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Film / The Perils of Pauline

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The Perils of Pauline was an immensely popular 1914 film serial starring Pearl White, who in this serial became the veritable Trope Codifier for the Damsel in Distress in modern media.

The formula was simple. Pauline is an orphan, heir to a huge fortune. Her guardian, Mr. Marvin, hopes that a now grown-up Pauline will marry his son Harry. Pauline loves Harry, but she doesn't want to get married yet, wanting to roam the world and have adventures before she settles down to be a society wife.

In the first episode Mr. Marvin dies, and Pauline and her fortune come into the custody of Marvin's secretary Koerner. Unfortunately Koerner is a crook. With Pauline having no other living relatives, he and his partner Hicks decide to arrange for Pauline's adventures to have a fatal outcome, so they can seize her fortune. Each episode would then involve Pauline going off on some adventure, getting into mortal peril thanks to Koerner, and being rescued by Harry.

Not the first film serial, but a hugely popular one that became a Trope Codifier for film serials. Did not feature some of the tropes that are associated with it in the popular imagination. It didn't really rely on cliffhangers, as Pauline's adventures were resolved at the end of each episode. Nor is there a Dastardly Whiplash; Koerner the bad guy is young and clean-shaven and not particularly hammy in his mannerism. Nor was Pauline Chained to a Railway... in surviving footage, anyway (see below). Even in 1914, that trope was considered hokey and a staple of cheap theater.

The original run was 20 episodes, one per week, which added up to 410 minutes. That version is now lost (and there are sources who insist up, down, and sideways that Pauline, some rope, and a railway did cross paths at some point in this cut). The surviving Pauline is a Re-Cut version made for the French market, which was cut down almost by half (214 minutes) and lasts only nine episodes. The series proved so popular that it was followed by a Spiritual Successor, The Exploits Of Elaine, in which Pearl White played a similar character getting into similar predicaments.

Not to be confused with other films of the same name including the 1933 serials; the 1947 film, which is a humorous take on Pearl White's rise to fame, or the 1967 comedy based on the serial.


  • Adaptation Name Change: In the original American version, Koerner the bad guy was named "Raymond Owen." The French version gave him a German name.
  • Added Alliterative Appeal: Couldn't call it "The Dangers of Pauline", now could we?
  • Blackmail: Hicks pulls this on Koerner, but Koerner soon interests him in a more lucrative scheme to get Pauline's money.
  • Bond Villain Stupidity:
    • In episode 2, Hicks and his goons kidnap Pauline. Do they kill her? No, they abandon her in a cave "to her unfortunate fate." Pauline frees herself, of course.
    • In episode 5 Koerner's minions have both Pauline and Harry Bound and Gagged. Do they kill them? No. They abandon them in an underground chamber next to a river, with a brick wall that is rigged to explode and flood the chamber. Pauline and Harry escape again.
    • Episode 8 has Koerner enlisting a band of gypsies to kidnap Pauline. Do they kill her? No, they just keep her around until Harry arrives to rescue her.
  • Bound and Gagged:
    • In the first episode, Pauline winds up bound and gagged after the bad guys snatch her away from Harry.
    • In the second episode Pauline is bound and gagged by the desperadoes who kidnap her on Hicks's orders.
    • In episode 5 Pauline and Harry are overpowered and bound and gagged by the bad guys.
  • Damsel in Distress: Pauline wasn't a completely helpless damsel. It was her own desire for adventure that was the hook for the series. In the first episode she shimmies down to safety on a rope after Koerner sets her adrift in a hot air balloon. But she usually found herself needing rescue at some point in every episode.
  • Film Serial: As noted above, not the first, but the most famous film serial, a genre that started with the early days of movie-making and lasted until it was largely displaced by television.
  • High-Class Glass: Amusingly, the High Class Glass which Koerner is affecting pops out when he is unpleasantly surprised to see his old partner Hicks.
  • Honey Trap: Mlle. Yagow in episode 7, who is romancing gullible Lt. Summers while stealing the lieutenant's plans for a new submarine.
  • Idiot Ball: Koerner's goon, who scatters spikes on the road in episode 4 in order to wreck Pauline's race car—in full view of race spectators, who see him do it.
  • Incredibly Obvious Bomb: Amusingly, the only reason Harry and Pauline survive in episode 3 is that the bomb on the yacht ticks so loudly that Harry hears it.
  • Indy Escape: Likely the Ur-Example. A Sioux tribe, wanting to confirm that the heroine is a goddess, subjects her to the test of the "Death Stone": she must run down a path pursued by a giant boulder.
  • Kissing Cousins: Pauline bears her guardian's last name; she's Pauline Marvin. So the best case scenario is that Mr. Marvin is guardian to his brother's son and Pauline is engaged to her first cousin, and the worst case scenario is that Pauline and Harry are adopted siblings.
  • Milking the Giant Cow: The old pirate in episode 3 does this both in the present day and in the "flashback" when recounting his bogus story of killing the other pirates and hiding the treasure.
  • Mighty Whitey: The tribe of Sioux that Pauline meets in episode 2 are pretty happy to have a blond girl in their midst.
    "You are the white girl who was to spring forth from the ground to lead the warriors of our tribe to victory."
  • Out of the Frying Pan: In episode 9 Koerner fiddles with the engine to Pauline's motorboat, leaving her adrift at sea. Pauline spots a large vessel, manages to row her boat over to it, and clambers aboard. The large vessel is a derelict, which is out to sea to serve as a target for naval bombardment.
  • Plot-Triggering Death: The death of Mr. Marvin in the first episode gets the ball rolling, as Pauline becomes endangered by the nefarious Koerner.
  • Re-Cut: The French version, which is barely half as long as the original, and is the only version to survive.
  • Spy Fiction: Episode 7 is a martini-flavored version of this. Mademoiselle Yagow is a German spy seeking to learn the secrets of French submarines. Entirely by chance, Pauline, Harry, and Koerner stumble into this plot. Koerner recognizes a fellow villain and enlists Mlle. Yagow in a plot to get Pauline aboard the submarine, which Yagow's man will then sabotage.
  • Thrill Seeker: Pauline. Koerner's murder job would be harder if Pauline was content to stay home and knit. Instead, she's taking balloon rides, competing in auto races, searching after buried treasure, and the like.
  • The Wild West: 1914 was a good 30 years or so past the point where the West was wild. But Pauline still goes into the rural west to visit her friends the Haines family in episode 2, and she is kidnapped by stereotypical desperadoes riding horses, with 10-gallon hats and bandanas over their faces. She also runs across a band of Sioux still living in tipis.