Video: Oh darn those boring silent movies full of damsels in distress

It’s time for a little video rewind! In addition to writing articles about silent movie myths, I cut together little videos that neatly disprove some of the most pervasive and ridiculous myths about silent movies

Yesterday, I had to answer a lot of darn fool questions about silent movies and so I thought it would be fun to re-post these video responses. Enjoy!


“Silent movies are boring.” We hear this even from people who like classic black and white movies. But what is the real story?

(Scroll to the bottom for a list of where the clips are from.)

What is the “iconic” image of silent films? A dastardly villain imperiling a damsel, of course!

Wait, it isn’t? Nope. Silent movie women were considerably bolder and more empowered than most modern people give them credit for. Video evidence:

Damsels? Ha!

Footage Used (Boring Silent Movies):

The evidence footage is taken from a selection of American films of the 1910s and 1920s, representing the “prime” years of the silent feature film as popular entertainment.

“Great pals.” | A Woman of the World

Cocaine | The Mystery of the Leaping Fish

“Great singer.” | The Garden of Eden

“I want my pants!” | Beyond the Border

The ladies duke it out | Carmen

“I’m sex appeal.” | Eve’s Leaves

“I air a lady!” | Heart o’ the Hills (and yes, that is a very young John Gilbert)

Shake your booty | Skinner’s Dress Suit

Footage Used (Damsels):

Footage for this video was taken from films produced in the United States, France and Germany from 1908-1929. They cover a wide variety of genres and most feature superstar actresses of the time.

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)


(My voice has been questionable for the past year or so but I hope to produce some new videos soon.)

35 Replies to “Video: Oh darn those boring silent movies full of damsels in distress”

  1. Nicely done!

    I’ve never found silent movies boring even when I was a child. Of course when I was a child it wasn’t all that far off from the silent movie era. I used to watch them on occasion on our tiny black and white television back in the day when there were only a few channels from which to choose.

    Arlee Bird
    Wrote By Rote

  2. Very well done and I will have to watch each of these videos more than once to proper appreciate the information.

  3. People who say this about silent films are people who don’t watch them. Considering that there were more women working behind the scenes in the 1910s then there are now, I’d say we still have a ways to go in that regard as well.

  4. These were great clips and you explained it so well. Do you teach this? If you don’t, you should! When I was a kid, some of these silents would be on TV and I would watch them with my dad. What is neat is that my dad saw some of these films in the actual theatre since he was born in 1913. (He was 51 when I was born)

  5. Sorry to hear your voice has been “questionable” lately. You have a lovely speaking voice and your narration of these video clips is very effective without being at all preachy or pedantic.

    My father, who would have turned 100 this year, grew up with silent movies. His descriptions of movie-going in a rural theater in the 1920s and early 30’s (they were still showing silents there, well into the 30s) always fascinated me. Although I grew up with the movies of the 60’s and 70’s, any opportunity to see a silent film was, for me, something special (and rare, of course), a sort of gateway to another era and a unique art form.

    You deserve much credit for opening up that world and this art form to those who don’t have that personal connection, and making it accessible and attractive to people who might otherwise dismiss it as an archaic, cultural relic unworthy of their attention. And I especially appreciate your unflagging efforts to debunk the myths and rebut the the oft-told lies that have become accepted as truth about early film.

  6. I’m really enjoying reading the comments in this thread! A brief reminiscence of my own: the first silent movies I ever had the privilege to see were a couple of shorts shown in the Yorkville Carnegie Library. One Week and The Goat- I was 11. Will never forget Sybil Seely’s easy equal partnership with Keaton, the way she casually threw him a hammer, the way they doggedly worked on their disaster of a house together, were discouraged together, persevered in finishing it together…walked away from it together. And then there was The Goat…the frenetic chases and that final shot stay with me still.

    In university came the happy discovery of an abundance of meaty women’s roles in a true treasure house, a silent cinema discovered not far from where much of it was made: the old Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax (pre-renovation those unpadded wooden seats tested your love for particular films. The films inevitably won out): Mary Pickford, Mabel Normand, the Gish sisters, the Talmadge sisters, Louise, Polita, Gloria…I was hooked.

    I’ve said it before, but thank you so much for this terrific blog, and this post in particular- already splurged and bought some of the pics featured in those clip reels, including Carmen and Skinner’s Dress Suit.

  7. It’s so interesting to read how silent fans came to love these films.

    Might anyone here remember the old Vagabond Theatre on Wilshire (now The Hayworth), how they echoed the Mirth of a Nation series at LACMA back in the day, sometimes with live piano? That series, shown piecemeal in both those houses, cemented my family’s appreciation of silent film as one amazing international art form!

  8. The idea that all female characters back then were somehow “damsels in distress” seems to tie in with the prevalent idea that all women back in the day were meek and suppressed (every single one, without question). For cripes’ sake, I like to give women from the past a little more credit than that!

    Mockery of the innocent Gish-type heroines can annoy me too. Certainly they can be idealized, but not only were people more open to that sort of thing back then, but the heroines were often stronger and more developed characters than people realize. It’s all about taking off those 21st century blinders, folks!

    1. There is definitely a problem with people conflating strong heroines with violent heroines but, frankly, the Gish-type heroines deserve a lot of the scorn heaped on them by both modern and contemporary audiences. Griffith’s notion that young girls leap and spin and French kiss random doves created more than a few moments of unintentional hilarity, which was later exploited by comedians like Marion Davies. Photoplay magazine wrote extensively about the “sex trap” of both vamp and virgin– both roles could serve to lock an actress into a type and damage her overall career in the process. It is significant that Lillian Gish’s role in The Wind was a self-centered and far more human version of the fluttering Griffith heroine and her performance reflects that added complexity.

      1. Well, when it comes to Griffith specifically I’d say that sounds more like a matter of personal taste about aspects of his direction. The mannerisms he liked could certainly get over the top, especially in some of Mae Marsh’s acting, but not all the time. At its best we get a character like Gish’s in True Heart Susie. I certainly disagree that the occasional “cooing over doves” scenes means they’re deserving of scorn! (Err, in all honesty I’ve had pet parakeets most of my life so I don’t mind those scenes. 😀 )

        All in all, if we agree that Gish’s character in The Wind and her characters in Griffith films are the same type of heroine, then the most obvious differences between them relate to direction, not necessarily the type of heroine.

      2. Well, we can agree that they are all women. Griffith’s incredibly trite mind held back his stars, particularly the actresses. The strong-willed Pickford (who, I should note, Griffith shoved in a fit of rage) managed to escape more or less unscathed but Gish needed a detox, which seems to have been provided by Victor Seastrom.

        Gish later claimed that Griffith’s virginal heroines were just too pure for the roaring twenties but this is conveniently ignoring his rather bizarre, sexed up South Seas films. However, she was right about the massive cultural shift away from the sweetie pies of yesteryear, which is my overall point. Snickering at Pollyanna is not a modern phenomenon, by any means. Heck, Pickford did it and she PLAYED the part. Vamps and flappers were big for a reason.

      3. Speaking of Pickford, sometimes you hear her lumped under the “innocent damsel in distress” label…usually a clear sign that they haven’t watched much Pickford!

        I can’t resist adding that if Griffith’s actresses were being held back by getting to achieve stardom by appearing in some of the most famous, respected films of the entire era, well…there might be more horrific trade-offs out there. 😉 It’s certainly true, though, that at some point their acting had to keep up with the times.

      4. Criticism of Gish’s roles (or, rather, traditional distressed heroines of the Gish type) would be based on actual fact. She DID spin and twirl and kiss birds. When Pickford is sometimes dismissed as a damsel, it is generally by people who are not familiar with her roles and certainly not by serious critics of early film. One criticism is based on fact, the other on fiction.

        Any starring role in a major film would arguably help the career of an actress but the same could really be said of appearing in a Michael Bay film. But then, the discussion is not centered around whether or not actresses benefited from working with Griffith. The basic thrust is that criticizing the Griffith heroine is not displaying 21st century biases but rather displaying the very normal aversion to twee, which is shared by viewers of the silent era and modern era.

  9. Marion Davies! What a wicked talent for satirizing her contemporaries- not just in Show People either.

    Can’t abide so many of D.W. Griffith’s films due to their dated tropes. And I appreciate so many silent tropes, just not his, which inevitably demean, diminish. Making movies when movies were young needed to mean throwing off constraint, not burying your characters and story under a pile of it. The ethereal quality of Lillian Gish on film does hold a special place, but the body of work she did (including talkies) not directed by Griffith is really refreshing.

    Would love to have heard what sister Dorothy might have had to say about their years under the Griffith yolk. Is there anything?

    1. I’m not sure if Dorothy wrote anything or not but Mary Pickford was quite sarcastic. She praised Griffith on some fronts but complained about his ridiculous notions of young womanhood, particularly how she was expected to spin and twirl and shout “Ooo, look, a bunny!”

      For young women of the same era who played sweet heroines but stayed believable, I like Pickford, as well as Marguerite Clark, Gene Gauntier, Gladys Hulette and Vivian Martin. It’s a shame that only a handful of their films are available to the public.

  10. Gene Gauntier I’m somewhat familiar with from reading about early women directors. Will definitely look into the others- thanks for the tip.

    Karl Brown’s book painted such a splendid picture of working for D.W. Griffith- I’m sure Brown felt it all did turn out splendidly, for him. Technical breakthroughs and innovations aside, so many scenes in Griffith films, frankly, make me wince as if stuck with a pin.

    1. Agreed! And watching more American films from the 1905-1915 period opened my eyes to exactly how few of those innovations actually were Griffith’s. Brown fawning over his old boss is hard to take, as are Gish’s bizarre proclamations that Griffith never used sex to sell a film and was never, ever racist.

    2. PS, I believe most of Gauntier’s films are available as part of the O’Kalems set from the Irish Film Institute, which must be purchased directly from them. The other actresses have titles available from mainstream sources but let me know if you would like a list.

  11. Personally, I don’t mind the “dated” quality of some of the Griffith tropes, since they seem to draw on the old traditions of stage melodrama–while at the same time adding a little more subtlety than might be immediately apparent. Things that are dated always fascinate me, like clownish makeup in Keystones, for instance. They drive me to find out the “whys.”

    I hear that a Dorothy Gish biography might be in the works, so maybe we’ll find out her side of the Griffith story someday!

    1. Griffith was indeed influenced by the Victorian-era melodrama but then so were DeMille, Tourneur, Olcott and Perret. William S. Hart was as Victorian as they came, outdone only by Charlie Chaplin, who was pretty much the most Victorian creature ever to grace the screen. And you know what? None of these directors had their leading ladies adopt the oddball behavior that Griffith seemed to find enticing.

      So, you have basically proven my point: Griffith’s heroines displayed a bizarre combination of Victorian tropes and the director’s own weird fetishes in a manner that was easy to mock, satire and parody by audiences of the day and these characters remain open to criticism from modern viewers. It is not only normal, it is historically accurate to snicker at these twee little damsels.

      1. Again, I don’t deny that the acting of Griffith’s actresses could get over-the-top, and it’s not surprising that this would get mocked even back then. Heck, if we’re talking historic accuracy everything was mocked at some point, even the fashionable flappers. Still, their acting was not always over the top all the time. Gish’s acting in True Heart Susie is certainly different from some of her jumpy acting in Hearts of the World, for instance. And it’s hard to imagine Way Down East achieving the same success without her performance.

        Not to seem like backpedaling, but I probably made a mistake in saying “Gish-type” heroines initially, fondly thinking it more descriptive than the broader “innocent sweet heroine.” Characters from other directors, like Esther in Tol’able David, were also what I had in mind. That’s entirely my bad!

      2. As I stated before, there is a huge problem with conflating violence with empowerment as far as onscreen women are concerned. A character can displays traditional femininity while still being a self-actualized human on the screen. I will sure as heck call out a film that fails in this regard as my blog is focused on the history of women in film, both on the screen and behind it. Times change but bad screenwriting is forever.

        A huge part of my review style is to tip scared cows (Griffith in particular but there are others) and many, many of them are defended with the old bromides of “You need to look at context” and “You’re putting too much modern thought into this” both of which are pretty shaky. All modern reviews bring modern thought into the process of criticism, it’s just a matter of how many Get Out of Jail Free cards the reviewer decides to issue and whether or not they choose to ignore the existence of feminists and activists for racial equality who both viewed silent films during their original release and spoke up about racism and sexism, sometimes winning studio concessions regarding sexist and racist content.

      3. Solid points, I do know where you’re coming from. I’ve noticed that many people who rely solely on “Know the historic context!” don’t look at it deeply enough (e.g., yes, ethnic humor in 1910s comedies was common because Different Times…but even back then it was often subject to protest by immigrant communities).

        Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me over the past couple days. 🙂

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