Tuesday 15 July 2008

The Perils of Pauline (1947)

However great Bad Lieutenant may be, after watching it a comedy is certainly needed to change the mood and this might just be the only one I have on the DVR. It's a musical comedy biopic, of all things, of Pearl White, the lady who thrilled silent movie audiences in cliffhangers like 1914's The Perils of Pauline, from where this film gets its title. The lady is played by Betty Hutton, who's one of those 40s/50s actors fans know from major musicals like Annie Get Your Gun and I know from next to nothing. I think I've seen her in one film: The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, in which she was good but reminded too much of Ginger Rogers.

She starts out in some sort of sweatshop making dresses, but escapes in the company of a theatrical client, Julia Gibbs who proves to be her road into show business, which starts with her thrust onto the stage in front of a belligerent crowd waiting too long for Romeo and Juliet. She wins them over with a lively song and dance and so becomes a member of the Farrington Players. She works her way up through the ranks but her talent is for comedy, even when it isn't appropriate. Her first appearance in a Farrington Players production is aptly described as an entrance 'like a 21 gun salute', and her second is improved mostly by Mike Farrington tying her hands together under her ample dress to keep her from waving them around.

Finally quitting from the company, after being talked down to yet again by the man she's fallen for, she finds work only in the second class profession of the movie industry. However while Mike Farrington struggles to work on the stage, Pearl White becomes the biggest thing in pictures, starring as the original and very probably cliffhanging heroine of them all. She's the serial queen that inspired Penelope Pitstop, who I watched what seemed like every night on Wacky Races and The Perils of Penelope Pitstop.

Betty Hutton has a blast with this part, sometimes literally. Then again there's so much that could have thrown into a film about the making of The Perils of Pauline that this seems sadly lacking. The most dynamic scene is the one where Pearl hires Mike Farrington as her leading man and he demonstrates overacting in a rescue scene. It's a great scene but it's a little unfair on Pearl White, who was supposed to be the subject of this biopic, given that she was the huge star, very possibly the biggest of them all in 1914, and one who made a name for herself by doing all her own stunts.

It's a coin toss as to whether Pearl or Douglas Fairbanks Sr was the silent era's Jackie Chan, and yet that side of things was almost ignored entirely here, at least until she has to raise Liberty Bonds and that isn't even on screen. If you can believe it we only see her in one film, the title picture. She performs more songs here than she does stunts, and that seems somehow heretical. We silent film afficionados have to content ourselves with a quick montage of cliffhangers and the presence in the cast of a number of silent comedy legends, such as Snub Pollard, Chester Conklin and Paul Panzer, who was the villain in the original serial, The Perils of Pauline.

The story here is predictable and only half to do with reality, half being perhaps a little generous. Most of it seems to be about this great romance she has with the man who first put her on the stage. In reality, his name was Victor Sutherland, and they'd married and divorced by 1914. She'd marry again in 1919 for a couple of years, but somehow this film paints a whole new picture. That always saddens me when it comes to biopics, because anyone who really warrants a biopic is interesting enough to make such a thing fascinating enough without changing everything for no apparent reason. I'd love to see a real biography of Pearl White, but this isn't it. It has plenty to watch but not much of that has to do with her in the slightest. It mostly has to do with Betty Hutton's version of Pearl White; Billy De Wolfe's serial villain Timmy Timmons; William Demarest's half genius, half con man film director, George McGuire; and Constance Collier's dynamic Julia Gibbs.

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