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.

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Silent Movie Myth: Everything you know about silent film villains is wrong

Ask the average person to describe a silent movie villain and you’ll probably hear something like this:

“Big, curly mustache, black top hat, black cape. Always terrorizing damsels.

The thing is, they’re describing Snidely Whiplash and Professor Fate, both of whom were created decades after the silent era. Time to smash some myths!

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Silent Movie Myth: The first “Ben-Hur” film was made in 1907 and all subsequent versions are remakes

When the trailer for the new Ben-Hur was released, the internet went a little silly. There were people complaining that the classic 1959 version was being remade (scandal!) and then there were people who pointed out that the beloved Charlton Heston flick was itself a remake. (Guess which club I belonged to.)

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Silent Movie Myth: “The Birth of a Nation” was the first feature and the first film shown at the White House

There are some silent movie myths that are so common that they are printed without question by major publications and repeated on national radio and television shows. With the 100 year anniversary of The Birth of a Nation‘s 1915 premiere back in February, silent movie fans received more than our share of this nonsense.
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Silent Movie Myth: President Woodrow Wilson had an affair with Florence La Badie—and then had her murdered

Welcome. We are about to descend into the realm of scandal-mongering, myths, gossip, innuendo, with a side helping of just plain mean. It doesn’t get worse than this. We are dealing with a rumor that sullies three reputations: Woodrow Wilson, one of the most famous and influential American presidents of the twentieth century; motion picture pioneer Edwin Thanhouser; and Florence La Badie, a popular film star who died at the height of her fame.

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Silent Movie Myth: Tied to the Railroad Tracks

Note: This article covers the origins of the trope, how it erroneously became associated with silent films and why the myth persists. For more details on the actors involved, the Snidely Whiplash connection and examples of this trope subverted, check out my follow up article. You can also check out real footage and vintage images in my video response.

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