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Pearl White, Queen of the Silent Serial - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

March 2006

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Today, serials are considered a very American movie genre and are most closely associated with the 1930's and 40's, with studios like Republic and Mascot [read Mascot article here] and with chapterplays like Flash Gordon (1936), The Undersea Kingdom (1936) or The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), to name some of the most popular.

However, serials as such were introduced to the movieworld as far back as in 1909 -and not in America at all but in England and France. The popularity of these chapterplays reached its actual peak in the late 1910's and early 1920's, and back then the top serial producer was Pathé ... and in 1914, the serialworld got its first superstar: Pearl White, a good-natured, adventure-loving and humourous girl that could switch between damsel-in-distress and action heroine with the greatest of ease, and her daring would come across the screen quite so natural that it can be considered nothing short of infectuous.

 

Pearl White was born in Greenridge, Missouri in 1889 to (allegedly) poor parents, and her mother died when she was only three years old. It seems Pearl has been bitten by the acting bug in an early age, because she joined the Diem Stock Company in her late teens, and first played in her hometown then toured the country as an actress - and all against her father's wishes ... still she would support financially him later in her life.

 

Around 1910, she became entangled withthe movie world, when Bronx-based producer Pat Powers hired her to act in a series of one-reelers for his Powers Film Copmpany. But compared to films by other companies, Powers' output was crude and visibly cheap. Soon Pearl White left Pat Powers to work for the Lubin Film Company in Philadelphia. Still a small outfit, the product of Lubin was at leas a step up from Powers ... but it was hardly star material, just meaningless one-reelers to help fill the movietheatres programs.

 

Her engagement with the Lubin Film Company though did not last long, she was fired after only a handful pictures in 1911, and when asked about it, Pearl White freely admitted to - despite her stage experience - not having been much of an actress at this point of her career, and not really taking it seriously.

 

Once back in New York, Pearl White was hired by Pathé, a studio that would eventually become vital to her career, but not until later. This time around at Pathé, Pearl only stayed for a handful of one-reelers before leaving for Universal Crystal in 1912, for more one- and even half-reelers, but this time around whe would finally get star billing, and several of the films, like Pearl as a Detective, Pearl's Dilemma, Pearl and the Poet and What Pearl's Pearls did would bear her name in the title. But what was more important than even star billing was that Pearl started to take film-acting seriously - and it payed off, soon enough Pearl White became a success, not a smashing success, yet but a success nevertheless.

 

In 1914, Pearl would leave Universal Crystal again and go back to Pathé, to star in a serial - a first for Pathé, the studio that eventually became the leading producer of serials in the silent era. Serials back then were  relatively new to American audiences and productin houses alike - the first American serial, What Happened to Mary ? was produced just two years earlier.

 

Serials - sometimes called chapterplays or even cliffhangers - as such were pretty much movies told in serialized form, which means instead of telling the story in one go, it was cut up into 10 to 20 episodes, each around 20 minutes long. The emphasis was invariably on action and invariably, the plots were very simplistic so that vewers would instantly remember them once the next episode screened (usually, theatres ran a new episode of a serial every week), and new viewers could easily grasp what's going on.

Another key element of serials was the cliffhanger ending, where one of the serials leads would be put into grave, mortal danger (sometimes even hanging from a cliff), at the end of one episode, only to be saved at the beginning of the next (not all that rarely, serials would cheat a bit with the resolution of these scenes, as the makers figured audiences would probably not remember exactly how the last episode ended - and they probably were right).

 


The first serial Pear White was in was The Perils of Pauline (1914, directed by Louis J.Gasnier, Donald MacKenzie), and it shot her to instant serial superstardom. The story is as simple as they come: Young Pauline has just inherited a fortune, but instead of living a quiet life ever since, she wants to have adventures, which plays right into the hand of Paul Panzer, the man who would inherit her fortune would she die, and so he puts her into one perilous situation after the other. However, if that plot seems silly to our jaded, 21st century tastes, upon watching the serial (or what's left from it, which is a cut down version that still packs a punch) it's easy to understand why audiences flocked to see it: It's (for its time) incredibly fast paced, it contains stunts and action aplenty, along with a constant change of scenery (from the old West to the high seas to the racetrack and so on), it doesn't take itself too seriously, and Pearl White's natural daring seems to be just infectous. And what's more, she wouldn't just portray the damsel-in-distress who needed constant saving by the dashing hero (though Crane Wilbur has to save her a few times) but would participate in the action ... and even do some of her own stunts.

Eventually, Pearl White did seriously injure her back on the set of The Perils of Pauline, but curiously enough not doing a stunt but when being carried up a flight of stairs by baddie Paul Panzer, who somehow unluckily lost hold of her ...

 

Encouraged by the success of The Perils of Pauline, Pathé soon enough put her into another serial, The Exploits of Elaine (directed by Louis J.Gasnier), which premiered in late 1914. The Exploits of Elaine is a mysteryplay that pits Pearl/Elaine against the vilain The Clutching Hand. This serial and it's title character was successful enough that Pearl would re-appear as Elaine in two more serials in 1915, 

The New Exploits of Elaine and The Romance of Elaine, both directed by George B.Seitz.

 

More Pearl White serials would follow until the end of the decade, The Iron Claw and Pearl of the Army from 1916, both directed by Edward José, The Fatal Ring in 1917, The House of Hate in 1918, and The Lightning Raider and The Black Secret in 1919, the last four all directed by George B.Seitz.

Of all these serials, The Lightning Raider looks the most interesting, it has Pearl White as a master (cat) burglar complete with her own burglar costume pitted against an evil Chinaman played by Warner Oland (years before he became a smashing success as Charlie Chan).

 

All these serials had several things in common: Much action, a fast pace, breathtaking stunts and at the center of it all Pearl White as the daring yet humourous heroine who seems to be reight in her element.

 

However, by the turn of the decade, Pearl White decided she was through with serials and wanted to get more sophisticated roles in features ... and thus she left Pathé and signed on with Fox Film (Pearl in fact did a few features for Pathé, but none of them was really good and she made no secret of despising them).

Unfortunately, this career decision was not a lucky one: while Pearl White seemed to be perfect for the fast pace and action of serials, she did not sit well with the society dramas Fox Film had her star in. Of the 10 films Pearl starred at Fox between 1920 and 1922, the more interesting ones might be The White Moll (1920, directed by Harry Millarde) - which has Pearl playing an undercover cop -, The Thief (1920, by Charles Gyblin) - with Pearl playing a society woman who turns to stealing -, A Virgin Paradise (1921, by J.Searle Dawley) - here, Pearl is a South Seas girl coming to New York - and Broadway Peacock (1922, by Kenneth Webb) - about a cabaret hostess climbing the social ladder.

 

In 1923, Pearl came back to Pathé to do one last serial, Plunder, directed by George B.Seitz, who handled many Pearl White serials in the past. The serial delivered more of the same, good-natured action and stunting one has come to expect from Pearl White, however the time the serial was made was not a happy one for Pearl: At the time of shooting Plunder, Pearl went through a messy divorce, her back trouble, still stemming from the injury she got while filming Perils of Pauline, was getting to her more and more, and then a stunt men died, doing one of her stunts (she claimed to do all her stunts herself, but of course that was a lie). In the respect of this it is hardly surprising that Pearl left the USA for rest and relaxation before Plunder was even released.

 

Pearl White did return to the screen one last time in 1924 with the French feature Terreur (retitled The Perils of Paris for American audiences, for rather obvious reasons), a murder mystery directed by Edward José, who already directed her serials The Iron Claw and Pearl of the Army 8 years earlier. Bearing that in mind, it's hardly surprising that Terreur became another fast-paced, good-natured action and stunt flick full fights and chases, that lead through the countryside as well as over the rooftops of Paris and through the Paris sewers ... a film that - even in the fragmented form that it exists in today - is easy to like ...

 

Pearl White did not give up acting altogether but returned to the stage, headlining a Montmartre revue in Paris and playing at a London music hall - and she had enough star power to earn top wages. There are even rumours that she shot more films in France, but none of these rumours is even remotely confirmed.

 

During her years filming and appearing on stage, Pearl has made enough money, and had the foresight of saving it, that she could eventually quit acting, and even the Great Depression of 1929 would not hurt her financially. Eventually too, she found a new love in a Greek millionaire ... and that of course did not hurt either, financially.

 

Unfortunately though, Pearl's back injury from Perils of Pauline was taking its toll, and she became increasingly addicted on painkillers and took to drinking. As a result of that, Pearl White died in 1938 from liver ailment, at age 49, and with her died the first and certainly one of the greatest serial superstars.

 

Granted, Pearl White might have been no Greta Garbo, Mary Pcikford or Theda Bara, but she did know how to entertain, and her best films/serials come across surprisingly fresh even nowadays considering their age.

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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On the same day
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A Killer Conversation

produced by and starring
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directed by
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written by
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starring
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