Wednesday, November 21, 2018

A Silent Film Rule: Pies Go Splat But Damsels Never Do

There is a Santa Claus.  I feel the need to reassure you of this fact before I undertake today's terrible task, which could potentially ruin two long-cherished myths of film history.

First, Sandi Toksvig wanted to make it clear on a recent episode of QI that silent film melodramas did not feature villains tying darling young ladies to railroad tracks.  Her specific words were:
That image that we have in our heads of the damsel being tied to the tracks and then rescued by a handsome man never, ever was part of silent movies.  It did not exist.  There are no known examples of this particular scenario in mainstream silent drama.  Only in the comedy spoofs of it.

But, wait, we can swoop in now and rescue this film trope damsel from imminent death.
Helen Holmes in The Death Train (1915).

Silent films became known for the railroad track scene at an early time.  In 1923, Elsie McCormick of Shadowland magazine describes inhabitants of China "prepared to spend a pleasant evening watching beautiful American ladies tied to railroad tracks by dark-browed gentlemen."

Bad guys knock a young woman unconscious and lay her across railroad tracks in Edwin S. Porter's 1905 melodrama The Train Wreckers.  Stuart Holmes ties Irene Boyle to railroad tracks in a 1913 Kalem thriller, The Open Switch.  Lionel Barrymore ties William Russell to railroad tracks in Biograph's 1914 film version of Under the Gaslight.  Florence Gray comes to the rescue when Jim Norton is tied to railroad tracks in Thanhouser's 1914 Million Dollar Mystery serial.  Rex Downs ties Helen Holmes to a rail line that spans across a lofty trestle in The Death Train (1915).  In The Dynamite Train (1915), Helen Gibson stops a runaway train before it strikes a man who was beaten by criminals and left lying unconscious on the tracks.  Helen Holmes unfastens Leo D. Maloney from railroad tracks in A Lass of the Lumberlands (1916).  The Moving Picture World described the opening of the eighteenth chapter of Universal's 1918 serial The Bull's Eye ("The Runaway") as follows:
Cody (Eddie Polo), tied to the tracks, struggles at his bonds and as the train reaches him kicks out the board over the culvert and drops down between the ties.  The train passes over him, cutting over his bonds.
Villainous lady Mae Busch ties Claire Windsor to railroad tracks in Nellie, the Beautiful Cloak Model (1924).  The Film Daily reported, "It wasn't considerate of the Capitol audience to laugh when Claire was tied to the 'L' tracks and the express train came within an inch of decapitating her pretty blonde head.  But they seemed to enjoy the thrill of this and other bits, nevertheless."  A gang of robbers tie the hero (Lefty Flynn) to railroad tracks in The No-Gun Man (1924).  A reviewer with Exhibitors' Herald reassured exhibitors, "He is saved by [a] girl in the nick of time."
A Lass of the Lumberlands (1916)
Mack Sennett mocked this melodrama trope in Barney Oldfield's Race for Life (1913). . .


. . . and Teddy at the Throttle (1917).

This is the scene from The Train Wreckers.

Not all examples of this scene have been identified.  A director, William F. Haddock, described working on a "railroad story" in which a dummy was tied to a train track.  In 1915, Vitagraph star Maurice Costello told Motion Picture News, "I think the worst thirty seconds I ever spent in my life was when I was doing a scene where I was supposed to be tied to a railroad track and just get free in time to escape.  Deon [?] was supposed to be the engineer, while the real engineer was hiding in the engine cab.  In my pretended struggle to loosen my bonds, I really tangled them, and the director, seeing that something was wrong, called to Deon to stop the engine.  He had forgotten how!"

Toksvig declared it a feminist victory that the stage melodramas from which this trope originated featured a woman rescuing a man from railroad tracks rather than a man rescuing a woman.  Because, evidently, this proves that women are better than men. . . or something. 

The serial queens of silent films were always getting into trouble on trains.  Take a look at Helen Holmes in her Hazards of Helen serial.

Here's Holmes again in the 1915 episode "A Test of Courage."

But, for all of her derring-do, she could not avoid getting tied to railroad tracks.

But, as previously noted, men also had a problem in this area.  Here is photographic proof.

Million Dollar Mystery (1914)
The Dynamite Train (1915)
According to The New York Clipper, the Pennsylvania State Board of Motion Picture Censors took action in 1916 to ban scenes that featured "heroines tied to railroad tracks bravely awaiting destruction beneath the wheels of the onrushing limited."  But these were not the only scenes that concerned the board.  One of the censors, Dr. Ellis P. Oberholtzer, told a Pittsburgh Gazette-Times reporter, "Just recently we ordered out of pictures scenes showing men strapped to logs to be mixed up in moving saw mills, tied to railroad irons in front of moving trains, held in traps for wolves to devour, or to be stung by serpents, buried alive, etc."

Film historian Lea Stans pointed out in a recent Facebook post that, over the years, writers have greatly exaggerated the frequency of pies being thrown in Mack Sennett's Keystone comedies. 

Without question, critics of the period claimed to have seen many pies thrown in Keystone comedies.  A writer with The Moving Picture World spoke emphatically of the Keystone comedians' "strenuous custard pie days."  Gene Fowler devoted a vague and rambling chapter just to the pie gag in his 1934 Sennett biography "Father Goose."  He wrote, "As in golf, a man must keep his eye on the pie.  As in baseball, you must play the pie; don't let the pie play you.  As in boxing, you must lead with the pie."  Fowler thought that the greatest compliment that he could pay to Keystone star Roscoe Arbuckle was to call him "master pie-thrower."  The subject of pies often came up in discussion of Keystone leading lady Mabel Normand.  Mary Pickford said, "[A]s for dodging Keystone pies, there was no one ever on the screen who could do it more gracefully and with as much poise as Mabel."  Sennett said, "A million laughs hung on [Normand's] aim as the custard wobbled in a true curve and splashed with a dull explosion."  One journalist wrote, "Anna Luther hasn't missed a thing since she has been with the Keystone Company at Edendale. She says that she is ready at any time to make an affidavit that she has stopped every pie and egg that has come her way — with her face." One critic spoke highly of Charlie Chaplin's The Cure (1917) simply because it did not feature Chaplin throwing a pie.  He noted that Chaplin, who is "[usually] the one to do the pie-throwing and other mischievous pranks," changed his ways to be more sympathetic to the audience.  We know Chaplin did a lot more than throw pies in the films that preceded The Cure.

Film historians are only aware of the pie gag appearing in the following Keystone films:
That Rag Time Band (May 1, 1913)
A Noise from the Deep (July 17, 1913)
A Quiet Little Wedding (October 23, 1913)
A Muddy Romance (November 13, 1913)
Fatty Joins the Force (November 24, 1913)
A Fatal Flirtation (May 25, 1914)
His Trysting Place (November 9, 1914)
Gussle's Day of Rest (March 29 1915)
Sennett authority Brent Walker wrote in "Mack Sennett's Fun Factory," "In truth, the 'pie in the face' itself was relatively a rare occurrence in Keystone and Sennett films, used more frequently in homages to Sennett's work than in the films themselves."

Take a look at this food fight from La disparition d'Onésime (1913).

A wide variety of objects were thrown about in a slapstick comedy.  One journalist wrote that they often heard an "audience roar with laughter. . . while viewing a Keystone egg, pie or brick-throwing contest."  Peter Milne of Picture-Play Magazine acknowledged that slapstick comedies featured "[t]he hurling of a custard pie, a cream puff, a brick, a dish of ice cream [and] a piece of dough."  But most others just expected a simple reference to a pie fight to say everything they had to say about the messy and uninhibited violence in a slapstick film.  It was all pretty much the same.  In Shoulder Arms (1918), Chaplin handles a wedge of limburger cheese much like a pie when he rears back with it and throws it into the German trenches.  The cheese splats no differently than a pie when it strikes a German officer in the face.  But, rather than list the cream puff, the ice cream, the dough, etc., it was easier to refer to the most spectacular and most effective comic missile as single representative of all the rest.   A writer could simply denounce slapstick by asking, "Is it really funny to drench an old man from a firehose or throw a soft mince pie in a pretty face?"  A reference to a pie fight served as useful shorthand for all slapstick business.

Messy battles existed in the British music hall before the first pie fight.  The British called this "slosh comedy."  But neither food nor slosh is needed in these scenes.  This pillow fight from I Love Lucy resembles a pie fight.

In most instances, only one or two pies were thrown in a scene.  But we know of several films in which a large number of pies were launched.  A Quiet Little Wedding reportedly includes a massive pie fight among wedding guests.  Lloyd Hamilton leads a pie free-for-all at a lunch counter in Rushing the Lunch Counter (1915).  Chaplin bombards a theatre stage with pies in A Night in the Show (1915).  Chaplin and Eric Campbell engage in a merciless pie war at a movie studio in Behind the Screen (1916).  Charles Dudley starts a pie fight at a lunch counter in A Job for Life (1917).  A group of sunbathers engage in a pie fight on a beach in Surf Scandal (1917). 

Chaplin certainly knew how to stage a pie fight.

A Night in the Show (1915)

Behind the Screen (1916)

One last point needs to made on this subject.  The trade journal writers did a poor job of logging the incidents of pie battery in their summaries of the Keystone comedies.  The information that we have comes, for the most part, from the careful study of museum prints and collector prints.  No prints are known to survive for many of the Keystone films.  Film historians could never determine how many pie assaults were enacted in the missing films.

Chaplin's actions in Behind the Screen's great pie fight are more than a little similar to Lloyd Hamilton's actions in a grand food fight that was staged months earlier for The Great Detective (1916).  Like Chaplin, Hamilton approaches the battle with the attitude of a general carrying out a military campaign.  Like Chaplin, he crouches behind an overturned table to remain shielded while he throws food at his opponents.   I remember (but could be mistaken) that, like Chaplin, Hamilton uses binoculars to survey the scene.  Hamilton's opponents take refuge behind their own overturned table and take swift and decisive action to return fire.  Hamilton pushes his table forward to advance on his opponents.  His opponents maneuver forward with their own table.  The tables are soon moving around the food-strewn room like two tanks on a battlefield.

The trade periodical writers also suggested that it was Keystone that started the "pie in the face" trend in films.  The fact is, though, that this gag was firmly established in films before Sennett opened the Keystone studio in 1912.

In the 1909 Méliès comedy A Tumultuous Elopement, a hungry tramp breaks into the Darling home for food.  The tramp is leaving with a pie and jug of cider when the homeowner, Mr. Darling, comes upon him and chases after him.  The tramp responds by throwing the pie into Mr. Darling's face, which is forceful enough to knock the homeowner off his feet.

Rudolph Dirks and Harold H. Kerr's comic strip brats, The Katzenjammer Kids's Hans and Fritz, brought their usual pranks to a series of comedies produced by Selig.  The notoriously mischievous boys demonstrated a fine appreciation of the pie-in-the-face prank in the 1912 comedy They Go Tobogganing.  Moving Picture World reported, "The kids greet their father with well-aimed throws of the pies baked for the occasion, and they are rewarded with the usual spanking."

Edgar Kennedy in Lemon Meringue (1931)

I provide other examples of early pie mischief and pie violence in my book "The Funny Parts."

The pie-in-the-face gag was passé by 1922.  Peter Milne wrote in his 1922 book "Motion Picture Directing: The Fact and Theories of The Newest Art": "[P]ies are seldom used in a comedy studio these days, except in the dining room for purposes of conventional consumption."

Shivering Shakespeare (1930)
Perhaps, the pie fight is something so impressive that it can easily become exaggerated in the viewer's mind.  If the sitcom Friends featured three pie fights in its ten-season run, we'd still be talking about "all of those pie fights in Friends."  Television critic Ken Tucker would have by now praised Matthew Perry for being a "master pie-thrower."  The pie has that affect on people.


This article was wholly inspired by Lea Stans' Facebook post.  Ms. Stans has been doing great work examining silent films on her Silentology website.  Her research skills are exceptional.  I thank the great Steve Rydzewski for contributing information on A Tumultuous Elopement and They Go Tobogganing.

Reference sources

"The Screening of a Snake," Film Fun (April, 1916).

"Spit-Reel Notes for Theater Men," Motography (December 23, 1916).

Elsie McCormick, "On the Watermelon Seed Circuit," Shadowland (June, 1923).

Peter Milne, "Sure-Fire Stuff," Picture-Play Magazine (October, 1919).

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