The movies began with “The Great Train Robbery,” (1903) a film that lasted all of ten minutes and gave birth to our fascination with the flickers. It also began a relationship that blossomed in Hollywood’s heyday of trains and the movies.
“It’s a taxi!” Audrey Hepburn incredulously remarks to Gregory Peck in “Roman Holiday” (1953), because she has never ridden in one before, to which he sarcastically replies, “It’s not the Super Chief.”
The Chief and the Super Chief brought many actors to Hollywood, and the Super Chief was featured in the film, “Three for Bedroom C” (1952), but many, many films contained a scene or two on the “magic carpet made of steel” about which Arlo Guthrie later sang.
Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake hop a boxcar as pretend hoboes in “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941). Later they get to leap off the moving train. The Three Stooges enjoy slightly better accommodations in “Movie Maniacs” (1935) where their boxcar carries furniture and props bound for Hollywood. They sleep in a large bed, and Curly cooks their breakfast on a working stove. Despite the usual nonsense of the Stooges, Moe gets to say the most sensible thing anybody probably said in the old movies. Curly asks, “How we gonna get in pictures? We know nothing about movies.” To which Moe replies, “There’s a couple thousand people in pictures don’t know nothing about it. Three more won’t make any difference.”
“White Christmas” (1954) includes a famous scene of the four principals, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye, and Vera Ellen in a dinning car traveling from Florida to Vermont as they sing about “Snow.” Director Michael Curtiz transforms a static scene to one of seeming Busby Berkley-like movement as they turn a handkerchief, a napkin, and some parsley into a snow-covered hill, with quick shots on all their faces and we see their booth from several angles. It is the most movement in a musical number you could get with all the actors sitting down.
“Since You Went Away” (1944) (see blog entry April 19, 2007 ) of course has the famous scene of Jennifer Jones chasing after the train as she bids goodbye to her boyfriend, but there is a quieter, more meaningful scene in the film as the mother and daughters travel wearily in an overcrowded train at night. We see several servicemen on board, including an amputee. We see refugees, including a young European girl who describes their destitution living under Nazi occupation, and she shudders as the conductor walks by because he is wearing a uniform.
Here Claudette Colbert and Jennifer Jones talk with the elderly woman who tells them her granddaughter was a nurse at Corregidor. The train gives us a sense of being moved along, without our will, to some unknown destiny, and a claustrophobic sense of camaraderie.
A train provides the plot device of a woman pretending to be 12 so that she won’t be charged the price of an adult fare in “The Major and the Minor” (1942), a solution which Ginger Rogers then has difficulty extricating herself from for much of the film.
When “The Thin Man Goes Home” (1944), he goes home on a train, but their dog Asta is caught protruding from Myrna Loy’s coat and must be sent back to the baggage room.
A train provides the honeymoon to Niagara Falls and a musical number from the upper and lower berths of a sleeping car in “42nd Street” (1933) as we “Shuffle Off to Buffalo.”
Joseph Cotten attempts to kill Teresa Wright in “Shadow of Doubt” (1943) (see blog entry: July 2, 2007) by shoving her off a train, with unexpected results.
Trains had the unusual juxtaposition of both being the everyday workhorses of our society back then, and at the same time, representing glamour and freedom from the everyday.
They could also show us the modern technology of our world at the time, or they could open a window onto the nostalgic past, such as in the number, “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” sung by Judy Garland and cast on the train platform, from “The Harvey Girls” (1946).
Can you think of other train scenes?
That’s all for this week. See you Monday.