Dear Movies Silently, Why do silent movies have so many damsels in distress?

Videos are back! Well, one video. One video is back.

This is meant to be a video companion to my pictorial essay Stolen Bravery. You see, the “damsel tied to the train tracks” trope is more than just a stupid misconception. It actually is robbing the bold and brash women of silent film of the respect that is their due. While the era did have its damsels (much like films, TV shows and video games of today), it also had an enormous share of bold heroines and villainesses. Enjoy the clips!


I usually get viewers asking which title goes with which clip so I am including a handy guide for your convenience. Some of the films are from anthologies, sets or double features.

Lap sit, hand kiss, gunshot | The Wildcat (1921)

Fight you want, chair smash, riot | The Godless Girl (1929)

Coat grab | Her Night of Romance (1924)

I will shoot | Back to God’s Country (1919)

Pump you full of rocks, jailbreak | M’Liss (1918)

Rope swing | Sparrows (1926)

Archery | Intolerance (1916)

Fire ax | Feel My Pulse (1928)

Slap, slap, shove | The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912)

Tackle, escape, bounce, block | The Burning Crucible (1923)

Stair shove | Parisian Love (1925)

Picture frame | The Taming of the Shrew (1908)

Stab | The Strong Man (1926)

Smoking, pillow toss | The Dream (1911)

Note 1: The video production schedule is going to be catch as catch can for the foreseeable future. Thank you for your patience.

10 Replies to “Dear Movies Silently, Why do silent movies have so many damsels in distress?”

  1. All good examples, but not for nothing did H. L. Mencken propose in “American Mercury” magazine a “Society for the Protection of Lillian Gish” because so many heroines were placed in peril.

    1. Yes, just as SNL recently made the “Give Us All Our Daughters Back” skit. Women have been going two steps forward and three steps back in movies for decades. (I swear, if I hear of one more modern movie/video game/TV show with the plot “they killed his wife and/or kidnapped his daughter” I shall scream!) But I am sure that you will agree that when silent ladies got feisty, oh my! 😉

    2. I thought that was more because Gish in particular was constantly in peril at the hands of lecherous and violent villains in DW Griffith’s films.

      1. True but she also was imperiled by wind, tuberculosis and volcanoes after leaving Griffith. 😉 That being said, I wonder why there was no Society for Prevention of Cruelty to John Barrymore. Oh how that man loved his torture scenes!

  2. Oh hey! You found the only good scene in Parisian Love. 😉

    Speaking of damsels in distress, I watched the Black Pirate a couple of weeks ago and found just that, a damsel in distress. Well, she wasn’t in all that much distress, but she was held captive for ransom and was just kind of there. I’ve never seen a female character with so little to do.

    1. Yes, both The Black Pirate and The Thief of Bagdad feature some real helpless Hannahs. I get the impression that he might have been happier to dump the romance and focus on spectacle and action. On the other hand, Mary Pickford was in the same studio at the same time making Sparrows and Little Annie Rooney, both of which had heroines who saved the day.

    2. Yeah, Billie Dove in that one only exists to be the love interest and get threatened with the old fate worse than death by the villain. It would have been interesting if Mary Pickford had been cast instead and then have her kick butt alongside Fairbanks.

      1. I know! It’s a darn shame that they only united in The Taming of the Shrew (though Mary did add a touch of feminism to the affair). She could have been the fearless pirate queen who battles/loves Doug. It would have been adorable!

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