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!
It makes me angry when people reduce the women of silent film down to the image of a damsel tied to the train tracks or threatened by a sawmill. The mere fact that it is a misconception is not what upsets me. What really makes me angry is what this belief takes away from the women of silent movies.
You see, women in silent movies are not helpless victims of mustachioed villains.
To me, a silent era women can take pratfalls with the boys, ride motorcycles and do their own stunts.
A silent era woman can lead a band of children safely through a gator-infested swamp with a baby on her back.
They are mountain girls who are willing to die in battle to defend their king.
They face their nation’s enemies and take their heads.
And they don’t get mad, they get everything, including the boat.
But stay out of their way if they do get mad.
They are spies, thieves, master criminals and criminal masterminds.
That sawmill scene? Yeah, it’s there. But instead of the hero saving the girl, the girl saves the hero.
They are able to overcome labels like Spinster or Grass Widow and seek out their own happiness on their own terms.
They stay true to themselves no matter what the pressure. If they seem to weaken, it just means they will come back stronger in the end.
But they also know when to forgive.
Or not, as they choose.
When they want something, they don’t take “no” for an answer.
They can beat the men at their own game.
Or they can invent a whole new game.
To me, this is who the silent era woman is: A lively lady who is ready to take on the world.
But none of these things matter. All because it is easier to think of that hackneyed image of a silent movie heroine tied to the tracks. This misconception has stolen the bravery of silent movie women in the public’s eye. That’s a real crime.
Every era of film has its damsels in distress, unfortunately, and the silent era was no exception. However, these damsels were offset by some very amazing women and the sheer number of independent and intelligent heroines is impressive. Silent era women are in danger of being swallowed up by an exaggerated image of helplessness.
I will repeat the opening image to remind you that this was not always the case.
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.
Those discount trivia books that litter the shelves of chain bookstores have a lot to answer for. They state with great confidence that The Jazz Singer was the first sound movie, The Birth of a Nation was the first feature film, that The Great Train Robbery was the first film with a story…
It’s a reasonably popular internet meme: Take hit modern film, desaturate it, add a few intertitles and a tinkling piano score and voila! You have a silent movie. That’s all silent movies are, right? Movies without sound and with those title cards placed at intervals.
Hooo boy, is this an old one. It is actually as old as talking pictures themselves. The myth goes like this: So-and-so (often John Gilbert) was a famous film star in the silent era but what people didn’t know is that he sounded like Mickey Mouse! Hilarious!