I don’t normally watch individual episodes of a serial separate from the serial as a whole, but as Pearl of the Army (1916) is largely lost, I don’t have much choice in the matter. Being as this is episode ten of fifteen, a great deal has already happened that the audience is presumed to be familiar with, but as I’m not, my plot summary will be a bit disjointed and full of guesswork.
Before that, though, a note about the print I watched. Title-less negatives for the whole serial survived intact until they were lost in a vault fire in the 1960s. Prints of five or so of the thirty reels are known to still exist, mostly coming from the film cache discovered in Dawson City back in the 1970s, comprising parts of episodes one, six, and fourteen. My print of episode ten isn’t unique, but no one seems to know much about it. It was struck in 1940, according to the edge code, and the titles are obvious replacements. That leads me to strongly suspect it was sourced from the negative when it was still extant.
We join the story in progress. There are three plots running more or less concurrently in this episode, aside from the general overarching plot of the serial, that being the hunt for the Silent Menace, a mysterious German operative working to sabotage the U.S. war effort (Pearl of the Army is a World War I propaganda series, if you were unable to guess).
The first plotline follows Pearl Date (Pearl White) and Captain Ralph Payne (Ralph Kellard – my print calls him Adams, but I’m reasonably sure this is an error), who, I assume after a cliffhanger in episode nine, find themselves captives of the Silent Menace and his gang at the start of this episode. Ralph appears to be something of an analogue to Harry Marvin in The Perils of Pauline (1914) – in love with Pearl and wanting to marry her, but she’ll have none of it until she’s had her fill of adventure.
The second plotline follows the Lieutenant in an Arm Sling (I think he’s played by Floyd Buckley, but I don’t know the character’s name), who is under suspicion of “duplicity in the matter of the secret Canal Defense Plans” and is about to be court martialed. I give him the name Arm Sling because his left arm is in one. Arm Sling is also in love with Pearl, but is much less involved in her adventures.
The third and least developed plotline follows a woman who I can only assume to be Bertha Bonn (Marie Wayne). She is an agent for the Army (I guess) and has been tasked with keeping tabs on the Menace’s movements (I guess). She’s in love with Arm Sling? Maybe? Or perhaps he’s her brother? In any event, there’s some strong connection between them.
Much of the film, as you might expect, is devoted to finding and unmasking the Silent Menace, which falls entirely to Pearl. Seriously, you’d think the army couldn’t care less about apprehending him going by how much legwork she puts in compared to their actions. Unlike White’s characters in Perils or Exploits, Pearl here isn’t thrown into much danger that she didn’t actively seek out herself. She takes multiple punches to the face and is knocked several stories down a fire escape, but after all that, she still manages to tackle the fleeing suspect and throw him to his death over the side of a tall building.
There is a mystery involved in the Menace’s identity and how the ancillary characters are connected, but from this single, late episode, it all comes across as very confusing. There’s a flashback to a train wreck that may have occurred in an earlier episode, where a bearded-man plants a document on the body of one of the victims, and this apparently implicates Arm Sling so strongly in something that he kills himself to avoid being questioned. Ralph was apparently undercover at some point? Maybe that’s how he came to be captured by the Menace at the end of episode nine? A ghost of a woman appears to Pearl when she’s trying to puzzle out the identity of the Menace and seems to beckon to her – who she is and what that’s all about, I have no idea. A man in the hospital tries to confess to crimes he committed as part of the Menace’s gang, but they’re so incredible, he’s dismissed as being delirious. Before he names who his boss is, two shifty-eyed orderlies give him something “to steady his nerves” and he says no more.
I will say, confusing as it could be, The Silent Enemy Unmasked! certainly held my attention. The cinematography is much improved from White’s earlier serials. I particularly liked the train wreck flashback, which is entirely black and we only see brief snatches of action when the scene is lit up by lightning. Pearl wracking her brain to identify the Menace was handled in an effective, if surreal, way, with him appearing as a phantom that turns into a shadow that turns into a giant question mark.
I would definitely recommend Pearl of the Army and I’d love to see more of it myself.
My rating: I like it.