Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - CONFERENZE, Women and the Silent Screen Conference

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Rescue Me: An Analysis of the "Damsel in Distress" in Early Pirate Films
Lynne Elizabeth Bond

Last modified: 2010-05-28


The contemporary concept of the melodrama as a genre affiliated with the home and rooted in emotionality is one that may be contested. The characteristics of melodrama cross genres and in actuality may be found in more masculine genre films, such as action-adventure, Westerns and crime. Ben Singer’s work on the interpretation of melodrama in the silent era points out that melodrama was much more synonymous with action than with emotionality. One of the subordinate characteristics in these masculine genre films is that of the "damsel in distress,’"a stock character which comes right out of the melodramatic tradition. While not the primary goal of the protagonists of these types of films, the rescue of these female characters often becomes a key component in the plot. In the contemporary "The Pirates of the Caribbean’"movies, a seemingly new vision of the "damsel in distress" is dramatized, one who is much more capable of rescue than in need of being rescued. The question is how new is this vision of women in this type of melodramatic adventure film?

In this paper I propose to analyze the female victim in the specific adventure genre of the pirate film from the first three decades of American cinema. Comparing three films from this time frame -- Peg of the Pirates (1918) written by O. A. C. Lund and W. L. Randall, Dead Men Tell No Tales (1920) written by George Randolph Chester and Lillian Christy Chester, and The Black Pirate (1926) starring Douglas Fairbanks and co-written by Fairbanks and Jack Cunningham -- I plan to analyze the similarities and differences in the characteristics of the "damsel in distress," specifically focusing on what the influence of a woman screenwriter, Lillian Christy Chester, might have been on this type of role. The ultimate purpose of this analysis will be the beginnings of a charting of the evolution of the "damsel in distress."

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