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Our Reel Jersey Girl: Happy Birthday to the Queen of Cliffhangers, Pearl White

Celebrating the Oscar-winning films, "The Artist" and "Undefeated," and the opening of a new exhibit at the Fort Lee Museum.

This past week was a great one for Fort Lee, and surely the ghosts of our film past are dancing in the streets in celebration. For the first time in 83 years, a silent film won the Academy Award for Best Picture – and the Oscar goes to The Artist. This wonderful French film, shot in Hollywood, hopefully will open the door for a new generation to appreciate the silent film classics produced in Fort Lee and Hollywood from the turn of the last century through the late 1920s.

And to place the cherry atop the cake we have the Zipper brothers, Glen and Ralph, graduates of and the first Fort Lee natives to win an Academy Award. They won the Oscar for their documentary Undefeated 

Glen and Ralph have mentioned Fort Lee film history and Fort Lee’s role as the birthplace of the American film industry in every interview they have given the press. They have just written another chapter in the book of Fort Lee, the first American film town. We have reached out to them, and we hope to honor them in Fort Lee later this year.

But back to our Reel Jersey Girl. No, not that refuge from her native New York, Snooki! Our Reel Jersey girl was born in the Garden State on March 4, 1889, and her name is Pearl White. 

Pearl, at the age of 18, joined a touring acting troupe that traveled the American Midwest. In 1910 she made her film debut for the Powers Film Company in New York. Pearl’s real fame came when she was hired by Pathe to star in the 1914 movie serial The Perils of Pauline. This action serial, directed by Louis J. Gasnier, brought Pearl to Fort Lee for the first time. Here, she literally created the cliffhanger as she was dangled from the cliffs of Fort Lee’s Palisades, leaving moviegoers gasping until the next installment in which she was saved. 

This 20-part movie serial was also shot in Palisades Amusement Park. Throughout her movie career Pearl would revisit the Palisades of Fort Lee. She never made a film in Hollywood, though she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She was and is our cinematic Reel Jersey Girl.

Pearl continued to shoot films in Fort Lee. Perhaps her most iconic image is atop Cliffhanger Point in Fort Lee with her cameraman Arthur C. Miller, her director George B. Seitz and her co-star Antonio Moreno in a production still from the 1918 movie serial The House of Hate. This image is the logo for the Fort Lee Film Commission. The image also appears in large form at the entrance to the film division of the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

Pearl’s film career began to wane in the 1920s, when she became more interested in travel, and she actually moved to France. She did star in a few performances on the stage in Europe but she soon retired and devoted herself to travel. Ever the shrewd businesswoman, Pearl lived the high life. But in the 1930s, all of her injures caught up with her, and she became addicted to drugs to ease her pain. Pearl did all her own stunts as an actress, and obviously, she suffered from several injuries that began to plague her into the 1930s.

Pearl died at the age of 49 in 1938, and she is buried in the Paris suburb of Neuilly in Passy Cemetery. But her spirit is alive and well on Cliffhanger Point in Fort Lee. 

This Sunday, March 4, in honor of Pearl’s birthday, the Fort Lee Film Commission and the Palisade Interstate Park will sponsor a hike to Cliffhanger Point. The hike leaves the parking lot off Hudson Terrace at 10:30 a.m. Sunday.  Palisade Interstate Park historical interpreter Eric Nelsen will lead a walk to the site that stands as one of the most important locations in film history. That same day at 1:30p.m. at the Fort Lee Historic Park Museum Theatre (off Hudson Terrace and Bruce Reynolds Boulevard), Mr. Nelsen and I will conduct a slide show and screening. We will screen episode one of The Perils of Pauline. In addition, there will be a rare screening of portions of the 1918 film The House of Hate. The Fort Lee Film Commission acquired this video transfer footage from the Moscow Film Archive in Russia. The only existing print of The House of Hate is in this Moscow archive.

I have included some rare images of Pearl White in this article. They are on loan to the Fort Lee Film Commission from film historian and collector Joe Yranski of New York City.  On March 2, the Fort Lee Film Commission and the Fort Lee Historical Society open a new exhibit at the , "Reel Jersey Girls: The Women Filmmakers of Fort Lee. "

The exhibit runs through July 1 and will include rare archival photos and artifacts from such women filmmakers as the Queen of the Cliffhanger, Pearl White.

For more information, visit the Fort Lee Film Commission online, the Palisades Interstate Park's website or that of the Fort Lee Historical Society.

You can also call the Fort Lee Film Commission at 201-693-2763.

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