Don’t mess with Pearl White in The Tiger’s Cub (1920). Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A Hollywood actress recently claimed there were no female action stars before 2012, the year she was hired to star in a series of films that, we’re to believe, shattered the woman-as-action-hero glass ceiling.

Unsurprisingly, there were many who protested these comments by citing examples of female action heroes from the past 40-50 years of Hollywood films.

The actress has since clarified her statements, but in all the brouhaha, it was hard to find mention of one of the cinema’s earliest female action heroines: Pearl White.

Happily for us, there is a recently-published biography, the first on this remarkable actress. The Woman who Dared: The Life and Times of Pearl White, Queen of the Serials, by William M. Drew, is a thorough recounting of White’s life on and off screen.

Pearl White was known as a “Serial Queen”, before she confined herself to features in the early 1920s, thanks in part to her stunt-work injuries. She was an extremely hard-working actress who starred in film serials that featured a new chapter every two weeks. It would have been a gruelling pace; for example, her 1914 serial, The Exploits of Elaine, had whopping 36 episodes.

Her serials included The Perils of Pauline (1914), The Iron Claw (1916), and House of Hate (1918). She wasn’t the only actress starring in serials; in fact, serials featuring female leads were very popular during this period.

Biographer Drew says one reason the serials were so sought-after was the rise of the suffrage movement.

“Besides capitalizing on the demand for longer films and merging the interests of cinema and journalism, the serial film genre, with its daring heroines, tapped into the renewed push for women’s rights, incarnated in the suffrage movement,” he writes. “Replacing the Victorian stereotype of helpless femininity, [in] popular culture, in fiction, theater and, above all cinema, celebrated courageous, enterprising women.”

She was a prolific actress, even before she signed with The Pathé Exchange in 1914 to star in the series that would make her a Sensation. “At Crystal Company, Pearl set a record in the number of films she made that surpassed the number made by many of her contemporaries,” says Drew. “Not even Mary Pickford at Biograph or Mabel Normand at Keystone in 1912–1914 were as prolific.”

But get this: Like Mabel Normand, Pearl White did many of her own stunts, and became known as “The Peerless, Fearless Girl”. However, the more famous she became, the fewer dangerous stunts the studios permitted.

You can’t really blame them. By 1919, Pearl White was an international celebrity – even in the Soviet Union(!) – and she was a Precious Commodity.

Pearl & Co. on a cliff in the New Jersey Palisades, filming House of Hate (1918). Image: Alamy

Pearl was born in 1889 in Green Ridge, Missouri, to a poor family. Her mother died when she was quite young, leaving some of the children in the care of their grandmother, while Pearl and her brother were left to their absentee father.

Of her father, Pearl wrote, “Although I was frightened of him, I always did secretly everything that he told me not to, then lied about it. Consequently, I became at an early age a brilliant liar.”

After her father remarried, the family moved to Springfield, MO. By this time, Pearl was already known as a daredevil and a girl who did small performances outside the post office for spare change.

“Pearl invariably followed every circus parade, hung around every circus that arrived in Springfield, and always saved up fifty cents in anticipation of the next one to hit town,” says Drew. 

She left home at the Ripe Old Age of 18 and joined a succession of touring stock companies. These were hardscrabble outfits, relegated to rough accommodations and pitiful wages – if they were paid at all.

However, three years of touring and projecting temporarily damaged Pearl’s vocal cords, and a friend suggested she try acting in “the flickers” to rest her voice. This was in 1910 when no self-respecting actor would consider motion pictures – they were Beneath Contempt! – but Pearl was game.

She signed with the Powers Company and starred in several comedies. Then came the day she was asked to do a scene that Changed Her Life.

I was called upon to do a rather dangerous thing in a rescue scene. A building was burning and I, as the heroine, was to dash madly through the flames to the fourth story and let a woman and baby trapped by the flames to make their way by means of a plank to a window in the house across the court. The woman and the baby were dummies. As for myself—well, I realized that I was taking a chance—but what of it? . . . I have always been more or less of a fatalist and confident that my own particular guardian angel would watch out for me until my time came.

So I did it. I tried not to think of the chance I was taking; and in fact, as soon as I dashed into the building, I forgot myself completely and felt that I was really going to save real persons. The excitement of the thing carried me through. I found that I thrilled to it in much the same way that a soldier must thrill on going into battle.

Pearl White, from her memoirs, Just Me

Of course, she didn’t become famous for her Derring-Do overnight; it would be another four years before she was offered the lead in The Perils of Pauline, a serial about a young heiress who sets out for a World of Adventure just so she can write about it.

She was already reshaping the image of women on and off screen.

It’ll take more than this bunch to take Pearl down – even in those shoes. Image: Pixels

The Woman who Dared will probably be the definitive biography of Pearl White, with 68 pages of notes and a six-page bibliography. Drew is a comprehensive researcher, and is transparent about any speculations he makes.

He makes good use of Pearl’s 1919 memoirs, Just Me, and gives us a side-nudge when he suspects Pearl was Embellishing her experiences. Even so, he quotes enough from her writings to give us a glimpse of a woman who was funny and brave, and didn’t take herself too Seriously.

In 1923, Pearl left the film industry as a rich gal, and she retired in France, a country she long admired.

“Pearl White’s death in 1938 was announced on the front pages of newspapers throughout the world,” writes Drew, “with articles and editorials lauding her as one of the most courageous and daring stars in cinema annals.

“Yet even as she was being mythologized in the press, the formal history of film that first took shape in the 1930s was already starting to neglect her,” he continues. “For this history—the films then selected to be preserved in archives and the artists who were the most revered—was resolutely male-oriented….”

He then points to Walter Kerr, an influential Broadway theatre critic and author, who dismissed Pearl White and all talented women of the silent era with his infamous nine-word pronouncement: “No comedienne ever became a truly important silent clown.”

Thankfully, we have this extensive biography to show us there were indeed important women in the silent era – and in action films before the magical year of 2012.

Notes

  • Disclosure: The University of Kentucky Press made an ARC available for reviewers.
  • Click HERE to purchase your copy of The Woman who Dared: The Life and Times of Pearl White, Queen of the Serials, by William M Drew.

Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

16 Comment on “Pearl White: Female Action Star of the 1910s

  1. Pingback: So Glad We Can All Agree on This! - One Honest Indie

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