Tied to the tracks

The first film to feature a woman tied to train tracks starred one of the earliest female directors and producers, Mabel Normand. She may also have been the recipient of the first pie-in-the-face film gag.

Mabel Normand
Mack Sennett / Public domain

I enjoy tracing the origins of classic film clichés. Like learning about the origins of nursery rhymes or common phrases, it reminds us that so much of the everyday fabric of our society is not timeless or endless, but was thought up at a specific point in the past by specific people. Sometimes that time is not as distant as you’d think (Betty White is literally older than sliced bread; the jump scare dates to 1942). Sometimes the source itself is surprising (“to shut [someone] up” in the sense of getting them to be quiet first appeared in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park; Shakespeare was the first person to write about skim milk).

So, one of the classic film tropes is the villain tying a struggling woman to railway tracks and the hero racing to save her before it’s too late. This particular cliché dates back 107 years, to the 1913 silent film Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life. You can watch the whole thing here:

The mustachioed gentleman chaining the heroine to the railway tracks is played by Ford Sterling, best known for playing Chief Teeheezel, the original chief of the Keystone Cops. No, he’s not playing a police officer in this short. The titular hero, Barney Oldfield, was a real race-car driver playing as himself (he was quite fond of self-promotion).

The heroine is played by Mabel Normand. She had the kind of epic career and life that you’d expect from early Hollywood. Unusually for the time (and, alas, for much of subsequent Hollywood), she not only acted but also directed and produced films. She often played opposite Charlie Chaplin – and she was also the director of the first Charlie Chaplin film to feature his famous Tramp character: Mabel’s Strange Predicament. Normand may have also been the first person on screen to get a pie in the face, courtesy of Fatty Arbuckle in A Noise from the Deep.

Also as you’d expect from early Hollywood, she appeared in the midst of many scandals, including rumours of cocaine smuggling, attempted murder (by her chauffeur, using her pistol), and affairs (with Samuel Goldwyn, the producer and founder of several movie studios). She died young, at 37 years old, of tuberculosis.

One Reply to “Tied to the tracks”

  1. In1926 when Mabel married Lew Cody, she said her age was 28. That would make her 32 when she died. Her “scandals” seemed like a lot of smearing a woman who dared to call her own shots. Chaplin wouldn’t have a career if it were not for Mabel. She was unfairly written out of history.

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