Gloria Swanson and Bobbie Vernon are potential heirs to a fortune but the money has been drained by the nefarious Wallace Beery. In order to cover his tracks, Beery decides to make use of tracks of a different sort…
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD and Bluray.
Gloria Swanson was one of the goddesses of the silent screen but she worked her way to the top, paying her dues in slapstick comedy. Teddy at the Throttle is one of the shorts she made when she was paired with the equally diminutive Bobby Vernon. There’s also about a fifty-fifty chance that, when someone refers to silent movies being filled with women tied to the tracks, this will be the still that pops up. (The other eternal choice: Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life, another Keystone comedy.)
Before we dig into the myth that the tied-to-the-tracks trope was either common or expected during the silent era, let’s talk about the other ingredients of Teddy at the Throttle. The first, of course, is the title character, Teddy the Great Dane, who weighed in at 145 lbs. and was easily physically the biggest hero in the picture.
Teddy plays the dog of Gloria, potential heiress who only has eyes for Bobbie. The estate that either Gloria or Bobbie stands to inherit is being overseen by the nefarious Wallace Beery. He plans to marry Bobbie off to his sister, May Emory, while he marries Gloria, thus shielding him from his embezzlement being discovered.
Bobbie is a fool and is flattered by the sister’s attention but Gloria immediately sees what’s what and soon discovers the truth thanks to a concealed telegram. She means to expose the scheme but Beery seizes her, chains her to the tracks and leaves her to her doom. Gloria summons Teddy to her rescue but, despite the best efforts of Bobbie and Teddy and the train engineers, the locomotive does not stop in time. Fortunately, Gloria has used her stint on the tracks to dig a shallow hole and she burrows in, thus rescuing herself.
Like so many physical comedies of the era, Teddy at the Throttle has a good deal of fun by comparing and contrasting the statures of its stars. Tiny Gloria and Bobby are thrown about left and right by the much more robust Beery and Emory. In her memoirs, Swanson stated that her real-life marriage to Beery had collapsed before the production started and that he was abusive. Her disgust and fear were not acting and Beery intentionally hurt her during the rougher scenes.
You can easily see Gloria’s nascent star power in this picture. Armed with her trusty ukulele and a bright personality, the camera can’t get enough of her and neither could audiences. Vernon was well-matched with her, less prone to mugging than some of the earlier Keystone stars but up for all sorts of stunts and mayhem.
Director Clarence G. Badger also brings a lighter touch to the Keystone style. He went on to direct beloved comedies from Clara Bow and Bebe Daniels and while there are fights and chases and wading through mud and wind machines, Badger keeps things from falling into total knockabout territory.
But, let’s face it, when people talk about Teddy at the Throttle, they want to talk about one scene. So, here we go. Once more unto the breach, dear friends…
Why should we care about this?
If you asked the layman to describe a silent film, there’s a pretty good chance that a very specific image would be presented:
A screaming maiden tied to the railroad tracks with the express expected any minute. A mustachioed villain with a cape and a black top hat looks on, cackling with glee.
It’s so deeply ingrained in our pop culture that I am not sure it will ever be dislodged but it is highly harmful to the perception of silent films. “Can you actually take those things seriously?” someone once asked me when I said that I enjoyed them. I knew instantly that they were visualizing creaky, corny melodramas and not the smart, sophisticated silent era entertainment that I love.
One of the common arguments that drives me absolutely bonkers is someone seeing a broad spoof like Teddy at the Throttle or Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life and being like, “See? These are silent movies. Women are tied to tracks. It was clearly a thing.”
The shortest version: Dunning-Kruger is real.
The short version: If someone cannot differentiate between broad comedic spoofs and serious drama, they really have no business writing about the movies. As Jim Carrey said in the well-known, serious 1990s drama, The Mask: “Hold me closer Ed it’s getting dark. Tell Auntie Em to let Old Yeller out, tell Tiny Tim I won’t be coming home this Christmas, tell Scarlett I do give a damn, thank you, you love me, you really love me!”
The long version: Melodramatic tropes were an ingrained part of American pop culture well before the movies were even invented. When I sat down to find a time when the mustachioed melodrama villain was not spoofed, I discovered that onstage sendups of the character existed as far back as the 1850s and that was just when I stopped looking, I’m sure there are much older parodies. (You can read about this in my review of the 1906 melodrama spoof And the Villain Still Pursued Her.)
Needless to say, the movies were quick to grab onto this shorthand, especially the comedies. The Keystone brand wasn’t about pathos or depth, it was about keeping the laughs coming and the cast moving. Any tropes or shorthand references that could aid in that endeavor were used. I am not condemning this practice, it has a very definite place in comedy.
However, understanding that movies could reference pop culture outside of the motion picture business is essential. Keystone used the old melodrama tropes because the could coax instant chuckles from an amused audience. The use of the tropes does not mean they were common or expected elsewhere in the movies. (If you’d like to know more about the suspense tropes that actually dominated the silent era screen, like the home invasion robbery, I cover the history in my review of Suspense.)
I have very rarely seen women being tied to tracks portrayed seriously in silent films. I have never seen the trope in a mainstream studio feature. I have seen men tied to tracks and sawmills (and rescued by women and dogs) in serious studio-made feature films. However, it all comes down to frequency and the core of my argument is that the cliché was not common, expected or iconic during the silent era. For heaven’s sake, silent movies were portraying killer gators and full train wrecks with real choo-choos, to assume that the filmmakers only used one suspense trope for nearly four decades is ridiculous.
Yet here we are.
Where did the trope originate?
I’ve covered this trope many, many times over the years, simply because it comes up so often when people want to dismiss silent movies as corny melodramas. I’ve written a full debunking but here’s the basic rundown:
Under the Gaslight (1867) by Augustin Daly is generally considered to be the trope originator. In the play, a man is tied to the tracks by a villain, while a female rescuer breaks free and rescues him at the last minute. Earlier that same year, Captain Tom’s Peril was published in The Galaxy magazine and featured a male victim tied to the tracks but he was saved at the last minute due to the train taking a cutoff, not being pulled to safety.
The 1868 play After Dark by Dion Boucicault featured an on-stage, last minute railway rescue with the male victim drugged and left in a railway tunnel, saved at the last minute by his friend. This led to cries of plagiarism followed by a lawsuit with representatives of Daly demanding a ban on After Dark being performed in the United States. Daly prevailed.
The interesting thing about the lawsuit is that the act of tying the victim to the tracks was considered a minor detail. The main bone of contention was the last-minute rescue with the rescuer trapped “in a receptacle from which there seems to be no feasible means of egress” but still able to watch helplessly before smashing free and mounting a rescue and with suspense building thanks to train-related sound effects. Therefore, there are several plays mentioned in discussions of the lawsuit that have come to be attached to the tied-to-the-tracks trope when they are actually just nick of time train rescues without any actual track-tying.
For example, according to The Nervous Stage: Nineteenth-Century Neuroscience and the Birth of Modern Theater, the 1863 play The Engineer—often cited as early train track tying—actually involves the villain being crushed by the train while the heroine escapes in a ballast truck. This would clearly be of interest in the Under the Gaslight lawsuit but not really the exact trope we are looking for.
However, I am not the judge making a ruling on copyright law. I am a very tired silent film fan who is mainly focused on the extremely specific trope that is constantly trotted out, so I am concerned about whether or not the victim is tied to the tracks or merely tossed there while unconscious.
In Under the Gaslight, After Dark and Captain Tom’s Fright, the victims were all male. This changed in Land Rats and Water Rats (1868) by Watts Phillips, which featured a female victim tied to tracks and a male rescuer. However, the respective gender roles were by no means cemented. In fact, during the silent film era, it was far more common to see men as the victims of train tracks and sawmills in serious films, while women were more likely to be the victims in spoofs.
Was the trope based on a real world incident? Were there copycat killings?
Under the Gaslight became synonymous with the tied-to-the-tracks trope and an 1876 editorial in a Washington D.C. newspaper decried the “pernicious influence” of stage melodramas, inspiring real tied-to-the-tracks murders and young men deciding to play highwaymen for real. Under the Gaslight was identified by name and the writer stated that the play had inspired numerous fictional copycats.
(For a more modern example, the body disposal techniques shown in a popular television show were cited as direct influences by real-world killers. Did the show possibly lead these people to believe that disposing of bodies was easier than it really was? Likely, very likely, everything looks easier on the screen. Did that belief make them more likely to go through with the murders? That’s a matter for discussion. Were they twisted people who would have killed anyway? Discussion. Were they so susceptible to influence that literally anything could have inspired them to acts of violence? Discussion.)
The question of whether or not violent entertainment is used as a blueprint for real-world violence is still being hotly debated and it is clear that railroads were being used for violence well before Under the Gaslight.
In fact, trains in general were controversial. Nineteenth century periodicals are jam-cram-packed with think pieces discussing the dangers of railroads well before the track-tying boom. One particularly colorful 1852 op-ed published in Virginia referred to trains and other mechanized forms of travel as cannibals and “insatiate land sharks.” Trains are often viewed as cute or benign these days, with cost and environmental impact being the main sources of debate, but their history is very bloody indeed, so train-related violence cannot be blamed entirely on pulp fiction and melodramas.
There were constant reports of horrific accidents but my research was concerned with homicide specifically and I am sorry to say that there was plenty of that as well. There are countless examples prior to 1867 but two of them include the 1855 case of a Pennsylvania farmer who was robbed, beaten and left for dead (but not tied) on the railway tracks, as well as the 1857 North Carolina case of a body being left on the tracks in hope that everyone would assume a murder was merely a railroad accident.
I was unable to locate smoking gun evidence of someone being tied to the tracks for the purpose of murder prior to 1867 but we do not have access to all periodicals, it may not have made the news for various reasons and it’s extremely difficult to prove a negative. It’s entirely possible that Under the Gaslight or Captain Tom’s Fright were indeed based on a real-world incident or incidents.
After the act of tying to the tracks became a phenomenon in the wake of Under the Gaslight, there were cases in Indiana and New Jersey of victims being tied alive to the railroad—immigrant men were the victims both times. A tied-to-the-tracks murder occurred in France as recently as 2017.
On a less grisly note, I did find an item from 1860 detailing a California daredevil who coiled himself between railroad ties and allowed a locomotive to pass over him at full speed. The report stated that the young man’s only injury was a slight burn from a hot piece of coal that fell on him. That is very similar to Gloria Swanson’s eventual escape in Teddy at the Throttle. I can’t imagine such a small item published nearly seven decades before was a direct inspiration but similar antics were contagious and likely well-known.
(It’s also worth nothing that Gloria’s self-rescue would likely preclude it from being considered a true railway scene in the legal sense, per the Daly plagiarism suit. I love that there is a legal definition for railway scenes.)
Teddy at the Throttle is a good Swanson-Vernon vehicle and it was a hit when it was first released. It’s cute and I love Teddy but I do think part of its popularity is due to confirmation bias. It looks the way most people think all silent movies should look and when it is viewed without historical context, it can inadvertently reinforce the notion that silent movies were all corny melodramas. (Never mind that this is clearly a broad comedy.) This is not the fault of anyone who worked on the film, of course, it’s just a little joke history has played on them.
The term “look at context” is often abused to mean “don’t point out that bad stuff was bad” but this is a case where you really, really need to look at context. Teddy at the Throttle is a cute sendup of old timey melodrama, which hadn’t been taken seriously in at least fifty years at the time. Swanson and Teddy are particularly charming and remember this very important point: Gloria rescues herself.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD and Bluray.
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