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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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.