Dear Movies Silently, Why do silent movies have so many damsels in distress?

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!

Continue reading “Dear Movies Silently, Why do silent movies have so many damsels in distress?”

Stolen Bravery | Dedicated to the fearless women of silent films

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.

Most people think of this when they hear about silent movies. Never mind that this is from the talkie version of The Perils of Pauline, which was made nearly two decades after the silent era ended.
Most people think of this when they hear about silent movies. Never mind that this is from the talkie version of The Perils of Pauline, which was made nearly two decades after the silent era ended.

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.

Mabel Normand on her motorcycle.
Mabel Normand on her motorcycle.

A silent era woman can lead a band of children safely through a gator-infested swamp with a baby on her back.

Mary Pickford in "Sparrows"
Mary Pickford in “Sparrows”

They are mountain girls who are willing to die in battle to defend their king.

Constance Talmadge in "Intolerance"
Constance Talmadge in “Intolerance”

They face their nation’s enemies and take their heads.

Blanche Sweet in "Judith of Bethulia"
Blanche Sweet in “Judith of Bethulia”

And they don’t get mad, they get everything, including the boat.

Clara Bow in "Mantrap"
Clara Bow in “Mantrap”

But stay out of their way if they do get mad.

Pearl White in "Plunder"
Pearl White in “Plunder”

They are spies, thieves, master criminals and criminal masterminds.

Musidora in "Les Vampires"
Musidora in “Les Vampires”

That sawmill scene? Yeah, it’s there. But instead of the hero saving the girl, the girl saves the hero.

Viola Dana in "Blue Jeans"
Viola Dana in “Blue Jeans”

They are able to overcome labels like Spinster or Grass Widow and seek out their own happiness on their own terms.

Lois Wilson in "Miss Lulu Bett"
Lois Wilson in “Miss Lulu Bett”

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.

Gloria Swanson in "Sadie Thompson"
Gloria Swanson in “Sadie Thompson”

But they also know when to forgive.

Janet Gaynor in "Sunrise"
Janet Gaynor in “Sunrise”

Or not, as they choose.

Theda Bara in "A Fool There Was"
Theda Bara in “A Fool There Was”

When they want something, they don’t take “no” for an answer.

Leatrice Joy in "Eve's Leaves"
Leatrice Joy in “Eve’s Leaves”

They can beat the men at their own game.

Bebe Daniels in "She's a Sheik"
Bebe Daniels in “She’s a Sheik”

Or they can invent a whole new game.

Pola Negri in "A Woman of the World"
Pola Negri in “A Woman of the World”

To me, this is who the silent era woman is: A lively lady who is ready to take on the world.

Ossi Oswalda in "The Oyster Princess"
Ossi Oswalda in “The Oyster Princess”

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.

Helen Holmes lends a hand in "Lass of the Lumberlands"
Helen Holmes lends a hand in “Lass of the Lumberlands”

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.

Continue reading “Silent Movie Myth: Tied to the Railroad Tracks”