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
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.
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
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
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
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'.
«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.
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).
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