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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone

Featuring:
PEARL WHITE

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Pearl White Post Card1917 Pearl White Kromo Gravure Rounded Border Trading CardI 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.

Most accounts 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.

Her 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 …

Pearl appeared 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.

1921-22 Pearl White Picturegoer Premium Photo1920's Pearl White Strip CardShe 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.

Pearl 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).

Yes, she’s 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 flies, races, 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.

During 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 over-dyed.

Pathe, following 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 it’s always important to save your money for hard times. She had an almost compulsive fear of going broke one day.

1916 MJ Moriarty Pearl White Playing Card1917 Pearl White Kromo Gravure Trading CardIn 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 Paris (1924).

Pearl 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.

Pearl’s 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.
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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 stonetamar@hotmail.com with any questions or comments on her column.