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