The Silent Collection
By Tammy Stone
must preface this entry with a sorry statement: everything you are about to read
here is a lie. Okay, that might be an exaggeration, but Pearl White is not only
one of the more obscure of the silent film stars, she was also a notorious
fibber! Known for her whimsical, grandiose whoppers, financial prowess and
inventive mythmaking, the movie rags knew to take her stories with a grain of
salt after catching her in lie after lie. Not that this took away from her
charm, relative popularity, or diva-like stature. Quite the opposite – not
unlike today, scandals a movie star make! So sit back and enjoy the (possibly
all untrue) life story of silent serial queen Ms. Pearl White.
have Pearl being born on March 4, 1889 in Green Ridge, Missouri, although after
her death, her father went public announcing she was really born as late as
1897. Why would she make herself older than she was, contrary to tendencies of
any typical adult woman? She wanted to be on even playing field with
Mary Pickford, her senior and apparent rival. So the story goes, but it’s not widely
believed anymore. Pearl, in accounts of her life, situated herself in one of the
town’s poorest families, one of many siblings with an Irish father and Italian
mother. She claimed once that everyone in her life, including her father, died
unnatural deaths, and that she too would suffer the same fate. Her father was
alive at the time, and in fact survived his daughter by several years.
mother did die when Pearl was only three years old, and Pearl recounts a
childhood spent doing odd jobs and playing in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” with a
traveling troupe when she was only five (this is largely discredited, although
traveling shows often did use local talent). In all likelihood, Pearl attended
school like other ‘normal’ children, until joining a theatre troupe after high
school; however, a favorite story of hers is that she joined the circus in her
adolescence, especially taking to the trapeze arts. In this version of her life,
she suffered a serious accident whereby her collar bone was broken. Who knows.
While hazy, the
facts point to Pearl working with the local Diemer Stock Company,
and then touring with shows she became too embarrassed to talk about. In 1907
she entered what would be a terrible, seven year marriage with Victor Sutherland
in Oklahoma. Her theatre career wasn’t thriving, as she was an admitted amateur.
But that didn’t mean she didn’t want to be in the movies. So, onto the era of
the silver screen …
in over 200 films during her prolific career, which began in 1910 with stock
work in Connecticut with The Powers Film Company. She proceeded to work for a
number of small “studios” across the country, not doing terribly well but
learning the business. On the heels of a failure with one company, Lubin, she
was picked up almost immediately by the Pathe Company of New Jersey, for whom
she made a few pictures. She then left Pathe for the Crystal Film Company in
Manhattan, by 1912. Here, she started to take herself seriously as an actress,
and began to improve exponentially.
She made several
memorable films with Crystal, and also began to obsess over the management of
her finances. According to her statements, she had saved $3000 by 1913 – a
fairly gargantuan figure in those days – and used it to go on a trip to Europe.
Most sources don’t believe this today, but since she did turn out to be
incredibly savvy with money … well, again, who knows.
remained pretty much unknown during the Crystal years. She returned to Pathe in
1914, and this is where the real story of Pearl White begins. She was given her
own serial, The Perils of Pauline, which catapulted her into stardom.
This 20 episode series wasn’t the first serial or the first popular one to date
(The Adventures of Kathlyn, 1913-14 comes to mind), but Pearl’s got a lot
of media attention; William Randolph Hearst even plugged it in his papers. Pearl
became an almost overnight sensation. And she was ready for it: a modern sort of
gal, this series was perfect for her. She portrayed not the frail and fallen
women of so many of the era’s melodramas, but a young, carefree, adventurous
soul who embarked on exploit after exploit despite the protestations of her
boyfriend, Harry Marvin (Crane Wilbur).
always rescued in the end (despite her claims that each episode ended in a
cliffhanger), but she is no submissive bastion of traditional femininity. She
enters danger’s open arms, and even refuses to marry Harry, resenting his
paternalistic attitude towards her. This, in 1914! She became the new kind of
icon for a new generation. Not that this series was without its problems. In one
instance of a wild claim that might actually be true, Pearl often told
interviewers that she did all her own stunts – this statement was backed by the
studios (possibly because it made good publicity). Of course, no stars did all
their own stunts, but we’re ready to believe she did many of them.
one such stunt, Pearl was badly injured – she was in Paul Panzer’s arms when she
shifted weight and the two went tumbling down. She later said, in 1920, that she
“struck on the top of my head, displacing several vertebrae. The pain was
terrible. For two years I simply lived with osteopaths, and to this day I have
some pretty bad times with my back.” This injury was probably responsible for
her early retirement and death.
But not yet.
Pathe cast Pearl in three more serials in 1915, changing “Pauline” to “Elaine”,
and her leading man to Creighton Hale. The Exploits of Elaine lasted 14
episodes; The New Exploits of Elaine was 10 episodes long (she fought
Chinese Opium dealers in these); and she took on no less than Germany in the
12-episode The Romance of Elaine, which was shown all over the world –
even Jean Cocteau fell in love with her. As popular as she was becoming, she was
never hounded by the public on the street – they never recognized her in her big
blonde wigs, which she wore in the movies and in public; her real hair was allegedly mousy and
the lead of all other movie studios to do too much of a good thing, put Pearl
into an astonishing six serials over the next four years, each 15 to 20 episodes
long, and each more hurried and chaotic than the last. She was busy, she loved
it, although she didn’t really know much about the domestic life – until 1918,
when she rented a huge mansion over-looking Long Island Sound. Throughout this
new home life-bliss experience, however, she was quoted often as saying that
important to save your money for hard times. She had an almost compulsive fear
of going broke one day.
In 1919, she
“wrote” an autobiography most believe she never even read, called “Just Me.” She
also married Wallace McCutcheon, an actor who had been injured during service in
the war. This marriage lasted 2 years – Wallace allegedly went crazy, ending up
in a sanitarium and dying in 1928. At this time, Pearl also became
disillusioned with her serials, and made Pathe cast her in feature films, which
they did, in The King’s Game and Hazel Kirke (1916), both of which
she hated: “… rotten as they make 'em. They were the three most terrible plays
ever done. Lord, but I was awful! One of them was hand-colored, but even the
color didn't hide my acting.” In 1919, she left Pathe and signed on with Fox,
where she was hoping to be given better roles and more down time.
The nine films
she made with Fox – including The White Moll (1920) and her last American
feature, Broadway Peacock (1922) – got virtually no attention by the
public. Left with no choice, she returned to Pathe and made one more serial in
1923, Plunder. During this shoot, one of her stuntmen (aha! So she did
use stuntmen!) died tragically, tarnishing the whole production. Before this
serial was even shown to the public, Pearl took off to Europe, devastated by all
the recent traumas in her life, including worsening back pain from the old
injury. There were of course rumors that she entered a convent (we don’t think
so!), but she did make a last feature there, released in the US as Perils in
continued to do theatre in Paris, raking in a lot of money this way. She also
became a big-time property owner there, with hotels and casinos under her belt –
the Depression did nothing to lessen her wealth – or her happiness; she became
involved with a very rich, handsome Greek tycoon, Theodore Cossika, with whom
she traveled all over the world. It’s reported that she came back to the US
three times, but never visited California – on her last visit there, fans were
allegedly shocked by how overweight and unhealthy she looked, at the relatively
young age of 48. Still boastful, she publicly announced that silent film acting
was much harder than acting for sound films.
injuries finally caught up with her. In 1933 she was hospitalized, and became
addicted to both drugs and alcohol, which she used to lessen the pain. By 1938,
she had entered the American Hospital in Paris, where she died on August 4,
leaving a hefty fortune for Theodore and her surviving family. Pearl’s life was
a mystery – she traveled to and fro, leaving colorful stories in her wake every
time. She was fascinating, enigmatic, sharp as nails and in the end, she lived
life exactly the way she wanted to. In other words, she was a true star, ahead
of her time as serial maverick at a time when television was but a pipe dream.
We may not know all that much about her, but we will always remember her.
Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her
regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen here in
The Movie Profiles &
Premiums Newsletter. Tammy invites you to write her at
firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or comments on her column.