“Poor Pauline,” courtesy of Indiana University.
While sheet music was sold and manufactured beginning in the 1700s, only in the late 1880s did its sales truly take off, when Tin Pin Alley music companies began springing up. By 1900, sheet music was red hot, sold for use in homes, bars, clubs and the stage. Songwriters and publishers created music about almost anything: food, entertainment, home, love, animals, anything could be featured in a song.
Movies were introduced in America in 1895 and by the early 1900s, construction of nickelodeons skyrocketed. By about 1907, entrepreneurs began constructing theaters, which attracted more middle-class audiences. Attendance once again swelled. Many exhibitors even provided such entertainment as singing along to popular songs of the day by employing song slides, which listed lines of lyrics and colorful illustrations on pieces of thick glass. Thus, cross-pollination between movies and sheet music increased sales and receipts for each.
Mary Mallory’s “Hollywoodland: Tales Lost and Found” is available for the Kindle.
Listen to “Poor Pauline,” courtesy of the Library of Congress.
With the popularity of moving pictures, songwriters soon crafted tunes celebrating the entertainment. One of the earliest was “The Kathlyn Waltz,” a lovely hesitation waltz honoring Kathlyn Williams, the star of the Selig Polyscope Co. action serial, “The Adventures of Kathlyn.” Other companies quickly followed, joining with publishers to produce songs publicizing their films, while some publishers took advantage of upcoming releases by distributing songs saluting the films or their stars. Most highlighted the films in a respectful way.
In 1914, Broadway Music Corp. decided to release a parody song ribbing the heroine of a popular action serial, “The Perils of Pauline,” hoping to capitalize on the film’s success. The book, “It Took Nine Tailors” claims that the film inspired a pair of Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths to write a popular song about the poor heroine and her hair-raising escapes. There is a strong possibility that releasing the song was a publicity stunt made in conjunction with the film company, though no records or reports testify to that fact.
The serial itself had been released to tremendous success in the spring of 1914, opening at the end of March in Los Angeles. Clune’s Broadway Theatre employed press book hyperbole to promote the showing of the serial in its house in an April 1, 1914, Los Angeles Times story. “ ‘The Perils of Pauline’ represents the last word in film realism and are perfectly photographed and made with all-star motion picture actors…Her adventures are many and embrace every part of the world and every condition of life.”
Like “What Happened to Mary” and “The Adventures of Kathlyn,” “The Perils of Pauline” featured the plucky Miss Pearl White in a vast array of adventurous stunts and scares as Pauline Marvin, a young woman who becomes rich after her wealthy uncle’s death. Her “guardian” and his devious den of thieves plot all manner of schemes to kill off poor Pauline and grab the loot. Just like the other serials, the film company serialized each chapter in newspapers as they released them in theaters, promoted contests and pushed brand recognition in products, books and the like.
Broadway Music devised its own parody song highlighting the thrills and chills of “The Perils of Pauline.” It hired songwriters Charles McCarron and Raymond Walker, comic tunesmiths, to fashion something fun and catchy. McCarron had been composing since 1909 with Theodore Morse Music Co., before joining up with writer Harry Jents to write songs they sold independently through Crown Music Co. Ray Walker, born Warren Reynolds Walker, composed comic songs such as “Yiddisha Rag,” “Goodnight Nurse,” “That Funny Bunny Hug,” and “How Do You Like Your Onions?” before partnering with McCarron in early 1914. The duo wrote the funny hit “Fido is a Hot Dog Now” before deciding to target “The Perils of Pauline.”
The sheet music featured two covers, one an illustration of our intrepid heroine White staring into the distance, while the other featured a generic face of a woman instead of White’s. Like an early skit for “Saturday Night Live” or “Anchor Man,” the pointed lyrics mock the myriad ways White is threatened and imperiled.
The first verse goes:
“I’m as worried as can be, all the movie shows I see
Have that awful mystery, “Pauline and her perils,”
On a rope they dangle her, then they choke and strangle her,
With an axe they mangle her, always something new;
To make you shake they give her Paris green,
Of course her horse will neigh, “Nay Nay Pauline.”
“Poor Pauline, I pity poor Pauline,
One night she’s drifting out to sea,
Then they tie her to a tree,
I wonder what the end will be,
This suspense is awful.
Bing! Bang! Biff! They throw her off a cliff
They dynamite her in a submarine,
In the lions den she stands with fright,
Lion goes to take a bite
Zip goes the film Goodnight! Poor Pauline.”
“Poor Pauline” sailed up the charts, particularly after performers began including it in their acts. Carroll and Hickey’s show at Proctor’s on Aug. 13, 1914, featured the couple performing “Poor Pauline” as their closing song, with “The New York Clipper” describing the song as, “A comic line of lyrics and business of watching a “Perils of Pauline” reel of pictures…” Arcades played the song. Fanny Brice performed the comic riff at the Palace Theatre on Oct. 23, 1914, with the “Clipper” claiming the song was her biggest applause getter. Walker later claimed that Brice made more in two weeks performing the song than he did in a year from royalties, in the days before he helped establish ASCAP. Ads ran on Variety’s front page stating, “Poor Pauline Oh, What a Hit!”
Motion Picture News reported in October 1914 that “The Perils of Pauline,” the successful Eclectic serial, is celebrated in a song called “Poor Pauline,” which is achieving remarkable popularity. The St. Louis “Republic” of Sept. 22 states that Louise Allen while rendering this song from the stage, fell into the orchestra in his attempts to imitate Pauline in her various stunts.”
The March 13, 1915, Moving Picture World reported, “The Globe Theatre at Kansas City, which produces vaudeville and moving pictures, staged one of the cleverest acts last week that has been seen on the vaudeville stage of Kansas City. A vaudeville team sung and performed antics of “Pity, Pity, Poor Pauline,” while the moving picture operator threw extracts of “The Perils of Pauline” on the screen.”
For a short time, the partners found success with follow up songs, before going their own ways. McCarron composed songs with Albert von Tilzer, including “Eve Wasn’t Modest Till She Ate That Apple,” and wrote book and lyrics for producer Martin Beck for such performers as Evelyn Nesbit. Fox Films signed his 2-year-old daughter in 1917 for a short-term deal to make several films. McCarron passed away in February 1919 from pneumonia, leaving a $3,000 estate to his wife and child.
Walker continued composing for a short time, before joining Margaret May’s “shock unit” touring France during the Great War, one of the first Over There Theatre League shows to play shows there, including in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany. He organized an agency to book musicians and performers for vaudeville and nightclub when he returned stateside in 1919. Walker led an orchestra during Prohibition in Long Island.
John Lund and Betty Hutton in “The Perils of Pauline,” in a photo listed on EBay with bids starting at $29.99.
‘Poor Pauline” saw a small resurgence in popularity after Pearl White’s death in Paris in 1938. The New Yorker published lyrics, leading Broadway Music Corp. to sue for copyright infringement. Federal Judge Edward A. Conger dismissed the case on Feb. 25, 1940, stating that republishing the song was “fair use” and admissible under the law.
In 1946, Paramount Pictures acquired the rights to the song for use in its film, ‘The Perils of Pauline,” a fictionalized version of Pearl White’s story, starring Betty Hutton. Daily Variety reported on May 9, 1946, that the song would be “done to accompaniment of slapping paste brushes,” sung by a barbershop quarter of Fredric Santly, George Royce, Sam Ash and Jimmy Clemons. Such old-timers as Chester Conklin, Jimmy Finlayson, Snub Pollard, Creighton Hale, William Farnum, Paul Panzer and Bert Roach would play small roles in the production.
Philip Scheuer of the Los Angeles Times” reported on March 3, 1946 that “almost everybody over 40 remembers “The Perils of Pauline.” Paramount Pictures was retooling the picture for modern audiences. “The Perils of Pauline will bear about the same resemblance to Pearl White’s life that ‘Incendiary Blonde’ did to Texas Guinan’s.”
He claimed that a montage sequence in the film would be accompanied by “Poor Pauline,” in illustrated song slides. Director George Marshall told Scheuer that the film would include plenty of stunts. “Even in 1920, you know we used 90% exteriors.” He described the difference between the mid-teens and 1945, “In those days, we threw everything we had in to the first three episodes to ensure that we sold this serial to exhibitors.”
After the film came out, the song achieved a small amount of nostalgic support before demand petered out. Walker wrote an article for Variety on ASCAP’s 40th anniversary on Oct. 20, 1954, describing how he created the song, and some of the performers that included it in their acts.
“Poor Pauline” helped introduce the concept of parodying popular entertainment to help promote its own movies, a facetious sense of humor now seen in everything from the “Colbert Report” to “Saturday Night Live” to “Anchor Man.”
I would pay $29.99 to never have to see that photo of Betty Hutton, ever again.
(Billy Murray is one of my favorite talking-machine artists, by the way, along with Ada Jones!)