Friday, July 12, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #37: "The Perils of Pauline" (1947)

Perils of Pauline: You know you've made it when you get your own funnybook! Congrats, Betty Hutton!

The flick: The Perils of Pauline (Paramount, 1947) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.6

Director: George Marshall (Destry Rides Again; directed "Railroad" segment of How the West Was Won; episodes of TV's Daniel Boone and The Odd Couple)

Billy De Wolfe
Actors of note:
  • Betty Hutton (brassy, oft-divorced "blond bombshell" singer/actress of the 1940s and '50s; The Greatest Show on Earth; title role in Annie Get Your Gun; had own TV show in 1959-1960)
  • John Lund (High Society, A Foreign Affair)
  • Billy De Wolfe (popular vaudeville and burlesque clown; voiced the Professor in TV's Frosty the Snowman)
  • Constance Collier (Hitchcock's Rope, D.W. Griffith's Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages)
  • Frank Faylen (Dobie's dad on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis; appeared in It's a Wonderful Life, Gone with the Wind, The Grapes of Wrath, and more)
  • Chester Conklin (a Keystone Kop; appeared in Chaplin's Modern Times and The Great Dictator; considered himself one of the four greatest pioneers of movie comedy alongside Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, and Mabel Normand)

Other notables
  • The songs for this movie were written by Frank Loesser, the tunesmith behind Guys & Dolls, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and "Baby, It's Cold Outside."

Perils of Pauline sheet music.
The gist of it: Early 1900s, New York. Plucky, talented Pearl White (Hutton) works as a seamstress in a sweatshop for pervy cheapskate Mr. Gurt (Faylen), but she'd rather be in show business. One day, she delivers a costume to a theater and ends up joining the theatrical troupe of handsome, conceited Michael Farrington (Lund). She travels with the troupe from town to town and is befriended by two of her fellow actors: matronly Julia Gbbs (Collier) and shamelessly hammy Timmy Timmons (De Wolfe). The newcomer also falls in love with her boss, Michael, who keeps her at arm's length. Pearl works her way up from bit parts to leading roles in the company, but one night she suffers a cold and flubs her lines onstage, causing the audience to become riled. Michael berates Pearl after the show, so she quits the troupe, taking Julia with her.

Some time later, Julia gets an undignified walk-on part in the newfangled "moving pictures," but it's tagalong Pearl who becomes the star when her fearlessness and natural charisma are noticed by director "Mac" McGuire (Demarest). Pearl becomes the heroine of a serialized adventure story called The Perils of Pauline, doing her own dangerous stunts, and finds jobs for old friends Julia and Timmy in the cast. Michael, meanwhile, has been reduced to a carnival barker. Pearl invites him to become her leading man in the Pauline movies. He accepts, though he considers the movies beneath him and longs to return to the stage. Eventually, after a misadventure in a runaway hot air balloon, Pearl and Michael admit their love for each other and are engaged. But Michael can't stand being a second banana in such a lowly enterprise, and he leaves a heartbroken Pearl to return to acting. His theatrical career soars, while Pearl's popularity wanes as the old-fashioned "serials" fall out of favor with the American public.

Pearl moves to Paris, where they love her stage act and her films, too. Michael follows her, but mere hours before they are supposed to reunite, Pearl is gravely injured during a performance and is seemingly paralyzed from the waist down. Ignoring the orders of her doctors, she meets up with Michael, and they reaffirm their love for one another and agree to marry.

The real Pearl White.
My take: Nobody expects Hollywood biopics to be accurate or realistic, and true to form, The Perils of Pauline bears little resemblance to the sad, abbreviated, and fascinating existence of actress Pearl White (1889-1938). This is a glossy, cotton-candy musical that heavily fictionalizes and romanticizes her eventful life.

A great deal of the melodrama is wholly manufactured for the screenplay. There were no real-world counterparts of the characters played by Billy De Wolfe or Constance Collier, and the original Perils of Pauline was directed not by a brash American like the one William Demarest portrays here, but by Frenchman Louis J. Gasnier, the auteur behind Reefer Madness. Pearl White's second husband, Wallace McCutcheon, Jr., was an actor and a war hero like John Lund's "Michael Farrington" character in this film. But Pearl and Wallace's marriage lasted only two years, and the despondent man killed himself after their divorce. Pearl did move to Paris after her screen career cooled off, but there she suffered a nervous breakdown and cirrhosis of the liver, not the spectacular on-stage accident we see in this film. She'd been dead of alcoholism less than a decade when this fanciful screen biography appeared. Some of my favorite films, including Amadeus and Ed Wood, are based on real people but take enormous liberties with the facts.

I suppose my main problem with this film is that it betrays Pearl White but doesn't come up with a better, more satisfying narrative of her life. Flawed as she was, Pearl was quite the pioneer when it comes to women in film, and it took a lot of guts to do the stunts she did. (The injuries she suffered led to the fatal alcoholism later in life.) But the whole point of this movie is that Pearl ultimately learns to be dependent upon a man, Michael, who has treated her shabbily for years. And we're supposed to feel good about that? By the end, Michael is literally carrying the helpless Pearl in his arms, while she agrees with him what a lousy actress she's always been. Does her character ever recover and learn to walk again? Who knows? Who cares? She's got a man to haul her around, so I guess she doesn't need working legs.

To be blunt, both Michael and Pearl are silly, unsympathetic characters. He's a pretentious, peevish, jealous snob with all the charm of a pile of wet laundry. What does Pearl see in this guy? Why do her supposed "friends" keep nudging her toward him? Pearl has major problems of her own. Whenever she's given any kind of criticism, she immediately wilts, crumples her face all up, and becomes weepy and whiny. But she has the attention span of a mayfly and can go from "completely despondent" to "absolutely elated" in mere seconds. Her naive "golly gee willikers" enthusiasm was a bit much, too. I didn't buy it. Meanwhile, Frank Loesser's songs are clever and pleasant, but they're not on a par with his best work. By the way, Pearl White's first husband was an actor, too. His name was Victor Sutherland, and he lived to the age of 79. His last recorded role? Guest starring on (I should have known) The Betty Hutton Show.

Billy De Wolfe as Professor Hinkle.
Is it funny: Sometimes it is, but The Perils of Pauline isn't strictly a comedy. It's a biopic, a musical, and a love story, too. There are long stretches of the film that are dramatic or melodramatic rather than comedic. Betty Hutton struck me as a female equivalent of Danny Kaye in that she uses every atom of her being to entertain the audience and is kind of overwhelming and hard to take in large doses. If she's in a humorous scene, she bludgeons you half to death with zaniness. Picture Lucille Ball on steroids.

Similarly, Billy De Wolfe was a familiar comic actor for decades but never quite made it in movies because his voice and mannerisms were simply too "big" for the screen. Little wonder that his most famous role was in an animated special. Hutton and De Wolfe have some nice moments together, as when Timmy gives Pearl lessons in diction like a downmarket Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle. However, I can't honestly say I laughed all that much at their antics. The one character, surprisingly, who made me laugh a few times was "Mac," the reckless, self-centered film director who seems to feed on chaos and calamity. All this guy cares about is movies. When World War I breaks out, all "Mac" cares about is how it's going to affect the plot of his next picture. That made me chuckle.

My grade: B

P.S. - Oh, golly, is this film rife with racial stereotypes. For one production with the Farrington Players, Pearl portrays a mammy, complete with blackface and "Negro" dialect, while "Dixie" plays on the soundtrack . This goes on for several minutes of screen time. The only actual black people in The Perils of Pauline are either extras in a cheap "jungle" flick or maids. The world was very different just a few decades ago, folks.