We’re going to look at the runaway baby carriage trope in film and find some real-life examples. So set the brakes and let’s get started!
I have made a video for this topic but it is being held up by copyright claim dispute process (along with a few others). My use of the clips being claimed are well within “Fair Use” rights but dispute reviews are slow due to the pandemic, so once the claim is dropped or expires, I’ll post the video here.
On the Stairs
The Untouchables, 1988
The classic runaway baby carriage scene takes place on stairs, the natural enemy of the wheel conveyance. An example, in this scene from the 1988 film Untouchables, one of the characters tries to help a mother with luggage and a wooden* baby carriage get up the stairs before the scheduled shootout begins, unfortunately, sh!t gets real just as they reach the top:
Wooden baby carriages were a popular option when metal was too expensive or rationed, for example during WWII (which would be after the time period of this movie).
The Naked Gun 33 1/2, 1994
This scene was mocked in the 1994 movie, The Naked Gun 33 ½, which upped the ante to a ridiculous level with four runaway baby carriages, plus a runaway lawn mower:
And even one of The Simpson’s “Treehouse of Horror” shorts, in which Homer is a ghost, features a baby in a carriage bouncing down some stairs.
The source of this trope is believed to be the film Battleship Potemkin, produced in 1925 but set in 1905. The film was banned in the UK as Soviet Propaganda until 1957 and held an X rating until 1987, but in 2012 the British Film Institute listed it as the 11th greatest film of all time.
The scene, which is in act four, takes place on the Odessa Steps. The Battleship Potemkin, whose crew mutinied comes into harbour and the people of Odessa have come out to show their support of the mutineers. A band of Cossacks (imperial military) arrive at the top of the stairs and set about massacring the people, while another group of Russian forces kills anyone who reaches the bottom alive. We see a scene of mass panic and carnage, the bodies of the fallen, including those of children, are trampled by the people trying to flee.
Towards the end of the scene, a mother realizes that she cannot escape with the carriage on the stairs. Instead of grabbing the baby and running away with it in her arms, she tucks the baby in tightly, perhaps saying goodbye as she shields the carriage with her body from the Cossack forces. She’s shot in the stomach and as she falls back her body pushes the carriage which begins to bounce down the stairs. In the scene, people see the carriage bouncing down the stairs but there is nothing they can do. The scene cuts before we see the final fate of the carriage or the baby.
There are undoubtedly lots of metaphors for the Russian people represented by the doomed infant and the carriage itself… but I am not clever enough in film studies or Russian history to express them here.
What I have noticed is that the original is tragic, it’s a brutal scene of a massacre. Yet the trope is most often used for comedic purposes, with the baby being saved at the end. It’s a means of artificially amping up the suspense before a satisfactory ending that establishes the characters and usually introduces us to the hero. In Battleship Potemkin the audience (in the film and out) is waiting for a hero to save the baby, but the hero never shows up.
An Issue of Accessibility
Another angle of this trope is that it requires an inaccessible public infrastructure, from our previous examples, train stations and parks. The use of a stroller or prams has the same effect as a mobility disability; they should not attempt, or be forced, to take the stairs.
This isn’t a situation limited to history, laws vary by country, but in the United States, title two of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA, which was passed in 1990) established that public transit must be accessible to people with disabilities. Disabled people must be able to board and disembark without requiring randos helping them and they must be able to access the facilities. This means installing functional ramps, lifts, and elevators for people with mobility issues, which also helps people with strollers.
However, all over the country, there is still (thirty years later) public transit and government buildings without accessible access. Even where there is a veneer of accessibility for ADA compliance, elevators are left in a state of disrepair or are too few, or too small to manage the number of people who need them in a timely manner. And the situation will only get worse with an ageing population.
This isn’t about convenience or preserving people’s dignity and independence, it’s about saving lives: in January of 2019, a mother named Mayalsia Goodson died falling down the stairs trying to access the NYC subway with her child in a stroller. In this case, it wasn’t an issue of an insufficient or broken elevator, there was no elevator at all. People are forced to drag strollers upstairs or find another stop, blocks away, with an elevator, and pray that it’s working then backtrack to where they wanted to get on or off.
Stairs Not Required
Ghostbusters 2, 1989
However, the runaway baby carriage trope doesn’t require a set of stairs. An example is the opening scene in the 1989 movie, Ghostbusters 2, where Dana unknowingly wheels her son’s, Oscar’s, baby carriage through some transparent pink ooze rising from the NYC sidewalk. When she stops the carriage outside her building to talk to the superintendent about repairs, she catches the carriage moving away out of the corner of her eye. When she looks fully at it, it’s still. Then as she reaches for it, it quickly rushes away, careening down the sidewalk, preternaturally avoiding bystander’s attempts to stop it. Fortunately, and as a departure from other uses of the trope: there is no real hero, the carriage stops itself, and Dana is the one to reach her baby first.
In the 1991 film, Hook, Robin Williams plays the adult Peter Pan. In the previous scene, he finds his long-lost teddy bear and in the current scene, he is remembering his infancy and his mother. We see two women sitting on a park bench, in early 1900s clothing. Peter’s mother is telling her plans for Peter’s life and career. Peter decided then that he didn’t want to grow up because it meant he would have to die and so he willed his carriage to roll away, down the hill. The next scene is at night, the carriage flipped over in the background and baby Peter is crying as the rain falls on him. This is how Tinkerbell finds him and takes him away to Never Never Land. (start the video at 4:00)
And there are countless uses of this trope in television that I would never have time enough to tell them all, let alone find clips. Often they are part of MeetCute plot lines. If you have a favourite, please let us know about it in the comments.
In Real Life
For such a common trope, I wondered, are there many instances of carriages/prams/strollers really getting away from caregivers? Surely, if losing control over strollers were as common as they seem in tv and film then no one would put their baby into such a dangerous device.
So I did a search for “runaway baby carriage, baby pram, baby stroller, and baby buggy” on Newspaper Archive and found two actual stories (as opposed to tv guide summaries) featuring “runaway” and some version of a baby carriage: one in Southwall England in 1997 and one in Brooklyn in 1944. But both involved a runaway horse hitting a parked baby carriage and in both cases the babies were fine. Based on this it would seem that the cases of a runaway carriage are either so few or the risk so minor that they don’t make the news.
However, more recently, possibly due to the number of cameras or the rise of social media to share stories, I’ve found many more cases:
In 2012, in Seattle, a runaway stroller crossed an intersection as it passed in front of a dump truck, the driver of which stopped in the intersection to block traffic as he jumped out to stop the stroller and the woman ran from her front yard to grab it as it hit the curb and began tipping. The baby inside: having a great time.
Rochester, NY, 2012
Also in 2012, John Clanton of Zephyrhills, Florida was visiting Rochester NY with his family so two of the children could have specialist eye procedures. He decided to take two of his other children, 8-year-old twins the family adopted from Ukraine who had developmental delays, for a walk in the double stroller. He only looked away for a moment and the stroller got away from him, rolling into the Erie canal and sinking with the children strapped inside. The dad dove in, grabbed the stroller and pulled it up, holding the children in the stroller above the water until help arrived. Both children required CPR, Sam recovered quickly while his sister, Selah, required four months in the hospital.
Brookline, Mass., 2014
In 2014, in Brookline Mass. Rebecca was out jogging when she saw a double stroller containing a toddler and a preschooler roll into the reservoir, as a trained lifeguard she jumped in and rescued the children. In this case, the mother of the children had stopped to chat to a friend and forgot to set the brake then had her back turned to it as it began rolling. In a panic one of the chatting women jumped into the reservoir to help, only she couldn’t swim so Rebecca had three to rescue in the end– it certainly sounds like a comedy of errors. Fortunately, everyone got out safe.
East Liverpool, Ohio, 2019
In July of 2019, a mother in East Liverpool Ohio was walking her baby when she tripped and lost her hold on the stroller, the stroller rolled down the hill to an intersection where another woman bolted from her porch to stop the stroller before it got hit by a vehicle.
Lake Atlanta, Arkansas, 2019
And last August, a mother lost control of a stroller while hiking in Arkansas, she thought she had the breaks on but when the stroller started rolling downhill the mother broke her ankle in an attempt to catch up to it before it fell 40ft down an embankment above Lake Atlanta, getting caught on a tree before going into the water. The 22-month-old’s only injury was a bloody nose.
The smug babywearer would suggest using a baby carrier instead of a stroller. And I can confidently say that no one has ever had to chase down a runaway baby carrier containing a baby (unless the baby is literally running away with the carrier). Advocating baby carriers is not terribly helpful advice during a massacre, or a prohibition-era gangland shoot out at the train station. However, using a carrier is something to consider when you want to take part in an uprising, or if you’re carrying luggage, or will need to use stairs, or when psychokinetic slime is oozing through the pavement or Vigo the Carpathian takes an interest in Junior.
And with an eye to the future: strollers that automatically follow the caregiver or have self-driving technology to know when to stop. Assuming that the rise of the robots doesn’t start with the robots wheeling our young, that kind of technology could be the death knell of the runaway stroller trope. But considering that smart strollers will become ubiquitous far sooner than universally accessible infrastructure, I hope these strollers are equipped to handle stairs because even with the brakes on, gravity will win.
So, if you’re going to use a stroller/pram/buggy/carriage remember to set the brake whenever you stop, consider using a tether if you will be using the stroller in a steep area, and pay attention to the stroller when baby is in it, and for you writers, find an alternative way of introducing suspense and/or the hero, m’kay?
Do you know of other uses of the runaway baby carriage trope? Or have a real-life story about a runaway stroller? Let us know in the comments below.
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