On this day April 4. 1914, the first known serialized moving picture opened in New York City. “The Perils of Pauline” starred Pearl White.
E.A. McManus of the Hearst Chain was the person who proved how successful a serial could be. He co-operated with Pathé, the France-based company that during the first part of the 20th century was the largest film equipment and production company in the world, established an American factory and studio facility in Jersey City, New Jersey in 1910 and also established the Eclectic Film Company as a subsidiary distribution company for both its American and European product, to produce this serial. This was Pathé’s first entry into the medium.
Pauline has often been cited as a famous example of a damsel in distress, although some analyses hold that her character was more resourceful and less helpless than the classic damsel stereotype.
She is menaced by assorted villains, including pirates and Native Americans. Neither Pauline nor its successor, The Exploits of Elaine, used the so-called “cliffhanger” format in which a serial episode ends with an unresolved danger that is addressed at the beginning of the next installment. Although each episode placed Pauline in a situation that looked sure to result in her imminent death, the end of each installment showed how she was rescued or otherwise escaped the danger.
Pearl White performed her own stunts for the serial. Considerable risk was involved. In one incident a balloon carrying White escaped and carried her across the Hudson River into a storm before landing miles away. In another incident her back was permanently injured in a fall.
The serial had 20 episodes, the first being three reels (30 minutes) and the rest two reels (20 minutes) each. After the original run, it was reshown in theaters a number of times, sometimes in edited, shortened versions, through the 1920s. Today, The Perils of Pauline is known to exist only in a shortened 9 chapter version (approximately 214 minutes) released in Europe in 1916.
One of the more famous scenes in the serial was filmed on the curved Ingham Run trestle in New Hope, Pennsylvania on the Reading Company’s New Hope Branch (now the New Hope and Ivyland Railroad line). The trestle still stands, just off Ferry Street, and is now referred to as “Pauline’s Trestle”. The railroad is a tourist attraction and offers rides from New Hope to Lahaska, Pennsylvania, crossing over the original trestle.
In 2008, The Perils of Pauline was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
For more on Pearl White, Hollywood’s first stunt woman