The Perils of Pauline (1914)
“The Eclectic Film Company’s Great $25,000 Prize Photo-Play”
Director: Louis J. Gasnier, Donald MacKenzie
Cast: Pearl White, Crane Wilbur, Paul Panzer
Synopsis: The guardian of a young woman who inherits a fortune devises a number of schemes to do away with her so that he can get his hands on her money.
Today, only nine of the original twenty episodes of The Perils of Pauline serial are known to exist (check your attics), and none of them are of the cliffhanger variety attributed to this early serial as they are all self-contained stories. These existing episodes are actually an edited re-release of the original serial re-titled The Exploits of Elaine from 1916.
The opening episode sets the scene for the episodes to follow by having the benefactor of Pauline (Pearl White) die after stating in his will that she and her sizable inheritance must be protected by his faithful servant Koerner (Paul Panzer) until she marries her cousin Harry (Crane Wilbur). Koerner – the character’s named was changed from Raymond Owen in the original to make him sound more German – actually turns out to be an escaped prisoner who is blackmailed by a former accomplice (Edward Jose) into trying to kill Pauline in order to get his hands on her fortune.
The rest of the serial follows a predictable – and repetitive – formula, with Koerner suggesting that the adventure-loving Pauline – who’s delaying her marriage to Harry until she gets this yearning for excitement out of her system – embark on a highly dangerous escapade, much to Harry’s exasperation. You can understand Harry getting a little fed up with it all seeing as he’s the one who’s usually called upon to save Pauline from whatever predicament she – or Koerner – has gotten herself into, and wonder what he sees in her (other than a passport to a life of luxury seeing as how her benefactor, who happens to be Harry‘s uncle, left him nothing in his will). All she seems to do is ignore him when he warns of the danger she’s putting herself into, and then tell him to save her when the dangers he predicted come true.
It’s difficult to review older films like The Perils of Pauline because they were made for an audience that was far less sophisticated in terms of their demands from the movies than we are today. It’s tempting to wonder how Pauline and Harry could be so blind as to not see that every adventure Koerner suggested to Pauline proved to be almost fatal – and often involved Pauline being tied and gagged by a band of gypsies. You’d think the way Koerner jumped with surprise every time Pauline and Harry made an appearance after he believed them to finally be dead, or the way he’d angrily clench his fist each time a plan went awry would be something of a giveaway, but the two of them never seem to learn.
For a serial that’s nearly one hundred years old, The Perils of Pauline still delivers a fair amount of entertainment, despite the sometimes shocking condition of the existing print. It’s easy to forget that it was groundbreaking entertainment in its day, but its influence extends to movies made as recently as the 1980s – the similarity between the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark in which Indiana Jones is chased by a giant boulder bears an unmistakable resemblance to a scene in The Perils of Pauline in which Pauline is chased down a hillside by a bouncing boulder.
(Reviewed 5th October 2012)