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Exploits of Elaine, The

Entry updated 18 July 2022. Tagged: Film.

US silent Serial Film (1914). Whartons Studios. Directed by Louis J Gasnier, George B Seitz, Leopold Wharton and Theodore Wharton. Written by Basil Dickey, Charles W Goddard, Arthur B Reeve and George B Seitz. Cast includes Arnold Daly, Sheldon Lewis and Pearl White. 14 episodes. Black and white.

This serial film, probably the first with sf elements throughout, starred Pearl White as Elaine; she had previously played the titular heroine of what is considered the epitome of the genre, The Perils of Pauline (1914), later nodded to in the title of the Hanna-Barbera animated series, The Perils of Penelope Pitstop (1969-1970). The Exploits of Elaine was based on Arthur B Reeve's Craig Kennedy, Scientific Detective stories (see Crime and Punishment). One, The Exploits of Elaine: A Detective Novel (1915), must be one of the earliest media tie-ins, its frontispiece being a still from the series. Its chapters – in a different form, as "photo play serials" (mainly text, but with a few stills from the serial) – had been published in US local newspapers, more or less concurrently with the relevant episode being shown in local movie theatres. Kennedy is the joint lead in the series and his Inventions play a key role; they are sometimes adaptions of existing Technology.

In the first episode Elaine Dodge's father is electrocuted whilst answering the phone and his safe robbed: Kennedy (Daly) examines it, discovers fingerprints – and is shocked to discover they are his own! The criminal responsible, face permanently masked by a neckerchief, is known as "The Clutching Hand" (Lewis): the serial's plot concerns Elaine and Kennedy's efforts to hunt him down and his plans to thwart them – usually an attempted murder by convoluted means. In the end, The Clutching Hand is revealed as an attorney who had recently become Elaine's fiancée.

Episodes include "Twilight Sleep", named after a genuine but controversial treatment at the time, the injection of morphine and scopolamine intended to help women in painful childbirth (see Medicine) – but here having the additional effect of making people extremely suggestible (essentially, behaving as if Hypnotized). In "The Devil Worshippers" a medium (see Eschatology) claims to have a message from Eileen's father: the medium's name, Madame Savetsky is presumably a reference to Madame Blavatsky (see Theosophy). Contemporary technology is used, such as in "The Hour of Three", where Valdemar Poulsen's telegraphone is adapted to record phone calls; whilst in the "The Frozen Safe", Kennedy fits a seismograph in his hallway to tell if strangers have entered his house whilst he is away. In "The Poisoned Room", The Clutching Hand sets up an electric current to run through water, releasing hydrogen that combines with the arsenic with which he has lined the walls of Elaine's bedroom, to release toxic fumes. In "The Life Current", Elaine actually dies, poisoned by sewer gas; but is revived when Kennedy uses a device to apply electric shocks.

Episode 9 "The Death Ray" (1914) is the most overtly sf. Here Kennedy is warned that if he does not leave the country "a pedestrian will drop dead outside his laboratory every hour until he does". An hour later a passer-by clutches his head and falls to the ground – dead! In a house across the street, the Clutching Hand's minions are operating a Death Ray. Kennedy examines the victims at the morgue, remarking that "a certain Italian – one Uliva – is said to have discovered a ­prowerful (sic) infra-red ray that will not only cause death at a distance but that marks its victims like this".

Kennedy and his assistant are now kidnapped by the Clutching Hand: before being locked in a room, Kennedy manages to tear off the villain's neckerchief mask, revealing ... another neckerchief beneath! Elaine is then forced to watch as the Clutching Hand uses the death ray – resembling a theatre spotlight with a traffic cone attached – to play cat and mouse with Kennedy. However, Kennedy uses a hand mirror to divert the ray until the police arrive: in the confusion Elaine manages to grab a plank and whack the death ray, disabling it; she also uses the plank on The Clutching Hand and his minions, who beat a retreat.

"Uliva" (spelt correctly in the novelization) was a reference to Giulio Ulivi, an Italian engineer who claimed to have invented the F-ray, which "by utilizing infrared rays ... [causes] the explosion of torpedoes, submarine mines and other death dealing devices at distances of fourteen or fifteen miles from the spot whence rays are transmitted wirelessly" (October 1913 Electrical Experimenter) – published by Hugo Gernsback (see Science and Invention). Unfortunately, outside this serial, the F-Ray never actually worked when demonstrations were properly monitored.

There were two further serials: The New Exploits of Elaine (1915, 10 episodes), wherein Elaine and Kennedy battle the Chinese master criminal Wu Fang (see Yellow Peril, Race in SF): plots include "Trodite" a new, powerful explosive; artificially generated spontaneous combustion; wiretapping; and Elaine threatened with radium (see Elements). This was followed by The Romance of Elaine (1915, 12 episodes), which continues on from its predecessor, but with Kennedy in disguise throughout. Kennedy's revolutionary torpedo design (mentioned in the previous serial) is sought by foreign spy Marcus Del Mar, who also plots to mine the USA's harbours and cut the Atlantic cable. Kennedy sends Elaine a gun with a targeting device attached, the bullet hitting where its light shines. At the end Kennedy's wireless guided torpedo dropped from a plane sinks Del Mar's submarine. Both films are presumed lost. [SP]


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