Queen of the Serials



When I used to think of “damsel in distress” I almost automatically thought of poor Pauline from The Perils of Pauline. But I had never actually seen the 1914 film serial. When I did finally watch the surviving episodes, I learned that while Pauline was often in distress, she was never as hapless as I had thought she was. She was actually a “New Woman”, a heroine for her time, a woman who wanted and went after adventure no matter how many villains got in her way. And her millions of female fans turned The Perils of Pauline into a huge money maker and made the star, Pearl White a millionaire.


In 1947, actress Betty Hutton starred in the Technicolor film The Perils of Pauline. It was  billed as a musical comedy biopic of the Queen of Serials, actress Pearl White, but bore very little resemblance to Pearl White’s real life. Pearl began acting on stage at age six and dropped out of school at age 18 to become a full time singer-actress. She was very athletic (she was, at age 13, a bareback rider for a circus) and a talented singer. Pearl made the switch to films in 1910 when her voice began to fail from constant performances. Four years later she was offered the starring role in The Perils of Pauline. The serial was a huge hit and catapulted Pearl into instant celebrity. Pearl went on to star in many more popular serials. In 1919, Pearl was ready to switch from action packed serials to more dramatic films but her popularity was waning. She moved to Paris to enjoy the artistic scene there and retired from acting by 1924. Her talent and savvy business skills made her a millionaire. Pearl invested in a Paris nightclub, a resort hotel and casino, and race horses and indulged her love of travel. She may have been planning a comeback in talking pictures but her life was cut short by liver failure. Pearl had suffered a spine injury while filming The Perils of Pauline and had self medicated the lingering pain with drugs and drink. She knew her liver was failing so she got her affairs in order, purchased a cemetery plot, and planned her own funeral. A year later, she checked herself into a Paris hospital where she soon slipped into a coma and died. Pearl White was only 49. In life and in death, she was never the whiny, hapless damsel.


Betty Hutton’s 1947 film, The Perils of Pauline, portrays Pearl as a fun loving factory worker who sort of accidentally gets a chance to sing on stage. Betty as Pearl takes care of the acting troupe’s costumes and plays bit parts which she mostly messes up. Betty is also constantly harangued and insulted by the troupe’s lead actor, Mike (played by actor John Lund) whom she secretly loves. When she can no longer take the constant bad treatment, Betty tells off Mike, and she and her mentor, Julia (actress Constance Collier), take off for Hollywood. An acting role for Julia accidentally and hilariously turns into a career in serial stardom for Betty. Betty’s star power allows her to reassemble her old acting troupe, including arrogant Mike, as her serial co-stars. Mike, true to his nasty self, is completely unappreciative while poor Betty pines away with love. Real life Pearl White would never have been so weak in love. Pearl was married and divorced twice and spent her last years living and traveling with (but never marrying) a Greek businessman.


As a look at Pearl White’s real life, Betty Hutton’s The Perils of Pauline fails miserably. Yes, Pearl White became the Queen of the Serials, but the “how” is vastly different. Yes, there was a devastating accident, but the “when” is vastly different. And, yes, Pearl moved to Paris but the “why” and “who with” was also vastly different. However, as a musical, Betty Hutton’s The Perils of Pauline is a great success. The film has several catchy tunes. I especially liked “Rumble Rumble Rumble” and “Poppa, Don’t Preach to Me”. Betty’s lovelorn lament, “I Wish I Didn’t Love You So” was even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song although it, sadly, did not win. Betty Hutton’s The Perils of Pauline also succeeds as a hilarious look at how early silent films were made. These were SILENT films after all, so the sound stages could be as full of as much crazy noise as directors, actors, carpenters, and a ton of other workers could possibly produce and none of it, not a lick of sound, would be in the pictures. When Betty’s friend and mentor, Julia bemoans her lack of lines, the director tells her to just make something up. Betty and her friend Timmy (actor Billy De Wolfe) make exaggerated mouth movements while not talking at all. And Timmy gnashes his teeth madly to show his character’s villainy. The actors and actresses threw their arms around madly and themselves around just as madly as they did all kinds of really dangerous stunts including jumping onto actual trains and getting trapped in a real runaway balloon. Pearl White originally did her own stunts and they were often very dangerous. She really was carried away and into a storm by a runaway balloon and she also did permanent damage to her spin in a fall. Producers eventually began to fear for the survival of their money making star and forced Pearl to use a stunt double. Although the studio kept that fact a secret until one of her male doubles missed a jump and died of a fractured skull and fans, at first, thought it was Pearl White who had died.


Betty Hutton’s The Perils of Pauline was filmed in Technicolor and runs one hour 32 minutes and 31 seconds. The film ended up in the Public Domain when more than 700 Paramount productions were sold to Universal for television distribution in 1958. Through confusion and complications, The Perils of Pauline was not part of that package and the copyright was not renewed. So, while Universal still owns “the original film elements” there are many copies of the television broadcast in the Public Domain. The Internet Archive has a copy of The Perils of Pauline that can be watched online or downloaded completely FREE. Unfortunately, IA’s copy, and all the PD television copies, suffer from a quality that is not all that good. It is not terrible but there is a lot of blurriness. I tried downloading and watching online but all of IA’s versions are blurry. Not horribly distracting, like I said, but just disappointing. The sound quality, however, is excellent. A big plus for fans of silent movies is the many silent film stars making an appearance in this 1947 film. Paul Panzer, the villain in the 1914 Pauline serial makes his final appearance as the “Drawing Room Gent”. Creighton Hale, the hero in Pearl White’s serial The Exploits of Elaine also makes an appearance. A pie throwing scene features silent comedy veterans Chester Conklin, James Finlayson, and Hank Mann.  The barroom brawl on the Western sound stage features William Farnum, Francis McDonald, Ernie Adams, and Snub Pollard. Also making an appearance are Ethel Clayton and Jean Acker.

The Perils of Pauline starring Betty Hutton can be downloaded or watched online at Internet Archive.  My earlier reviews, The Original Damsel in Distress and Poor Pauline: The Ultimate Damsel in Distress, have links to the FREE original Pauline story and the FREE 1914 Pearl White The Perils of Pauline serial. And stayed tuned for my upcoming post on Pearl White’s serial that was even more popular than Pauline: The Exploits of Elaine. Enjoy!

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