Damsels on Railroad Tracks

No western romance trope is more cheesy or more famous than the old Damsel on the Railroad Tracks trope. Which is why when I recently wrote a scene that ended with my heroine stuck on a railroad bridge with a train heading for her, I just had to giggle. I promise the scene is ripe with tension and believability. There is no mustachioed villain cackling in the background. And she’s not actually tied to the tracks. She doesn’t even scream for help. Though our hero is still called upon to rush in to make a daring rescue.

So how did this trope get started and how has it endured so long in tongue-and-cheek fashion?

Most people credit the damsel on the tracks to the melodramas of silent movies. However, the first time it appeared with significant impact was on stage in an 1867 play called Under the Gaslight by Augustin Daly. By 1868, the trope reportedly could be found in five different London plays all running at the same time, and remained a theatre staple for decades. But here’s the kicker. In the original story, it is a man who has been tied to the railroad tracks and a woman who rescues him!

This trope became so popular in the theatre, that even though there are no original silent movies that use this plot in a serious fashion, several used it for comedic effect. The most notable of these spoofs was a Keystone Komedy called Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life from 1913. Note the top hat and impressive mustache on the villain. Those become staples of the trope.

Some of you will probably remember watching the classic cartoon The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, either when it aired in the 1960’s or in reruns in the 1970’s like I did. This was a silly spoof that used over-the-top villains to hilarious effect. One of the main characters on the show was the dim-witted yet heroic Mountie named Dudley Do-Right. His nemesis Snidely Whiplash wore a top hat, sported a curvy mustache, and had a tendency to tie damsels to railroad tracks. Hence the trope was preserved for a new generation.

In 1969, Ray Stevens released a song called Along Came Jones which reached #27 on the billboard charts. My husband and I are big oldies fans, so we love this silly song and have even shared it with our kids – successfully perpetuating the trope into the future.

  • Do you remember any of these songs or shows?
  • Besides the top hat and mustache, what are other villain elements that have become cliche over time?

Speaking of damsels and railroads, my Harvey House Brides novella collection, Serving Up Love, is on sale this month for only $1.99.
Grab a copy while you can!

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For those who love to smile as they read, bestselling author Karen Witemeyer offers warmhearted historical romance with a flair for humor, feisty heroines, and swoon-worthy Texas heroes. Karen is a firm believer in the power of happy endings. . . and ice cream. She is an avid cross-stitcher, and makes her home in Abilene, TX with her husband and three children. Learn more about Karen and her books at: www.karenwitemeyer.com.

40 thoughts on “Damsels on Railroad Tracks”

  1. I remember Dudley Do-Right and the scenarios with Snidely Whiplash. I had almost forgotten the Ray Stevens song.

    Scooby Doo was ripe with cliches and villains. Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. So many more…

  2. Oh my, tbis was an excellent blog. I remember Bullwinkle and you are so right, Iโ€™ve seen this in many older silent movies.
    I had no idea that it went as far back as the late 1800โ€™s. I guess the saying โ€œwe learn something new everydayโ€, is so true.
    Thanks for the entertainment. I too love Ray Stevens.

    • Yep. I was thinking about the classic black hat/white hat dichotomy. Even today, I think about white hat and black hat hackers – those who use their computer skills for good and those who use them for mischief and evil. The symbolism is still around.

  3. Oh I remember these things and that song was very popular back then. Ray Stevens came out with a lot of cute songs.

  4. I watched a lot of Rocky and Bullwinkle.

    Villians:

    evil laugh
    disfigured like Quazimoto
    scarred
    wears black clothes, cowboy hat
    from another country Russians, Chinese
    women: sexy /seductive/bitches/narcissistic

    • What a great list of villain chiches, Laurie. I’m never forget one of the Muppet movies I saw where the villain and his henchman said “maniacal laugh” over and over instead of actually laughing evilly. That in itself made me laugh.

  5. Yes I remember the damsel tied to the railroad more times than one in Saturday morning cartoons. I just had to laugh at the silly but yet so entertaining cartoons we did watch growing up. With that big bowl of sugar coated cold cereal LoL ahhhhh the trip down memory lane Thank You for that

  6. I remember the Ray Stevens’ song, and Rocky and Bullwinkle! The good guys almost always wear white hats, and the bad guys were black ones! Once in awhile, that changes!

  7. Karen, I loved Dudley Do-Right and used to watch it all the time when my kids were little. Almost all villains are portrayed with dark eyes and dark hair and usually are thin so my editor won’t let me write a villain like that because it sends the wrong message about people of color. And I can see her point. Also, writing damsels in distress is something we try to avoid in romance. A fun post.

    • I agree about trying to avoid the damsel in distress characters with our heroines, Linda. That’s why I dislike the earlier James Bond movies. Too many helpless ladies. They have evolved to have strong, take-charge heroines, and I think romance has evolved the same way. That’s why after my hero swoops in to save the heroine on my railroad bridge, she turns around and saves him right back. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Thanks, Charlene. I think Ray Stevens was more of an top forty oldies singer than a true western singer, but he certainly had some funny songs. You should look up Guitarzan, too. It was a play on Tarzan and Jane. ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Loved your blog, Karen! I remember all those things! Fun to think about them again this morning. I loved all those old things – ah, childhood! Whether the villains are old or new, it seems I remember the music in the background or their attire and, of course, whether they got the girl or guy in the end!

  9. In an episode of Longmire the evil villain chains a young woman to the tracks and of course the train is coming when Walt and his deputies arrive. It wasn’t played in a comedic way but I laughed remembering all those old movies and cartoons where it was part of the comedy.

  10. I love this post. And the pictures are fantastic. I loved Rocky and Bullwinkle. Watched them a lot. I remember a number of older movies where they put either a lady or a man on the tracks. And one I remember they put tied a cow to the tracks. Villian’s seem to have a lot of things in common: nasty, something in their past makes them the way they are now, they tend to wear dark clothing and they have an evil laugh

  11. I remember the cartoons from my childhood. The Lone Ranger is another one with cliches. The cartoons were in my youth. I saw the Lone Ranger in reruns. I loved them. Thanks for the reminder of good times. Daddy and Bugs are in that genre too.

  12. Karen if you arenโ€™t familiar, check out the Disney show Phineas and Ferb – Dr. Doofenschmirtz is a silly epitome of many villian cliches which makes it hilarious. Donโ€™t tell my son (who is now 21) but I occasionally will still watch an episode for a good laugh!

    • Yes! My kids grew up on Phineas and Ferb. We loved that show! And I loved Doofenschmirtz and all in -enators. LOL! He is a perfect example of the cliched yet hysterical silly villain. “Curse you, Perry the Platypus!” ๐Ÿ™‚

  13. I remember all of it, I’m so old, Karen! What I love is how the original trope started in Britain and it was the guy tied up on the tracks. Great twist!

  14. I remember watching a “Making of Silverado” bit where at the shoot out, the camera angle showed the church behind the good guy and the vast wasteland behind the nefarious villain. I couldn’t help but think of the “villain music,” too! Can’t wait to see how you make it all fit together!

    • How fascinating! I don’t think I ever would have picked up on subtleties like that while watching the movie, but I bet they played on my subconscious. Love that tidbit, Kathleen!

  15. It has been a long time since I heard that song. I never did see this particular cartoon version of it.
    For bad guys, they usually have a black hat or dress in dark colors, bad teeth, and scruffy beard or stubble. For “better class” bad guys, they are well dressed and slick. Sometimes the used car salesman stereotype and sometimes the dishonest businessman stereotype.
    I enjoyed Rocky and Bullwinkle, even though I was in college by then. The ridiculousness of it all, villains included, was the charm of the show. I actually can’t remember watching any show that had the heroine or hero tied to the railroad tracks. Stuck on a train trestle or having their car stuck on the tracks, yes.
    Stay safe and healthy.

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