Okay, so readers of this site know that the fastest way to get me annoyed is to claim that silent films were filled with women tied to tracks. I have debunked this myth again and again and again but then an offhand remark in the New York Times sends silent movie fans back to mythbusting square one. Sigh.
Ever since I joined Twitter, I have issued the following challenge:
Name one feature film from a major studio that features the classic “tied to the tracks” trope presented in a serious manner. Since this trope has been described as iconic, there should be no problem at all in naming films that meet these simple requirements.
This challenge has never been met. Oh, I invariably get people who present one of two Keystone comedies as evidence of the trope but, um, those are spoofs of old stage melodramas, guys. I even tell people not to send me Keystone comedies and they do it anyway. Sigh. (The Keystone titles, by the way, are Teddy at the Throttle and Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life and both are very clearly playing the trope for laughs.)
The other thing that happens? Films that involve danger and railroads but do not have the basic elements of the trope: bad guy in top hat, damsel tied to tracks. Just being in danger or knocked out near or on tracks isn’t the same thing. If that were true, I would use While You Were Sleeping as evidence that all 90s rom-coms featured people tied to tracks by villains in top hats.
Again, the trope is extremely specific. Tied to the tracks. Google it and you get this:
I demand a similar level of specificity. It’s only fair. Hey, I’m not the one who claimed this scene was iconic and regularly featured in silent films.
As you can probably tell from the images, there is the problem of non-silent era content being passed off as period. The execrable 1947 remake of The Perils of Pauline features the trope, as does the 1992 Charlie Chaplin biopic. Taylor Swift and Dudley Do-Right both dealt with melodrama villains engaged in their favorite type of villainy.
And then there’s this picture:
First of all, it has that fake old-timey burnt edge effect that every photo editing program has built in. Second, the poses just didn’t look period (or even human) to me. In short, it had the reek of wrongness all over it.
Until now. Behold!
The image is a screen grab from the 1999 film Dudley Do-Right with Alfred Molina as Snidely Whiplash. At least that’s what the caption says. I will take their word for it because there is no way I will ever sit through that turkey again.
But where to begin? First of all, it is obvious that someone was probably looking for an image of a woman tied to the tracks and so they took this shot and photoshopped the man into a woman. You can see how they added a hat, shrunk the feet and slimmed down the man’s waist in this GIF comparison:
The low resolution assured that the alteration would be essentially undetectable to the casual eye without the original image for comparison. (But the “woman” is lying in a rather unnatural manner, which is a pretty good giveaway.) The real image is clearly a modern film shot in modern color. (1914 did not have a lot of pictures shot in three-strip Technicolor, guys.) So, the black and white image is a historical fake and sexist to boot. Huzzah!
So, with this bit of nonsense unmasked, I feel good about doing my small part in setting the historical record straight.
P.S. In case you were wondering, here’s what I will do if someone ever does find a mainstream silent features with the “tied to the tracks” trope treated in a serious manner: Tell them to find me another. After all, it’s an iconic and common trope, right? Should be easy. (And, once again, no one has ever delivered even ONE title.)