“Garbo still belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy.” Thus begins famed cultural theorist Roland Barthes’s 1957 essay entitled “The Face of Garbo,” which concluded by claiming that Greta Garbo’s face, unlike that of the contemporary Audrey Hepburn, belonged to the realm of ideas, rather than events. One should take such a proclamation to mean that Garbo’s face—its projection on a large screen—transcended the bounds of nationalistic interest and attained a degree of universality: an idea. Barthes’s interests embody an Eisensteinian notion of cinematic signification, emphasizing individual frames and filmic components over narrative coherence. Such an aesthetic leaning will not be surprising, however, after reading editor Marina Dahlquist’s recently published collection of essays on silent serial queen Pearl White, who, much like Garbo in later years, was valued across the globe for her face and body—and, more to the point, what each of those stood for in relation to an articulation of the femme nouvelle blossoming at the end of the 1910s.
Of particular reference here is the serialized film The Perils of Pauline (1914), though various, subsequent films are discussed. Over the course of seven essays, White is discussed in a global context, trotting the globe from France, to Sweden, to Czechoslovakia, to India, and to China, respectively. Alone, each essay provides clear historical context. Together, they assemble an invaluable addition to the canon of what Miriam Hansen terms “vernacular Modernism,” and supplements previous understandings and articulations of this concept with rigorously detailed examinations of precisely how White’s body and persona impacted various cultural and nationalistic, artistic movements. In some cases, as with the surrealists and the French, the impact was exponential. In Sweden, censorship prevented Pauline and her serial sisters from frequenting screens. Yet, regardless of the degrees of impact, these essays conduct their historicity with a sensitive, keen eye for not just culturally specific detail, but together provide a comprehensive approach to the topic in ways that few edited collections manage.
Given that there are seven essays plus an introduction, there are seven relatively distinct, internationally significant discussions, and a high quality remains consistent throughout. Dahlquist begins by setting up these parameters by asserting White’s indisputable status as “the first international American film star.” Any skepticism over this argument is denounced throughout. Primarily, Dahlquist convincingly historicizes White in terms of the ways in which trade publications and newspapers targeted women to emphasize White’s burgeoning popularity. Dahlquist also emphasizes the ambiguity inherent to several of White’s films, such as her victimization, coupled with her “gender-bending negotiations” and “feminine glamour.” The combinations reflect just how loaded these films were already on domestic soil, while subsequent articles articulate even further how these issues became even more pronounced during translation and exportation.
The articles vacillate between accounts of White’s reception in both an historical and theoretical context. With regard to the former, Rudmer Canjels explains the differences between France and American reception with emphasis on the serial format, which saw vastly different novelization tie-ins in France to make them explicitly anti-German, while the American novelization focused less on nationalism and served more as an extension of the on-screen image. Serialization enables such active play with peripheral materials, which changed significantly from country to country. In addition to this, Monica Dall’asta explains how White’s popularity in France wasn’t necessarily due to the recognition of the “American New Woman,” but that White was recognized in relation several French women of the day, particularly Marie Marvingt, whose aviation skills would have primed viewers for White’s athletic, active adventures. Outside of France, Kevin B. Johnson explains White’s reception in Czechoslovakia, where male intellectuals were fascinated by her, emphasizing the “art of spectacle” with regard to her on-screen movements and image-based renderings.
These readings saw an overlap between the physical and social body, thus aligning White’s physical health with a degree of moral strength. Likewise, Rosie Thomas explains how Indian audiences gravitated toward the same duality, though through a star of their own—Fearless Nadia—which producers the Wadia Brothers contentiously sought to mimic the success of White through the “postmodern hybrid man/woman” of Nadia. Similarly, Weihong Bao explains how White came to embody the figure of the “nuxia,” along with Chinese star White Rose Woo, which she pushes to question the “politics of cultural difference.” Ultimately, Bao draws on recent works like Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2 to explain this figure’s prominence not just in the time, but its proliferation and appropriation within contemporary mainstream cinema.
The standout essays, however, are from Dahlquist and Christina Petersen, each of whom explores White’s popularity in ways which surpass purely historical accounts. Dahlquist explains how White’s image wasn’t only heavily censored in Sweden, but that audiences were already heavily geared toward features, and found serialization paled in comparison to the feature film. These insights suggest the burgeoning of aesthetic preferences in cinema as related to censorship, but also speaks to the technological urgency of the matter, since Swedish audiences saw features before serials, on the whole. With this in mind, the order of reception wasn’t only reversed (features before serials), but the censors enabled this sort of thinking through their refusal to allow “Pauline and her sisters” to receive screen time. Clearly, there’s a fundamental link between censorship and preference suggested here, which Dahlquist neatly articulates. However, the volume’s most fascinating essay comes via Peterson, who discusses the contentions conversations of Louis Dullac and Jean Epstein over both serialization and White. Dullac saw in White a ” marvelous emblem of modernity who possessed the uncanny ability to realize dream images on screen.” For him, White illustrated the famous avant-garde concept of photogenie. To Epstein, on the other hand, White was but another illustration of the ways in which narrative filmmaking tainted cinematic art form. Famously, Epstein proclaimed: “The cinema is true; a story is false.” The battle between the two delightfully contrasts viewpoints from within the same artistic movement, though for Petersen, speaks to the unrecognized influence White has on avant-garde filmmaking.
These differing, though complementary perspectives, inform Dahlquist’s brilliantly edited collection on White without carelessly valorizing her status as an early screen icon. The historical accounts are vivid and convincing, while the influence on artistic and theoretical movements is superbly rendered. The whole of it is enough to incite one to start a petition to the Criterion Collection, demanding a White collection as soon as possible—with this book as a supplementary feature, of course.
Exporting Perilous Pauline: Pearl White and the Serial Film Craze is now available from University of Illinois Press; to purchase it, click here.