Poor Pauline: The Ultimate Damsel in Distress

Perils of Pauline - Sheet music cover

The Perils of Pauline is probably the film serial that most movie fans associate with “damsel in distress cliffhanger”. Surprisingly the 1914 serial, starring American actress Pearl White, is neither a “cliffhanger” nor simply a “damsel in distress” adventure. The Perils of Pauline was filmed in 1914 with an estimated $25,000 budget and released in weekly installments. It was the first entry into the wildly popular world of film serials by Pathé, a French company that was the world’s largest film production company at the time. Originally written by Charles W. Goddard, The Perils of Pauline was intended to be thirteen episodes but proved so popular that it was stretched out to 20 episodes. Unfortunately, those 20 original episodes are now considered “lost”. All that remains of Pauline’s serial adventures are the nine episodes that were re-edited and intended for French release.

The Perils of Pauline - Pauline & Harry

Pearl White was originally reluctant to take the role of the adventuring Pauline but eventually signed on for $250 a week. The athletic Pearl was the perfect fit for the role. She had begun stage acting at age six and at age thirteen was working as a bareback rider for a circus. She easily handled her own stunt work for The Perils of Pauline. Pauline was hugely popular with audiences and made Pearl a star. She went on to make many other serials including The Exploits of Elaine, The Iron Claw, Pearl of the Army, The House of Hate, The Lightning Raider, and The Black Secret. Fans dubbed her the “Queen of the Serials” and, in just ten years, Pearl was able to retire from acting with a two million dollar fortune. But Pearl White also retired with lasting injuries from her time as serial queen. Doing her own stunts in The Perils of Pauline proved very dangerous. While filming scenes with a hot air balloon she was carried directly into a storm by an out of control balloon and a later fall resulted in permanent injury to her spine that left her in pain for the rest of her life. That fall led directly to her death of “liver failure” in 1937 at the tender age of 49. Most likely it was really cirrhosis of the liver from the huge amounts of alcohol and drugs she used to help deal with her back pain. Eventually the studios began to worry about the health of their star and to require a male stunt double in a wig for Pearl’s more dangerous stunts. That decision saved her life. In Pearl’s last serial, Plunder, a stunt man missed a jump, fell, and struck his head. He died of a fractured skull.

Perils of Pauline - Pearl White and Crane Wilbur in car crash

It was the danger, and the physical bravery of Pearl White and her serial “sisters”, that made many film serials so popular with audiences. While later generations have often dismissed Pearl and her “sisters” as mere “damsels in distress”, the audiences of the time, especially the young female fans, saw Pearl and her “sisters” as a new type of woman: a strong independent woman who put off settling into marriage to have her own adventures and explore her own interests. The ability and bravery of the female stars in taking on the traditionally male activities of fighting, shooting guns, doing dangerous stunts in cars and planes were a huge draw. Audiences wanted an “unstoppable action heroine who defeats her enemies with amazing ease”. Pearl White and female stars like her delivered that heroine. Of course, new and independent heroines like Pauline, were not so new or so independent as to shock audiences. Pauline may have gotten out of many jams on her own but she always depended on Harry, her fiance and hero, to finish the rescue. For example, Pauline may have climbed out of the runaway hot air balloon on her own, but Harry got her off the cliffs. And, of course, when her adventures are all finished, Pauline takes on the decidedly traditional role of Harry’s wife. When practical concerns about the health and life of their female stars later made the studios resort to stunt doubles, the studios carefully hide the fact and continued to promote the derring-do of their actresses. Serial fans did not find out that Pearl White was no longer doing her own dangerous stunts until the death of a stunt man in her last serial in 1922.

The Perils of Pauline - Pauline & hot air balloon

The Perils of Pauline is usually considered one of the first and best of the “cliffhangers” but none of its 20 original episodes actually end in a “cliffhanger”. Nearly all the episodes were self-contained adventures and the few that continued into the next episode (Chapters 3 and 4, Chapters 6, 7, and 8) did not leave Pauline hanging, literally or not. Many film historians think that the term “cliffhanger” originally did not mean that the survival of the serial stars was left hanging from episode to episode but instead that the stars were literally hanging from cliffs since many early serials were filmed on or around the New Jersey Palisades and those photogenic cliffs often figured prominently in serial adventures.

While The Perils of Pauline was once 20 episodes long, that original version is long lost. All that remains is the nine episodes originally intended for the French market. These nine episodes suffer from often unintentionally hilarious title cards. When the serial was exported to France, the original English title cards were translated then scrapped. When the serial was later sent back to the American market, French film technicians tried to hurriedly translate the French title cards back to English with decidedly silly results. The title cards are filled with “misspellings, poor punctuation, terrible grammar, and odd expressions”. For example, When Pauline hears the ticking of a time bomb she exclaims, “What is that tic-tac I can hear”. Also, the original 20 episodes did not have individual episode titles, they were all simply “episode whatever”. But the remaining nine episodes were later given individual titles. Of the original 20 episodes, the first three were three reels or 30 minutes long while the rest were two reels or 20 minutes long. Of the surviving nine episodes, the first three are 20 to 29 minutes long while the rest run nine to 18 minutes (Chapter 4 is missing half).

Perils of Pauline - danger on ship

The Perils of Pauline is a silent black and white serial. The nine episodes run from nine to 29 minutes. While the serial does not suffer from the often over whelming darkness of many old films, it is nevertheless showing its age. There are many scratches and other marks, mostly around the edges but sometimes running entirely up one side or the other. Occasionally the whole film stutters or shudders, sometimes it fades completely out, and it is often fuzzy or blurry. The damage can be a bit distracting but really kind of adds to the enjoyment of the serial. Sometimes the title cards are out of focus and hard to read and the bad translation sometimes make them hard to understand. It is a silent serial but there is an exuberant soundtrack added that sometimes gets a little loud. Pauline has inherited a fortune but it is overseen by the villainous Koerner who wants her dead so he can get her money (because the new and independent heroine can have adventures but cannot handle money, apparently). He plots against her and Pauline ends up in all kinds of danger. She gets trapped on a runaway hot air balloon and endangered in a burning house, kidnapped by cowboys and chased by Native Americans, threatened by pirates, caught in a deadly car race, trapped in a flooded cellar, endangered by an airplane, imperiled on a submarine, menaced by gypsies, and marked for target practice by the navy. Pauline is feisty and never gives up running from one danger or villain to the next. Throughout, her faithful fiance Harry follows along to make sure she stays safe. And nowhere is there a scene of Pauline getting tied to railroad tracks in front of an oncoming train or in danger of getting cut in half by a spinning saw. Many film fans think of these iconic scenes as being part of The Perils of Pauline but no such scenes exist either in the surviving episodes or in the detailed scripts of the original 20 episodes. The train track peril does, however, show up in other serials. The Perils of Pauline is actually pretty fun although be aware that villains like the Native Americans and the Gypsies are hugely and negatively stereotyped. Pearl White as Pauline, Crane Wilbur as Harry, and Paul Panzer as Koerner (originally named Owens but changed to Koerner to better fit the then popular idea of a menacing German)  are the only actors who appear in all episodes, otherwise the cast and the villains change from episode to episode. Charles Goddard wrote the novel and it was serialized in newspapers to coincide with the release of each episode in the theaters but the novel is nowhere as good as the film serial. What comes across as stiff and stilted when framed by Charles’ written words is actually fun and action filled when framed by the camera. Charles Goddard’s story is in the Public Domain and you can get FREE links in my earlier review of The Perils of Pauline in novel form. The serial The Perils of Pauline (1914 version) is also FREE in the Public Domain at the Internet Archive (there is a 1933 serial version that is not in the Public Domain). Other than the first episode, each chapter is independent and you do not have to watch them in order. IA has all surviving nine chapters, just click on the following links to watch online or download completely FREE:
Chapter 1: Trial by Fire
Chapter 2: The Goddess of the Far West
Chapter 3: The Pirate Treasure
Chapter 4: The Deadly Turning
Chapter 5: A Watery Doom
Chapter 6: The Shattered Plane
Chapter 7: The Tragic Plunge
Chapter 8: The Serpent in the Flowers
Chapter 9: The Floating Coffin

The Perils of Pauline - Pauline carried off & Harry held

If you enjoyed The Perils of Pauline serial, please check out my review of Charles Goddard’s original novel: “The Original Damsel in Distress” and keep an eye out for my upcoming review of the 1947 color film The Perils of Pauline which stars Betty Hutton as Pearl White imperiled by all kinds of danger as she films her 1914 serial.

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