My Lucky 13: The Perils of Pauline (1967)

Oh, how I have hated Prince Benji since I was roughly the same age as his character in The Perils of Pauline, a patched-together theatrical film released in 1967 from the discarded remains of a failed television pilot. Ostensibly a remake or reworking of the then-thrilling 1914 girl-in-constant-peril silent serial featuring the amazing stuntwork of Pearl White, this version slams together four episodes of the never-aired series, and pairs off a stunning blank-eyed Barbie doll named Pamela Austin with the bland-as-sand theatrical stumblings of Pat Boone as her moonstruck millionaire suitor. If this casting alone makes you long for the use of the guillotine on the necks of asinine Hollywood producers, well, even though I am against capital punishment, I can't say I do not agree with you.

But, here's the skinny: I loved this film as a child, mostly because I had never seen the source material on which it was extremely loosely (and mockingly) patterned, and at that age, anything stupidly silly won an instant place in my heart. (I has since shed most of the lesser material by this point in time; most, but certainly not all...) It was fast-paced, loaded with slapstick bits, featured Terry-Thomas as one of the sort-of villains, and slammed full with ridiculous one-liners. It also featured a cryogenic machine, an outer-space walk, gorilla-suit action, sharks, Arab sheiks, wild car chases and evil, conniving Soviets. Except for the icky lovey-dovey woo-pitching, what was not to love by a ten-year-old in 1974?

Well, Prince Benji, most assuredly -- even a tremendous pain-in-the-ass kid his age such as moi knew he was an even bigger pain-in-the-ass. In our school, we wouldn't have bothered feeding him to the sharks; his would have been the slow, pants-wetting death of societal displacement, a sort of group silent treatment that would grant him permanent castaway status and which could serve to drive the subject mad in a relatively short time. That, and an occasional toilet dunking now and then. (Making someone lick a jockstrap was always good, too.) Sure, this sort of behavior possibly led to Columbine, etc., etc., but in its day -- before children became far too coddled -- it worked magnificently on somebody like Prince Benji (i.e., it shut him up and kept him away). Plus, even in the time before metal detectors, a brat marching around with a scimitar would have landed him in lockdown pretty much straight away. Especially when combined with Benji's need to point the thing at people and threaten them with bodily harm unless he got his whiny, bratty way.

And this leads me to Prince Benji's voice. Apparently, the child actor in question, one Rick Natoli, whose short career (at least, according to IMDB) seemed to consist almost entirely of a set of single episode gigs on several series, must have had a terrible way with words. It wouldn't be out of bounds for this to be the case, as just his every facial contortion and gesture is evidence of his lack of even the most modest form of talent; clearly his parents must have had
something on somebody in Hollywood for him to get the dozen or so parts that he did. I figure he was cast in Pauline for the sole purpose of making it seem as if Pamela Austin were actually a halfway decent actress. If so, the producers' gambit almost works, but only because they are usually in the same scenes together. But only his body makes it onto film; his undoubtedly stilted child's voice does not. To make up for Natoli's clear lack of ability, the producers dubbed Benji's voice with that of animation goddess June Foray, famed for portraying, amongst others, Rocket J. Squirrel, Natasha Fatale, Nell Fenwick, Witch Hazel and Granny, Tweety's stern but often befuddled mistress. (If I have to explain any of these characters to you, and their importance within our popular culture, please leave now...)

As much as I absolutely adore Ms. Foray, the effect here is one of utter annoyance, as she fills Benji's mouth with an unceasingly grating edge of pouting obstinance. This may be completely on purpose, and possibly called for by the producers after Natoli couldn't produce the desired result, and let's say for argument's sake that if this is so, it is the one point in this film where they succeeded in fulfilling their intentions. But let's not mistake this success for entertainment. When bringing a character like this to life, especially one that is basically a living cartoon character -- there is only so much that an audience can take. Sure, kids are notorious for enjoying things that would drive adults mad, but there is no enjoyment to be had in the character of Prince Benji, even by the least discerning of children. It has nothing to do with Benji's actions -- many of them are the type which any child would literally kill to get away with -- no, it has everything to do with his very existence as a character.

There is even a point in
The Perils of Pauline where one gets the feeling that this might turn out to be OK... until Benji shows up. Even Terry-Thomas' semi-villainous turn can't right this ship, nor can the legitimately humorous appearance of Hamilton Camp as Boone's valet, who gets several key lines and appears aware of just how to deliver them. Sadly, this is not the modus operandi of the remainder of the cast, though the chief error made in Pauline is the volatile use of slapstick by those clearly not trained in its proper deployment. Two years before this movie was spit out, Blake Edwards, a man well-trained in the use of such methods, put out a film somewhat based on the same style of material as Pauline, The Great Race. You can argue against it if you wish -- in my home, your judgment would fall on the deafest of ears, as I consider Race to be an admittedly elephantine but underrated source of tremendous personal joy -- but even those who dislike it would be remiss in not accepting that Edwards knows what he is doing when it comes to the proper use of slapstick. His early Sellers films prove this even further. I don't really know what reasoning the producers of Pauline followed in deciding to do a film with elements on which they certainly did little research. Pratfall after pratfall occur without the threat of imminent chuckling; as a result, more than one scene falls flat because of the loss of a payoff which depended on a sight gag or physical shtick.

The Brady Bunch did a desperate-for-material episode where they all dressed up as Keystone Kops and threw pies at one another. Memorable? Certainly. Maureen McCormick was covered in white stuff; what's not to love for the prurient amongst us? But truly funny? Try watching it without the laugh track influencing your reflexes. Two problems: one, it's not really funny, and two, the lack of sound makes the scene seem twice as long. Likewise, in addition to being something that did not make the leap with me from childhood, much like
The Brady Bunch, Pauline is not really funny, but is absolutely sold on the fact that is. If earnestness were an Oscar category, surely this would be a contender. But in trying to sell the audience on what it believes itself to be, it reveals its naivete in the style in which it is touting itself to be an expert.

The one thing they
do get right (and therefore wrong, technically) is producing the film in sound. If they had done their version of slapstick atrocities as a silent film, this Pauline would seem twice as long, too. And that's a peril even the most resilient of us do not want to face. And Prince Benji, even less so...


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