Pearl White is best known for the serial 'The Perils of Pauline', which is really not a very good example of her work ... especially in its current form. ('Pauline' is available on video ... but only with several chapters missing, and the available chapters renumbered to conceal the gaps.) The 1947 film 'The Perils of Pauline', starring Betty Hutton in an alleged biography of Pearl White, is a very entertaining movie (with some fine Frank Loesser songs) but grossly inaccurate.
'The Exploits of Elaine' (a 14-chapter serial, which I've seen only in partial form) is probably White's best film. It was written by Arthur B. Reeve, creator of the 'scientific detective' Craig Kennedy, whose popularity rivalled that of Sherlock Holmes. Kennedy solves his mysteries with a weird arsenal of his own inventions, some of them extremely plausible (a fisheye lens that can spy through keyholes), others slightly less so (a portable lie detector, 1914 edition), and others verging upon the magical (a machine which can revive dead people ... providing they've only been dead a few minutes).
Elaine Dodge (White) is the beautiful young daughter of Taylor Dodge, president of the Consolidated Insurance Company. When Mr Dodge is murdered by a mysterious cloaked figure known only as the Clutching Hand, Elaine enlists the aid of Craig Kennedy to unmask the killer ... who is obviously an entrusted figure in the insurance company. The two sleuths get some help (of a sort) from Jameson, Taylor Dodge's bumbling but faithful secretary. Along the way, they have some hair's-breadth escapes and some bizarre adventures ... including a seance at which Elaine encounters a bodiless voice claiming to be Iko, the spirit of Taylor Dodge.
'The Exploits of Elaine' was a chapter play, so it stayed in release (one chapter per week) for more than three months. Coinciding with this release, Reeve published a novelisation of the serial. This book was narrated by Jameson, who serves more or less as a Dr Watson to Craig Kennedy. This device doesn't work very well, as Jameson has little in common with Watson. There is one especially painful passage in which the Clutching Hand knocks out Jameson, switches clothes with him, and then flees when Elaine and Craig Kennedy capture the wrong man. This scene is narrated by Jameson, despite the fact that he is unconscious! And the narration is made even more convoluted because we're not meant to know that the two men have switched places until after the captured Clutching Hand turns out to be Jameson instead.
The IMDb cast list reveals the identity of the true Clutching Hand: Taylor Dodge's lawyer, Perry Bennett, who pretends to be Elaine's kindly adviser while he devises deadly contraptions to kill her. While masquerading as the Clutching Hand, actor Sheldon Lewis wears a flat cap with a bandanna over his face, and keeps his right hand in a claw-fingered position. Rather improbably, he maintains the bandanna and the claw even while alone in his hideout and speaking on the telephone! I'll rate this silent serial 7 points out of 10.
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