“Perils of Pauline” film heroine was lashed to train tracks in town. Or wasn’t she?
Mary Anne and I years ago were eating breakfast at Karla’s on Mechanic Street in New Hope when someone mentioned “Pauline’s Trestle”, the most famous image of the silent film era. Afterwards, we took a closer look at the curving railroad trestle over Aquetong Creek about a block away, just upstream from the Bucks County Playhouse. In 1914, as the story goes, young actress Pearl White was tied to the trestle’s tracks as a locomotive came careening down the line, threatening to run her over. It was the most memorable scene in the blockbuster movie serial “The Perils of Pauline.” For decades the New Hope & Ivyland tourist railroad referenced “Pauline’s Trestle” as part of its marketing campaign.
What happened to Pearl White in New Hope has been accepted as fact dating to the 1930s. But is it fiction?
That’s the question posed by reader Michael Balik. “Going back to the 1970s, the railroad claimed that scenes of this serial were filmed on its New Hope line. I do not think this is true. If anything, I think it’s possible nothing was filmed there. I’m curious to know the truth, and hoping you, too, would be curious.”
Over the holidays, I read up on Pearl and the Pathe Brothers, the French cinematographers who produced “Perils of Pauline”. From their studio in Fort Lee, N.J., the brothers found it convenient to send movie crews to locations all over the state. For instance, they had their daredevil actress in one episode fly over the Hudson River and New Jersey in a runaway hot air balloon. In others she was trapped in a burning house, and clinging precariously to a Jersey cliff, inspiring the Hollywood cliche “cliffhanger”. For railroad scenes, the Pathes reportedly filmed on the Belvidere-Delaware Railroad between Raven Rock and Lambertville opposite New Hope, and possibly the New Hope rail line.
The 20-episode “Perils of Pauline” catapulted White to international stardom at a salary of $1,750 a week (equivalent to $46,000 a week today!). Born in 1889, the Missouri farmer’s daughter started acting at age 6 and later performed as a circus bareback rider. At 18 she joined the Trousedale Stock Co. touring the Midwest and gained the notice of movie studios based in Fort Lee, the Hollywood of its time. The Pathes offered her a starring role in their first American film, “The Girl from Arizona.” She followed that with movie roles for other studios until at age 23, she signed with the Pathes to star in the big budget “The Perils of Pauline”. She appeared in every episode doing her own stunts as the namesake heroine-in-jeopardy. Each 20-minute short ended in grave peril for the actress. The cyclic suspense ensured box office gold weekly at movie theaters.
In the serial, young Pauline inherits great wealth from her deceased uncle. His secretary is appointed guardian to preserve her inheritance until she marries. Pauline wants to experience daring outdoor adventures before that ever happens. Her guardian sees it as an opportunity to engineer Pauline’s “accidental” death so he can grab cash. What unfolds is high drama in airplanes about to crash, out-of-control automobiles, capsized boats and fights with pirates, rats, sharks and other dangers.
Which brings us to that trestle in New Hope. Was Pearl White really tied to the tracks of the short-line railroad built in 1891 and then owned by the Reading Railroad?
Proving it is difficult. Only 9 of 20 “Pauline” episodes exist. None show Pearl bound to or even on a trestle. A synopsis of all 20 from the IMDb database reveals no mention of such an incident. So how to reconcile the movie script with the legend?
Hummm. Perhaps local folks in the 1930s got a bit confused. A year before the release of “Perils of Pauline”, actress Mabel Normand was tied to rails in “Race for a Life” (1913). Similar scenes appeared in “The Broken Circuit” (1915), “Hazards of Helen” (1916), “A Lass of the Lumberlands” (1916) and“Teddy at the Throttle” (1917) with Gloria Swanson. In Pearl White’s followup “The Fatal Ring” (1917), she played Violet Standish who slumps unconscious on railroad tracks next to a siding with a locomotive racing toward her. But there’s no such siding on either side of Pauline’s Trestle today.
Seems clear the truth likely resides in Reading Railroad archives wherever they may be. The railroad would have had to give permission for the filming. In any case, it’s still fun to contemplate the New Hope trestle as a perfect locale for a fiendishly smiling character wearing a stove pipe hat and twisting a handle-bar mustache after strapping poor Pauline to the rails. At the last minute the dashing hero – handsome to boot – arrives to save his beloved. Could have happened in New Hope, the village of dreams.
Sources include “Pearl White: 1910s -1920s” found on the web at www.pophistorydig.com/topics/tag/perils-of-pauline/. A synopsis of all 20 episodes of “The Perils of Pauline” is available on the web at www.imdb.com/title/tt0004465/plotsummary?ref_=tt_ov_pl.