases – she’ll usually let him live in the same house with her, and even get up early enough to see him at breakfast once in a while.”
  • The French aviator “exhibited his tame bird of steel and wood and cloth with the utter pride of a mother showing off her only child.”
  • The fake pirate – “a squinting eye gave him a villainous leer, while a bristly beard and long gray hair made him a ferocious spectacle.’
  • A character complains about work. “I don’t believe in the nobility of labor. I believe that work is the crowning shame and humiliation of the human race. It’s all right for a horse or a dog or an ox to work, but a man ought to be above it. It’s degrading, interferes with his pleasures and wastes his time.”
  • Pauline yearns for “the vague magic land of adventure, where she was to win treasure and delight, fortune and fame.”
  • One villain – “A dashing, well-dressed, fiery-eyed foreigner, the tips of whose waxed mustachios turned up like black stalagmites from the corners of his cavernous mouth.”
  • Other villains – “two Chinamen as fantastically hideous as the embroidered dragons on the tapestry.”
  • A deserted house – “The windows were few and shuttered. The black steel blinds were as dead as the eyes of a skull.”
  • A raging fire – “The flame daggers grew into scimitars. The inner wall caught fire.”
  • A cowboy issues a warning. “The Sioux is only waitin’ for the Great White Queen to come out o’ the heart o’ the airth an’ lead ‘em on the warpath.”
  • A Sioux leader declares “The Great Spirit has spoken to me and said: “Lo, I will send a White Queen with golden hair.” ” 
  • Harry complains about Pauline. “She’s been upset out of everything from a balloon to a house afire, and now she’s looking for a new capsizable craft.”
  • Pauline has seen the light. “I’ve been a selfish, silly, conceited little pig, but I’m cured. I’m cured at last.”

And yet, the story of The Perils of Pauline is interesting to read. In it’s time, this was new, this was daring. That a woman would even dream of a career instead of marriage; of flying in a plane, riding in a balloon, hunting for pirate treasure, riding a race horse, instead of dreaming of a husband and babies was all still revolutionary in the start of the century. Movie goers of the time were so intrigued that Charles Goddard’s story was filmed 4 times and even today many people remember The Perils of Pauline.

Unfortunately, the ebook of The Perils of Pauline is littered with spelling errors and format problems. Nothing huge, just irritants like:

  • “I have ben a prisoner.”
  • “They were well out to seat and the waves were crashing.”

I actually found the Librivox version of The Perils of Pauline to be much more enjoyable because it was read by a large cast as a play, as it was originally intended to be. The volunteer readers use a variety of voices that give more feeling and life to the characters than the stilted, overwrought prose in Goddard’s book version. I highly recommend the Librivox audio book.

Of course, the very best thing about The Perils of Pauline is that it is available FREE in the Public Domain.


Project Gutenberg has an ebook of The Perils of Pauline which you can read online or download. Please click this link to go to Project Gutenberg.

The Internet Archive also has the Project Gutenberg ebook. Please click this link to go to the Internet Archive.

Librivox has a great audio book that you can download and listen to. Please click this link to go to Librivox. There is also a link for cover art and a CD case insert.

I will view and review the 1914 and 1947 Public Domain versions of The Perils of Pauline in the future. But if movie fans are interested now here are the Internet Archive links:

Please click this link to go to the 1947 Betty Hutton movie.

The 1914 serial has all episodes separate but you can start with episode 1 at this link. Just type “The Perils of Pauline” in the query box to find the other 8 available episodes (a total of 9 episodes).

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