Perhaps the most recognizable serial adventure of all time -- at least by title if nothing else, strangely enough The Perils of Pauline (1914) eschewed any kind of cliffhanger or stay tuned for the following chapter shenanigans that came to define the genre in the 1930s through its demise in the 1950s. Thus, generally self-contained with everything resolved before moving on to the next scenario, this serial -- then known as a “photo play” -- is also somewhat unjustly tagged and overly maligned with cementing the idea of a damsel in distress in need of rescue as a melodramatic trope. And while our heroine is a damsel who faces much distress, she tended to survive these machination through her own wits and actions without any outside help or need of rescue.
Seems the premise of this tale revolved around a large inheritance due our protagonist, left by a wealthy uncle, which will be paid out once Pauline marries. But Pauline (White) isn’t quite ready to settle down just yet -- if ever, and has plans to go on many globe-trotting adventure first, which she hopes to use as fodder for many a ripping yarn to fulfill her ultimate dream of becoming a famous author one day. And so, all of that money will be left in a trust supervised by a man named Koerner (Panzer) -- or Raymond, depending on which version you see, who schemes to keep the money for himself by arranging all kinds of trouble for Pauline through various agents -- ranging from foreign spies to gypsies to cowboys to pirates, hoping to bring her life to a premature end as she galivants around.
Debuting in March, 1914, the subsequent chapters of The Perils of Pauline would be released every two weeks until its completion. Originally intended to run for only for thirteen chapters the serial grew so popular it was quickly extended with seven more adventures for a grand total of 20 installments. The introductory chapter ran for three reels (30 minutes) while the remaining ran for just two reels (20 minutes) -- nearly seven hours of pure unadulterated bedlam and mayhem.
Sadly, the complete serial has been lost and the only version of The Perils of Pauline that still survives is an extremely truncated and rearranged nine chapter version (about 3.5 hours) that was edited down for a French release in 1916 under the title Les Exploits d'Elaine or The Exploits of Elaine, which shouldn’t be confused with Eclectic Film’s follow up feature, The Exploits of Elaine (1914), that kind of set the template for many a old dark house mysteries to follow.
Luckily, to help promote The Perils of Pauline, William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper syndicate published exhaustive previews of each pending episode the day before its theatrical engagement along with contests and outlandish cash prizes for those who kept up. (Hearst was an uncredited financier on the serial.) Thus, we can still get a fairly accurate portrayal of what the original 20 chapter version of The Perils of Pauline was supposed to look like through these newspaper accounts, which, thankfully, were eventually gathered and published as a novelization.
Obviously, then, it was this nine chapter version of The Perils of Pauline that I watched and enjoyed recently -- though it makes you kinda wonder what we missed when perusing some of those surviving promotional materials. In what does survive, we get quite the insane and highly entertaining romp of stunts, daredeviltry, and foiled diabolical death-traps for about the first five chapters (-- a favorite is when our heroine must be shot out of a submarine's torpedo tube as an ersatz distress beacon), but then kinda loses its delirious edge as this melodrama sputters to its final conclusion.
However, despite running out of gas near the end, Pearl White is definitely my new hero. Performing all of her own stunts for the serial, White endured a lot but did not escape without mishap, permanently injuring her back in a fall. And she nearly died when a hot-air balloon she was occupying broke free and flew into a storm before finally returning to earth several miles away. Thus, again, as the prototype "damsel in distress" both White and her character really are quite proactive in their own rescues. Most reviews for this serial are pretty scathing due to the pace and nonsensical plot, but I don't think it's fair to truly judge it given barely half of it is still extant and what we see is completely out of order and the narrative is based on something that was translated into French and then translated back to English. Thus and so, The Perils of Pauline isn’t quite what you think, is the first of its kind, and is well worth a reconsidered look.
The Perils of Pauline (1914) Pathé Frères :: Eclectic Film Company / D: Louis J. Gasnier, Donald MacKenzie / W: Charles W. Goddard, George B. Seitz, Basil Dickey, Bertram Millhause, Bertram Millhauser / C: Arthur C. Miller / S: Pearl White, Paul Panzer, Crane Wilbur, Edward José, Francis Carlyle