MY HERO! OR, SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME
By E. M. Sanchez-Saavedra
A surefire ingredient in any melodrama is the RESCUE scene. From the Perils of Pauline to the latest Hollywood action/adventure blockbuster, audiences never tire of the heroine dangling over a crumbly cliff while Our Hero clings to her hand with an iron grip as he draws her to safety. Obviously, the basic cliffhanger situation easily become stale and couldn’t be used in all situations. Fortunately for novelists, our planet and human ingenuity provide plenty of danger when handy cliffs or tall buildings are lacking. The heroine could be rescued from a “towering inferno” or from a sinking ship, a mad dog, an anarchist bomb, or falling from a bridge.
As transportation technology advanced beyond human walking speed, mishaps with horses, streetcars, railroads, steamboats and automobiles became commonplace. Pop culture of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries accurately reflected these new anxieties. Runaway stagecoaches, carriages and locomotives provided novelists with plenty of scope for putting their characters into harm’s way and staging daring rescues. The clash between skittish horses and newfangled bicycles or autos became a staple of popular storytelling. The other principal rescue situation involved the heroine’s abduction by the villain and his minions and Our Hero’s superhuman chase and conflicts with the evildoers.
Clever pen-jockeys could combine and recombine elements and add new twists. Most early techno-fiction yarns were essentially rescue melodramas, with the addition of a steam-powered robot, airship, submarine or land rover to enable Our Hero to get the jump on the bad guys. If the hero’s auto or bike causes the lady’s horse to bolt, the same vehicle allows him to overtake the “maddened beast” and avert disaster. By transporting the cast to an exotic locale, the urban carriage runaway could morph into a stagecoach with a wounded driver, or a Russian sledge pursued by wolves.
The array of villains, both human and non-human (including gorillas, Martians and legendary monsters), was legion, but all of them had the same objective: getting the heroine into their vile clutches. In keeping with prevailing social attitudes, the human no-goodniks were often the embodiment of equal-opportunity racism. Native Americans, Latinos, Africans and Asians were the most common choices, although South Sea cannibals, leering European noblemen and any random group of recent immigrants would do in a pinch. (When the villain was a white, Anglo-Saxon protestant, he generally belonged to the lower social classes and spoke ungrammatically, employing slang.)
The artists who illustrated these melodramas often chose the rescue scene for its dramatic and artistic possibilities. Story papers and dime novels featured rescues on their front covers and left a great legacy of action-packed images. Tip Top Weekly and its heroic Merriwell brothers may hold the record for lurid rescue iconography, although Work and Win’s Fred Fearnot ran them a close second.
Submitted for your delectation is a gallery of rescue images at their finest. Enjoy!
Continue to Part II HERE