The Most Famous Suspense Serial In History

The Perils of Pauline (1) – (9)
R: Louis J. Gasnier, Donald MacKenzie. B: Charles W. Goddard and Basil Dickey. K: Arthur C. Miller. D: Pearl White, Crane Wilbur, Paul Panzer. P: Pathé Frères (US). USA 1914

The Perils of Pauline (1914), Pathe’s silent film episodic serial, is considered the most famous suspense serial in cinema history. It is not the first serial, however – that honor goes to Edison‘s What Happened to Mary? (1913). The Perils of Pauline premiered March 23, 1914 at Loew’s Broadway Theatre in New York City.
Pearl White was the most famous star of the silent serials, known for their archetypal cliffhangers that left audiences wondering what would happen in the next chapter. The main theme of each chapter was the heroine-in-jeopardy, although the chapters in this early serial were basically complete in themselves.
The daring, athletic and active female star performed some of the riskiest, hair-raising stunts in these films (stranded on the side of a cliff, in a runaway balloon, in a burning house, etc). Every second week in each new installment, Pauline (Pearl White) evaded attempts on her life – she fought pirates, Indians, gypsies, rats, sharks, rolling boulders, and her dastardly guardian.

There are numerous reports (some say they are only myths or legends) about her most famous stunt in this serial – in which she was tied to railroad tracks and had to be rescued from a speeding, rapidly-approaching train. Reportedly, the scene was filmed near New Hope, PA at a place now known as ‘Pauline’s Trestle.’ Unfortunately, a copy of this episode has never been located, and written film plot summaries do not describe the scene. More famously, a year earlier in 1913, Mabel Normand was tied to train tracks and cried out for rescue in the Keystone comedy Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life (1913), and the scene was also enacted in Sennett‘s Teddy at the Throttle (1917) with Gloria Swanson.

Due to this serial’s success, Pearl White appeared in an even more successful sequel, The Exploits of Elaine (1914), featuring a mystery villain named the “Clutching Hand,” and then in two further sequels: the 10-episode (each 2 reels) The New Exploits of Elaine (1915) (with a new villain named Wu Fang) and the 12-episode (each 2 reels) The Romance of Elaine (1915) (a lost film), battling master criminal Doctor X.”
Film Site

“Chapter 1 was three reels, the rest were two reels. Originally planned to be 13 chapters, it was extended to 20 chapters due to its popularity.
The name of the villain was ‘Raymond Owen’ in the original 1914 US theatrical release. The character’s name was changed to the German sounding ‘Koerner’ for the 1916 European release.
The term ‘cliffhanger’ originated with the series, owing to a number of episodes filmed on or around the New Jersey Palisades.(…)
This was the first major theatrical production by the American branch of 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.
The novel of the same name by Charles W. Goddard was published serially in newspapers while the film was playing in theaters. A condensed version was later published in book form.”
Silent Beauties

Experimental Color Movie

Victoria Luise 1913
P: Oskar Messter (?). D 1913

An experimantal color footage that was produced in 1913 during the wedding of emperor Wilhelm´s daughter. Three synchronous black-and-white recordings with monochromatic color filters were used somewhat similar to the later Technicolor system. These pictures were not artificially colorized.

“Ein Highlight ist ein frühes Farbfilmexperiment von 1913. Es zeigt die Hochzeitsfeier der Kaisertochter Viktoria Luise mit Ernst August von Hannover, zu der sämtliche Fürsten Europas nach Berlin gereist waren. Der Farbfilm ist ja erst 1936 erfunden worden. Wir können aber in Majestät brauchen Sonne Farbmaterial von 1913 anbieten. Diese Sequenz wurde von 3 Kameras gleichzeitig aufgenommen und durch Farbfilter übereinander projiziert (nach diesem System hat man jetzt ein neues Negativ bei Kodak in USA hergestellt). Der Himmel ist blau auf diesen Filmbildern, die Bäume sind grün und die Straßen Berlins sind gelb, weil man sie mit märkischem Sand bestreut hatte, damit bei den Paraden die Pferde nicht ausrutschten.”
Peter Schamoni über seinen Film Majestät brauchen Sonne (1999)

“Im Jahr 1912 wurde von Rudolph Fischer das erste brauchbare Dreifarbenverfahren entwickelt.Mit seiner Kamera nahm er durch drei in den Grundfarben getönte Filterscheiben auf Schwarzweißfilm drei recht kleine und unscharfe Farbauszüge auf, die bei der Vorführung durch drei ebenso gefärbte Filter projiziert wurden. Allerdings setzten sich seine Filme, trotz der erfolgreichen Präsentation vor der französischen Fotografischen Gesellschaft und trotz der 1913 in New York gezeigten vertonten Filme, kommerziell nicht durch. Der Einsatz des Verfahrens verschwand um 1920, obwohl es zuvor immer wieder neue Filmvorführungen gab.”

>>> 1900: Color and Sound
>>> Imperial Cinema

Lewin Fitzhamon

A Seaside Girl
R: Lewin Fitzhamon. D: May Clark, Frank Wilson, Thurston Harris. P: Hepworth. UK 1907

“The film brings life to the type of comic postcards that imply that the seaside holiday is an occasion to flirt with the opposite sex, often due to too much sea air. For example, an elegantly drawn cartoon by Fred Spurgin (posted on 28 February 1910) depicts an Edwardian man with a cane and straw boater pursuing a bustled lady with a parasol along the prom and is captioned ‘when at the seaside don’t forget the wife and kids!’ (…) Each tableau-like scene of the film mediates the Edwardian seaside experience, involving the beach, the pier, the bicycle hire shop, hansom cabs, rowing boats and bathing machines, with the added narrative drive of the woman being pursued. By including these seaside motifs in every shot and using them as a narrative device, the film offers a representation of the holiday, and an implied reading of Bognor Regis as a holiday resort (…).”
M. Kerry: The Holiday and British Film. Springer 2011, p. 69

That Fatal Sneeze
R: Lewin Fitzhamon. D: Thurston Harris, Gertie Potter. P: Hepworth. UK 1907

That Fatal Sneeze (d. Lewin Fitzhamon, 1907) was one of the most popular subjects by the Hepworth Manufacturing Company. (…) The film combines three popular early film forms. The first is the comic staple in which a mischievous child plays a trick upon an old man (in this case involving pepper). The second is the chase: each time the old man sneezes, causing havoc to a shop owner or a passer-by, that person joins the ever-growing crowd pursuing him. The third element is the trick film, in which the capacity of the camera to show the seemingly impossible is exploited for comic or dramatic effect. (…) The two most spectacular tricks are left for the end, after the chase is over. Unusually, the chase sequence does not end with the capture of the old man, or with him fooling the crowd. Instead, two shots before the end the pursuing crowd are dispensed with, to allow for the two final spectacular sneezes. (…)”
Simon Brown
BFI Screenonline

Tilly the Tomboy Visits the Poor
R: Lewin Fitzhamon. D: Hay Plumb, Alma Taylor, Chrissie White. P: Hepworth. UK 1910

Cecil Hepworth‘s production company released nearly twenty in the popular series of anarchic Tilly comedies between 1910 and 1915 (during which period Hepworth himself largely chose not to direct).
This early episode in the series, released in 1910, was directed by Lewin Fitzhamon – who directed at least two other Tilly films – and follows the chaotic exploits of the mischievous Tilly and her sister, Sally, as they upset their elderly neighbour Mrs. Smith, steal a laundry van and cause a flour fight in a bakery. The young actresses Chrissie White and Alma Taylor, who would go on to become the leading Hepworth stars, usually played Tilly and Sally respectively. Here, however, Chrissie White plays Tilly alongside an unidentified actress.”
Mark Duguid
BFI Screenonline

The Flappers and the Nuts
R: Lewin Fitzhamon. D: Constance Somers-Clarke. P: Charles Urban Trading Company. UK 1913
French titles

Lewin Fitzhamon, born in Aldingham, Cumbria in 1869, began as a steeplechase rider and a music hall performer and also producer/writer of sketches in 1889. He first made films with Robert W. Paul‘s Film Company in 1900, in 1904, he joined Cecil Hepworth as an writer, film director and actor specializing in children and animals probably directing around 600 films, his best known film was Rescued By Rover in 1905. He showed himself to be accomplished in a wide range of narrative forms such as fantasies, comedies, westerns, dramas and chase films, he made a number of comic film series, including the Poorlucks and the anarchic Tilly series. Fitzhamon left Hepworth in 1912 and formed his own company ‘Fitz Films’. He was also the author of two novels ‘The Rival Millionaires’ (1904) and ‘The Vixen’ (1915) and wrote comic pieces for magazines. Married actress Constance Somers-Clarke, died in London in 1961 age 92.”

>>> Rescued By Rover:  How to Tell a Story: Four Examples

The Greaser Character

Broncho Billy and the Greaser
R: Gilbert M. Anderson. D: Gilbert M. Anderson, Lee Willard, Marguerite Clayton. P: Essanay Film Manufacturing Company. USA 1914

“The Greaser character rose from early Hollywood’s westerns genre and the development of simplistic good guy vs. bad guy story formulas. From 1908 to about 1918, the profitability of westerns and their relative ease of production lead to a slew of films produced quickly and efficiently – some filmed in one day. These films included titles such as: The Greaser’s Gauntlet (1908 & directed by D.W. Griffith), Ah Sing and the Greasers (1910), Tony the Greaser (1911 & 1914!), The Greaser and the Weakling (1912), The Girl and the Greaser (1913), The Greaser’s Revenge (1914), The Greaser (1915), Licking the Greasers (1915), Broncho Billy’s Greaser Deputy (1915), and Guns and Greasers (1918). The Greaser role was typically portrayed as a dirty and grubby gunslinger with low morals, a conniving and shiftless soul with a tendency towards violence and of course, a taste for white women. This racially-tinged character proved to be the perfect evil foil for the virtuous and clean-cut cowboy heroes seen in these films. Always, the white cowboy saved the day and in the end the Greaser always got his.”
Stephen Sariñana-Lampson: Silent Images of Latinos in Early Hollywood

>>> Broncho Billy and the School Mistress: Broncho Billy – The American Shot

Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata

Kreitserova sonata (The Kreutzer Sonata)
R: Vladimir Gardin. B: Vladimir Gardin (screenplay), Leo Tolstoy (novel). K: Aleksandr Levitsky. Ba: Boris Mikhin. D: Boris Orsky, Yelizaveta Uvarova, Lidiya Sychyova. P: Thiemann & Reinhardt. RUS 1914
French subtitles

“According to Tolstoy‘s wife Sonia, the idea for ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ (1890) was given to Tolstoy by the actor V.N. Andreev-Burlak during his visit at Yasnaya Polyana in June 1887. In the spring of 1888 an amateur performance of Beethoven‘s Kreutzer Sonata took place in Tolstoy’s home and it made the author return to an idea he had had in the 1860s. The Kreutzer Sonata is written in the form of a frame-story and set on a train. The conversations among the passengers develop into a discussion of the institution of marriage. Pozdnyshev, the chief character, tells of his youth and his first visits to brothels, and his subsequent remorse and self-disgust. He decides to get married and after a brief engagement, he and his wife spend a disastrous honeymoon in Paris. Back at Russia the marriage develops into mutual hatred. Pozdnyshev believes that his wife is having an affair with a musician and he tries to strangle her, and then stabs her to death with a dagger. He accuses society and women who inflame, with the aid of dressmakers and cosmeticians, men’s animal instincts.
After writing the novel Tolstoy was accused of preaching immorality. The Chief Procurator of the Holy Synod wrote to the tsar, and this marked the beginning of the process that led ultimately to Tolstoy’s excommunication. Tolstoy was forced to write in 1890 a postscript in which he attempted to explain his unorthodox views.”
Books and Writers

“Innovative use of the exterior panning shot was relatively rare in Russian silent cinema prior to the 1920s, and it is a tribute to the resourceful spirit of Chardynin and Zavelev that they could devise and successfully execute such a masterly sequence. Panning shots within the studio were also rare, but here also, in the hands of enterprising directors and camera operators, they could be employed to great dramatic effect. Levitskii’‘s horizontal panning shot in reel two of Kreitserova sonata (The Kreutzer Sonata, 1914), the screen adaptation of Tolstoi’s novella directed by Vladimir Gardin for the‘ Golden Series’, is one such example. The mise-en-scene in this sequence is experimental in the sense that the space of the stage is divided vertically into two interconnecting spheres, a staging both in depth and in width. In the first part of this sequence, Poznyshev, played by Boris Orskii, has been searching for his wife, played by Elizaveta Uvarova. Having failed to locate her in the recessed room situated in the centre of the frame, he moves towards the camera, and then leftwards, followed by the camera, to reveal a second space, also staged in depth, which is occupied by his wife. This is an unusual and interesting example of décadrage, the two characters at this juncture occupying approximately only one third of the frame. This off-balance arrangement, which is repeated in reel three, conveniently emphasizes their growing separation and dislocation, and at the same time, paradoxically, the sense of claustrophobia which oppresses them. Furthermore, it signals an awareness of the limitations of the editing cut, a device which, in this particular instance, would have negated thesymbolic significance of the spatial arrangement.”
Philip Cavendish: The Hand that Turns the Handle: Camera Operators and the Poetics of the Camera in Pre-Revolutionary Russian Film. In: THE SLAVONIC AND EAST EUROPEAN REVIEW. Vol. 82, No 2, April 2004, p. 219

Textual Inserts

Een Telegram uit Mexico
R: Louis H. Chrispijn Sen. D: Louis H. Chrispijn, Esther De Boer-van Rijk, Coen Hissink. P: Filmfabriek-Hollandia. NL 1914
Print: EYE Collection, Amsterdam

“When compared to the use of written messages in other contemporary films, it is not only their quantity that is surprising in Een telegram uit Mexico but also the fact that in several cases the various letters or newspaper articles shown as textual inserts are more or less redundant because of intertitles that precede or follow them. They do have an obvious expository function, but hardly contribute to the film’s narrative economy. (…)
However, once the seeming incompetence of the filmmaker is identified as a strategy, it becomes obvious that the focus of the story is not the young colonist, but rather his parents. The film is not about the adventure, but about the wait, about the hope and the despair of those who are longing for news from the loved one overseas. The insistance on the efforts to communicate rather than on the communication itself is functional for the narrative precisely because it appears dysfunctional within the narrative.”
Frank Kessler: Ostranenie, Innovation, and Media History. In: Annie van den Oever (ed.): Ostranenie. The Key Debates, Appropiations and Mutations in European Film Studies. Amsterdam 2010, p. 68.

Running Time: One Minute

2 A.M. in the Subway
K: G.W. “Billy” Bitzer. P: American Mutoscope & Biograph. USA 1905
Print: Library of Congress

“On May 21, 1905, Billy Bitzer had made his film Interior N.Y. subway, 14th St. to 42nd St. from the front of a New York City Subway car; at that point the Subway itself had been open only seven months. The very day that subject was submitted for copyright, this one was made at the Biograph studio; it was copyrighted on 20 June. Although the six actors involved are unidentified, the action is obviously tightly coordinated in order to get all of the action into such a short subject. AM&B sent two paper prints of this film for copyright, and the better of the two copies was rephotographed for preservation.”

>>> Interior N.Y. subway, 14th St. to 42nd St. on this site: Railways, Subways, Phantom Rides-02

The Invention of the Film Series

The Hazards of Helen: The Escape on the Fast Freight
R: Paul Hurst. B: Edward T. Matlack. D: Helen Holmes, Leo D. Maloney, J. Gunnis Davis. P: Kalem Company. USA 1915
The Hazards of Helen No 13

“A total of 119 weekly one reel films were produced by Kalem, showing just how popular this serial was in 1914-1917. The first 48 films starred Helen Holmes, the remaining 71 starred Helen Gibson. They both played heroines that were independent and adventurous, resolving dangerous situations with quick thinking. Their acting was very physical and they performed their often very dangerous stunts. It is believed to be the longest film series in the silent era and one of the longest ever.”
Silent Hall of Fame

The Hazards of Helen: The Wild Engine
R: J.P. McGowan. B: Edward T. Matlack. D: Helen Holmes, Leo D. Maloney, Rex Downs. P: Kalem Company. USA 1915
The Hazards of Helen No 26

The Hazards of Helen: In Danger’s Path
R: J.P. McGowan. B: Edward T. Matlack. D: Helen Holmes, Leo D. Maloney, M.J. Murchison, J. Gunnis Davis, Hoot Gibson. P: Kalem Company. USA 1915
The Hazards of Helen No 33

The Hazards of Helen: The Wrong Train Order
R: J. Gunnis Davis. B: Edward T. Matlack. D: Helen Gibson, Robyn Adair, Clarence Burton. P: Kalem Company. USA 1915
The Hazards of Helen No 58

“In this episode everything goes wrong. Helen ends up on the rear observation deck of a runaway express train with the door to the inside closed, with the air-brake of the engine damaged, the engine itself full of steam and inaccessible, and the train speeding ahead on the wrong track.”
Silent Hall of Fame

The Hazards of Helen: The Governor’s Special (not complete)
R: J. Gunnis Davis. B: Edward T. Matlack. D: Helen Gibson, Scott Pembroke, True Boardman, George A. Williams, Roy Watson. P: Kalem Company. USA 1916
The Hazards of Helen No 76

“In this episode Helen Gibson performs one absolutely breathtaking stunt, which just shows how dangerous it was to act for silent film pioneers, especially for stuntmen and stuntwomen. There is a twist to the plot, and Helen Gibson not only has to save her governor from mortal danger, but also the life of somebody close to her, who has been sentenced to die without guilt.”
Silent Hall of Fame

>>> The Perils of Pauline

Lady Godiva

Lady Godiva
R: J. Stuart Blackton. B: Alfred Lord Tennyson (poem), Eugene Mullin (scenario). D: Julia Swayne Gordon, Robert Gaillard, Kate Price. P: Vitagraph Company of America. USA 1911.

“While most historians consider her nude horseback ride a myth, Lady Godiva — or ‘Godgifu’ as some sources call her — was indeed a real person from the 11th century. The historical Godiva was known for her generosity to the church, and along with Leofric, she helped found a Benedictine monastery in Coventry. Contemporary accounts of her life note that ‘Godgifu’ was one of only a few female landowners in England in the 1000s, but they make no mention of a clothes-free horseback ride. That story appears to have first cropped up some 100 years after her death in a book by the English monk Roger of Wendover, who was known for stretching the truth in his writings. The legend of ‘Peeping Tom’, meanwhile, didn’’t become a part of the tale until the 16th century. The Godiva myth was later popularized in songs and in verse by the likes of Alfred Lord Tennyson, who wrote a famous poem called ‘Godiva’ in 1840.”
Ask History

An Anti-anti Nicotine Movie

Princess Nicotine
R: James Stuart Blackton. D: Paul Panzer, Lillian Russell, Gladys Hulette. P: Vitagraph Company of America. USA 1909

With a soundtrack by Matt Malsky

Princess Nicotine; or, The Smoke Fairy was the first instance of tobacco product placement (for Sweet Corporal cigarettes and cigars) in the movies.
In 2003, the Library of Congress deemed it significant and preserved it in the National Film Registry.

“When it was made in 1909 Princess Nicotine was a veritible compendium of filmic effects and tricks, specialties of America’s leading film producer, Vitagraph. With debts to Georges Méliès‘s pioneering French fantasy films, forced perspective was ingeniously accomplished through on-set optics and larger-than-life sized props. The animation of cigarettes and other smoking paraphernalia is an example of stop motion photography also found in Blackton‘s The Haunted Hotel; or the Strange Adventures of a Traveler (1907) and in French Gaumont films by Emile Cohl such as Fantasmagorie and Les allumettes animées (or The Animated Matches) of 1908. But in Princess Nicotine, these effects are in the service of representing a dream state. It seems plausible to interpret the film as a visualization of the smoker’s unconscious condition, whose meanings might be “read” in sexual terms. For example, the animation sequence at the center of the film shows the metamorphosis of the flower into a cigar. These typical feminine/masculine or yonic/phallic symbols are reinforced by the fairy’s concealment in the flower and the male protagonist’s identity as the smoker. Other objects speak to the smoker’s desires – titillation and containment. There’s the difference in scale between the man and the female fairy, a bottle that entraps her, a box that holds his cigarettes, and the fairy’s skirt lifted in an obviously taunting sexual gesture. Release comes with a fitting final scene. The smoker quells the flames ignited by the fairy with a spray of his bottle, which then emanates uncontrollably from his lap, the dream-logical conclusion for a wet dream.”
Matt Malsky

The Haunted Hotel; or, The Strange Adventures of a Traveler
R: James Stuart Blackton. D: Paul Panzer, William V. Ranous. P: Vitagraph Company of America. USA 1907