Questions from the Google: Where are those lists of silent films with women chained to train tracks?

Welcome to Questions from the Google, where I answer search engine queries, both weird and common. Today, I’m going to be looking at a very persistent query that got on my last nerve.

My web analytics service not only tells me which searches lead people to my site, it also tells me how often these searches were used on a given day. Yesterday, a particularly persistent little marmoset kept pounding this into their keyboard and scouring my site for the answer:

list of silent films/woman chained to train tracks

Again and again and again.

I love the assumption that not only were there silent movies with women chained to the tracks, they were so common that there are lists of them all over the internet. Here’s my list, skippy:

Go Chase Yourself

Oh, that’s only one. Sorry. (Not sorry.)

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

Since we haven’t done this for a while, here is the rundown of this ridiculous myth about silent films:

The trope was neither common nor expected.

Men were imperiled just as often as women.

The two films most often used to “prove” that this trope was iconic of the silent era are Keystone spoofs of Victorian melodramas. This is like viewing a modern spoof of Saturday Night Fever‘s disco dancing and using it as proof that all the Top 40 hits of 1990-2015 were disco.

Silent films had plenty of suspense tropes so why the heck are we wasting our time with this bit of fiction?

In my 15 years of silent movie viewing, I have never once seen this oddly specific trope (screaming damsel tied/chained to tracks by villain with top hat and mustache) played seriously in a studio silent film. Not once. I challenged other silent movie fans to name a single studio film. They couldn’t.

Even if one film were to surface, it wouldn’t change the fact that there are thousands of silent films on home video and thousands more in archives that do no such thing. 1 movie in 5,367? And so obscure that dozens of silent film fanatics couldn’t call it by name? Common and iconic? Okey-dokey, pumpkin.

Shouldn't someone be tying her to the train tracks?
Shouldn’t someone be tying her to the train tracks?

Why is this myth so infuriating? Two reasons: first, it is used as an excuse to snicker at silent films by people who can’t be bothered to watch them. Second, it ignores the fact that many silent films featured empowered, independent and complex female characters. Reducing thirty-five years of film history down to one fictional trope is both ignorant and obnoxious. Stop it.

The best cure? I recommend actually watching silent films. The real thing. No, they’re not boring. In any case, how will you know if you don’t see them for yourself?

For review:

The History of the Tied-to-the-Tracks Trope (It was really men who were the original victims, rescued by women)

How the Trope is Used in Silent Films (only in spoofs of older stage properties)

Video examination of the trope and explanation of why it must die

A celebration of the empowered women of silent film, not a damsel in the bunch

17 Comments

  1. aaronwest

    Yes, watch silent films. There are plenty of exciting things that happen away from railroad tracks. It is amazing how different perception is versus reality in how women were portrayed in silent films. Not to mention their roles in the industry especially compared to today.

    For what it’s worth, if you (or any of my other classic blogger friends) find yourself chained to railroad tracks, I am absolutely going to rescue you.

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      Yes, it wasn’t perfect but it was a golden age for women compared to today. And the offer for rescue is reciprocal, after all, silent movies were pretty equal opportunity when it came to rescue 😉

  2. Dulcy

    Comment re: marmoset
    An amusing verse by, I think, Hillaire Belloc…
    The species man and marmoset are intimately linked;
    The marmoset survives as yet, but men are all extinct

    Thanks for fighting the good fight!

  3. Birgit

    All too funny and so true or as Madeline Kahn said it in Blazing Saddles “How Twue”. They have never watched silents and only think of them in terms of the funny Keystone Cops…oh well, maybe some of them could be tied to the train tracks:)

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      I’ve come across instances of heroes and heroines getting trapped on tracks (it’s even used in modern films) and characters being tied up, escaping and falling across the tracks (happened to both Helen Holmes and her boyfriend in a serial) but none of the Snidely Whiplash stuff played straight in a studio film. (I always specify studio film as poverty row and amateur pictures are in a totally different category) But even if there is one, well, one out of 10,000 does not an iconic scene make.

  4. Silents, Please!

    I wasn’t arguing that it was significant or disproved your point … anyway, it looks like the image didn’t show up, but it’s an advert for Pearl White’s serial “The Fatal Ring”. You can see the pic on the wikipedia page for that title.

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      WordPress is funky about images in comments 😦

      Sorry if I came off as combative, didn’t intend to and clearly needed to use more smilies. 😉 I’ll have to look at the recaps in trade periodicals but the Pearl White serial very much looks like one of those cases where someone hits their head and falls on the tracks.

  5. Westell Rhodes

    I wish I had a PO Box for you. I get the New Yorker Magazine (I’m an old New Yorker) and I found a great cartoon re: woman tied to the railroad tracks. I immediately thought of you and would have sent it just for the laughs. It shows: A train is coming full-tilt, the villan has tied the woman up,he goes to the tracks,BUT the tracks diverge (left and right).What does he do?….He puts her between the two sets of tracks, so the gag is: he’s a dumb villian and she won’t get run over but it fits the scene that everyone thinks of, Re: Villians and RR Tracks!. Love it !!

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