"Perils of Pauline" -- cliff-hanger or not?

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Wed Feb 19 01:39:09 UTC 2014

At 2/18/2014 11:09 AM, Dan Goncharoff wrote:
>Why, among all the popular adventure serials at the time, do think it had
>to be The Perils of Pauline?

The immense success of P. of P., the celebrity of Pearl White, that
it was one of the first serials (that is, movies with continuing
plots) to be made, and that it did have a cliff-hanging scene.

P. of P. was a sensational success, probably the most popular serial
of its time.  Pearl White, who started her career in 1910, was a
popular leading lady in comedies by 1914.  She was the subject of an
article in The Moving Picture World in 1910, three weeks before a
(full-page) article on Mary Pickford.  White's "greatest serial
success" was The Exploits of Elaine, released in December 1914, the
same month the last episode of P. of P. appeared, and Exploits was
followed by two sequels in 1915.  She made seven more serials, "all
of them immensely successful."  (Anthony Slide, Early American Cinema).

P. of P. was the fourth movie serial to be released.  (Shelley Stamp,
Movie-Struck Girls, 104, 118).  Pauline was probably seen as the
classic "damsel in distress".  Stamp (137--138) contrasts Pauline to
the heroine of What Happened to Mary (1912): Mary is active and has
initiative; Pauline is unaware of the plots against her and a victim

In addition to her discussion of episode 12 that I quoted, Stamp
(113) cites reviews that imply P. of P. left viewers in suspense,
waiting for the next installment.  Although one wrote "this [leaving
plot situations unresolved] seems to have been obviated to a great
degree in The Perils of Pauline", he added "*though each installment
ends at the most interesting moment,* it is a complete picture in
itself."  Another wrote that the first episode "stops abruptly in
what appears to be the most vital spot in the narrative, and there is
no doubt it will influence the audience, or a large part of it, to
see what ensues, as no completed plot would do."  [Viz. episode 6,
where Pauline descends safely from the cliff, only to have the
episode end with her abduction and imprisonment by the villains.]

So I am speculating that the presence of "suspense" at the end of
episodes of the early serials may have become associated with the
"suspense" of Pauline depending from and on the cliff, leading to the
joining of "cliff" with the suspension of "hanging".  (From its
casual use in Fred's 1931 quotation, as though everyone would know
why Variety called "Battling with Buffalo Bill" a "cliff hanger", I
imagine it had arisen earlier.)


>On Tue, Feb 18, 2014 at 10:34 AM, Joel S. Berson <Berson at att.net> wrote:
> > ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> > -----------------------
> > Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> > Poster:       "Joel S. Berson" <Berson at ATT.NET>
> > Subject:      "Perils of Pauline" -- cliff-hanger or not?
> >
> >
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> >
> > There are some who call the 1914 Perils of Pauline a cliff-hanger,
> > and some, probably the majority, who do not.  The argument is
> > complicated by the fact that the negatives and prints for the
> > original 20 two-reel chapters have not been found, and later releases
> > have cut and pasted episodes.
> >
> > Shelley Stamp, in "Movie-Struck Girls: Women and Motion Picture
> > Culture after the Nickelodeon" (2000), p. 119, suggests why P. of P.
> > may have been called a cliffhanger:
> >
> > "In its account of the serial's twelfth chapter, the [New York
> > Dramatic] Mirror leaves out scenes that the Moving Picture] World
> > recounts at the beginning of the episode, and describes how the
> > installment ends with an incident that the World includes at the
> > beginning of the subsequent installment, complaining that this ending
> > is 'something like breaking off a story in the middle of a sentence.'
> > It therefore appears plausible that at least one exhibitor may have
> > shown the second reel of the twelfth episode together with the first
> > reel of the thirteenth episode as a combined package, possibly in
> > order to achieve a 'cliff-hanger' effect. ... [It seems likely] that
> > just as release dates seem to have been staggered in conjunction with
> > newspaper supplements, the ordering and combination of separate reels
> > might also have varied from venue to venue."
> >
> > I note that the "original story synopses" from the Moving Picture
> > World seem to be taken as the true picture, and perhaps adduced as
> > the definitive evidence that P. of P. was not a cliff-hanger.  See
> > <http://www.serialsquadron.com/forums/>
> > http://www.serialsquadron.com/forums/
> > (Movie Serial Message Boards) and select 1910s-20s Silent Movie
> > Serials & Series / The 20 Original Chapters of THE PERILS OF PAULINE.
> >
> > Whether or not what the Mirror saw was common, I still surmise that
> > "cliff-hanger" arose from association with the cliff-hanging scene in
> > the immensely popular P. of P.  Now all that remains is to find it
> > near 1914, or even better in a reference to P. of P. itself.
> >
> > Joel
> >
> > ------------------------------------------------------------
> > The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org
> >
>The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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