blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

The Perils of Pauline (1914, Louis J. Gasnier and Donald MacKenzie), the European version

What remains of The Perils of Pauline is not The Perils of Pauline. This European version is a condensation of the actual serial. The nine chapter European version is about half the original length of the serial. And it’s also not a good translation. English to French to English again. So the European version of Perils of Pauline is not an accurate representation of the original serial. At least, I really hope it’s not.

Because The Perils of Pauline is a major disappointment. And once it’s not being disappointing anymore, it’s just being tedious. Because every chapter is basically the same. Pearl White is the title character. The perils in the title refer to her guardian’s attempts to kill her. He wants her money. So he tries to kill her again and again, hiring people to do it, trying to do it himself. Sometimes there are a couple attempts on White’s life in a chapter. Whoever shrunk the original Pauline down packs in the set pieces.

Then their Panzer’s plan is a flop or Crane Wilbur comes to rescue White. He’s her cousin and fiancé. His father was White’s previous guardian. Panzer was the father’s secretary, a ex-con looking to go straight and get rewarded for his effort. The first chapter sets it all up and there are no reminders of it later. Apparently the condesors chopped out all the character arcs; if there were any.

The first chapter has Wilbur’s father, played by Edward José, dying. He’s just made a deal with White–she can have a year to have adventures, then settle down and marry Wilbur. Once that bit of narrative necessity is done, José dies. One of his last wishes is for White to get her year of adventure. Sounds like a really cool setup for a serial.

Except White’s idea of adventure is kind of bland. The first chapter has this great hot air balloon escape sequence. White has to save herself. Then she gets scared of heights and has to wait for Wilbur. There aren’t any cliffhangers in Perils of Pauline. There are thrills, but every chapter has White safely in Wilbur’s waiting arms. Sometimes there’s funny stuff with Panzer freaking out to see his latest attempt has failed, but there’s acknowlegment of his behavior from White and Wilbur. Everything White does for a year goes wrong–she’s kidnapped, she’s shot at, she’s almost drown, the Navy shoots at her–all the bad stuff. All the perils.

She and Wilbur never suspect Panzer. They never acknowledge White’s been in danger before. The second chapter starts with White getting out of town because of her new fame–after surviving the hot air balloon incident, which also had her almost burning alive. That acknowledgment is it until the last chapter. And then it’s only because the serial’s over. Again, no idea if it’s the condensed version or the way Perils really played.

Most of the chapters have White wanting to do something, Panzer encouraging her because he wants to kill her in a fantastic way (and usually one where her body would never be found and therefor not declared dead), Wilbur objecting because why doesn’t White just want to settle down and marry him. He’s wonderful. He always rescues her.

And Perils even acknowledges it–Panzer and frequent henchman Francis Carlyle–plot to get Wilbur out of the way in at least one chapter. Carlyle starts the serial as a recently out of prison acquantiance of Panzer’s coming to shake him down since Panzer’s working for these millionaires. Panzer’s reluctant in the first chapter, then he’s full villain, compulsively plotting. Plotting poorly, yes, but plotting nonetheless.

White wants to do something, Wilbur says no, Panzer says she should, White ignores Wilbur’s advice, gets in trouble, Wilbur saves her, Panzer freaks, the end. Four or five of the chapters are that sequence of events. Except it sounds like White is doing things in Perils. And she rarely does anything. She usually just waits around for Wilbur to save her. White never acknowledges her propensity for danger either, much less Wilbur’s many times rescuing her.

She also talks about wanting to get married. But Wilbur and White don’t really have any chemistry. After the first episode, all their interactions are arguments or action rescues. Those moments aren’t magnificent holdovers from the original serial. They’re tedious sequences where Wilbur and White have the same discussion over and over. Panzer and Carlyle are the ones who get to have fun, not Wilbur, not White.

While sometimes Panzer’s plots are stupid, they’re always full of spectacle. Until the last chapter, then his attempts are pedestrian and the spectacle is coincidence. The last chapter has a lot of other problems, but Perils does Panzer wrong. Panzer’s a good villain. He’s a lot better when he’s not conflicted, just scheming. And he has some amazing freakouts. One chapter has him seeing White alive, screaming and running around. Wilbur and White just look at each other and smile. The staff are so wacky.

There’s are a lot of clues, watching Perils of Pauline’s nine chapter version, about the original serial. Most of the time, you’re giving Perils’s directors and writers the benefit of the doubt. But not when White all of a sudden starts being helpless around the staff. Maybe she’s always a jerk to the staff, maybe it’s in the full version. Or maybe it’s just the one time thing. Maybe it isn’t missing anything.

As is, The Perils of Pauline is a disappointing, deliberate mess. Chaos would be preferrable. Some narrative imagination in the condensation cutting, which doesn’t seem a likely–or even desired–quality in whoever’s doing the editing.

The serial’s got adequate direction from Gasnier and MacKenzie. Basic setups but good composition. The action sequences with stunts, the special effects stuff, usually pretty solid. When it wants to impress visually, Perils can and does. The thrilling set pieces are cool and well-executed.

White’s fine. Perils–at least this version of it–gives her very little to do. Panzer’s fine with sometimes better moments. Wilbur’s never fine and never has any good moments. Director MacKenzie also pops up in front of the camera; he plays a vulgar sailor who Panzer hires to con White. The character’s a lot of fun, as opposed to when Perils brings in the devious gypsy band (in blackface). They’re not fun. Most of the other performances are fine. Including some of the unfortunately uncredited ones.

At the end, Perils wraps things up with a lackluster final chapter. You could watch the first and last chapters and get the same story. And you’d be just as disappointed by the finale, it’s so lacking in thrills.

Maybe–and, really, hopefully–the real Perils of Pauline was good. But this condensed version isn’t.

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