Today is the 127th birthday of the silent film pioneer actress Pearl White. Her films and her business acumen solidified her as one of the most powerful and profitable women of the silent film era. The world is a better place because she is in it and still feels the loss that she has left.
NAME: Pearl White
OCCUPATION: Women’s Rights Activist, Film Actress
BIRTH DATE: March 4, 1889
DEATH DATE: August 4, 1938
PLACE OF BIRTH: Green Ridge, Missouri
PLACE OF DEATH: Neuilly-sur-Seine, France
HOLLYWOOD WALK OF FAME: 6838 Hollywood Blvd.
BEST KNOWN FOR: Pearl White was an American silent film actress best known for her role in The Perils of Pauline, in which she did her own stunt work.
White was born in Green Ridge, Missouri, to Edgar White, a farmer, and Inez White. She had four brothers and sisters. The family later moved to Springfield, Missouri. At age 6, she made her stage debut as “Little Eva” in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. When she was 13 years old, White worked as a bareback rider for the circus.
She began performing with the Diemer Theater Company, located on Commercial Street, while in her second year of high school. Against the wishes of her father, White dropped out of high school and, in 1907 at age 18, she went on the road with the Trousedale Stock Company, working evening shows while keeping her day job to help support her family. She was soon able to join the company full-time, touring through the American Midwest. White played minor roles for several years, when she was spotted by the Powers Film Company in New York. She claimed she had also performed in Cuba for a time under the name “Miss Mazee”, singing American songs in a dance hall. Her travels as a singer took her to South America, where she performed in casinos and dance halls. In 1910, White had trouble with her throat, and her voice began to fail from the nightly theatrical performances. She made her debut in films that year, starring in a series of one-reel dramas and comedies for Pat Powers in the Bronx. It was at Powers Films that White honed her skills at physical comedy and stunt work. She became a popular player with the company and was caught the attention of Pathé Frères.
In 1910, White was offered a role by Pathé Frères in The Girl From Arizona, the French company’s first American film produced at their new studio in Bound Brook, New Jersey. She then worked at Lubin Studios in 1911 and several other of the independents, until the Crystal Film Company in Manhattan gave her top billing in a number of slapstick comedy shorts from 1912 to 1914. White then took a vacation in Europe. Upon her return, she signed with Eclectic Film Company, a subsidiary of Pathé in 1914.
Pathé director Louis J. Gasnier offered her the starring role in film serial The Perils of Pauline, based on a story by playwright Charles W. Goddard. The film features the central character of “Pauline” in a story involving considerable action, which the athletic Pearl White proved ideally suited for. The Perils of Pauline consisted of twenty, two-reel episodes that were released weekly. The serial proved to be a hit with audiences and made White a major celebrity, and she was soon earning $1,750 a week. She followed this with an even bigger box office hit, The Exploits of Elaine (1914-1915). Over the next five years, White would appear in the popular serials The New Exploits of Elaine (1915), The Romance of Elaine (1915), The Iron Claw (1916), Pearl of the Army (1916-1917), The Fatal Ring (1917), The House of Hate (1918), The Lightening Raider (1919) and The Black Secret (1919-1920). In these serials, White flew airplanes, raced cars, swam across rivers, and did other similar feats. She did much of her own stunt work until Pathé decided that they could not risk injuring one of their most popular stars (She had already injured her spine during the filming of The Perils of Pauline, an injury that would cause her pain for the rest of her life). A male stunt double wearing a wig would perform the majority of the more dangerous stunts in White’s later films. The public was largely unaware that White and other actors utilized stunt doubles because studios made a point to publicize that the actors did their own stunts. In August 1922, the public finally learned the truth. During the filming of White’s final serial Plunder, John Stevenson, an actor who was doubling for White, was supposed to leap from the top of a bus on 72nd Street and Columbus Avenue onto an elevated girder. He missed the girder and struck his head. Stevenson died of a fractured skull. After the filming of Plunder was complete, White traveled to Europe for another vacation.
By 1919, White had grown tired of film serials and signed with Fox Film Corporation with the ambition to appear in dramatic roles. Over the next two years, White appeared in ten drama films for Fox but her popularity had begun to wane.
Influenced by her French friends from Pathé Studios, White was drawn to the artistic gathering in the Montparnasse Quarter of Paris. While living there, she made her last film for her friend, Belgian-born director Edward José, who had directed her in several serials. Silent films could be made in any country, and as White was a recognizable star worldwide, she was offered many roles in France. She made her final film, Terreur (released as The Perils of Paris in the United States), in France in 1924. White returned to the stage in a Montmartre production Tu Perds la Boule (You Lose the Ball). In 1925 she accepted an offer to star with comedian Max Wall in the “London Review” at the Lyceum Theatre in London where she earned $3,000 a week. She then retired from performing.
By the time she retired from films in 1924, White has amassed a fortune of $2 million. A shrewd businesswoman, she invested in a successful Parisian nightclub, a Biarritz resort hotel/casino, and a stable of ten race horses. White divided her time between her townhouse in Passy and a 54-acre estate near Rambouillet. She became involved with Theodore Cossika, a Greek businessman who shared her love of travel. Together they purchased a home near Cairo, Egypt, and White travelled with him throughout the Middle East and the Orient. According to published reports after her death, White’s friends claimed that she intended to make a comeback in sound films. White later told friends that after she made a test for sound films in 1929, she was told that her voice was unsuitable. White made occasional visits to the United States in 1924, 1927 and 1937. On her last visit, White would tell reporters that she was not interested in making a comeback and mused that acting in silent films was more difficult than acting in the then-new “talkies” though she did praise Greta Garbo. By this time, White had gained a substantial amount of weight. She told reporters she did not like to be photographed as she felt that photos made her face look fat adding, “Why should I have my picture taken when I can get paid for it?”.
White was married twice and had no children. She married actor Victor Sutherland on October 10, 1907. They divorced in 1914. In 1919, she married for the second time to actor Wallace McCutcheon. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1921.
By 1937, White was dying of liver failure. The injury she sustained to her spine while filming The Perils of Pauline had continued to cause her pain which she eased with drugs and alcohol. A year before her death, White got her affairs in order, purchased a plot in the Cimetière de Passy near her home and arranged her own funeral.
In early July 1938, she checked herself into the American Hospital in the Paris suburb of Neuilly, due to issues with her liver. She slipped into a coma on August 3, 1938 and died the following day of what was identified in her obituaries as a “liver ailment” (likely cirrhosis due to years of heavy drinking). She was 49 years old. White was buried in the Cimetière de Passy after a small, private funeral.
White left the majority of her fortune, including jewelery and property, to Theodore Cossika. She also bequeathed money to her father, nieces, and nephews, and willed $73,000 to charities.
Pearl White’s place in film history is important in both the evolution of cinema genres and the role of women. Like many silent film actors, many of White’s films are now considered lost. The Perils of Pauline is only known to exist in a reduced nine-reel version released in Europe in 1916, but The Exploits of Elaine survives and was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. All of her films were made at East Coast studios as White reportedly never visited Hollywood.
The 1947 Paramount Pictures film The Perils of Pauline, starring Betty Hutton, is a fictionalized biography of Pearl White.
Source: Pearl White