White, Pearl (1889–1938)

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White, Pearl (1889–1938)

American actress best known for her starring role in the famous silent-film serial The Perils of Pauline . Born Pearl Fay White on March 4, 1889, in Green Ridge, Missouri; died of liver disease on August 4, 1938, in Paris, France; daughter of Lizzie G. (House)White and Edward Gilman White; educated through the tenth grade in public schools in Springfield, Missouri; married Victor C. Sutherland (an actor), in 1907 (divorced 1914); married Wallace McCutcheon (an actor), around 1919 (divorced 1921); no children.

Selected filmography:

The Girl from Arizona (1910); The New Magdalene (1910); The Woman Hater (1910); The Angel of the Slums (1911); Home Sweet Home (1911); Bella's Beau (1912); Oh Such a Night! (1912); The Chorus Girl (1912); Pearl as a Detective (1913); Girl Detective (1913); Heroic Harold (1913); Lizzie and the Iceman (1914); Shadowed (1914); The Perils of Pauline (serial, 1914); The Exploits of Elaine (serial, 1915); The New Exploits of Elaine (serial, 1915); The Romance of Elaine (serial, 1915); The King's Game (1916); The Iron Claw (serial, 1916); Pearl of the Army (serial, 1916); The Fatal Ring (serial, 1917); The Lightning Raider (serial, 1918); The House of Hate (serial, 1918); Black Secret (serial, 1919–20); The Dark Mirror (1920); The White Moll (1920); The Thief (1920); Beyond Price (1921); A Virgin Paradise (1921); The Mountain Woman (1921); Broadway Peacock (1922); Any Wife (1922); Plunder (serial, 1923); Terreur (Fr. serial, released in U.S. as The Perils of Paris, 1924).

Pearl White was launched in a hot air balloon, hoisted up to the 20th story of a New York skyscraper, stalked by an evil secretary, left to sink off a dock, and tied to the railroad tracks in the path of an oncoming locomotive, surviving it all as the heroine of thrilling serial adventures that captivated silent-film audiences in the early years of the movie industry. She was one of the best-loved actresses of the 1910s, as her fans cheered her miraculous escapes and shouted at the screen to warn her of looming dangers in The Perils of Pauline and her other popular films. One of the best-paid actresses of the era as well, White performed many of her own stunts, and was renowned for her athletic skill and grace and her cheerful good looks.

She was born into a large farming family in rural Missouri in 1889. Her mother died when White was three, and the circumstances of her early life may have been difficult, although reliable information is scanty. She later encouraged the false story that she had joined the circus at age 15 and learned trapeze and stunt work there. Other sources contend that she left high school as a sophomore and took stage parts in a Springfield, Missouri, theater stock company. Her father was apparently so aghast at his daughter's line of work that he tried to find legal means to prevent her from acting. Nevertheless, White persisted.

She married an actor from the Springfield company, Victor Sutherland, in 1907, and continued to appear in live theater until around 1910.

At that point White was having difficulties with her voice, and she sought a career in films, where at the time emotive acting and title cards took the place of speech. She worked for several different silent-film companies in New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia, churning out footage at an exhausting rate. By 1912, she was starring in broad physical comedies, shooting on such a heavy schedule that she broke down and left the movies for a long European holiday. After her return, she was persuaded to star in a serial for the incredible salary of $250 a week. Run-ofthe-mill actors earned about $30 a week at that time, so White was clearly a prize commodity when she began shooting The Perils of Pauline. A continuing story that left audiences with a classic cliff-hanger at the end of each episode (will she escape from that locomotive?), the serial was given huge publicity by the Hearst newspapers during its release in 1914, and an estimated 15 million Americans went to see it. Serials were an extremely popular genre in the late 1910s, with stars such as Grace Cunard and Kathlyn Williams battling an astonishing array of dangers, but White topped them all with the 20-episode Perils of Pauline. After this success, her weekly salary was increased to $2,500. For a few years in the middle of the decade, she was more popular than Mary Pickford . In 1915 alone she made three other serials, The Exploits of Elaine, which earned a profit of over $1 million, The New Exploits of Elaine and The Romance of Elaine. She went on to star in numerous other serials throughout the 1910s, including The Iron Claw and Pearl of the Army (both 1916), The Fatal Ring (1917), The House of Hate (1918), and The Black Secret (1919–20).

White initially did her own stunts, a fact that was amply advertised by Hearst and the film studios. During one hot-air balloon sequence in 1914, her balloon accidentally came untethered, and she floated through Manhattan in the rain before landing safely. Around that time she suffered an injury to her spine from a fall down a flight of stairs, the effects of which she would feel for the rest of her life. Eventually White persuaded her producers to use a double for the most dangerous stunts, although studio publicity continued to declare that she preferred to risk death and face danger in shooting her films. (Naturally a redhead, she wore a blond wig in her serials, and her stunt double was often an Irish boxer in a similar wig.) White's charm was in her pluck and daring, and she remained a screen darling through World War I. In 1919, she published her autobiography, Just Me, from which a number of the romantic tales of her early life sprung. After 1919, she moved on to regular dramatic parts in more serious movies, none of which were nearly as successful as her serials. She made 13 serious films between 1919 and 1923, then made one more serial, Plunder (1923), before moving to France. Her last film was a French production entitled Terreur (1924), released in the United States as The Perils of Paris.

White saved an estimated $2 million in the years between 1914 and her retirement. She had been married and divorced twice, and had no children. (She had also never been to Hollywood: all her American films were shot in the East.) In France, she lived well, owning both a Parisian home and a villa in Rambouillet. She kept numerous racehorses, entertained on a sumptuous level and frequented fashionable European resorts. She was troubled, however, by failing eyesight as well as a scratchy voice that prevented her entry into talking films, and her health declined due to a liver ailment which apparently was exacerbated by the spinal injury she had suffered in 1914. She died in a Paris hospital on August 4, 1938, at age 49, and was buried in Passy Cemetery. Betty Hutton played her onscreen in a popular, fictionalized 1947 musical comedy, as did Pamela Austin in a less successful film in 1967. Despite the fact that few living now have seen it, The Perils of Pauline remains, nearly 100 years after it was made, the best known of the silent serials, and Pearl White a surprisingly recognizable symbol of a long-gone era.


Acker, Ally. Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema 1896 to the Present. NY: Continuum, 1991.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. 2nd ed. NY: HarperCollins, 1994.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Quinlan, David, ed. The Film Lover's Companion. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1997.

related media:

The Perils of Pauline (96-min. film), starring Betty Hutton, John Lund, and Constance Collier , released in 1947.

The Perils of Pauline (99-min. film), starring Pamela Austin, Pat Boone, and Terry-Thomas, released in 1967.

Angela Woodward , M.A., Madison, Wisconsin

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White, Pearl (1889–1938)

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