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The Perils of Pauline is the most famous of the silent movie serials,
which were a phenomenon on the teens and early 20s. Pearl White was the
superstar of this genre (Ruth Roland and Marion Davies also starred in
famous serials) and is the star of The Perils of Pauline.
Loosely plotted with little connecting tissue between episodes, the serials usually featured heroines in all kinds of dangers but always saved in the nick of time. 30s serials mostly featured men in adventurous outings. The "cliff hanger" ending was developed in serials as a way of drawing audiences back to watch the next episode.
The Perils of Pauline was originally a 20-episode serial but only the 9-episode European release survives. It opens with the death of Pauline's uncle and takeover by his "trusted" secretary as Pauline's guardian until she marries. Pauline's boy friend (Crane Wilbur) is a loyal but dumb sort of guy. The guardian (Paul Panzer) is constantly trying to knock off Pauline so he can inherit all the family fortune.
So in each episode Pauline gets into trouble as the guardian and his henchman (Francis Carlyle) try to kill her. The plotting is crude and the escapes are unrealistic but it's all in good fun. And audiences loved seeing Pearl White doing all kinds of dangerous stunts.
In this series she is bound and gagged several times, kidnapped several times by cowboys, pirates, gypsies, wild Indians, etc. and left for dead in a number of caves, burning houses, sinking ships, and subterranean cellars, and of course tied to railroad tracks!
Pauline is imperiled in speeding cars, runaway balloons, runaway horses, and left dangling on cliffs, and fighting off hordes of rats. My favorite is the Indian immortality test in which they shove her down a steep mountain slope to give her a running start and then shove a massive round boulder down the slope after her-a stunt basically repeated in the opening of the first Indiana Jones movie.
Pearl White is pretty and does well as the archetypical heroine. She's also very good in the action scenes whether dangling from a rope or cliff's edge or being carried off by desperados. Crane Wilbur and Paul Panzer overact but it's fun. Milton Berle made his first film appearance in this serial (and also in Tillie's Punctured Romance) in 1914!
An entertaining biography of Pearl White was filmed in 1947 as The Perils of Pauline, starring Betty Hutton.
If you have to see only one silent serial, then this is the one you have to see. Not because it is clearly the best one -- although it's a lot of fun, there are others, such as Feuillade's LES VAMPIRES with as good or even better claims -- but simply because it is a ripsnorting bunch of fun, and, more importantly, the wellspring from which all other movie serials, that cinematic art more fully lost to its makers than the movie musical -- the spring from which all serials sprang. It has all the usual stuff of serials -- scary cliffhanging chapter ends, the intrepid hero and heroine, the awful, hissable villain, tearful deathbed scenes and a host of storied names: Pearl White, Crane Wilbur, Louis Gassnier, George Seitz..... who has not heard of The Perils of Pauline? And I will repeat in case you missed it: it's a lot of fun. In the original version it might not play well in one evening, but the only surviving version is the 9-chapter version that Pathe released in Europe in 1916, now available on DVD from Grapevine. The print they located is a bit battered, but complete and in a lovely colored print. Go to their website and order one. Watch it with some friends. You won't regret it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I was a little disappointed in the cliffhangers in the "Perils of Pauline." We see her rescued, like from a burning house fire in the first chapter, and then see her back home being comforted by her boyfriend with about a minute left before the end of the chapter. Have no idea where the powers that be finally woke up and made the chapter endings real cliffhangers. The chapters in "P of P" are self contained. One could see chapters One, Three, Five, Seven and Nine and still get the full effect of the serial. Did see a few goofs in the titles. One says put the boat out to "see" instead of "sea." It was interesting to see that Paul Panzer, the villain, had a bit part in the Betty Hutton film. He is listed in that film as a "parlor gent." When Pearl is trying to rescue her friend from a pie-throwing incident and goes through several rooms where silent films are being shot she goes through a room where some dressed up gents are doing a scene. I believe he is the man standing up and is surprised to see someone in the scene who is not supposed to be there.
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