The Perils of Pauline (1914)

Genres - Adventure  |   Release Date - Mar 31, 1914 (USA - Unknown)  |   Run Time - 410 min.  |   Countries - United States  |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Synopsis by Hal Erickson

The Perils of Pauline was not the first movie serial ever made, but it is perhaps the best known -- though that doesn't mean it was the best. The throughline of this 18-episode chapter play was disarmingly simple: Pauline Harvin (Pearl White) has fallen heir to a fortune, all of which will go to her family lawyer and "trusted friend" Koerner (Paul Panzer) should anything happen to her. Naturally, Koerner wants to get his mitts on the money as soon as possible, so he concocts innumerable diabolical schemes and adopts countless "clever" disguises, the better to do away with Pauline. Fortunately, all-around hero Harry Marvin (played by future screenwriter/director Crane Wilbur) is on hand to rescue Pauline from her various perils, which include abductions by Gypsies, Indians, and demented pirates. Equally fortunate, Pauline is supremely capable of taking care of herself whenever Harry isn't around. To prove this at one point, she enters and wins an international motor race. In the final episode, the despicable Koerner is hoist on his own petard, while Pauline (who never suspected that her lawyer was behind all of her troubles!) enjoys a climactic embrace with faithful Harry. Poorly directed and miserably photographed in some of the least attractive locations in New Jersey, The Perils of Pauline wouldn't have been worth anyone's time had it not been for the presence of Pearl White, a truly appealing and charismatic actress who invariably seemed better and more intelligent than her material. Of the 18 episodes, only nine survive (all of them self-contained stories, and none of them "cliffhangers"); these were culled from a French re-release version, which contained some of the most illiterate subtitles in screen history. (At one point, a character suggests that Pauline's "immoral strength" be tested; of course, he meant "immortal," but the French translator didn't know that!) The title Perils of Pauline was reused in 1934 for an unrelated talkie serial; in 1947, for a filmed biography of Pearl White with Betty Hutton; and in 1967, for a TV pilot starring Pamela Austin.