The Perils of Pauline: Centennial Edition
By Charles W. Goddard
During the summer of 1914 America’s moviegoers were enthralled by the daring feats of heiress Pauline Marvin, a high-spirited young woman with an insatiable hunger for adventure. Her dangerous exploits were dramatized by playwright Charles W. Goddard in half-hour installments released to theaters at two-week intervals. The episodes were connected by a single premise: Pauline’s guardian, Raymond Owen, was an unscrupulous rotter constantly scheming to do away with the girl and thus gain control of her fortune, as stipulated in the will of her late father. Owen and his henchmen routinely tried to snare Pauline in death traps and often came close to succeeding.
The Perils of Pauline, produced and directed by Louis Gasnier and Donald MacKenzie, was developed at the behest of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. A previous motion picture serialized in fortnightly chapters, The Adventures of Kathlyn, had been produced several months earlier as a circulation-boosting stunt concocted by the editors of the Chicago Tribune and pioneering filmmaker William Selig. Prominent playwright and fictioneer Harold MacGrath devised the plot and wrote prose versions of each episode for publication in Sunday editions of the Tribune. These would stimulate interest in Kathlyn’s celluloid adventures, released to theaters on the following Monday. Once The Adventures of Kathlyn caught on with the public, the Trib picked up more than 50,000 new readers who subscribed to the paper rather than risk missing a single installment of the serial’s prose version. That represented an increase in circulation of more than 10 per cent. Hearst, who owned papers with a combined readership of nearly ten million, hoped to duplicate that success by backing a “chapter play” of his own.
Popular screen actress Pearl White, a 24-year-old native of Missouri with extensive experience in stage melodrama, was chosen to play the plucky heroine. Charles W. Goddard, whose hit plays included The Ghost Breaker (1909) and The Misleading Lady (1913), whipped up a series of perils for Pauline and wrote the prose versions of each episode for Hearst’s papers. At a total of 77,500 words, they were long enough to warrant publication in a novel-length hardcover edition, which was issued later in 1914. But the book was not a big seller: most people interested in the story had already read it in the Hearst papers purchased for pennies. The Perils of Pauline hardcover never saw a second printing, and first-edition copies are rarely seen.
Goddard’s novel, however, is historically important because the celluloid Perils of Pauline no longer exists in its original form. All that survives of Pearl White’s iconic, star-making serial is a bastardized abridgment prepared for European markets. Comprising less than half the original footage, it omits many major sequences and reorders others, making a hash of Goddard’s continuity. To make matters worse, the sub-titles were later translated back to English by foreign technicians with a poor grasp of our idiom, resulting in crude and unintentionally hilarious dialogue and captions. In short, the original chapter play as presented to American audiences in 1914 is gone forever. Therefore, the book version is the closest that anybody will ever come to enjoying and appreciating the cinematic Perils.
Goddard’s storytelling is in the pulp-fiction mold. In fact, the preponderance of dialogue exchanges and paragraphs of one or two sentences suggests the dime-novel and nickel-weekly style. But the yarn is great fun, and in it one can see the basis for a good many melodramatic situations reused ad infinitum by future pulp scribes and screenplay writers alike.
This Centennial Edition of The Perils of Pauline also comes with a 4800-word essay on the serial’s making by Ed Hulse, editor of Blood ‘n’ Thunder and author of Distressed Damsels and Masked Marauders, a history of silent-era chapter plays.
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