Fates Worse Than Death Double Feature: The Perils of Pauline (1914 and 1933)

This week I explored two female-led serials that share a title (and not much else).  The Perils of Pauline wasn’t the first motion picture serial, but in 1914 it caught the public’s attention, making a star of its lead, Pearl White, and laying the groundwork for later serials’ success.  Indeed, The Perils of Pauline was such a sensation that its name became synonymous with the serial of a certain type, inspiring both imitators (The Exploits of Elaine, The Hazards of Helen) and remakes (other than the 1933 version, two features borrowed the title: a 1947 biopic starring Betty Hutton as Pearl White, and a campy 1967 remake starring Pat Boone in the vein of The Great Race). The ambiguous status of its leading lady as both heroine and victim would also be a source of contention, still familiar in today’s debates over “strong female characters.”

Part I: 1914


The wealthy Mr. Marvin trusts his secretary Koerner with the safety of his ward, Pauline, but he doesn’t know about Koerner’s shady past, or his escape from prison.  When one of Koerner’s old associates, Hicks, approaches him and demands money, Koerner begs him off.  Marvin is ill and won’t live much longer: once he is gone, it will be a simple matter to get rid of Pauline and claim her inheritance.  Koerner’s scheme is made easier by Pauline’s independent nature: although Marvin’s son Harry presses her to marry, she wants to experience her share of adventure and excitement before she settles down.  It’s a simple matter for Koerner to suggest she take a ride in a hot-air balloon or motorboat in the hopes that Pauline will meet with an unfortunate “accident.” (And if those don’t work, there’s always the more direct approach of simply having her abducted and drowned or burned alive.)


Thus are set in motion The Perils of Pauline, from which Harry is sometimes on hand to rescue her, and from which she sometimes escapes on her own (and which in a few cases she avoids entirely unknowingly, as when she is delayed and doesn’t get on board a sabotaged airplane, which then crashes).  Through all of her adventures, Koerner never reveals his sinister intentions (except to the audience) and Pauline continues to trust him. Harry, for his part, is only concerned that Pauline’s taste for risky adventure will get her killed, and tries to discourage her out of general worry (and sometimes he is caught up in the same danger).  Even when Pauline is kidnapped and directly assaulted multiple times, they don’t connect the dots—it’s just a dangerous world. (Incidentally, none of the perils include the oft-parodied scenes of a damsel tied to a railroad track or menaced by a spinning buzz saw: those images came from other films.)


The silent serial The Perils of Pauline originally had twenty chapters, filmed in America by the French company Pathé Frères and distributed in America by the Eclectic Film Company.  However, the only surviving version is from a French print edited into nine chapters, released in 1916.  (In addition to the loss of scenes, this version changed the name of the villain from Owen to Koerner to sound German; since that’s the version I was able to watch I’ve stuck with calling him Koerner.)  The shorter version is more than enough to get a sense of both the style and the story: the serial is entirely episodic, with each adventure introducing a different location and supporting cast, and there are no cliffhangers, each conflict being resolved before the end of the chapter.  Other than the first and last chapters, they could be watched in any order, and missing some doesn’t damage the story in a meaningful way, neither of which could be said about later serials.

The staging and editing of The Perils of Pauline is often crude, and the English title cards are famously full of mistakes in spelling and grammar (a result of both the hurry with which the film was made and director Louis Gasnier’s poor grasp of English).  Although there are humorous touches, the story is told in broad strokes: in “Goddess of the Far West,” Pauline travels to Montana and is promptly kidnapped by ruffians employed by Hicks; upon escaping from an underground burrow, she is witnessed by a local Indian who takes her for a goddess springing out of the earth.  To prove herself she must race the “stone of death,” an enormous boulder, down the side of a mountain.  “The Deadly Turn” involves an attempt to wreck Pauline’s car in an automobile race; “The Shattered Plane” refers to the airplane previously mentioned.  By the time we see the title of Chapter Eight, “The Serpent in the Flowers,” we can be certain it isn’t a metaphor.

Hicks parleys with a group of Western ruffians

Hicks parleys with a group of Western ruffians

Despite its flaws, however, the serial is saved by its star, Pearl White.  White’s early life is shrouded in misinformation, much of it spread by White herself, but she had already appeared in films before agreeing to star in The Perils of Pauline, and had earned enough to tour Europe in 1913.  On screen, she is active and emotes strongly, desirable qualities in a silent film actress.  She is also sturdy and athletic, a far cry from the fainting violets one thinks of as the heroines of melodrama.


In contrast to later decades, when a cadre of professional stuntmen doubled actors for almost any strenuous scene, silent actors generally did their own stunts, and White’s reputation partially rested on the very real dangers she put herself in. Kalton C. Lahue, in his Continued Next Week: A History of the Moving Picture Serial, relates several hair-raising incidents: the “runaway” balloon actually did come loose, coming down in a lot full of people, who promptly mobbed the star and nearly suffocated her in the gas that was escaping from the balloon.  In another (apparently lost) chapter set in Chinatown, White was surprised by a group of Chinese actors who, seeking to make a good impression, beat her up with very real jujitsu.  She was long troubled by an injury to her back sustained when she was accidentally dropped down the stairs while filming Pauline, and she retired in 1922 after a stuntman was killed filling in for her (in full view of a crowd, an awkward situation considering her producers still claimed she did all her own stunts as she had when she was younger).


Although later generations have primarily thought of her as the archetypal “damsel in distress,” contemporary audiences saw in Pauline an independent woman putting off marriage to explore her own interests, a cinematic counterpart to the idealized women drawn by Charles Dana Gibson.  Even though much was made of Pearl White’s physical bravery, her beauty and femininity were still a selling point, and it should be noted that the wide range of settings of the Perils called for an equally large number of costumes for the leading lady to appear in: tennis outfits, boating, riding and driving costumes, and more, including the “Indian” costume she wore as the “Goddess of the Far West.” Like the Gibson Girls, Pauline was both capable and fashionable, a figure onto which many fantasies could be projected.


Although it is mostly not (intentionally) humorous, it’s probably fair to compare The Perils of Pauline to the action-packed silent comedies of the day rather than the lengthy dramas that are rightly considered the pinnacle of the silent era.  Like the comedies, serial episodes were only two or three reels in length, and the injuries Pearl White sustained in making them are comparable to the gauntlet of abuse that Buster Keaton and (later) the Three Stooges put themselves through.  Just like modern action movies, the serials delight with the swiftness of their plotting and their dazzling effects rather than their keen insight into human nature, and they’re most engaging when going a little haywire.  Scenes like Harry buying a car on the spot so that he can ram it into the front door of a burning house, or Pauline trapped on a ship the navy is using for target practice, make for cracking entertainment, even if they are as unlikely as the comic exploits of Keaton and Harold Lloyd.


What I Watched: The Perils of Pauline (Pathé, 1914)

Where I Watched It: It’s on YouTube, starting here.

No. of Chapters: 9

Best Chapter Title: The title of the final chapter, “The Floating Coffin,” deserves this honor, as it was so good it was borrowed as a chapter title by several later serials.

Best Peril: As I said, the chapters don’t end on cliffhangers, but the title is well earned by the many dangers Pauline faces.  In addition to the race against the “stone of death” in Chapter Two, Chapter Seven (“The Tragic Plunge”) sees Pauline trapped underwater aboard a sabotaged submarine, from which she escapes by being ejected through the torpedo tube and swimming to the surface to get help.

Sample Title Card: “The great chief commands that the white girl shall be subjected to the ordeal which should reveal her immoral [sic] strength.”

What Others Have Said: “All in all, it was much a case of the right actress in the right role at the right time.  It is quite probable that even an actress of greater stature than Miss White could not have carried it off any better.”  –Lahue, Continued Next Week

Part II: 1933


When I saw that Universal had made their own (sound) version of The Perils of Pauline, I naively thought that the producers might have kept the bare bones of the 1914 story, even as they embellished and rearranged the plot to bring it up to date.  After all, the story of a corrupt guardian trying to claim his ward’s inheritance is a sturdy hook, ripe for adding the types of formulaic side characters the serials of the 1930s were known for.  I didn’t expect extreme fidelity, of course: considering the changes that established characters went through in adaptation, or the fact that producers could brazenly claim something like Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island was based on Defoe’s novel, I knew that many liberties would be taken.

The 1914 serial had a lot of material to work with, though.  In fact, several chapters of the original version could form the basis of their own serials: many Western serials were based on premises no less flimsy than “The Goddess of the Far West.”  The episode I mentioned above with the sabotaged submarine had even more potential, as it introduced a spy ring and a female counter to Pauline in the person of Mlle. Yagow, whom Koerner immediately recognized as a kindred soul and potential partner in crime.  In that episode, Harry and Pauline effectively guest starred in somebody else’s spy thriller, a story that could have easily been stretched to a dozen chapters.

But no: Universal’s 1933 production has nothing in common with the 1914 classic except the name of the heroine (and only the first name, at that), although it does give Charles W. Goddard, who wrote the scenario of the original, a story credit.  That disappointment aside, the 1933 Pauline is quite entertaining in its own right, a globe-trotting pulp adventure that is an obvious source for the Indiana Jones films and a showcase for the kind of production that Universal did well.


The action begins in China, where Westerners are fleeing the oncoming Revolution.  Professor Hargrave (or sometimes Hargraves: the credits, titling, and even the spoken dialogue are inconsistent on this point) is close to finding a sacred ivory disk whose secret has been entrusted to him by the Chinese monk Confu (a character never shown, but frequently referred to); even at the urging of his daughter Pauline (Evalyn Knapp) and his cowardly secretary Dodge, Hargrave refuses to leave the country until he has recovered the disk.  Also searching for the disk is the “Eurasian” Dr. Bashan (John Davidson) and his scarred henchman Fang.  The disk contains a secret formula for an invisible poison gas that destroyed an earlier civilization; Hargrave wants to give the secret of the gas to humanity (by way of the U. S. government, of course) to put an end to war, whereas Bashan wants to use it for himself to gain power.


When Pauline follows Hargrave and Dodge to the Temple of Tsai Tsin, where the disk is hidden, she is rescued from Bashan and his men by Robert Warde (Robert Allen, AKA Craig Reynolds), an American engineer whose work on a Chinese railroad is about to be put to an end by the Revolution.  Warde quickly grasps the situation and joins Hargrave’s team.  The disk turns out to be only half a disk, and stored with it are instructions for finding the other half.  From this start, The Perils of Pauline turns into an international scavenger hunt as Hargrave and Bashan follow the clues to piece together the disk and attempt to out-maneuver each other.  From China they travel to Borneo, Singapore, India, and New York, facing obstacles ranging from wild animals and booby-trapped temples to assassins and gangsters.


True to its title and inspiration, this version of The Perils of Pauline puts the professor’s daughter in danger in every cliffhanger, sometimes alone and sometimes with Warde or as part of the group, but the story is driven by the search for the sacred disk, not her own sense of adventure.  Like the 1914 version, the 1933 version finds opportunities for its star to appear in a variety of costumes both rugged and glamorous (although to be fair, the male stars go through a number of wardrobe changes as well: like Indiana Jones or James Bond, Warde is the kind of rugged he-man who takes care of business whether in khakis and pith helmet or a tuxedo). In addition, Evalyn Knapp is competing for screen time with many more characters than Pearl White had to deal with: in the context of the serials, she is the star, but that doesn’t mean she is always the center of attention.


As Dr. Bashan, John Davidson (a frequent serial “heavy”) gives a magnetic performance. Bashan is a smooth operator, whose strategy is often to let Hargrave uncover the next clue, and then take it from him. In one sequence, Bashan and Fang end up on the same flight from India to New York as Hargrave and his party, an uneventful trip that is described in dialogue as having taken five days!  Did they say anything to each other in all that time, or even cross paths on the way to the lavatory?  Such details are as lost to time as the empires of the past.


Although Bashan and his assorted flunkies are described as “political renegades,” are they anti-colonial nationalists? Communists? Who knows? Contrary to the popular image, Bashan and other serial villains aren’t given to long-winded explanations of their political gripes; there are no trade disputes or committee hearings.  They’re bad guys, and that’s all we really need to know.  There is a close resemblance between Bashan’s rivalry with Hargrave and the later feud between René Belloq and Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark: they truly are two sides of the same coin, working for different goals by similar methods.

Davidson delivers many of his lines with a satisfied purr; when he is angry he doesn’t raise his voice, he deepens it.  It was while watching Chapter Seven (“Trapped by the Enemy”), set at a Singapore hotel, that I realized who Bashan, disguised in a turban, reminded me of:



As a Universal production, The Perils of Pauline is relatively lavish, relying on the studio’s extensive collection of sets, props, and stock footage to support the world-spanning narrative, but there are times the seams show.  The Chinese and Indian temples are full of Egyptian statues (excused by reference to the global civilization wiped out by the poison gas—this is a rare example where relying on a fantastic conceit like Atlantis would make the story more plausible).  Every location is represented by stock footage that sometimes goes beyond scene-setting and smacks of padding.  The jungles of Borneo are full of wild animals, but suspiciously few of them ever appear on screen at the same time as the characters.  The same shot of a dead leopard appears twice in the same chapter, representing two different attacking animals.  Finally, background music is only present in a handful of chapters, but its absence is made up for by a constant racket of city and jungle noise, a challenge to my perception that older movies were quieter than those made today.


Still, this is a fun, action-packed serial that would be of interest to anyone looking to go back farther than Indiana Jones.  Even better, it is continually surprising and inventive, right down to the last scene in which Bashan and Fang discover what the invisible gas really does—I won’t spoil it, but I’ll admit that for such a predictable outcome, it managed to surprise me.

What I Watched: The Perils of Pauline (Universal, 1933)

Where I Watched It: I watched an Alpha Home Entertainment DVD; it doesn’t appear to be on YouTube, except for this clip of Pauline and her father from Chapter One.

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “Confu’s Sacred Secret” (Chapter Twelve)

Best Cliffhanger: At the end of Chapter Nine (“The Mummy Walks”), Hargrave’s party has tracked the last fragment of the disk to a museum in New York, and find it hidden in an antique vase.  A curse is inscribed on the outside, leading Hargrave to believe it may be packed with an explosive (!).  Of course Pauline, running from Bashan’s henchmen, drops it down the stairs, where it explodes, appearing to knock her out.  (Like many of the cliffhangers, the resolution is anticlimactic—Pauline stands up and brushes herself off—but doesn’t rely on a cheat, exactly.)


Sample Dialogue:

Sullivan, a friend of Warde’s: “How’d the fight turn out?” after a run in with natives in the jungle of Borneo

Warde: “Great—the whole village burned down!” (Chapter Six, “Pursued by Savages”)

Warde and his pilot friend Sullivan share a laugh after dropping hand grenades on the natives (and Bashan).

Warde and his pilot friend Sullivan share a laugh after dropping hand grenades on the natives (and Bashan).

Silliest Character: I must give a little more attention to Willie Dodge (Sonny Ray), whose appearance and mannerisms bring to mind Stan Laurel, and who is the main source of comic relief throughout the serial.  Cowardly to the extreme, Dodge is constantly put upon, by life and the other characters.  A running joke has him in the middle of the jungle or other perilous situation offering his resignation to Hargrave, who solemnly replies, “Very well.  Would you like to leave now?”

In a modern story, Dodge might be redeemed at the end by finding his courage for a single heroic act, or at least accidentally saving the day à la Jar Jar Binks, but this isn’t that kind of story and Dodge isn’t that kind of character.  He’s consistently out of his depth, but I’ll admit I laughed at his antics several times, for example:

During a brawl on the deck of a storm-tossed ship, Dodge stands with the luggage, unsure whether to put it down or not:


In the museum at night, Dodge falls into a trough of plaster and is mistaken for a mummy, scaring off the bad guys:


When Bashan and his men break into a mansion and kidnap Pauline, Dodge runs out the front door wildly firing a pair of pistols in every direction:


After the Millennium Falcon engages a group of TIE fighters, Dodge is tangled in a bunch of wiring and shrieks, “I’m melting!”


. . . Well, it’s possible I’m thinking of someone else with that last one.

What’s Next: In two weeks, I revisit The Phantom Empire, the serial that made Gene Autry a star.

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