How to NAIL a movie audition (hey, it worked for Mabel Normand) Animated GIF

mabels-dramatic-debut-1913-ford-sterling-and-mabel-normand-the-dance

Mabel Normand is determined to make it in the movies. This is her audition scene from Mabel’s Dramatic Career. She demonstrates her dancing abilities (no one could do a zany dance like Mabel) but is in danger of losing her balance. Ford Sterling comes to the rescue (or does he?) but the look on Mabel’s face indicates that he might have gotten a little grabby. Not to worry, though. Their characters wed in the film.

Questions from the Google: Who was the silent era villain who tied women to train tracks?

New feature! I like to read over the search engine queries that bring people to my site. Lately, I have been noticing the same sort of queries cropping up again and again:

Who was the silent era villain who tied women to train tracks?

Snidely Whiplash in silent films?

Silent star tied to train tracks.

I have previously posted about the origins of this cliche but let’s take a look at these search engine queries and see if we can finally put this ridiculous myth to rest.

(Oh, and in the spirit of generosity, let me advise you never, ever to bring this up among silent film fans as a serious topic. You will be ruthlessly mocked for your ignorance and you will deserve it.)

The Questions:

Who was the silent era villain who tied women to train tracks?

No one.

Let me repeat for emphasis.

NO ONE!

No Hollywood executive said “We need that fellow who does the railroad track thing! Get him at once!” There was no such man because the cliche was simply not used that much in motion pictures.

The footage of the train track cliche that usually gets trotted out is from one of two Sennett comedies, Teddy at the Throttle or Barney Oldfield’s Race for Life. Both films were making fun of the cliche, which was seen as dusty, clueless and so last century.

Ahem.
Ahem.

The gentlemen playing the villains in these films were Wallace Beery and Ford Sterling, respectively. However, both men were better known for their other comedic skills. This is not how they regularly spent Saturday night.

The play that originated this trope, Under the Gaslight, was written in 1867. The victim, by the way, was male. There was a real-life copycat incident in 1874. Again, the victim was male.

Snidely Whiplash in silent films?

Dudley Doright
Not a silent movie.

Snidely Whiplash is a send-up of Victorian melodrama villains, the same target that inspired the Sennett comedies. If he is based on a silent era character, it is likely one of these Sennett comedians.

Silent star tied to train tracks.

Again, no silent era studio executive ever said, “That girl who gets tied to the tracks all the time! Fetch her for this film.”

In the films mentioned before, the victims were Gloria Swanson and Mabel Normand. I am going to repeat this one more time: These were comedies! The peril was meant to make fun of the over-the-top melodramas that had been in style a few years before.

In the 1916 serial A Lass of the Lumberlands the hero, Leo Maloney, is tied up and stumbles onto train tracks and then is rescued by Helen Holmes. Not exactly a perfect fit. Pearl White, to the best of my knowledge, was never victimized in this manner and any purported footage of this has yet to turn up. (The trope was used in the ridiculous sound remake of The Perils of Pauline.) Please note too that American serials were not regarded as the pinnacle of fine film writing.

train-tracks

In one of the few examples of this trope presented seriously in a mainstream silent feature film, the leading man of Blue Jeans (which I wrote an article about) was nearly sliced in half in a sawmill before being rescued by leading lady Viola Dana. Contemporary reviews praised the film but noted its old-fashioned source material. The train tracks/sawmill thing was just not something a modern film circa 1917 would use.

Blue-Jeans-Viola-Dana-John-Collins-1917 (2)

I have run across comments that talk about wanting to make a “1920 silent movie where a woman is tied to the train tracks.” I should mention that I have never found an example of this cliche in studios films made after 1919.

So now we know that the trope was rare, that men were just as likely to be victims and that the whole thing died before the twenties let out a single roar, well except for amateur films like this one:

Home videos are totally the same as studio releases! (And, again, the victim is a man.)

This fixation on railroad tracks is especially strange when you consider how long the silent film era lasted. Saying that silent movies (the era stretched between 1895 and 1929) regularly featured women tied to the train tracks would be like looking at the Home Alone movies and their ripoffs and then declaring that all films made in the 1990’s to 2010’s regularly featured small children beating up dimwitted burglars with elaborate booby traps. Avatar? Jurassic Park? Independence Day? The Artist? Men in Black 1-3? They all had that in them, right?

Other film sites have written on this oddly specific misconception but the queries keep on coming in. It’s a myth that really needs to die.