Silent Star of October 1996

Pearl White

Mix thrills, stunts, death-defying acrobatics, and whirlwind speed, add a dash of hokum, and top with a girl-in-jeopardy cliffhanger ending. The result? The classic serial film, one of the most popular film genres before and during World War I. While serials were produced from the early days of film through the mid-1950s, it was during the silent era that they took the shape for which they are most commonly known today.

Serials had their start as early as 1909, with the Clarendon Company of Great Britain releasing their enormously popular series of one-reelers featuring Lieutenant Rose, RN. The French company Urban was even producing a Western serial, featuring the main character "Arizona Bill."

The first American serial appeared in 1912, with the Edison Company introducing What Happened to Mary? starring Mary Fuller. The genre matured into a standard formula with Selig's The Adventures of Kathlyn, starring Kathlyn Williams, released on December 29, 1913, and introducing the "cliffhanger" ending.

These early serials' popularity with the masses was attributable largely to the female leads. Always appealing, pretty, girl-next-door types, it was their appeal that audiences kept coming back for each new installment. The press, sensing the public's desire for these serialized stories -- as well as sensing an increase in sales -- were quick to capitalize on the genre and serialized stories for their papers, as well.

But of all the serial heroines of the teen and twenties, it is Pearl White and The Perils of Pauline that have burned themselves into film history.

She was born in Greenridge, Missouri, on March 4, 1889. Her mother died when Pearl was just 3, leaving her with a rather strict father. At age 18, she joined the Trousedale Stock Company, performing at night to keep working during the day, continuing to bring money to her father. Eventually the company began to travel, performing throughout the Midwest, and while in Oklahoma City she married Victor Sutherland October 12, 1907. The marriage was not a success, but she did not divorce Sutherland until 1914, when she was well on her way to stardom.

Pearl continued to perform in stock companies, ending up in the South when the company finally ran out of money. She made her way to Cuba, at one time performing in a dance hall as "Miss Mazee," performing American songs. She continued to travel, singing her way throughout South America in dance halls and casinos.

Tired, broke, and disillusioned, Pearl came home to settle down, finding work as a dressmaker and a nanny. When those didn't take, the lure of performing put her back on the road.

It was her overworked throat that sent Pearl to the movies. What's interesting is that Pearl White never made a single film in Hollywood; indeed, she is never known to have even visited the state. Instead, Pearl White began her film career with Pat Powers and the Powers Film Company in New Jersey, earning the hefty sum of $30.00 per week. Her first movie of record is 1910's The Girl From Arizona.

After 18 months, Pearl left to work for Lubin, only to be fired a few months later. She ended up at Pathe, becoming popular enough for Crystal Studios to put her under contract and give her top billing.

Her popularity increasing, in 1913 Pearl took her carefully accumulated $6,000 and left for Europe for 6 months. Upon her return, she continued to crank out one and two reelers for Crystal. In 1914, a chance encounter with an old Pathe friend, Theodore Wharton, led to an introduction to Louis Gasnier, who was preparing to film The Perils of Pauline. Pearl accepted Gasnier's offer to star, and burst into the public eye under a blaze of publicity and $250.00 per week.

"Pauline" was followed by her most successful serials, The Exploits of Elaine in 1914, The New Exploits of Elaine in 1915, and The Romance of Elaine, also in 1915.

Pearl made quite a bit of money for Pathe, and was rewarded with $3-5,000 per week. She continued to make a great many serials, including The Iron Claw, 1916, The Fatal Ring, 1917, and The House of Hate, 1918.

In 1918, Pearl married World War I veteran Major Wallace McCutcheon, even performing with him in The Black Secret, 1919. Unfortunately McCutcheon, undone by nerve gas and the strain of war, disappeared in 1920. He reappeared in a Washington, D.C. sanitarium, eventually committing suicide in January of 1928.

In 1920 Pearl moved to Fox, making features, not serials. Her fans, however, stayed away, and she made only ten features in all for Fox until 1922.

Deciding to take a "rest" from pictures, Pearl moved to France. Once again, the quiet life did not take, and Pearl appeared in a revue at the Montmartre Music Hall, "Tu Perds La Boule" (You Lost the Ball). Pearl was also seen in a London revue, appearing with George Carney.

In 1923, as a favor to old friend George Seitz, she made one last serial, Plunder. She made her last feature film in 1924, Terror, for a French company. Even in 1937, the name Pearl White was still magic; when offered by three studios to publicize her return to the screen, she is reported to have replied "Do I look crazy?"

Pearl White died of a liver ailment in Neuilly, France, on August 4, 1938.

Glen Pringle /
Kally Mavromatis /
Copyright © 1996 by Glen Pringle and Kally Mavromatis
ISSN 1329-4431