Mars-Avril 2002
Pearl White and the Perils of Pauline
[A Contemporary Perspective]
Par Marie-Claude Mercier


In the 21st century, the general trend is to regard films and the knowledge of those who make them with considerable respect, awe and even envy. An anonymous newspaper author for the Moving Picture World conveyed a strikingly opposing view in the teens: «Good motion picture direction has little to do with literacy and cultivation [...]. Some of the most cultivated directors in the movies still think of them as a form of theatre, of literature or of painting!». But since then, disciplines devoted solely to the study of particular spheres of film (film history, for example) have emerged. This type of study invariably involves a close observation of film facts. Still, a particular historical perspective must be adopted by the film historian since evidently, these facts do not speak for themselves. Rather, it is he who makes them speak and this reveals the study of film history as being quite subjective (Allen & Gomery 7). Perhaps this revelation is what compels us look for contemporary (rather then modern) perspectives on Pathé's THE PERILS OF PAULINE (Louis Gasnier, 1914) so that a certain authenticity and objectivity may be attained. In this respect, our general aim is to report the production and promotion history, and public reception of Gasnier's film from a contemporary perspective. It is to be kept in mind that the challenges related to the uncovering of first-hand historical knowledge certainly prove to be limiting.

Allen and Gomery's methodological issues about film history

Allen and Gomery have chosen to devote a discussion relative to questions of historical evidence precisely because these tend to be beyond film historians' concerns. Specific issues relative to the methodology surrounding the theory and practice of film history are outlined in their essay. One fact which is brought forth states that experimental scientists benefit from knowledge obtained from a reproduction of facts whereas film historians (and historians in general, for that matter) do not. Furthermore, in the study of film, confounding elements come into play as the resulting research product is closely intertwined with its sociological context. In simpler terms, the historian's interpretations are influenced by tendencies which prove to be a reflection of his age.

Traditional perspectives to the study of film history have been the empiricist and conventionalist approaches, referring to the collection and organization of film data and to the reasoning of raw material by the historian into historical evidence, respectively (Allen & Gomery 14). A third, more recent approach, which has been termed the realist approach, seems to lend itself best to the study of film (of our film, more precisely) and we will favor it in our study. Rather than looking for a single cause leading up to an event («a brilliant director», for example), it is concerned with the role of generative mechanisms (in addition to mere observation) which operate in conjunction with each other to form of a layer of reality.

Production and promotion history of THE PERILS OF PAULINE

By and large, the great majority of films are melodramas of one type or another. The meaning of the word in any given instance depends on which, and in what combinations, features come into play (Singer, 2001, 44). In 1906, a newspaper author recognized the genre as containing some element of sensationalism: «Ask the next person you meet how he defines a melodramatic story, and he will probably tell you that it is a hodge-podge of extravagant adventures [...]» (Singer, 2001, 48). Singer also reports William S. Dye's personal view of melodrama in 1919: «Melodrama is a play of dire distresses, of hazardous situations and of thrilling rescues [...]» (49).

A primary, general division can be made between the traditional and modern-day melodrama. Whereas the latter designates «a set of subgenres that remain close to the hearth and emphasize a register of heightened emotionalism and sentimentality», the serial-queen melodrama (SQM), a subgenre of an earlier, «traditional»-type melodrama (its action and thrill features being quite antithetical to the ones belonging to the modern-type melodrama), encompasses 60 silent films made in between the years 1912 and 1920, of which only THE PERILS OF PAULINE seems to be remembered (Singer, 2001, 165). Nonetheless, other «known» SQM's include THE GIRL AND THE GAME (1916), THE LASS OF THE LUMBERLANDS (1916-17), THE EXPLOITS OF ELAINE (1912) AND THE RAILROAD RAIDERS (1917).

A subsequent (and rather) obvious division in melodrama is between that of passion and that of action. Indeed, the SQM had very few similarities with later-day passion melodramas such as Douglas Sirk's WRITTEN ON THE WIND (1956) IMITATION OF LIFE (1959), or with Fassbinder's modernist FEAR EATS THE SOUL (1973) or CHINESE ROULETTE (1976). Rather, as we have noted in the quotes cited above, it recounts the action exploits of voluntarily risk-taking young heroines exhibiting a variety of traditionally masculine qualities (compromising freedom, physical stamina, courage and social authority) who act in stark narrative conflict with villains and their criminal teams (Singer, 2001, 163). What is most the most significant feature of the genre is that the woman is made to be the active agent of adventure.

Pathos (or «the elicitation of a powerful feeling of pity»), overwrought (or heightened states) of emotion, moral polarization, a nonclassical narrative structure (possessing a far greater tolerance and going beyond the classical narrative's logical cause-and-effect structure) and sensationalism are some primary recurrent elements in the melodramatic genre taken as a whole (Singer 44-47). Still, what remains its most central feature seems to be a particular quality, sensory in nature. Termed simply «excess», this quality has always been sought by film audiences, as emphasized by this 1907 critic: «[...] They are eager to see something happen; they want to have their emotions stirred.» (Singer, 2001, 42). It is of interest that this achievement (arousal of the spectators' emotions in as direct a manner as possible), if it was to be made by any melodrama in the silent era, would have required clear facial reactions and gesticulation on behalf of the actors.

The terms sequel, series and serial also merit to be distinguished. Whereas the first two terms designate a follow-up film made specifically in the wake of a successful initial picture and a film complete in itself but with reappearing characters, respectively, the serial tells a continuing story in the form of self-contained episodes. The serial format was most popular in the United Sates, France and Spain. It is generally agreed that the first ever made was Edison's WHAT HAPPENED TO MARY (1912), but some debate exists as to if THE ADVENTURES OF A GIRL SPY (1910-13) or THE ADVENTURES OF KATHYLN (1913) were actually released earlier (Hansen 359, Izod 55). Nevertheless, the teens certainly formed the era of the SQM genre, which served as a manifestation of a type of «standardized form of cinema», a notion which was becoming increasingly popular at that point in time.

Why serials? Their making simply represented one of the foremost obligations of the movies: entertainment! The SQM, particularly, grew out directly of late 19th-century working class amusements such as stage melodramas and cheap dime fiction novels (Singer, 1995, 105). But the answer to our initial question lies more specifically in the ease of pursuing into an already established popular market for sensational stories and in an attractive alternative for manufacturers who were incapable (or not willing to) switch to the emerging feature-film format (Singer, 1995, 106). The experience of such a manufacturer (one involved in the non-feature movie-making business), could have resembled the following: «He [...] was running a moving-picture show as a sideline in a building previously occupied by a store. Besides being the ticket seller, ticket taker, usher and proprietor, he proved to be a lecturer as well! But he did little more than earn a living by his efforts. [...]» (Anonymous, 1913). Furthermore, the liking for genre films made selling a subsequent product that was similar to its predecessor very easy, such that this type of repetitive work speeded up production (Izod 55).

In a sense, the melodramatic form had always existed, but it especially grew in 19th-century France and quickly spread internationally (to Britain, Russia, Italy, Third World Countries, etc.), after which the United States took over. The advent of the First World War assured American supremacy over the genre, and over the world film industry as a whole.

THE PERILS OF PAULINE'S story board was simple in concept. After her father's «disposal» in the first episode, Pauline was willed half his estate while the other half went to the former's secretary, Owen. Pauline wished to be a successful writer and Harry Marvin's only wish was to marry her (which was convenient for her, since she needed a husband in order to gain access to her fortune). She accepted conditionally, on the account that she was to spend an entire year pursuing her dream. Meanwhile, Owen tried to get a hold of the entire fortune by doing away with both Pauline and Harry. And so the story went for 20 episodes. The conflict between Pauline and the «villain» expressed a mutual struggle for the possession of a prized object (her father's fortune). Indeed, in addition to this element, usually present in one form or another in SQM's, the film also contained a powerful fatherly figure and a non-existence of other female characters.

In reality, Pearl White was a young girl originally from Missouri who begun her career as part of a small theatre touring company (which eventually led her to small filmic roles). After a brief initial encounter with Pathé, she returned to New York in 1914 for the Company's first serial: «Pathé offered me the chance to risk my life through THE PERILS OF PAULINE. I had to drive a motor car through water and fire, jump overboard from a yaught and be showered with rocks [...]» (White 215). One of her fans would later write about her in 1919: «She appeared to me to be a person of extreme honesty: straight and clear thinking [...]» (Slide 172). Indeed, Pearl had an attractive internal (as well as external) personality that lent itself well to the screen (see appendix 4). She was to become the «queen of the serial queens» (Slide 176).

The film history branch (as opposed to other theorist and critic branches) is concerned with cinema's temporal dimension, that is, how film as an art, technology, social force and economic institution has developed over time (Allen & Gomery 5). Here we choose to apply the realist approach described earlier, which involves a causal analysis of a generative event (sometimes coupled with its historical explanation and interrelationship with other mechanisms), to describe the production history of THE PERILS OF PAULINE (Allen and Gomery 17-19). Let us not forget that the force or impact of each mechanism (art, social, technological and economical) is certainly uneven for a same observable event (our film).

An obvious notion as one examines first-hand historical sources is that although film today is readily regarded as an art form, it has not always been so. Nonetheless, critics of the teens did realize that the moving picture (art form or not) (had) come to stay» and that this was due in large part to public demand (Anonymous 1912). At one point, cinema was regarded as a serious means of education. Catalogues of subjects possessing educational value (such as religion, geology and history) were complied. But «the necessity to produce material of a lighter type», such as action serials, was soon recognized (Anonymous, 1913).

Any particular movie gives an unmediated picture of a society and of its historical period. Movies like THE PERILS, particularly, can be examined in sociological terms (referring to their social context and to how both are intertwined). However, Allen and Gomery indicate that the study of our film in this respect requires that additional histories (social, in this particular case) must be analyzed. In this sense, the serial-queen persona (or the character of Pauline, for our purposes) can be seen principally as the impersonation of an important historical figure in feminine history, what is referred to as the New Woman. Almost simultaneously in France, Feuillade's sexy «femme fatale» character, Irma Vep, illustrated the New Woman's worldly reputation. During the disintegration of the Victorian world-view, women were dissatisfied with the lack of female independence often due to the small-mindedness of traditional gender definitions. Hence, a change in the female status was felt, partly in relation to the prominent feminine discourse which was present (Singer, 1996, 176). Industrialization (and an associated decline in the importance of the family), lower fertility rates and labor-saving machines (electric washers (see appendix 3), gas stoves and modern heating, to name a few) gave women more freedom to perform activities away from the home. «The freeing of their hands led to the freeing of their minds» (Wilson 95). Indeed, as household jobs changed, so did connected ideologies: «The woman (aimed) at being in direct contact with reality and forming her own judgment upon it», a 1902 magazine article states. Recognizably, modern women led active lifestyles which well reflected the array of options which were being opened up to them. More were driven to study science (despite ongoing obstacles related to their sex), were able to get a university-level education and found employment in academic institutions (see appendix 1 and 2). American newspapers such as The American City contained articles of woman activism, and women's clubs pursued a phenomenal range of projects (Wilson 98). Intertextual references (or direct connections which can be established between the film and other textual forms) of the New Woman include its growth out of other forms of popular entertainment including dime action novels and stunt articles in metropolitan newspapers. Here, an important detail merits attention; the SQM's seemingly contradictory ideology of the New Woman, which also portrayed her as weak and defenseless, might well have reflected the actual ambiguity of her new societal situation. This reference actually questions the genre's portrayal of a masculine-like, intrepid heroine in that she is now placed as the passive center of attention, as an object to be looked-at for the male viewer's narcissistic pleasure (Mulvey 17).

Economically, in the second period of cinema (1907-1914), sometime between the years 1908 and 1914 to be more precise, a societal trend of consumption emerged in several industrial spheres, cinema being one amongst them: «[...] Even the most expensive productions (were) seen for only a single day in the ten thousand or more picture theatres [...]» (Anonymous 1912). In her autobiography, Pearl recounts the simple events leading to her first role in the movies: «I came to New York to find a job in the movies. [...] I did my first picture in 2 days!? (White 93). Hence, the serial arrived at a crucial point in economic history; producers were just realizing the potential for exploitation of cinema. Major French production companies like Pathé were becoming convinced that it was in their best interest to establish their own subsidiaries within the American cinema industry. Pathé's main film-maker in its American affiliate was Louis Gasnier. Pearl White describes her rather chaotic meeting with the French director: ?[...] And he led me into the office of the head of the firm, Mr. L. Gasnier, who began criticizing me in his native tongue.? (White 105).

Pathé possessed an alliance with a string of big American daily papers such as the Movie Picture World, which would publish promotion slogans such as «Pathé Pictures: You read about in the New York American, here now!». Then, prose versions of many SQM's were published in the women's pages of these newspapers or in magazines. Newspaper critics of the teens recognized these relationships, which were mutually beneficial to both organizations in that they served as massive promotion material for the film studio, while helping the paper sell:

No plan for the exploitation of motion pictures in the public press since it became a popular form of public amusement in this country quite equals in magnitude that which has been adopted by the Pathé Freres to popularize the product of that well known concern. (Anonymous, 1914).

THE PERILS (all SQM's, for that matter) also had a profound interest in fashion (an element which made it very appealing to women), as seen by its great emphasis on Pauline's exquisite costuming. Indeed, she dressed quite overly extravagant for her perils. Still, one of the most important exploitation aspects of the film was its catchy title, which functioned as an attracting element for audiences initially, and which incited their desire to see subsequent chapters. In addition, Pathé usually made out its first episode to be three reels long, so that it could act as an exciting start (but mostly as a sales chapter).

The emergence of the Star System in Hollywood began in the early teens. Fans would return week after week to see their favorite stars. Several frivolous young actors and actresses aimed high, Pearl White amongst them:

To be sure, they offered me a lot of money so that I couldn't escape gaining at fame. That had been my lifelong struggle. [...] There were entire newspaper sheets with life-size photos of myself and slogans which said «Watch this young star and see how quickly she ascends to the very top'. (White 187)

«A lot of money» actually meant 250$ weekly, but the associated publicity did prove to be the break which she had desired for so long (Lahue 273). In fact, serial stars seemed like ideal «products» for mass publicity. At times, considerably more money was spent for their promotion as compared to the actual production cost of the serial! Producers invested major funds in newspaper, magazine and tram advertisements, as well as in cash-prize contests. These prizes, often adding up to outrageous sums (25,000$ in 1914, for example), were to fade away quickly as syndicated newspaper episodes of the serials also disappeared.

Public reception of THE PERILS OF PAULINE during its initial release

Audiences would have felt genuinely amazed, frightened and compelled by the viewing of serial-queen melodramas. This historical fact, which appears somewhat foolish to today's viewers, ties in rather neatly with the early notion of cinema of attractions, which describes the fascination of the filmic audience for the show (or thrill of display), rather than for the story (or narrative), with which it is not really concerned. In fact, with such an unimaginable demand for films in the teens, audiences actually expected that the product be imperfect (Anonymous, 1913). The concept of attractions proved to be true even in the later stages of cinema. A 1927 anonymous writer claimed that «In the end, what remains wonderful about the movies is its instrument».

Reception information concerning THE PERILS OF PAULINE is rather difficult (quasi-impossible, more precisely) to find. However, some film reviews and critics recorded have to do with the reception of the melodrama or serial. A Tribune author wrote about a serial entitled A DIAMOND FROM THE SKY, saying that it was «Emphatically the greatest film ever produced, a ceaseless cataract of action- The Serial Wonderful!» (Slide 160). One of the reasons why precise first-hand historical knowledge about the SQM (and serial, in general) is difficult to retrieve is that it was simply recognized as a low-class, outcast genre by critics of the time, as illustrates this quote from the New York Dramatic Mirror in 1916: «I am the serial. [...] Ah me, if only I could be respectable. If only the great critic would not rise whenever I pass by and if only he would not cry, «Shame!' [...]» (Singer, 1995, 105). This illustrates well a concept brought forth by Allen and Gomery about the partial (or mediated) nature of the historical fact. Indeed, in this example, the interests of critics in the teens limited the availability of contemporary sources, thereby limit, today, our understanding of the serial. From what a manager in the late teens reported about it, that «[...] a main theme (was) hard to find [...]», we can only assume that even early audiences would have recognized the genre as favouring thrill and action over plot (Singer, 2001, 47). In 1919, a film critique in Photoplay even criticized the mass audience's lack of analysis towards serials: «[...] Often, the direct motive is lacking for action, but serial audiences do not mind. They are not analytical [...]. » (Singer, 1996, 168). Still, it is a known fact that THE PERILS OF PAULINE was immediately accepted with fabulous success, even by its main star: «I had gone three weeks before I saw it on screen. Oh what a great sensation that was!», she confides (White 104).

The Board of Censorship had been created just a few years before the advent of the SQM. This 1910 censor had a rather cranky reaction to it: «It is crime, violence, blood and thunder [...]» (Singer, 1995, 105). Indeed, as mentioned above, the genre stood out as slightly uncultivated and for «the masses», at a time when the film industry was attempting to broaden its market to heterogeneous audiences. The serial was very targeted by early censors mainly because of the «rousing reception with which children greeted each chapter», which was thought to lead to juvenile delinquency (Lahue 47).

Trade-journal surveys can tell us something about the serial's popularity. An on-going survey conducted between the years 1914 and 1917 in Motion Picture News and asking «Do serials continue to be popular»? indicates that the initial 60/40 yes/no ratio in 1914 had evened out to 50/50 by 1917 (Singer, 1995, 110). Indeed, a generational shift caused audiences to view the genre as old-fashioned, rather than exhilarating. With the «moving picture business (had) come a new capriciousness to the public mind, a feverish desire for change [...]» (Anonymous 1912). The serial as a general form came to «an end» (it never actually died) in the late 1940's, after the advent of a greater degree of sophistication on the film audience's behalf and after the end of weekly cinema attendance (Hansen 359). As regards to the SQM, the New Woman image also wore off and women were forced to resume their filmic roles.


Undoubtedly, an interest in the study of the past underscores a belief that its understanding will prove useful to the present (Allen & Gomery 6). Perhaps this, in addition to the kind of nostalgia attached to the genre and its profound short-term and long-term influences on cinema, is what explains that a substantial amount of film historians (Ben singer, for example) have devoted their work to the serial. An immediate, short-term effect of THE PERILS OF PAULINE was the decision by Pathé's American affiliate to concentrate on serials thereafter. Pathé's serials also provoked fierce competition from the French studio, Gaumont. In France, Louis Feuillade's episodes of LES VAMPIRES (1915-16) were launched in an effort to sustain the French industry and in response to the quasi-simultaneous venue of a Pearl White serial in America, which serves as an important contextual reference. THE PERILS is also said to have instituted the new practice of releasing film prints an masse. (Abel 52). Many silent stars were not able to make the transition to either sound film, or to the feature-format. This indeed is what proved to be true for Pearl with the arrival of sound in cinema. ?I (had) been very successful in serials, so I thanked my lucky star and continued until the public tired of me », said Pearl in 1919 (314).

Evidently, THE PERILS OF PAULINE does not stand out as a particular case in the history of film but rather as part of a historical trend. There are a multitude of avenues which are left open for further research and in the study of the serial-queen melodrama genre in general. For example, it would be of interest to uncover the way in which female spectators reacted to their viewing, and the extent to which they would have been inspired to change by them. Indeed, «[...] Movies are manifestations in some kind of esthetic form of social will [...]», as stated this anonymous New York Times author in 1927. In brief, if serials are not «worthy» of historical inquiry, they certainly merit recognition as an important phenomenon in the history of cinema as a social mechanism, as it is generally agreed upon that «society represents itself to itself with a certain degree of fidelity» (Singer, 1996, 183).



Cited works:

ANONYMOUS. «Amazing Developments: The Moving Picture Field.» New York Times. 7 Sept. 1913.
ANONYMOUS. «Boosting Pathé Pictures.» Moving Picture World. 14 March 1914.
ANONYMOUS. «Emergence of Movies as a Distinctive Art.» New York Times. 6 Feb. 1927.
ANONYMOUS. «Quick Fashion Changes.» New York Times. 4 Aug. 1912.
ANONYMOUS. «The New Woman.» Cornhill Magazine. 6 Oct. 1894
ANONYMOUS. «The Rise of Silent Drama.» MacLean's Magazine. 12 April, 1912: 634-35.
ABEL, Richard. The Cinema Goes to Town: French Cinema From 1896-1914. Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1994.
ALLEN, Robert and Douglas Gomery. «Film History as History.» Film History: Theory and Practice. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1985. 3-23.
COOPER, Frederic Taper. «The Taint of Melodrama and Some Recent Books.» Bookman. 17 February 1906. 630-35.
HANSEN, Myriam. Babel and Babylon. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1991.
HENRY, Josephine K. «The New Woman of the South.» Arena, 12 Feb. 1895.
IZOD, John. Hollywood and the Box Office, 1895-1986. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.
LAHUE, Kalton, C. Bound and Gagged. New York: A.S. Barnes & Co, 1968.
MULVEY, Laura. «Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.» Visual and Other Pleasure. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989. 14-26.
SINGER, Ben. «Female Power in the Serial-Queen Melodrama: The Etiology of an Anomaly.» Silent Film. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1996. 163-193.
«Meanings of Melodrama.» Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Context. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. 37-58.
«Serial Films 1913-1956.» The Oxford History of World Cinema. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. 123-132.
SLIDE, Anthony. Early American Cinema. New York: A.S. Barnes & Co, 1970.
WHITE, Pearl. Just Me. New York: G.H. Doran Cie, 1919.
WILSON, Margaret G. The American Woman in Transition: The Urban Influence, 1870-1921. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1979.
WINCHESTER, Boyd. «The New Woman.» Arena. 16 April. 1902.


Marie-Claude Mercier


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