How to annoy a silent film fan or “There must have been SOME films with women tied to the railroad tracks!”

Most of the posts on this site have been aimed at fans of silent film or curious dabblers. This post is different. It’s aimed squarely at a very strange subset of non-fans.

I thought this was a fluke at first but I soon realized that it was a trend. Basically, when a silent film devotee ventures out with the fan flag flying, there will always be someone who says this:

“Aren’t those the movies with women tied to the railroad tracks?”

And when we gently correct them, they argue. No, no, no, there must have been SOME movies that featured the trope or it wouldn’t be so famous.

This is where we tend to get very annoyed and for good reason.

So many damsels!
So many damsels!

Pardon me, your presumptuousness is showing.

I love silent films but I recognize that not everyone has the same taste. The majority of movie fans do not care for the silents. That’s fine. What’s not fine is when someone who knows nothing about silent film lectures a silent fan on silent film.

Look, I don’t care for anime. At all. I don’t watch it and probably never will. You know what I also don’t do? I don’t tell anime fans what anime is like. I don’t presume to lecture them and try to prove they’re wrong. See how that works?

So, forgive me if I get just a little surly about this. Seeing a few silents back in college does not make you an expert. Catching reruns of Dudley Do-Right? Doubly so.

As a mark of my disdain, I call these people railroad truthers.

In my experience with silent film, I have only run into the cliche treated seriously three times. Twice in serials and once in a poverty row film. And one of the serials had a man tied to the tracks and rescued by the heroine.

Distressed dudes of the silent era.
Distressed dudes of the silent era.

(I do not count the Mack Sennett spoofs of Victorian melodramas. These were very broad comedies and they were making fun of past pop culture, not then-current movie trends.)

The silent era lasted for almost forty years. Three films in forty years. That’s not a trend, darlings. I have seen hundreds of silent films from every era and genre imaginable and have never once stumbled onto this supposedly common trope.

And remember what the truthers claim: This cliche was common and iconic. A symbol of the silent era. I say this because they often try to move the goalposts, claiming that one serial scene proves them right. Nope. They chose to die on the “Common and Iconic” hill and that’s where they must remain. No changing the terms of their stand mid-debate.

I sense a pattern...
I sense a pattern…

Oh no! They have stills! Whatever shall I do?

So then out come the pictures… Which prove nothing.

silent-movie-woman-damsel-tied-to-railroad-train-tracks-by-villain

See, I could post a picture of Despicable Me 2 and claim that it proves that all 2010s films featured nacho chip hats. (If only!) I’m sure you understand the dangers of relying on stills as evidence for your claims.

This image proves that chip hats were featured in both "The Avengers" and "American Sniper"
This image proves that chip hats were featured in both “The Avengers” and “American Sniper”

Why is this so important to you again?

So you may be wondering about the origins of the cliche. Well, I made a handy little video on just that subject:

But back to the debate!

Once proved wrong, the weirdest thing happens. The railroad truthers don’t give up. It’s surreal. They keep digging and trying to prove that they are right but their proof gets weaker and weaker. The usual script:

Silent Fan: … So that’s why this is a myth.

Truther: What about Perils of Pauline?

Silent Fan: Um, that’s the 1947 Betty Hutton remake. The original had no such scene.

Truther: But you admit it was in Perils of Pauline?

Silent Fan: Yeah, the sound remake made three decades later. It’s not a silent–

Truther: I win! I win! Silent movies were full of women being tied to the tracks!

All this makes me wonder why it is so very important for these people (who, I might add, have seen very few silent films, if any) to prove that this trope was common. The truthers move goalposts and desperately cling to any scrap of a rumor that allows them to believe they were right. Why are they so heavily invested in the face of overwhelming evidence? It seems like madness.

tempest-john-barrymore-louis-wolheim-camilla-horn-silent-movie-animated-gif-get-a-room

I am not in their heads (thank goodness!) but I think that a lot of it has to do with how they view the history of motion pictures. “Sure, modern films may only have a female protagonist 12% of the time but at least we aren’t tying them to the train tracks, amirightguys?” When someone’s sense of superiority is shown to be without foundation, it is disconcerting.

Of course, I would have more sympathy for them if they actually went out and saw a silent movie or two before opening their big yaps.

The Challenge

scaramouche-gizzard-animated-gif-movies-silently-NEW

And so, I now must issue my challenge again. No one has ever achieved victory but we must keep trying.

I challenge you to name ONE silent feature film that contains a scene of a damsel tied to the train tracks in the accepted manner. (Mustachioed villain, preferably with top hat, actually tying or chaining the young lady to the track for the express purpose of killing her.) This film must:

1. Treat the scene as a serious matter, no joshing.

2. Be released by a major silent studio. (Universal, Paramount, MGM, Fox, United Artists, Warner Brothers, and their various components and parent companies.)  In short, no home movies and no poverty row quickies. These have to be movies that wide audiences would have enjoyed.

3. Again, just containing train peril is not enough. Train peril was incredibly common in the silent era because trains were THE form of transportation. No, the scene must contain the classic elements of Victorian melodrama.

When I issue this challenge, I invariably get people complaining that my conditions for success are too narrow. Ha! The railroad truthers have been busily stating that the tied-to-the-tracks trope was both common and iconic. Surely my modest limits should be no hindrance for a plot device that was so very common.

And if someone does find one… Congratulations! Now go find another. See, the truthers have built a rather high hurdle for themselves. One film ain’t gonna do it. Not for a scene that was used and reused and was common and iconic. Nope. We need more. Many, many more. Hop to it.

(Forgive me a smirk.)

tempest-john-barrymore-louis-wolheim-camilla-horn-silent-movie-animated-gif-naughty-boy

Or they could take that time and watch real silent movies, the ones that audiences enjoyed from 1895 to the dawn of sound.

26 Comments

  1. Luke Bailey

    Oh my gosh, this irritates me! I’m 15, so most of the people I know at school think I’m nuts for liking silents, which is fine and dandy if that’s their opinion. However, one of them saw a photo of Mary Pickford on my binder, which sparked a discussion about silent films. They said, “Oh, yeah, I saw one of those once! There was tinkly piano music, and a woman tied to the railroad tracks, and this guy with a top hat, and a big mustache!” I shuddered. I tried to argue about it, but he displayed the EXACT behavior of a typical railroad truther. Ugh.

  2. bunnybuntales

    Personally I haven’t heard this. What I get is “Have you seen The Artist? I love that movie.” Or ” I love Chaplin” Or they get decades wrong thinking the 1930s was the silent era. Even people in their 60s can be clueless because they were born in the 1950s so by then the silent era and early 30s was more than a generation back.

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      I envy you if you have never run into a railroad truther. Yes, we tend to “telescope” events that are further in the past. It would be unthinkable to confuse 2013 with 2015 but mixing up 1910 and 1930 is all too common.

  3. John Hitchcock (@HitchcocksWorld)

    Oh boy, this again. I haven’t had to deal with very many of these “Railroad Truthers” as you call them. In fact the article I posted in response to your video last December in which I made it pretty clear even with a more limited understanding of silent film that this cliche never happened and even suggested where it came from was actually pretty well received and has become one of my most popular. I’ve theorized that it may have had to do with the popularity of train-related peril, but as you note that’s because trains were the primary mode of transportation back then. It’s not that much different from how car chases are really popular in modern action movies (in fact, the train-chase films of the silent era have been cited by some scholars as being an inspiration behind the modern car chase). By that same logic you could make an argument that modern films like to show women getting run over by cars (and I can’t think of any that do).

    These “Railroad Truthers” you describe certainly sound irritating. I might not have encountered one but I think I might have known some similarly annoying individuals. This sounds a bit to me like trying to explain to a hardcore Bond fan why Sean Connery’s films are extremely sexist (responses to this one range from calmly attempting to rationalize those elements to trying to deny their existence, including attempts to justify a blatant rape scene). Then of course there’s all the people on IMDB who have gotten mad at me because I criticized a few recent films for having an all-male cast when there was absolutely no reason it was necessary. I remember one person who tried to justify it by saying that there were “hundreds” of all-female movies (more like three, four if you count both versions of The Women) and others asking why we couldn’t have a “solid guy film” (because there hasn’t been enough of those, has there?) I guess it’s a common hazard in the blogging profession.

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      Agreed! It’s like when someone points out that there were indeed racist jokes in Buster Keaton films. We wish they weren’t there but denying their existence is just plain silly and does Keaton no favors.

      Acknowledging that the Sean Connery Bond films were sexist doesn’t mean that they are banned. Acknowledging some of the troublesome elements of entertainment is not the same as calling for it to be banned. For example, The Sheik is all kinds of messed up when it comes to gender relations. Most silent movie fans acknowledge these issues but they still enjoy aspects of the film. There’s nothing wrong with that.

      Yes, the whole male=default thing in films is beyond annoying. “But women can’t beat up men in real life!” they bleat. In a movie that involves, say, flying cars and talking animals. Yeah, go for that realism!

      1. nitrateglow

        Oh God, this reminds me of the time I said I loved Keaton but thought the blackface in Seven Chances and College were not okay by any standards. One special individual claimed I was the racist for “not understanding” the white mindset, because we should be more considerate of the privileged majority. Not saying Keaton meant to be oppressive (from interviews, he thought it was all in good fun), but it’s still racist and wrong and hurt the targets of these jokes, even if white audiences didn’t think it was hurting anyone.

      2. Fritzi Kramer

        Totally! This whole “You’re the racist by calling something racist” thing is beyond ridiculous. This whining and sniveling about not being able to tell racist jokes or use certain offensive words makes my eyes roll. Keaton employed a joke that was acceptable to (white) audiences at the time but is now considered in very poor taste. Acknowledging this does not lessen his overall comedic brilliance.

  4. mercurie80

    I did a study of the whole “tied to the railroad tracks” trope a few years ago. Knowing it wasn’t common in silent films, I wondered where it came from. Apparently it originated in a short story in 1867 and then caught on in various stage plays where it was popular for a few years in the late Victorian Era. It was well out of fashion by the advent of the Silent Era!

    To tell the truth, I don’t even remember it occurring in that many talkies or TV show either. Aside from the 1947 Perils of Pauline, I can only think of Dudley Doright and the Avengers episode “The Gravediggers”. I don’t even think the Sixties Batman show used it, and they used nearly every death trap in the book!

    1. mercurie80

      Oh, and, of course, it appears in the classic Coasters song “Along Came Jones”.

      And then he grabbed her (and then)
      He tied her up (and then)
      He threw her on the railroad tracks (and then)
      A train started comin’! (and then, and then…)

  5. nitrateglow

    Being an avid gamer, I once went on a Final Fantasy VIII fan site where a female character who’s often labelled a damsel in distress was being defended. All was well– until the writer ended it with “Things are different from the silent days…”

    …..What? This person, judging from their site and interests, has likely never seen a silent film in her life. But I bet if I told her all video games were simplistic drek or that all anime is either Pokemon, robots, or raunchy adult things, then she’d blow a fuse. Don’t talk about something if you have no idea what you’re talking about!

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      Yup. “Silent Movie” has become shorthand for “damsel in distress” and nothing could be further from the truth. The problem is that so many clips (many of them from Sennett spoofs) have been employed as part of montages that people think they have seen silent films when they haven’t. Don’t even get me started on the idiotic reenactments of silent films that employ the tied-to-the-tracks thing.

      Being in the position of having played Final Fantasy VIII AND having seen a ton of silents, I can assure this ill-informed person that the silents are more than equal to FFVIII in female empowerment. Far better, if memory serves.

      1. nitrateglow

        I’m on the first playthrough of FFVIII actually. The female empowerment quota is average there; at least the women feel like real people and not one dimensional concoctions to titillate fanboys. But none of them are a match for some of the silent era’s most empowered female characters, that’s for sure.

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      It usually goes like this:
      Me: Name one!
      Them: Teddy at the Throttle
      Me: That’s a spoof of Victorian melodrama
      Them: Still counts
      Me: Do you not understand how comedy works?

  6. Joseph Nebus

    I’ve found a different reaction when I mention to folks that actually there weren’t women-tied-to-the-tracks melodramas. The notion that it only happened in parody form enchants folks, who see it as being of a kind with the Lassie episode where Timmy falls down the well, or the Star Trek episode where Kirk romances the green-skinned alien girl. It’s possible I just move in circles that like being let in on a secret misconception that the common folk have, though.

    (I can’t fault people for having misconceptions about things they don’t have much cause to think about. I have them; I try to be good about learning more, but I’m aware there are a lot of subjects I know in ways that experts in the field would find laughable.)

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      Oh yes, there’s no sin in silent movie ignorance. What separates a newbie from a Railroad Truther is that the truther continues to argue, shift ground, move goal posts and generally make an oaf of themselves in the face of overwhelming evidence. A newbie, once they realize that they held a misconception, will say “Oh, cool” and either move on or wish to learn more. A railroad truther will continue to argue. And argue. And argue.

  7. Lea S.

    Lol, nicely argued! It seems that many people don’t realize that not every joke in old films was supposed to be taken at face value…humor in the “olden days” could be just as spoofing and self-referential as any SNL sketch.

    I’ll admit that I’ve never come across any railroad truthers, myself. Maybe it’s a regional thing. 😉 But here’s what I DO get, constantly, every time I mention that I like movies older than the 1950s: “So you mean, like, black and white movies?” Always. ALWAYS. What is people’s deal with being wary of black and white? And needless to say, at those moments it’s not advisable to try and laboriously explain the concepts of tinting and toning in the silent era…

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      Nope, satire was invented circa 1994. Everyone know that. 😉 I think I do run into quite a few because I have been fighting back this myth for a while and that tends to attract know-it-alls.

      I was raised on black and white movies and I actually find that color films can give me a headache. I guess we can always say: “You watch new movies? Like, in color?” (lip curled)

      1. nitrateglow

        Black-and-white is gorgeous IMO. When I took a Shakespeare on Film class and we watched Olivier’s Hamlet, my classmates moaned about it being in black-and-white, but said, “But I understand that’s all they had; color wasn’t invented yet.” If that’s not annoying enough, they also thought Olivier “could not act his way out of a paper bag” and that Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran” was a horrible movie with horrible acting.

        Because if an acting style is stylized or different from what you’re used to, it must be bad, right?

      2. Fritzi Kramer

        Yes, the philistines are always with us. I take comfort in the fact that in 20 years or so, a new generation will come along and will roll their eyes at the affected gravel-voices and cheezy CGI of this generation’s beloved blockbusters.

  8. nitrateglow

    “I take comfort in the fact that in 20 years or so, a new generation will come along and will roll their eyes at the affected gravel-voices and cheezy CGI of this generation’s beloved blockbusters.”

    I’m glad I’m not the only one! I’m going to laugh so hard.

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