In which I bust a minor myth that has been annoying me for a while (yes, it involves train tracks)

Okay, so readers of this site know that the fastest way to get me annoyed is to claim that silent films were filled with women tied to tracks. I have debunked this myth again and again and again but then an offhand remark in the New York Times sends silent movie fans back to mythbusting square one. Sigh.

Ever since I joined Twitter, I have issued the following challenge:

Name one feature film from a major studio that features the classic “tied to the tracks” trope presented in a serious manner. Since this trope has been described as iconic, there should be no problem at all in naming films that meet these simple requirements.

Still waiting...
Still waiting…

This challenge has never been met. Oh, I invariably get people who present one of two Keystone comedies as evidence of the trope but, um, those are spoofs of old stage melodramas, guys. I even tell people not to send me Keystone comedies and they do it anyway. Sigh. (The Keystone titles, by the way, are Teddy at the Throttle and Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life and both are very clearly playing the trope for laughs.)

The other thing that happens? Films that involve danger and railroads but do not have the basic elements of the trope: bad guy in top hat, damsel tied to tracks. Just being in danger or knocked out near or on tracks isn’t the same thing. If that were true, I would use While You Were Sleeping as evidence that all 90s rom-coms featured people tied to tracks by villains in top hats.

Again, the trope is extremely specific. Tied to the tracks. Google it and you get this:

VERY specific. Also, only one of these images is from the silent era and, you guessed it, it's a Keystone comedy.
VERY specific.
Also, only one of these images is from the silent era and, you guessed it, it’s a Keystone comedy.

I demand a similar level of specificity. It’s only fair. Hey, I’m not the one who claimed this scene was iconic and regularly featured in silent films.

As you can probably tell from the images,  there is the problem of non-silent era content being passed off as period. The execrable 1947 remake of The Perils of Pauline features the trope, as does the 1992 Charlie Chaplin biopic. Taylor Swift and Dudley Do-Right both dealt with melodrama villains engaged in their favorite type of villainy.

And then there’s this picture:

perils of pauline fake tied to train tracks damsel silent filmMy immediate reaction was, of course, this:

First of all, it has that fake old-timey burnt edge effect that every photo editing program has built in. Second, the poses just didn’t look period (or even human) to me. In short, it had the reek of wrongness all over it.

However, the photo kept showing up, sometimes even described as being from the 1914 Perils of Pauline serial. This was obviously annoying to me but I had no idea where the original image was from.

Until now. Behold!

perils of pauline snidely tied to train tracks damsel silent filmThe image is a screen grab from the 1999 film Dudley Do-Right with Alfred Molina as Snidely Whiplash. At least that’s what the caption says. I will take their word for it because there is no way I will ever sit through that turkey again.

But where to begin? First of all, it is obvious that someone was probably looking for an image of a woman tied to the tracks and so they took this shot and photoshopped the man into a woman. You can see how they added a hat, shrunk the feet and slimmed down the man’s waist in this GIF comparison:

perils-of-pauline-fake-tied-to-tracks-imageThe low resolution assured that the alteration would be essentially undetectable to the casual eye without the original image for comparison. (But the “woman” is lying in a rather unnatural manner, which is a pretty good giveaway.) The real image is clearly a modern film shot in modern color. (1914 did not have a lot of pictures shot in three-strip Technicolor, guys.) So, the black and white image is a historical fake and sexist to boot. Huzzah!

Substituting a woman for a male victim to fulfill a tired stereotype is fun!
Substituting a woman for a male victim to fulfill a tired stereotype is fun!

So, with this bit of nonsense unmasked, I feel good about doing my small part in setting the historical record straight.

P.S. In case you were wondering, here’s what I will do if someone ever does find a mainstream silent features with the “tied to the tracks” trope treated in a serious manner: Tell them to find me another. After all, it’s an iconic and common trope, right? Should be easy. (And, once again, no one has ever delivered even ONE title.)

18 Replies to “In which I bust a minor myth that has been annoying me for a while (yes, it involves train tracks)”

  1. Your loyal fans ought to buy you a big, old-timey microphone as a holiday gift. You’ll break it anyway once you drop it and walk away, so perhaps a plastic one will do? 😀

  2. Well, knock me over with a feather. I could have sweared I saw it on Perils of Pauline, but wiki backs you up that it’s not there. Interesting post.

    1. Yes, it’s a common misconception. And, thanks to trade publications, we have detailed plot recaps of the episodes so I can confidently say that it is not in any of the missing footage from that serial.

  3. As a railfan, I pay a lot of attention to trains and tracks in movies and I have never seen such a thing in a silent feature. On the other hand, I was watching the talkie serial Spy Smasher the other day and saw the more common scene of the hero unconscious on a conveyor belt, inching towards a nasty-looking machine.

    1. Spy Smasher was a fun one! Yeah, trains figured into many, many action scenes as they were the primary mode of transportation in the pre-Model T America but the villain-hat-damsel thing? Nope!

  4. That is a clear example of how the internet can be misleading. It is a real danger to actual history in all sense, in my opinion. So many people will just stop to the first info they get, never bothering finding out whether that info is genuine or not.

    You’re doing a great job.

    1. Exactly! One mislabeled photograph can be spread across hundreds of sites in just a few minutes. Then they can use each other as sources and we’re never rid of the bad info.

  5. I read that New York Times article and it did have some interesting things in it, but I stopped taking that particular author seriously when she blatantly spoiled the ending of “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” and gave a rather churlish review. As for you, Fritzi, thanks for the myth busting! Your site is one of my all time favorites.

  6. I recall this as one of your pet peeves and I understand since people have so many misconceptions about the silents. I always thought the serials may have used this but I guess I am wrong. I did just assume…

    1. I have seen serials with characters who get into a fight and are knocked onto the tracks or who are tied up and try to escape but fall onto the tracks but actual villains typing people down? Nope, I haven’t seen it in serials either. Frankly, the fact that Mack Sennett used the trope as a gag three times between 1913 and 1917 indicates that it wasn’t taken terribly seriously.

  7. Thanks and kudos for this detailed corrective. As you may know, I called out the author of the NYT piece on twitter; though praising her article and its value, I referred to the ubiquity of the damsel on the train tracks trope as “apocryphal.” In summary, she replied “Not apocryphal” and initially offered up the Mabel Normand parody as the keystone to her argument. Later, she provided a link to an article that listed two serious titles, neither featuring binding to tracks nor mustache twirling villains: THE TRAIN WRECKERS(’05) and THE ATTEMPT ON THE SPECIAL(’11). And, the article itself states in its conclusion re: the train-track-trope, “It is anything but a major theme.”

    1. Ha! Great work! Yeah, that is the exact response I expected. People first trot out the Keystone comedies and then they get desperate and trot out films that involve peril and tracks but no tying to the tracks.

  8. Fritzi,

    I can only add that I greatly admire and appreciate your dedication to the cause! You are a beacon of probing bright light shining from atop the Twitterverse, exposing the stupidity that flows from it almost daily (or so it seems). Let your light never be extinguished 🙂

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