|Motion Picture News, 29-January-1916.|
Be sure to click on most images to see larger versions.
Before 1909, most movie actors were anonymous. This was a policy of the Motion Picture Trust and its production companies like Edison and Biograph. It helped to keep salaries under control. Carl Laemmle's Independent Moving Pictures Company (IMP), founded in 1909, often gets the credit, or the blame, for creating the star system, by promoting its performers, such as Florence Lawrence, King Baggott and Mary Pickford.
Once players started being billed, many used names that appear quaint today. Juanita Horton took the name Bessie Love. Sarah Blanche Sweet dropped the Sarah and became Blanche Sweet. Leatrice Joy Zeidler dropped the other end of her name and became Leatrice Joy. Australian Nellie Louise Alberti became Louise Lovely. Alliteration was popular.
Pearl White's name sounds made up, but her parents christened her Pearl Fay White in 1889. She grew up in the Ozarks, a rural region of Missouri. She made her stage debut as Little Eva in Uncle Tom's Cabin when she was 6. When Pearl was 13, she performed as a bareback rider in a circus. When Pearl was 18, she dropped out of high school against the wishes of her father and joined the Trousedale Stock Company, touring the Midwest. She acted for several years and later claimed that she had toured Cuba as a singer. She was stranded in strange towns many times when touring theatrical companies went out of business. At some point she dyed her blonde hair black. Around 1910 she began to lose her voice because of overuse, and looked for work in the movies.
"About the end of January my voice began to go bad. I was playing in a lot of bloody melodramas, and I guess reaching the old time rip-roaring climaxes caused me to strain my vocal cords. A woman, who had played in pictures, came on from New York one week to play an engagement with our company. She suggested that I try pictures and give my voice a rest. She gave me a list of the different companies and their addresses. Now moving pictures held no fascination for me, but I decided that I would try to get a little work in some of the studios until my voice got better. I gave my notice to the Company and on Tuesday of my finishing week I came to New York and started out to find a job in the movies. The first studio on my list was 'Edison.' The directions read 'Take Third Avenue Elevated to the end, get off, walk down the stairs and you can easily find the studio about a block away,' Now the Third Avenue Elevated is a long line, and of course I didn't stop to figure that there were two ends, so naturally I took the wrong one. I must have gotten a downtown train and landed way down at the Brooklyn Bridge, where I spent the afternoon searching for said Edison Studio. Eventually I found out that it was on the uptown end, way up in the Bronx, but I had to get back to South Norwalk, so I called it a day."
|Moving Picture World, 13-April-1912.|
"I came back again on Thursday and took the second studio on the list— 'Kalem, 19th Street.' Mr. Theodore Wharton was the head director there at that time, so I got an audience with him and he asked from whence I came. I told him I was playing in South Norwalk, but my voice by now was almost a whisper and he didn't believe my story. He directed me several years afterward in 'The Exploits of Elaine.' Then he told me that at our first meeting he had taken me to be just a girl from a little up-state town who wanted to become an actress. But he said that something in my personality, for some reason or other, made him want to help and advise me. So that day, there in his office on 19th Street, he told me that I should go back to my home because that any part of the theatrical profession was a tough game to buck and a whole lot of other fatherly advice stuff. I sat tight that day and let him rave on. I probably had seen more hard knocks in show business than he ever had. Anyway, I didn't want to spoil his illusion so I played up the situation and promised that I'd go back home to my folks."
|Moving Picture World, 22-May-1915.|
|Film Daily, 07-June-1925.|
"Again I came to New York on Friday and tackled the third on the list — Powers, 241st Street. That was a long drill on the subway and surface cars, but I finally reached there and the director, Joseph A. Golden, took me seriously and told me he could give me a try at five dollars a day, and that I could start working the following Monday ... I did my first picture in two days (they were only doing one reel pictures then) and they gave me a steady engagement at thirty dollars a week. I had gone on about three weeks before I saw my first picture on the screen. Oh, what a sensation that is ! Up until that time I had a mental picture of myself that was quite good looking, but when I got a flash of myself as I was and as others saw me, I nearly died. I was so disheartened that I walked out of the studio and disappeared for three or four days. If it hadn't been that I was in the middle of a picture and they wanted me to finish it, that would probably have been my last appearance on the screen. Anyway, they needed me for the finishing scenes, so they discovered my whereabouts and lured me back to the studio, saying that with a little making over they were sure I would turn out all right. I soon disposed of my small waist line and big pompadour and changed my entire scheme of dressing to more simple styles. I also found that light hair photographed better than dark, so I began to get the dye out of mine, which was quite a difficult task, and for quite a few weeks I carried around a head of hair that bore a Scotch plaid effect. I worked with Powers for about six months, intending all the time to go back on the stage when my voice got all right. The voice eventually did come back to its full strength, but I didn't go back on the stage.
"Instead, I used it to good advantage talking myself into a better job. "
|Motion Picture News, 29-June-1918.|
|Moving Picture World, 23-September-1910.|
|Moving Picture World, 26-November-1910.|
|Moving Picture World, 03-December-1910.|
"I left Powers and went to the Lubin Company in Philadelphia for three times my former salary. At that time Florence Lawrence and Arthur Johnson were the stars of the Lubin Company, in fact, I think they were about the first people to reach stardom in the entire picture business. I was to play secondary parts. I don't know just what it was, whether I was too good or too bad — anyway, Miss Lawrence refused to work with me, so that they put me in other pictures in which I played leading parts. However, I didn't get on well there and only lasted about two months. I came back to New York, drifted over to the Pathe Freres in Jersey City and asked to see the Casting Director. A tall thin man walked out to interview me, and I recognized him as being "Mr. Theodore Wharton," the same man who had given me the fatherly advice some months before at the Kalem studio. But this time he advised me in a different manner. "I think you are just the girl we need in this company," he said. And he led me into the office of the head of the firm, Mr. Louis Gasnier, who at that time spoke no English at all. I had to stand on exhibition before him and another Frenchman, who began criticising me in their native tongue. Then through an interpreter, they asked me to take off my hat, take down my hair, turn first profile, then front face, then go through a routine of different expressions with my face, while they discussed me in their own language of which I understood nothing. I felt like one of the slaves being sold on the auction block in 'Uncle Tom's Cabin.' Anyway, they must have decided for the best and I started next day with Henry Walthall playing opposite me. I worked on for about six months with Mr. Gasnier as my director. At first it was pretty tough to act through translation, but finally I got used to that and we got along so well that I was perfectly sorry to leave Pathe for a better offer. However, the Crystal Moving Picture Company came along and offered me so much more money that my Jewish instinct forced me to pack up my things and leave behind the emotional and dramatic parts that I had been playing in Jersey."
Please excuse the anti-Semitic comment.
Florence Lawrence and Arthur Johnson were both pioneering actors who had worked for DW Griffith at Biograph, and then moved on to other studios. Henry Walthall had also worked for Griffith and would later play The Little Colonel in Birth of a Nation.
|Moving Picture World, 11-July-1914.|
|Motion Picture Story Magazine, September, 1911. |
|Moving Picture World, 09-September-1911.|
|Motion Picture Story Magazine, February, 1912.|
"I became chief pie-slinger in the Crystal slapstick comedies. I don't know why, but all through my career I have had to change my line of parts in every company that I have worked for. Be that as it may. I was getting a very good salary and also was being advertised enough so that I began to become known to the public. It was then that I began to receive letters from the fans asking for photographs, etc."
|Moving Picture World, 05-October-1912.|
This Crystal Films ad calls Pearl "America's Leading Photoplay Artist." The company released two split reels a week.
|Motion Picture Story Magazine, November, 1912.|
"But to get back to my career. I worked on for some months doing comedy falls and what not until I was so tired that I needed a rest, for somehow I couldn't seem to take much interest in anything. One hot summer night I sat down to think and sum up my past. I decided that I owed myself some pleasure for my years of toil. Then I got out my bank book, which had been balanced that day, July 2nd, 1913, and I found that I had the large fortune of six thousand dollars — more money than I had ever dreamed of possessing. So I decided that I was too rich to work for a while and that I would go out and find myself a playground in which I could play.
"The next day I went to the studio and announced that I was putting on my makeup for the last time that summer. 'Where are you going?' they asked. 'Don't know,' I answered. 'But I've got too much money in the world, so I've got to go out and spend it.'"
Pearl decided to take her $6,000 and sail to France. She wrote of many wonderful adventures on ship and shore. I don't know how many of them actually took place, but she spins a nice yarn.
I suppose this item was written after she left Pathé Frères when she joined Crystal. Perhaps she was thinking of leaving for Europe earlier.
Pearl's friends see her off on the RMS Olympic, sister ship of the Titanic.
In time, her money ran low and an Englishman in whom she was interested turned out to be married.
"'It's back to the movies for you, Pearl White. Your romances only end happily on the screen...'"
"The idea of serial pictures had just been born over in Jersey, and Pathe offered me the chance to risk my life through a series of episodes called 'The Perils of Pauline.' So I dashed over to the studio intending to take the job. I was met by my old director, Mr. Gasnier, who was still residing at the head of the firm, and he laid bare the situation. I don't mind telling you that I nearly walked out of the studio without signing the contract that they had prepared. To be sure, they offered me a lot of money and so much advertising that I couldn't escape gaining at least some fame. However, the odds seemed against me.
"'Hello, girl, how do you like my Paris?' were the words that greeted me from my old boss. 'Wonderful,' said I. 'But what about the job you are tempting me with?' 'Well, do you want to become famous?' he asked. 'Certainly,' I replied, 'that's been my lifelong struggle.' 'Then sign here,' he continued, handing me a couple of typewritten pages and casually asking if I carried any life insurance. Now, I had never signed a legal document before, but that speech about life insurance made me hesitate and read the pages before me. The farther into the contract I got the worse things looked for me, and when I got to the clause 'the party of the second part, being of age, takes her part in this motion picture play at her own risk, and in case of accident or loss of life she or relations have no claim for damages against the party of the first part,' etc., etc., I was all for leaving this offer stand
and getting back to New York as fast as the street car would take me. 'What do you expect me to do? Lose my life?' I asked. 'Accidents do sometimes happen,' he volunteered. 'Here, read a couple of manuscripts and judge for yourself.'
"Then he handed me some manuscripts and walked out of the office. I read the first three episodes of this hair-breadth escape serial and that was about enough for me. I shouted for help and Mr. Gasnier entered from the next room. 'Well, how do you like it?' he asked. 'Like it!' I answered. 'Here, take a look for yourself,' and I began turning over the pages. 'You can see for yourself I'm not the person for the part. In the first place, I'm too clumsy, and in the second place I have too much respect for my life.' In these first three episodes I had to play tennis, which I could not. I had to take a flight in an aeroplane, which I didn't like much, because it was supposed to crash to the ground in a wreck ; then I had to drive a motor car through water, fire and sand. This also didn't sound reasonable. Then I had to go out to sea in a yacht, which was all right, only that I was to jump overboard just as the boat was blown up by the villain, and I couldn't swim. Then I was to be in a captive balloon — but ah! the villain was to cut the rope and I was to go sailing about for a while, then drop an anchor, which was to catch in a tree, and I was to descend some two hundred and fifty feet on this, reaching a cliff on the side of a mountain, then I was to be showered with rocks and — but I didn't get any farther than the balloon. I lost my desire for that sport years before. 'Well, you see/' said I to Mr. Gasnier, 'these things are not my line. Besides, you want an acrobat for this part. You don't want an actress.' 'I didn't say I wanted an actress,' he very sweetly answered. 'Then why did you send for — .' My sense of humor began to gain consciousness and I began to see light. 'All right, you win,' I had to laugh as I continued. 'Give me the papers.'
"And I signed what I thought was probably my death warrant. Now, I had never had time in the days gone by to learn to swim, play golf, tennis, etc., etc. So, as an all-round athlete I wasn't so good. However, as all sports depend more or less on the schooling of one's muscles, and in the old trapeze days I had developed and trained mine until I could control my entire body fairly easy, therefore, it has not been difficult for me to learn to do a lot of different stunts."
|Exhibitor's Trade Review, 01-March-1924.|
The Perils of Pauline was a big hit in 1914. The 20 chapter serial was not the first movie serial, but it was one of the big ones. It made Pearl White into the first serial queen. The film exists only in a mutilated form, based on a copy exported to France. The subtitles had been translated into French, then translated back into English by someone who didn't have a mastery of English.
Pauline was not a passive heroine who waited to be rescued. Pauline often rescued the hero and fought the villains with her wits and her fists. Pearl hurt her back doing a stunt. This haunted her for the rest of her life.
"I started to work in 'The Perils of Pauline,' the first serial of thrills that had ever been produced, and have continued in those kind of pictures such as 'The Exploits of Elaine,' 'The Iron Claw,' 'Pearl of the Army,' 'The Fatal Ring,' 'The House of Hate,' 'The Lightning Raider' and now 'In Secret,' which have all been more or less 'the always in danger' type of pictures. I would, of course, like to do big dramatic plays and act and all that sort of thing. However, I have been very successful in serials, so I shall just thank my lucky star and continue on until the public tires of me. Then I want to take some promising young girl and try to teach her to be what I would like to have been. But I do want to take one more try on the speaking stage before that time comes. I have worked on these last three and a half years following more or less the same routine. Up early in the morning, work all day long under the strong lights in the studio or in the hot sun or cold winds out of doors. I have remained in New York all the while, wearing furs in the summer and the thinnest kind of clothes in the winter a goodly bit of the time. For it seems that the minds of scenario writers turn toward summer scenes in the winter and toward winter scenes in the summer time; therefore, we poor actors are about half of the time roasting or freezing while we work. The picture business is certainly not one of ease and comfort, and I think I can modestly say that my lot is just a little bit harder than most of the others in the profession, because I'm always doing some new stunt and nursing a lot of cuts, bruises or sprains in consequence ; besides — although Pathe Freres have often advertised me as their 'Peerless Fearless Pearl' — we can put a very soft pedal on that, because I have been petrified with fear more than once during the filming of pictures. I have actually gotten to like fear, and like the sensation of taking some very dangerous chances that frighten me. My old heart beats a ragtime, and I face the music feeling more thrilled than I would be doing something in which I knew there was no risk."
Pearl White appeared in nine more serials between 1914 and 1919. Most of her serials, in fact most of the movies she appeared in, are lost or mostly lost.
|Moving Picture World, 30-January-1915|
|Omaha Daily Bee, 01-January-1915|
|Motion Picture News, 08-May-1915.|
|Motion Picture News, 29-May-1915.|
|Motion Picture News, 19-June-1915.|
|Motion Picture News, 03-July-1915.|
|Moving Picture World, 06-November-1915|
|Tacoma Times, 22-March-1916.|
|South Bend News Times, 24-February-1916.|
"Pearl White will be seen as an American Joan of Arc..."
|Motion Picture Story Magazine, December, 1916.|
|Motion Picture Story Magazine, January, 1917.|
|Moving Picture World, 07-April-1917|
|Motion Picture News, 07-July-1917.|
The Serial Squadron has assembled the few surviving clips. They are exciting.
|Moving Picture World, 28-July-1917|
|Moving Picture World, 02-March-1918|
The Serial Squadron has issued this serial on DVD. They edited out some padding about German spies.
|Photoplay, July, 1918|
|Moving Picture World, 01-February-1919|
The Serial Squadron has issued a surviving fragment. We see the Lightning Raider rob a museum.
|Exhibitor's Herald, 20-December-1919.|
|Motion Picture News, 08-August-1920.|
|Motion Picture News, 06-January-1923.|
|Exhibitor's Trade Review, 30-December-1922.|
|Film Daily, 24-January-1924.|
After Plunder wrapped, Pearl left for a vacation in Paris. While there, she made Terreur, a feature (sometimes called a serial) directed by Edward José, who had directed The Iron Claw and Pearl of the Army.
|Exhibitor's Trade Review, 24-October-1924.|
After Terreur, Pearl retired from the screen and returned to France. She made a few stage appearances in Paris and London, then fully retired from acting. She had money and invested it wisely, in a nightclub, a hotel and a stable of race horses. She had a townhouse in Paris and an estate in the country. She became involved with a man who shared her love for travel. They bought a house in Cairo and travelled the world. Sadly, she treated her back injury from The Perils of Pauline with drugs and alcohol. Her liver failed in 1938 and she died in Paris at the age of 49.
Fritzi says "We want bold, brave, smart women who made their mark in all walks of life." Pearl White left home at 18 to go on stage. She travelled the country and frequently got stranded. When she lost her voice, she went into the movies armed only with a list of addresses. When she had accumulated $6000, she went to Europe alone, which was pretty daring for a woman in 1913. When she came back, she became a major star in movie serials. When she got tired of serials, she made features. When she had had enough of the movies, she became an expatriate in 1920s Paris, along with Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas, Ernest Hemingway, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gerald and Sara Murphy and Josephine Baker. She made a fortune and she used it to have a good time. How is that for bold, brave and smart?
This post is part of the Anti Damsel Blogathon, hosted by Fritzi at Movies Silently and Jo at The Last Drive In. Thank you to both of them for all the hard work. Thank you to everyone who visited and I encourage you to read and comment on as many posts as you can. Bloggers love comments.