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Color Watch: The Perils of Pauline (1947)

There has been one glaring deficiency in the movies we’ve chosen to discuss thus far: color. For the month of January, we’re expanding our palette by watching five color films from the 1920s to the 1950s. The last film Adam and Samantha will discuss is The Perils of Pauline from 1947.

SAMANTHA: The Perils of Pauline is the story of serial star Pearl White, an actress known for her stunt work during the silent film era. This is one of those biopics that uses a famous person’s name and what they’re famous for but shows no regard for the truth. White was a stage actress beginning at age 6, so she didn’t fall into the job as an adult. She also entered films because she was losing her voice, so it is an odd choice to make her biopic a musical. Although she did have lingering injuries from doing her own stunts, Pearl White was never crippled in an accident. She retired from the screen a wealthy woman and died of liver failure, likely brought on by a life of heavy drinking.

ADAM: Advertisements in the trade magazines (“It’s 3 Wonder Shows in One!!”) illustrated the three pillars of marketing The Perils of Pauline: nostalgia, romance, and Technicolor. The adults in the audience were the right age to have experienced the Pearl White phenomenon. I had to do some highly advanced mathematics to put this in perspective—my conclusion is this is comparable to late-1980s/early-1990s nostalgia in a 2021 film. Based on my nephew’s review of the movie, I think something like Ready Player One would be the current equivalent of a cross-generational movie, i.e., one that tells its story in a modern vernacular while mining the parent’s generation for cultural references. The adults are usually paying for the tickets so it’s a boon to appeal to them.

S: Or to reference a better film, what Back to the Future was for the 50s. This film is really just a showcase for Betty Hutton, her beautiful and versatile voice, her manic performance style and endless energy. Hutton was a gorgeous woman who wasn’t afraid to mug wildly in front of the camera. Maybe she didn’t know she was pretty so she didn’t think to protect a glamorous image. She was insecure her whole life, and her vulnerability is on full display in her interview with Robert Osborne for TCM’s Private Screenings. It is her disregard for a picture-perfect image that makes her seem ballsy, and I have undying respect and love for her.

Production ran from Feb to May in 1946, during which time Hutton became pregnant with her first child, due in November. She wrote in her autobiography, “I hoped to tone down my career to the point where I could reach a new happy balance and become more of a dramatic actress. I guess in a way I was being selfish, but the comic roughhousing was starting to get to me. Although it was the comic Betty Hutton that got me to where I was, and it was exactly what my fans had come to expect, I knew deep inside I couldn’t keep up that kind of a pace forever.”

A: I could barely keep up with her pace for 90 minutes. It’s hard to argue with the takeaway that the film is more a Betty Hutton vehicle than it is a tribute to Pearl White. Bosley Crowther came to this conclusion in his negative review of the ’47 Perils. He wrote that the film was a missed opportunity to delve deeply into the pioneering days of early filmmaking in New Jersey. “Something big happened in that era and it could profitably be recognized. Also something very poignant took place, so far as certain individuals were concerned.” His reasoning is solid. By the film’s conclusion, I didn’t feel I understood the historical Pearl White at all.

The counterargument to Crowther’s stick-in-the-mud criticism is that the movies are for the masses and to make a “realistic” biopic of someone as mythical as Pearl White is to misunderstand the absurd sensationalism that was early cinema. In this sense, Betty Hutton’s hopped-up musical numbers, the wholly fictional sequences (“Actually, Pearl was never tied to a railroad track in any film!” drones a chorus of pallid film historians), and the luster of Technicolor are entirely appropriate to tell a story of someone who made a ton of money from ephemeral entertainment. Sometimes the gatekeepers of film history are their own worst enemies. I posit that Dudley Do-Right cartoons have done more to maintain the allure of classic films for future generations than every single academic paper and lecture combined.

S: John Lund plays the romantic lead, and doesn't make much of an impression. Billy DeWolfe is the comic relief. (I love his line to the cow he has been sharing a train car with, “Thanks for everything Annabelle. I look forward to meeting you again— with ketchup.”) William Demarest is the director. Constance Collier became ill during the shooting and the studio wanted to replace her, but Betty used her clout to keep her in the film, playing her mentor. The Keystone Cops make a cameo appearance in the kitchen film set.

A: The romance angle of this film didn’t win me over. John Lund is a bit leaden and his role as Pearl’s emasculated lover is thankless. However, Billy DeWolfe manages the seemingly impossible task of out-hamming Hutton. The scene where he teaches enunciation is the most charming comedy of the film. “Come! See the chrys-anth-e-mums bud-ding.”

S: The film premiered July 4, 1947. Bob Thomas favorably reviewed the film, saying of Betty, “You’re going to be seeing a lot of her. She will soon be one of the most important stars in Hollywood... she has developed into an accomplished actress and can sing and dance anything that might be required.” “Rumble” by Frank Loesser is one of my favorite songs from Hutton’s entire catalogue and it is great fun to sing along to. The record version is slightly different from the movie version too so it’s like an extra bonus. Loesser’s “I Wish I Didn’t Love You So” was nominated for an Oscar.

A: “Rumble” is an electrifying boogie-woogie number. That Betty performs it as an opening act to Lund’s Shakespeare performance is a nice summary of their mismatched personas.

S: The styles of the film are very appealing. I love the three-piece suits with grey vests, black coats and ascots. Betty’s dress for the “Papa Don’t Preach” song is contemporary, not even close to an early 1920s style. The silent movie scenes reminded me of a short shown at Capitolfest in 2019 called The Curse of a Broken Heart which maniacally spoofed melodramas from this era. I think that kind of acting was antiquated even in the silent era.

A: I love all the crazy gesticulating, eyebrow-raising, and teeth gnashing (not chewing!). I became curious about The Perils of Pauline after reading cinematographer Arthur Miller’s account of filming the original version in his book One Reel a Week. I approached the film as a bit of Hollywood mythmaking, and, as such, I was satisfied that it captured the energy of the times if not the historical details. However, the film is not without faults. For me, the energy of the opening and the incredibly fun middle section (everything to do with the perils of filmmaking) ran out of steam by the final third. The attempt at a tear-jerking conclusion was misguided and half-hearted. While not as good as I anticipated, I still enjoyed it. Three stars. It’s a shame that the film has been relegated to public domain purgatory. It would be great to see this one restored.

S: I have watched this movie several times and I always enjoy it. I give it four stars.

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It has been several years since I last saw this film so my memory of it is only an impression. I too am one of those who enjoy the manic energy of Betty Hutton, but remember not enjoying this film, mostly because of the print quality. I also agree that it would make a wonderful restoration project, that there would be quite a bit of interest to see this film in all its Technicolor splendour.

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