Commonly known as the Pathé Frère company’s “Peerless Fearless Girl,” or the “Heroine of a Thousand Stunts,” Pearl White’s undaunted and adventurous persona became emblematic for her career and for serial queens by and large. These included Grace Cunard at the Universal Film Manufacturing Company, Helen Holmes at the Kalem Company, and Kathlyn Williams at the Selig Polyscope Company. Her key work consisted of action serials during an intense decade starting in 1914. From 1910, prior to the serials, Pearl White started out as a rather anonymous actress at the Powers Company, the Lubin Manufacturing Company, and the lesser-known Crystal Film Company, acting in films little recalled today, of which few have been preserved. The bulk of her early productions were split-reels for Crystal, directed by Lois Weber’s husband Phillips Smalley and distributed by Universal Film Manufacturing Company. Pearl White reached some popularity at Crystal playing comedy parts, as Moving Picture News in a 1912 article titled “Miss Pearl White to Become Aviator” tells us (19). In multiple films in 1913 Pearl White’s characters were subsumed under a recurrent character name, in fact, her own—a practice indicative of the serial films.
Pearl White, The Perils of Pauline (1914). Private Collection.
Pearl White portrait. Private Collection.
Pearl White in car near Bayside home, c. 1918. Private Collection.
Latern slide, The Exploits of Elaine (1914). Private Collection.
Pearl White, Exploits of Elaine (1915). Courtesy of the Bison Archives.
Lantern slide, Pearl of the Army (1916). Private Collection.
Pearl White, The Fatal Ring (1917). Private Collection.
Pearl White, Plunder (1923), ep. 5 “To Beat a Knave.” Private Collection.
Pearl White portrait, c. 1915. Private Collection.
Production still, Pearl White. Courtesy of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Television
Pearl White, A Virgin Paradise (1921). Private Collection.
Pearl White headshot. Courtesy of the Bison Archives.
Pearl White, Perils of Pauline (1914). Courtesy of the National Women’s History Museum.
Hired by the American branch of the French Pathé Frères Company in Jersey City, she achieved her breakthrough in 1914 as Pauline in The Perils of Pauline, Pathé’s first serial. The Perils of Pauline is still the best-known production from the American serial craze featuring a new and independent female type of protagonist within a sensational, action-packed framework. Pauline’s and her serial “sisters’” versatility and bravado in performing tasks traditionally associated with masculine brawn—fistfights, handling pistols, and agility in stunts—were the genre’s most striking characteristics. The Perils of Pauline’s initial success in the United States was fueled by the immense publicity, the product of collaboration between Pathé and William Randolph Hearst’s publishing empire. In line with the new marketing methods for the serial films in the 1910s, story accounts of episodes were published in the Sunday papers as tie-ins for upcoming film episodes. In addition, $25,000 in prize money was offered in plot-writing contests as a further incentive for readers to engage with the serial. The massive marketing, as, for example, in Motography April 4 and 18 of 1914, was of course a boon for exhibitors, spiking the circulation of serials overall. In the history of the development of the star system, taking off in the US in the early 1910s (deCordova 2001, 50-116) it is notable that the serial format stimulated new market strategies favoring stars and character development over studios or directors as the most important label for a film.
Other Pearl White serials includes The Exploits of Elaine (1914), The New Exploits of Elaine (1915), The Romance of Elaine (1915), The Iron Claw (1916), Pearl of the Army (1916), The Fatal Ring (1917), The House of Hate (1918), The Lightning Raider (1919), The Black Secret (1919), and Plunder (1923). Almost all were written and directed by George B. Seitz. The proceeds from Pearl White serials became an important source of revenue for American Pathé; especially The Perils of Pauline and the Elaine serials were remarkably successful. Due to Pathé’s international distribution unit, her films were shown in a long list of countries abroad, including Italy, India, Japan, and Sweden. Allegedly, Pearl White received heaps of fan letters from all over the world every day.
The popularity boom placed Pearl White in the midst of attention in women’s magazines, the daily press, and trade journals, making her one of the era’s most popular film actresses. In Motion Picture Magazine’s popularity contest in late 1916, Pearl White was voted the most popular movie star of all (15). Two years later, in December 1918, she was ranked third on the same list trailing only Mary Pickford and Marguerite Clark (12). In late 1920, Pearl White still came out third in the magazine’s contest (94). She did not only become popular among young women in search of new female role models, but she was also immensely popular among American soldiers during World War I, as the New York Star reported in 1917 (78). Pearl White is still regarded as the most famous of the silent serial queens.
That the dangers she was exposed to in the films were real—she allegedly insisted on performing all the stunts herself—offered one of the most recurrent promotional lines. It was apparently of paramount importance for the audience that her courage on screen was genuine, and newspaper headlines, as, for example, “Pearl White ‘Doubled’ Pathé Star Nearly Loses Her life in Strenuous ‘Iron Claw’ Stunt,” in the New York Dramatic Mirror, kept this idea alive (32).
Savvy audiences, however, no doubt understood that even if it looked real on the screen, some thrilling actions, like falling from high cliffs, had to be faked. But White’s fearless image was severely tarnished in 1922 when a stunt man was reported killed by the London Times while doubling for her in her last serial Plunder (8). Pearl White perpetuated a set of myths about herself by describing her serials in her 1919 autobiography, Just Me, as: “‘the always in danger’ type of pictures” (160). This mythology is also highlighted in her account of the contractual negotiations with Louis Gasnier, the head of production at American Pathé, leading up to her starring in The Perils of Pauline. The script presented to her had outlined a number of skills that she had not mastered. On the eve of the first episode, she would have to learn how to play tennis, swim, drive a motorcar, and survive a smashup. As she described these challenges in Just Me:
And so it has been ever since, even up to the present time. I’m always learning to do something new for each picture. I’ve even learned to fly an aeroplane, a feat that took me many months. If I have to jump off a moving train, automobile, etceteras, I always take myself out and try it several times until I get to be pretty sure of myself before they take the picture (162).
With raising stardom, Pearl White became news herself. Numerous articles explored her private as well as professional life, her background, career, home life, and clothing. The combination of athletic performance and charming appearance—characteristics considered as absolute opposites—was unfailingly emphasized in the United States as well as abroad (as in “La Vrai Pearl White” appearing in the French magazine Figaro in 1921). For publicity purposes she dangled from tall buildings in Manhattan, for example, in April 1916, to paint her initials on a brick wall. This gimmick was documented in Moving Picture World the next month (948). These stunts attracted lavish newspaper attention. The coverage was hyperbolic, encapsulated in a 1921 article titled “The Heroine of a Thousand Dangerous Stunts.” But looking at the rhetoric of publicity from another angle, White’s constant lies and fabricated information about her past, family, and career, which permeate her unreliable autobiography, also create major difficulties for her biographers.
Pearl White starred in several feature films produced by Pathé, such as The King’s Game (1916), Hazel Kirke (1916), and Mayblossom (1917). Allegedly tired of making serials, with their hectic production pace, which left little room for acting and character development, she abandoned Pathé in 1919 signing up with Fox Film Corporation to make features. White made nine films for Fox between 1920 and 1922, predominantly society dramas, but these films met with little success and none of them have survived. She returned to Pathé in 1922 for what would be her last serial, Plunder (1923), where she once again plays an unstoppable action heroine who defeats her enemies with amazing ease. Early in 1923 she left for Europe, where she would live until her death. Her last film, Terreur, released in the United States as Terror, was made in France in 1924.
As her film career petered out, Pearl White continued to perform in revues and music halls in Paris and London. She owned the Hôtel de Paris in Biarritz, where she ran a casino; a nightclub in Paris; and a stable of racing horses. In Europe she married the Greek millionaire Theodore Cossika. Previous husbands were the actor Victor Sutherland and the actor and director Wallace McCutheon, who costarred with Pearl White in The Black Secret in 1919 and The Thief in 1920. After a protracted period of failing health and problems with alcohol, Pearl White died in Paris in 1938 as a consequence of liver failure.
Pearl White seems to have had a more prominent place in film history than as “only” an internationally renowned movie star. To what extent she did influence the productions she appeared in remains somewhat unclear due to all the contradictory as well as fabricated stories surrounding her star persona. According to Just Me, White was completely committed to the “impossible” feats described in the manuscript. But as Monica Dall’Asta points out, at the end of her career, White promoted her production of Terreur in both Mon Ciné and Le Cinéopse with announcements for scripts, actors, financiers, and claims that she aimed to apply the American mode of production into a French setting. Unfortunately, the documentation of the credits is incomplete, which is prevalent in the productions of the first decades of the film industry. White’s extensive career adds up to over two hundred titles, including split-reels and one-reelers, serials and features. The few films that have survived, including the serials, are scattered over a number of archives, although the majority are in the Library of Congress, and all fifteen episodes of Plunder can be viewed in the UCLA film archive.
Advertisement. The Perils of Pauline. Motography (4 April 1914): 3-6.
Advertisement. The Perils of Pauline. Motography (18 April 1914): 3-6.
Bao, Weihong. "From Pearl White to White Rose Woo: Tracing the Vernacular Body of 'nuxia' in Chinese Silent Cinema." Exporting Pauline: Pearl White and the Serial FIlm Craze. Bloomington: University of Illinois Press, 2013. 187-221.
Canjels, Rudmer. "Changing Views and Perspectives: Translating Pearl White's American Adventures in Wartime France." Marina Dahlquist, ed. Exporting Pauline: Pearl White and the Serial Film Craze. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2013. 25-45.
Condon, Mabel. “Sans Grease Paint and Wig.” Motography (22 Aug. 1914): 279-280.
deCordova, Richard. Picture Personalities: The Emergence of the Star System in America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001: 50-116.
Dahlquist, Marina. “'The Best-Known Woman in the World': Pearl White and the American Serial Film in Sweden.“ Marina Dahlquist, ed. Exporting Pauline: Pearl White and the Serial Film Craze. Bloomington: University of Illinois Press, 2013. 46-70.
------. “'Why Pearl?': Introduction.“ Marina Dahlquist, ed. Exporting Pauline: Pearl White and the Serial Film Craze. Bloomington: University of Illinois Press, 2013. 1-23.
Dall’Asta, Monica. “Pearl, the Swift One, or the Extraordinary Adventures of Pearl White in France.” In Exporting Pauline: Pearl White and the Serial Film Craze. Ed. Marina Dahlquist. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013. 71-98.
d’H., L., “Terreur avec Pearl White.” Le Cinéopose 55 (March 1924): 261.
“Fatal Film ‘Stunt.'” Times [London] (16 Aug. 1922): 8.
“Hall of Fame.” Motion Picture Magazine (Dec. 1918): 12-13.
Johnson, Kevin B. “Fascinations for the Nation: American Serial Film, Czechoslovakia, and the Afterlives of Pearl White.” In Exporting Pauline: Pearl White and the Serial Craze. Ed. Marina Dahlquist. Bloomington: University of Illinois Press, 2013. 126-159.
Lauwick, Hervé. “La Vrai Pearl White.” Figaro (2 May 1921): 1.
MacDonald, M. I. “Miss Pearl White to Become Aviator.” Moving Picture News (12 Oct. 1912): 19.
“The Motion Picture Hall of Fame.” Motion Picture Magazine vol. 16, no. 11 (Dec 1918): 12.
Mullett, Mary B. “The Heroine of a Thousand Dangerous Stunts.” American Magazine (Sept. 1921): 32-35.
“Pearl White ‘Doubled’ Pathé Star Nearly Loses Her life in Strenuous ‘Iron Claw’ Stunt.” New York Dramatic Mirror (1 April 1916): 32.
“Pearl White in Press Stunt.” Moving Picture World (6 May 1916): 948.
“Pearl White’s Message to our Boys.” New York Star (26 Dec. 1917): 78.
Peterson, Christina. “'The Most Assassinated Woman in the World’: Pearl White and the First Avant-Garde.” In Exporting Pauline: Pearl White and the Serial Film Craze. Ed. Marina Dahlquist. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013. 99-125.
Will Power. Dir.: Phillips Smalley (Crystal Film Co. US 1913) cas.: Pearl White, Chester Barnett, si, b&w, 35mm, ½ reel. Archive: Library of Congress [USW].
The Perils of Pauline. Dir.: Louis J. Gasnier (chapt. 1-9 and unidentified chapter), Donald Mackenzie (chapt. 2-3), sc.: George B. Seitz, cost.: Lucy Duff-Gordon (Eclectic Film Co. US 1914) cas.: Pearl White, Crane Wilbur.
The Ring. Dir.: Phillips Smalley (Crystal Film Co. US 1914) cas.: Pearl White, si, b&w, 35mm, 2 reels. Archive: Library of Congress [USW].
The Exploits of Elaine. Dir.: Louis J. Gasnier and George B. Seitz (chapters 1-2, 4-14, and unidentified episode), Donald MacKenzie (chapt. 2, 4), Leopold D. Wharton (chapt. 3), sc.: Charles L. Goddard, Bertram Milhauser (Eclectic Film Co. US 1914) cas.: Pearl White, Arnold Daly, William Riley.
The Burlesque Queen, 1910; The Girl From Arizona, 1910; The Hoodoo, 1910; The Horse Shoer’s Girl, 1910; The Maid of Niagara, 1910; The Matinee Idol, 1910; The Motor Fiend, 1910; The New Magdalene, 1910; The Missing Bridegroom, 1910; The Music Teacher, 1910; Her Photograph, 1910; The Sheriff and Miss Jones, 1910; A Summer Flirtation, 1910; Tommy Gets His Sister Married, 1910; When the World Sleeps, 1910; The Woman Hater, 1910; A Woman’s Wit, 1910; The Yankee Girl, 1910; The Angel of the Slums, 1911; For Massa’s Sake, 1911; Helping Him Out, 1911; Her Little Slipper, 1911; His Birthday, 1911; Home Sweet Home, 1911; The Lost Necklace, 1911; Love Molds Labor, 1911; Love’s Renunciation, 1911; Memories of the Past, 1911; Monte Cristo, 1911; A Prisoner of the Mohicans, 1911; The Reporter, 1911; The Power of Love, 1911; The Society Girl and the Gypsy, 1911; The Stepsisters, 1911; The Terms of the Will, 1911; Through the Window, 1911; An Unforeseen Complication, 1911; The Arrowmaker’s Daughter, 1912; At the Burglar’s Command, 1912; Bella’s Beaus, 1912; The Blonde Lady, 1912; The Chorus Girl, 1912; For the Honor of the Name, 1912; The Girl in the Next Room, 1912; The Gypsy Flirt, 1912; Her Dressmaker’s Bills, 1912; Her Kid Sister, 1912; Her Old Love, 1912; Her Visitor, 1912; His Wife’s Stratagem, 1912; The Life of Buffalo Bill, 1912; Locked Out, 1912; The Man from the North Pole, 1912; McGuirk, the Sleuth, 1912; The Mind Cure, 1912; Oh, Such a Night!, 1912; Oh! That Lemonade, 1912; The Only Woman in Town, 1912; A Pair of Fools, 1912; Pals, 1912; The Quarrel, 1912; The Spendthrift’s Reform, 1912; A Tangled Marriage, 1912; The Valet and the Maid, 1912; Accident Insurance, 1913; An Awful Scare, 1913; Box and Cox, 1913; The Broken Spell, 1913; The Cabaret Singer, 1913; Calicowani, 1913; A Call from Home, 1913; Caught in the Act, 1913; A Child’s Influence, 1913; Clancy, the Model, 1913; College Chums, 1913; The Convict’s Daughter, 1913; The Crying Baby, 1913; Daisy Wins, 1913; A Dip Into Society, 1913; Dress Reform, 1913; The Drummer’s Note Book, 1913; The Fake Gas-Man, 1913; The False Alarm, 1913; False Love and True, 1913; First Love, 1913; Forgetful Flossie, 1913; The Girl Reporter, 1913; Girls Will Be Boys, 1913; The Greater Influence, 1913; The Hall-Room Girls, 1913; The Hand of Providence, 1913; The Heart of an Artist, 1913; Hearts Entangled, 1913; Her Lady Friend, 1913;Her Rival’s Help, 1913;Her Secretaries, 1913;Heroic Harold, 1913;A Hidden Love, 1913;His Aunt Emma, 1913;His Awful Daughter, 1913; His Last Gamble, 1913;His Romantic Wife,1913; His Twin Brother, 1913; Homlock Shermes, 1913; An Hour of Terror, 1913; Hubby’s New Coat, 1913; An Innocent Bridegroom, 1913; Joke on Belmont, 1913; A Joke on the Sheriff, 1913; The Kitchen Mechanic, 1913; Knights and Ladies, 1913; His Last Gamble, 1913; The Lifted Veil, 1913; Lost in the Night, 1913; Lovers Three, 1913; The Lure of the Stage, 1913; Ma and the Boys, 1913; Mary’s Romance, 1913; Misplaced Love, 1913; Much Ado About Nothing, 1913; Muchly Engaged, 1913;The New Typist, 1913; A News Item, 1913; A Night at the Club, 1913; A Night in Town, 1913; Oh! Whiskers!, 1913; Oh! You Pearl, 1913; Oh! You Scotch Lassie, 1913; Our Parents-In-Law, 1913; Our Willie, 1913; Out of the Grave, 1913; The Paper Doll, 1913; Pearl and the Poet, 1913; Pearl and the Tramp, 1913; Pearl as a Clairvoyant, 1913;Pearl as a Detective, 1913; Pearl’s Admirers, 1913; Pearl’s Dilemma, 1913;Pearl’s Hero, 1913; Pearl’s Mistake, 1913; Pleasing Her Husband, 1913; The Rich Uncle, 1913; Robert’s Lesson, 1913; Schultz’s Lottery Ticket, 1913; The Smuggled Laces, 1913; Some Luck, 1913; The Soubrette, 1913;Starving for Love, 1913; Strictly Business, 1913; A Supper for Three, 1913; That Crying Baby, 1913; That Other Girl, 1913; Through Fire and Air, 1913; Toodleums, 1913; True Chivalry, 1913; Two Lunatics, 1913; The Veiled Lady, 1913;What a Swim, 1913;What Papa Got, 1913; When Duty Calls, 1913; When Love is Young, 1913; Where Charity Begins, 1913; Who Is in the Box?, 1913; Who Is the Goat?, 1913;Will Power, 1913;Willie’s Great Scheme, 1913; With Her Rival’s Help, 1913; The Woman and the Law, 1913; A Woman’s Revenge, 1913; The Dancing Craze, 1914; East Lynne in Bugville, 1914; Easy Money, 1914; A Father’s Devotion, 1914; For a Woman, 1914; Get Out and Get Under, 1914; Getting Reuben Back, 1914; The Girl in Pants, 1914; Going Some, 1914; A Grateful Outcast, 1914; The Hand of Providence, 1914; Her New Hat, 1914; It May Come to This, 1914; The Lady Doctor, 1914; Liferitis, 1914; Lizzie and the Iceman, 1914; The Mashers, 1914; McSweeney’s Masterpiece, 1914; Oh! You Mummy, 1914; Oh! You Puppy, 1914; Pearl’s Mistake, 1914; The Ring, 1914;The Shadow of a Crime, 1914; Shadowed, 1914; Some Collectors, 1914; A Sure Cure, 1914; A Telephone Engagement, 1914; Was He a Hero?,1914;What Didn’t Happen to Mary?, 1914; What Pearl’s Pearls Did, 1914; Willie’s Disguise, 1914; A Lady in Distress, 1915; The New Exploits of Elaine, 1915 (serial with 10 episodes); The Romance of Elaine, 1915 (serial with 12 episodes); Annabel’s Romance, 1916; Hazel Kirke, 1916; The Iron Claw, 1916 (serial with 20 episodes); The King’s Game, 1916; The Fatal Ring, 1917 (serial with 20 episodes); The Black Secret, 1919 (serial with 15 episodes); The Lightning Raider, 1919 (serial with 15 episodes); The Thief, 1920; The Tiger’s Cub, 1920; The White Moll, 1920; Beyond Price, 1921; Know Your Men, 1921; The Mountain Woman, 1921; A Virgin Paradise, 1921; Any Wife, 1922; The Broadway Peacock, 1922; Without Fear, 1922; Terreur, 1924.
C. DVD Sources:
Perils of Pauline. DVD (Grapevine Video US 2012)
The Lost Serial Collection. DVD. (The Serial Squadron US 2008) - includes clips from Pearl of the Army, The Iron Claw, The Fatal Ring, The Lightning Ring, Plunder, and Terror
Pearl White: Queen of the Serials. DVD. (Grapevine US 2006)- contains The Perils of Pauline preview (1914), The Exploits of Elaine (episode 1) (1914), Pearl of the Army (episode 10) (1916), The Fatal Ring [excerpts] (1917), The Lightening Raider [excerpts] (1919), Plunder [excerpts] (1923), Terreur [excerpts] (1924)
The House of Hate. DVD. (The Serial Squadron US 2015)
D. Streamed Media:
Perils of Pauline (clip from episode 7) (1914)
Pearl White is sometimes listed as appearing as in The Flaming Arrows, 1911; The Message of the Arrow, 1911 and Hooked, 1913, all of which are listed in the Library of Congress Copyright Office. However, her participation can’t be confirmed in any other standard source. While every effort has been made to create a complete filmography for Pearl White, it is likely the some titles have been overlooked as she appeared in literally hundreds of films. Monica Dall'asta writes that Pearl White, when discussing her last film Terreur, claims to have assisted in finding financing for the film, choosing the actors, finding the studio and arranging the lighting (90). Since this describes the job of a film producer, we concur that she is a possible producer on this last film.
Dahlquist, Marina. "Pearl White." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2013. <https://doi.org/10.7916/d8-9v19-2b74>