Thursday, March 4, 2021

Born Today March 4: Pearl White


Well known silent actress Pearl Fay White was born on this day in Green Ridge, Missouri into a poor farming family of 5 children, including her. She is rightly identified as one of the very first true action stars of any gender--both a claim to fame and eventually the catalyst (arguably) for the premature end of her acting career. Known as the "Queen of the Serials," she got her start in acting as a young child on the stage--presumably in Springfield where the family had moved when she was very young. By the time she was 13 she was doing circus work as a bareback rider (it is assumed that she picked up riding skills owed to her farming family background).  Additionally, she worked on the stage semi-professionally while in high school.  She dropped out of school in 1907--and got married to actor Victor Sutherland--and took to the stage professionally, soon making it full time touring work. She eventually wound up on the stage in the New York area. According to he own account by the time she entered film work in 1910, she had fare-the-well worn out/damaged her vocal chords from stage performance. Working in film was a welcome break. She made her film debut in His Yankee Girl in 1911, along side Irving Cummings and Mildred Holland.  The film was a Powers Picture Plays production and it would not be her last. Of course White is literally still famous for her starring role in the action serial The Perils of Pauline in 1914, but she appeared in over 150 films before this (mind you...shorts...but films nonetheless). A few of these stand out. The Life of Buffalo Bill (1912) was really a feature in it's day, it was a 3-reeler and clocked in at 40 minutes; the production of the Pawnee Bill Film Company (which had had actual ties to Cody and his businesses), it starred Cody and director Paul Panzer (Panzer would later show up in White's serial films). By this time she had already made films with the French founder entity Pathé, a company--in one incarnation or another--that would figure in the rest of her film career. The odd melodrama withstanding, most of her film in 1912 and 1913 were short comedies, where she was frequently paired up with Chester Barnett, with Phillips Smalley in the director's chair. These were productions of the Crystal Film Company and were distributed by Universal as split reels theatrically. The Perils of Pauline, which came out in 1914, made her a star, at home and abroad. With that stardom came mystique. Part of that was the notion that White was almost an action heroine on the levels of some sort of super hero. People had to know that many of the "stunts" they saw her perform were not what they appeared, but Pathé Fréres, wanted to market her as the actress who could do it all. This caused issues in her life that stayed with her; not least was that she had actually done many of her own stunts and been injured--seriously. At some point along the way, much later on, it also became known that she had also used stand-ins, most of them men. (And, no fault of the serial itself, it also inadvertently [somehow] gave us that dreaded notion of the silent film woman tied to the railroad's not in this film...or any other of the era to my knowledge; though there is that dang poster for The Fatal Ring a serial from 1917).  White was paid handsomely though: $250 a week. This made her in obvious demand for similar work, and later in 1914 she took the part of Elaine Dodge in Wharton's The Exploits of Elaine, a 13 part serial distributed by Pathé Exchange and it's partners.  In 1915 she continued the role in two serials The New Exploits of Elaine (10 parts) and The Romance of Elaine (12 parts).  She did also appear in a couple of regular features during this time, but it was her serial work that both dominated her popularity at the box office and her career. Pathé, it seems, had no lack of idea/material for such productions. From my childhood, I remembered seeing both the poster for and a really famous "behind the scenes" photograph for The House of Hate in more than one magazine, I had no idea that it was a serial film or that it was lost....I do remember Pearl White's name. Aside from chaps like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, who my 1890's born grandfather was a fan of, White was the first silent film star that I remember...and the very first one I found on my own. As even the most causal fan of silent cinema today is aware, since the film has enjoyed renewed interest in the last few years, the production was based in and around Fort Lee, New Jersey. Of course, that hair-raising photograph on a cliffs edge still gives people sweaty palms, and that cliff was Cliffhanger Point on the Hudson Palisades (and still just as daunting a looking place!).  The House of Hate was directed by George Seitz; and he became the director most associated with her career during this time. He directed her in two more serials soon after the release of Hate; and even founded a production company to do it. The first of these was the 15 part crime adventure The Lightning Rain featuring Warner Oland in an early yellow face role and marks the film debut of Boris Karloff; the second is The Black Secret, also 15 parts, it counts Wallace McCutcheon Jr. among it's cast (McCutcheon was White's second husband).  Both serials are from 1919. With the new decade, White signed with Fox, who put her in regular features; a couple of which were directed by J. Searle Dawley. By 1922, she was back to serial acting with Seitz in the serial that become her last:  Plunder (released in 15 episodes in 1923).  White's life was not in a happy place after this. After a second divorce from a World War I injured husband, life with chronic pain from a spinal injury she sustained on the set of Perils and the failure of a career at Fox as a "regular movie star" all were weighing--any one of which would have been terribly difficult to deal with. But it was the accidental death of her stunt double on the set of Plunder that was just too much to take. Her double, John Stevenson, died when a stunt involving a jump from a moving bus onto a platform went terribly wrong; to make matters worse, the press subsequently made a big deal out of White using stunt doubles at all. She left for Paris after getting to know a native working at Pathé who got to know the side of White that wished to travel.  In 1924 she made one more film while in Europe. She did this as a favor to director Edward José who was a friend.  She took top billing in Terror (Terreur), released in May of 1924, the film was marketed in the United States as The Perils of Paris.  White did appear on stages in Paris, fittingly in Montmartre. She was also very good with money, and in 1924 was worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million U.S. dollars in today's money adjusting for inflation. She ran a business in Paris as well--a nightclub that offered everything from shows to gambling, there was also an upscale hotel and she owned race horses. But she never did fully recover from her spinal injury. She died of a failing liver at just the age of 49, from what people assume was cirrhosis, but that was never confirmed. She had been in such pain she had been in the habit of consuming a lot of alcohol daily, but she was known to consume drugs of other sorts in an an attempt to ease the pain. Later in life weight gain certainly would have made such an injury worse. In any case, she knew she was gravely ill a year or so before her untimely death and she got her affairs in order--including purchasing a cemetery plot in her beloved adopted home town of Paris.  In July of 1938 she checked herself into a hospital, slipped into a comatose state on the 3rd of August and passed away the next day. After a small quiet and private funeral, she was laid to rest in the plot she had purchased at the Passy Cemetery in the district of Paris by the same name (this is the cemetery that the Eiffel Tower can be seen from). 

It's a nail-bitter...and a cliffhanger! The famous cliff photo in New Jersey during the film of The House of Hate. White, obviously, in the foreground.

[Source: Wikipedia]


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