One of the minor annoyances of being a silent film fan is having to hear people who have never seen silent films describe silent films. And invariably, it is something along the lines of “damsel tied to track by mustachioed villain” or maybe the old sawmill chestnut.
For years, I have been trying to get across the notion that these tropes were very rarely used in dramatic pictures and when they were, men were just as likely to be the victims as women. However, 90% of the “tied to the tracks” usage in silent films has been in the forms of spoofs, specifically spoofs of stage melodramas. (Read my review of Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life here.)
In my opinion, anyone who can’t tell the difference between serious drama and a Mack Sennett spoof has no business talking about movies but there are a shocking number of people who try to argue along those lines. Never mind the fact that pop culture writing and the films themselves do not support this argument.
I was flipping through old magazines when I discovered this amusing item from a 1919 issue of Film Fun. It’s pretty much a smoking gun; film folk (Ben Turpin in this case) giggling about the way they are spoofing the stage tropes that thrilled their grandparents. I could have kissed them! (If you know which Turpin picture or pictures this article is referring to, please let me know! I want it/them for my collection.)
UPDATE: Someone totally knew!
The unwed mother being thrown out in the snow was, of course, most famously done in Way Down East. The D.W. Griffith film adaptation was a hit but was very much seen as a throwback.
Train track rescues were originally introduced with a male victim and a female rescuer but they soon became workhorses of the cheaper production companies. With a train whistles and a light offstage, you could create suspense aplenty.
It’s worth noting, once again, that I have never seen this trope played straight in a studio feature and while it occasionally showed up in serials, it was very much a coed affair. (And I don’t mean to knock serials because I love them but, well, even I have to admit they were hardly the pinnacle of fine writing.)
And if anyone is thinking that a shot of someone unconscious on the tracks proves something, please stop moving the goalposts. The ingredients are very specific: damsel, tied to tracks, mustachioed villain. If you think someone merely knocked out on the tracks proves anything, I am happy to inform you that Snidely Whiplash was the serious villain of all 1990s movies because Peter Gallagher was knocked cold on the tracks in While You Were Sleeping.
This, of course, refers to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and a myriad of melodramas that ended with drowning. This second trope DID make it into serious motion pictures and suicide by drowning still crops up now and again in movies. I guess you can say that what makes the melodrama would be the circumstances that led up to the drowning.
And, of course, the sawmill. Blue Jeans is referred to by name but, again, it’s worth remembering that the victim in that film was a man and the rescuer was a woman.
Anyway, I was quite pleased to find this article because it supports the arguments I have been putting forth and does so in a snappy manner with pictures. Whoohoo!
Oh yeah, and if you want to help support my site, debunk silent movie myths AND get something cool to drink your coffee out of, I made a little playful design that does all of the above. It’s on mugs, t-shirts, journals, totes and more. (Excuse the awkward self-plug, I am new at this!)