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!