Aah, 1947. A year of returning servicemen, major advances in television, the invention of the microwave, Kon-Tiki, the proposal of the Marshall Plan, and Jackie Robinson joining the Brooklyn Dodgers. Two years after the war, and life was looking rosy. The U.S hadn’t yet made their ill-advised foray into Korea, and you could still get a cuppa joe for a nickel.
On the not-so-nice side, the friendly folks at HUAC gave us the infamous Black List, setting out to destroy Hollywood careers, and gangster Bugsy Siegel took a mess of lead to his handsome face.
In the midst of all the current events, Paramount decided to give everyone a taste of history (with the full Hollywood technicolor musical treatment, of course). Directed by William Marshall, with fun songs by Frank Loesser, The Perils of Pauline wasn’t going to win any academy awards, but it is a fun time waster, and an entertaining way to pass a lazy weekend afternoon.
When I began searching for a film to cover for the 1947 blogathon, most of the jewels I thought about were already taken, but then I remembered this one and squealed. How else to tie my love of silent film to a relatively more modern time period?
The Perils of Pauline, like most reputedly “biographical” films of the era, gives only a passing nod to the truth, instead favoring a more glamorized version. But Betty Hutton makes it a fun ride. In addition to Betty, the film is chock full of former silent film stars playing cameos: Chester Conklin, William Farnum, Paul Panzer (the original villain from Pauline), Snub Pollard, Creighton Hale, Heinie Conklin, Jean Acker, Ethel Clayton, and Julia Faye. Keep an eye out if you’re a silent movie buff.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the film (or its subject), let me take you back a few years. In the early days of film, producers discovered that they could rake in the simoleons by having a whiz bang of a movie with lots of action, an evildoer or two, and of course, the damsel in distress. At the end of each film episode (called a short), they’d have a cliffhanger of an ending (where do you think we got the word?). To find out what happened, you had to tune in the next week. And the next week, and the week after that…
There were several serials that gained fame in the mid teens– Million Dollar Mystery with Florence LaBadie for Thanhouser and The Hazards of Helen with Helen Holmes for Kalem (she was later replaced by Helen Gibson). But arguably the most famous was The Perils of Pauline, starring Pearl White, brought to us by Pathe’.
Although pegged as a damsel in distress, Pearl was actually one of the more resourceful of these ladies, and didn’t need as much help from the dashing hero. Between her athleticism and her smarts, she could usually find a way out of her scrapes.
Pearl White was born March 4, 1889 in Green Ridge, Missouri. She began acting when she was young, doing the requisite Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She later went on the stock circuit. When her voice began to crack from the strain, she turned to silent films, going to work for the Powers Company in the Bronx. She was athletic, so she polished her skills in very physical comedies and by doing stunts. She worked with Pathe’-Freres, Lubin, and several other companies until Pathe’ director Louis Gasnier offered her the role in Pauline.
In the movie version, we first meet Pearl (Betty Hutton) at the Metropolitan Garment Company where she works. She and the other girls try to find a way to make the hours seem less drab, so when the friendly organ grinder comes around with his monkey, she tosses him a coin to keep the music coming, raising the ire of boss Joe Gurt (Frank Faylen). “Whaddya think I’m runnin’ here, a kaffeeklatsch?” he says sarcastically.
Annoyed, Pearl sings her homage to the sewing machine to entertain the girls (“The Sewing Machine”). [True fact: I saw this scene when I was a little girl…could have sworn it was “That’s Entertainment” but I could be wrong. Might have just caught my mom watching this and loved it, just never knew what film it was. It wasn’t until years later that I found out].
But of course, boss Joe Gurt is none-too-pleased with Betty’s impressions of him, or of her further goofing around and says he’s going to dock everyone a half day’s pay. She tries to apologize, but he gets fresh, and she decks him, to the approval of Julia Gibbs (Constance Collier), an older theatre actress there to pick up a costume she’s ordered.
Pauline tells her how much she loves her (and theatre people in general). “If I could be in the theatre…why even thinking about it makes me sick to my stomach!” she says.
Miss Gibbs promises her an audition if she’ll come with her to the theatre. Joe tells her not to come back without the $98.00 for the costume. The “audition” turns out to be theatre manager Michael Farrington (John Lund) pushing her out on stage, where she is promptly pelted with tomatoes from an impatient audience, who’ve been waiting for the delayed Julia Gibbs.
She makes a deal with them. “This is mighty important,” she says, after tossing a couple tomatoes back. Just let her sing her song. If they like it, they can give her a little hand. If they hate it, they can throw more tomatoes and she’ll toss em back. Deal? OK. She settles herself on the piano, and instead of doing something beautiful and sentimental (more fitting for Romeo and Juliet, the play they’re doing), she goes for a hefty, raucous dose of vaudeville (“Rumble, Rumble, Rumble”). She gets the job, but Farrington tells her he’s going to take the $98.00 out of her salary.
While on the train to their next destination, she’s introduced to Timmy Timmons (Billy DeWolfe). He’s Farrington’s second-in-command, and nearly ended up having to play Juliet in Julia’s absence. He teaches her something about acting– controlling her voice (projecting!). “Never enunciate like a lemon or a grape.” Only an orange.
When Farrington comes through the train car, he tells her that no job can be too big or too small for her, then promptly dumps the mending in her lap. Next scene, we see her working on the ironing for the cast as she preps for her role as a maid. She’s expected to simply say, “Milord, your carriage awaits.” Instead, she knocks over a lamp, and proceeds to destroy half the set before exiting ungracefully. She gets an earful from Farrington. Then, it’s into blackface to play a house slave in a Civil War melodrama.
She and Farrington attempt to polish a scene together where she has to kiss him, but she freezes up, then freaks out and runs out of the theatre. He can’t figure out what’s wrong. Julia calls him an idiot. It’s obvious to everyone but him that Pearl’s in love with him.
Thus ensues a comical scene intended to take place in the South Seas, where she wears a Dorothy Lamour type getup, but because she’s doused ahead of time, and they point fans at her, she can barely talk during the scene, she catches a cold, and nearly freezes to death onstage. When Farrington gives her what for, she tells him off and heads out. Julia leaves the cast too in protest.
Pearl ends up auditioning for a theatrical agent (“I Wish I Didn’t Love You So”), with the help of Julia on the piano. They tell her they can maybe find her something in the flickers. Even though Julia denigrates them, Pearl is game, so they show up at a studio, with multiple productions underway at once. Julia gets the vapors. They meet director Mac McGuire (William Demarest, famous for playing “Uncle Charley” on My Three Sons), and he puts them to work. In her first scene, Julia gets pelted by three pies at once.
Julia gets three pies in the puss
Pearl is not amused. She guides Julia off the set (Julia has whipped cream in her eyes) and they proceed to destroy several other productions in progress as they try to leave. Pearl makes such an impression (telling off a lion), that Mac hires her on the spot (“I thought it was a dog!” she says). When Julia hears how much, she accepts for Pearl.
When we hear that Pauline is going to be the biggest thing in pictures, we see workmen putting up a billboard for The Perils of Pauline, over the cute song “Poor Pauline”, and see the various predicaments she finds herself in (blowing desperately on the fuse for dynamite, tied to the tracks, going over Niagara Falls, etc).
When she’s filming a scene where she has to jump onto a moving train from a horse, she runs into Timmy Timmons, who’s camped out in a cattle car, riding the rails. Farrington’s group disbanded, and they’re all getting by however they can. She and Timmy get reacquainted and she asks him where Mike is. Turns out he’s working as the barker for a hoochie coochie show at a seaside carnival. They have an encounter, and she tells him there’s so much he could help her do. At first he denigrates her choosing of flickers over live theatre, but when she tells him it pays 100 bucks a week, he says he’ll do it. They bring along Timmy too. He makes a good villain.
In their first episode together, The Fatal Idol, Farrington (like Lund himself ed: Oops! Did I say that out loud?) is wooden, and Mac gives him hell for not emoting enough. He gets it right on the next take.
In “Murder in the Clouds, she and Mike are tied together in a hot air balloon as Timmy cuts the rope down below.
“Are you sure we’re tied down?” Pearl says. “You’re safe as in your mother’s arms!” Mac says. After Mac and Timmy go around and around on the differences between gnashing his teeth and chewing, everything goes wrong.
“For the love of Pete, willya gnash?”
The rope is cut, and there is nothing else tethering the balloon to the ground. The pilot never got a chance to get in the basket before they took off. They’re floating up up and up, with no signs of stopping!
Mike and Pearl cuddle up for warmth, through rain and cold and storms, and Pearl finally admits her feelings. Mike promises to marry her.
Mike gets disgusted at a party and tells Pearl that he had taken the job to try to build her up, but that she’s “dragged him down to where she is.” She calls him a snob and tells him to leave.
World War I breaks out, and Pearl attends a Liberty Bond rally, climbing to the very top of a tall ladder, and being caught in a net. On an ocean liner on their way to Europe, Mike and Timmy catch a viewing of The Fatal Idol. Mike leaves in annoyance. Timmy soaks up the adoration of the crowd when they figure out who he is.
Mike heads for Broadway, and Pearl catches a performance of “Kiss the Tears From My Eyes” one night, right about the time serials begin fading. Mac talks to his backers, and tries to keep things going, but they’re not interested. While he’s talking to them, his secretary comes in with a telegram Pearl has sent him. She’s on her way to Paris, and thanks him for everything. He knuckles under to the backers.
Farrington arrives just then, and threatens to punch Mac in the nose of he doesn’t tell him where she is. So he hands him the telegram. Pearl is working at the Casino de Paris, accompanied by Julia. We see her perform (“Poppa don’t preach to me”).
Mike sends her a message to meet him at the depot, and she says she feels like she has wings. While Timmy is performing, she climbs into the rafters, grabs a long tassel, and swings back and forth across the stage. The tassel breaks loose and Pearl is injured.
To tell you any more would give too much away!
But suffice to say that though Pearl did injure herself, it was during the making of one of the serials, and not afterward. Pearl’s real finale’ was much different than the one in the movie, and much sadder. She was married twice, but never had children. She prepared for the end she knew was coming, and willed her sizable estate to family and friends. She died of “a liver ailment” (most likely cirrhosis) in Paris in 1938, and was buried at Passy Cemetery.
This post is dedicated to a groundbreaker of silent film, Miss Pearl White.
This post is part of the 1947 Blogathon, sponsored by Speakeasy and Shadows and Satin. You can find the other participants here.