Tied to the tracks

I’m grateful to Bioscope regular Penfold for bringing this delightful short animation by Aidan McAteer to my attention. It is funny, stylish, and will have particular resonance for any weekend train traveller in the UK who has come up against the words ‘engineering works’ …

It’s a mocking idea of a silent film, the kind of silent film that was never made. All those know don’t know silent films know one thing about them – that they featured evil villains who twirled their moustaches then tied a hapless female to the railway track. And all those who do know silent films know that such scenes were hackneyed even before films were invented, and the few films that did show them did so as parody.

It’s an issue that comes up time and time again, so let’s try and pin down the historical truth. The idea of an entertainment where someone is tied to a railway track and is rescued in the nick of time certainly predates cinema. The entertainment that put the idea into the popular imagination was an 1867 stage melodrama written by American playwright and theatre manager Augustin Daly entitled Under the Gaslight which featured a man tried to railway tracks who was rescued by a woman before he could be run over by the oncoming train (Victorian theatre revelled in such stage spectaculars). An earlier play, The Engineer, had some elements that may have inspired Daly, but he put all the right elements together.

Poster for Under the Gaslight, from http://www.josephhaworth.com. Note the male victim and the female rescuer

When the man in peril was changed to a woman in peril in the popular imagination is unclear, but it is no surprise that the transference was made. The play was wildly popular and was re-produced many times, while Daly complained that his big idea was stolen by other theatrical managers who adapted it for their own entertainments. When films appeared, thirty years later, the mannerisms of stage meldorama that had sent shivers up Victorian spines were out-of-date (so no more twirling of moustaches if you wanted your villain to be taken seriously) while the elaborate stage effects were increasingly supplanted by the realism that cinema could provide by filming on location. So, as dramatic films emerged a major sub-genre emerged of the train thriller (including such notable titles as D.W. Griffith’s The Lonedale Operator and The Girl and Her Trust). But the thrill had transferred from the tracks to the train itself. It is the speed, power and modernity of the train that characterises such films, not the notion of tying someone to the tracks which was too much ingrained in outmoded stage conventions to be taken seriously.

That said, the transference was not immediate, because there were at least two films featuring a woman in peril of being run over by a train that played it straight before anyone played it for laughs. Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon’s The Train Wreckers (Edison 1905) features a switchman’s daughter who is pursued by a gang of outlaws, tied to a tree, then when she she escapes (her dog unties the rope) the outlaws knock her unconscious and lay her on the railway track. Happily her boyfriend is a rail engineer who scoops her up from the cow-catcher in the nick of time. So, not exactly tied to the rails, but near enough, and a work very much in the spirit of the Victorian melodrama.

The set-up was still credible in 1911 because it turned up again with Pathé/American Kinema’s The Attempt on the Special, which is very close in action to the earlier film, down the heroine being left unconscious on the rails (rather than tied up) and the assistance from a dog. It is described thus by the BFI National Archive:

Nell, the pointsman’s daughter is tied up by a gang who plan to rob a train. A greyhound, taught to relay messages between herself and her boyfriend comes to her aid and unties her. She sends the dog off with a message for help, but in attempting to escape she is knocked down and left lying on the track. The message is recieved in time to save the girl and the gang is routed.

Ford Sterling with the sledgehammer and Mabel Normand tied in the rails in Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life (1913), from moma.org

The film that established the parodic idea, and which is often used to illustrate it, is Keystone’s Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life (1913), featuring real-life motor racer Barney Oldfield, Ford Sterling as the moustachioed villain and Mabel Normand as the victim. The film plays it entirely for laughs, and the still above shows you everything you would expect to see. Not only is it not the archetypal silent, but it is unusual for its time in parodying dramatic conventions that someone like D.W. Griffith was still half in thrall to. Perhaps 1913 was some sort of a threshold year of a lack of respect for Victoriana, because stage melodrama is similarly ridiculed by the British film Blood & Bosh, made in the same year by Hepworth. It can be seen as a sign of the growing maturity of the film medium as it outgrew its stage origins, and as the twentieth century increasingly outgrew the nineteenth.

Betty Hutton playing Pearl White in The Perils of Pauline (1947), from http://www.dvdbeaver.com

It is commonly believed that heroines being tied to the tracks was a common element in the adventures serials that appeared around this time, such as The Exploits of Elaine (1914), The Perils of Pauline (1914) or The Hazards of Helen (1914-17). Such serials skilfully married the melodramatic conventions of an earlier age with independent heroines that were a part of the modern world. The heroines were put into perilous situations, but they had the resourcefulness to escape from them. Trains feature frequently in such serials, but the heroine is more likely to be tackling danger on the train rather than being passively threatened by it. The Perils of Pauline, often cited as showing Pauline (Pearl White) being tied to a railway track, contained no such scene. Indeed, the only example from a silent serial I have traced with anything like such a scenario is the Helen Holmes serial, A Lass of the Lumberlands (1916). Here a person was a person tied to the tracks, but it was a man, and it was Helen – in true Under the Gaslight fashion – who rescued him. In the 1947 feature film The Perils of Pauline Betty Hutton (playing Pauline heroine Pearl White) does get tied to the rails, but that just shows what had been forgotten about silents in less than two decades. And it was probably from here – a parody of a parodic idea – that the idea as being archetypally silent film took hold, and has remained.

Helen Holmes to the rescue in A Lass of the Lumberlands

Interestingly Under the Gaslight itself was filmed, in 1914, with Lionel Barrymore and Millicent Evans, though the plot synopses I’ve seen make no mention of any trains at all (and the film is lost). Instead it was Keystone who returned to the comic idea established in Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life when they made Teddy at the Throttle (1917), in which Gloria Swanson gets tied (strictly speaking, chained) to the tracks, Wallace Beery is the villain, and it is the quick-witted dog (Teddy) who saves Gloria.

So the idea was around in the silent era, but infrequently so. It was played straight on a few occasions, parodied on about as many, and inverted on at least one occasion. It is anything but a major theme.

But the myth goes on. The villain twirls his moustache. The pianist pounds away furiously as the train grows ever closer. The girl, bound with rope, squirms and screams. Will the hero get there in time? Will the idea that this is what silent films were about ever be shaken off? Probably not. It’s what people need to know who don’t need to know. We’ll just have to live with them.

12 responses

  1. Fascinating article, thanks Luke; for my part, I should say it was James Harrison who started to spread the word about the animation, having seen it at the recent Encounters Festival in Bristol.

  2. Then my thanks to James as well, and I’m glad you like the piece. I’m hopeful that some readers will be able to come up with other examples of women tied to railway tracks – I feel that at least one silent serial must have succumbed to the temptation to do so. Perhaps I should do a follow-up post on sawmills…

  3. That was an excellent animated movie. Thank you for the brief history of people being tied to train tracks. I have a book buried in my closet that contains an essay about trains in Victorian stage plays. I was interested to see that the “Under the Gaslight” poster mentions “Oofty Gooft’s New York Combination.” There was a famous San Francisco Barbary Coast character named Oofty Goofty. I shall have to see if there was a connection.

  4. Blimey! The film is most certainly is getting about. I’m happy to say that the film when on the win a number of awards at the Encounters Animated and Short Film Festival last week. Well deserved I think. I’m hoping to have the film screened as the opening to the Bristol Silents Club Screening in January. With a possible intro by Aidan. Hopefully. Great write up by the way.

  5. For those who imagine music when they see such sensational scenes from melodrama depicted on the silent screen, I could add here a small notice for my forthcoming book on music to 19th-century melodrama. I’ve found the orchestra parts played by the musicians in the pit during Augustin Daly’s 1876 Grand Opera House revival of “Under the Gaslight,” and that is one of the plays included in the book, including a discussion the music for the villain Byke (who does the tying). I won’t give away the musical surprise about the “railroad business,” though.

    Thanks for the wonderful article. I’ll just add that the man tied to the tracks is Snarkey, a one-armed Civil War vet, so that makes Laura’s rescue doubly valiant. I think you’re right that when this type of rescue turned to parody – probably in the 10-20-30-cent popular melodrama houses of the late 19th century – is still shrouded in mystery.

  6. Thanks for the nice words about my little film. What a great article – I knew about Under the Gaslight and was sure I had seen Chaplin do a parody of this seup somewhere, but couldn’t track it down.

    The film is supposed to be a warm tribute to the silent era, certainly in terms of style. It’s always fun to take a cliché and try and play with it, so I suppose it was natural to go for the old tied to the tracks routine – although as you so finely point out, it owes it’s place in the public consciousness more to parody than the actual silent movies themselves. In a way I was trying to make fun of that idea – a parody of a parody of a pardoy!?

    …and, of course, British Rail

  7. Pingback: Free-Talking on Cinema, Movies, and Film (6) | Commentary Track

  8. Well, what do you know, I’ve just found this poster on Wikipedia for a 1917 serial The Fatal Ring, starring Pearl White, and there she is, on the tracks after all…

    The Fatal Ring

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