“The Out of Towners” (1970) is historically important. Yeah, I said it. Historically Important. Maybe not like the Declaration of Independence, but in its own way it shows us a moment frozen in time, a movie whose plot is driven by cause-and-effect circumstances that -- unknowingly -- will lead to an unexpected future for rail travel in the US.
Those of us interested in history, I mean REALLY interested are not so much fascinated by what happened the day the Bastille was stormed, or the day Pearl Harbor was bombed -- but what happened the day before -- of what it was like in a world about to change We like to look for clues in the wind of what we know happened next. “The Out of Towners” shows us what happened, almost literally, the day before the United States established a national railroad, called Amtrak.
Welcome to our annual love-fest of all things trains as related to movies. This year’s 5th annual National Train Day is this coming Saturday the 12th. Today we’ll have a look at the train sequence from “The Out of Towners”, and Thursday we’ll cover “It Happened to Jane” (1959). Both movies feature Jack Lemmon in starring roles, and both show us what happened to train service in this country in the late 1950s and 1960s to lead to its collapse -- and the final rescue by an (unusually) bipartisan Congress to save the day and save passenger rail service in this country.
It’s a very important story and a modern phenomenon of politics and popular culture. Of course, these movies are not documentaries, so what they reveal to us is largely unintended, which I think makes that revelation all the more natural and valuable. If you really want the nuts and bolts history lesson of a nation that was built on trains and finding itself on the brink of losing them, have a look at the very informative video “Amtrak - The First 40 Years - 1971-2011” directed and produced by Richard W. Luckin, 2011. The first few minutes of this film is currently on YouTube here.
“Run, Gwen, Run!”
“The Out of Towners” is a hoot, start to finish. Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis are a couple from Ohio flying to New York City where Mr. Lemmon is to have a job interview, expecting to be transferred to the New York office of his company. Their travel is disrupted all along the way by the most outrageous incidents. For now, we’ll just stick to the train sequence.
Which is best appreciated when you understand what was happening to rail travel in the 1960s. Passenger service declined for many reasons, but foremost of which:
It was allowed to decay, purposely, by the railroad companies.
Private industry does not always have the public’s best interest at heart. Have you noticed?
All transportation in this country is subsidized by the government. Airports, highways, they do not pay for themselves. There is no profit. They have the benefit of a solid trust fund to support them. Amtrak, however, must fight for funding constantly.
We old movie buffs tend to wax nostalgic about trains as we see them in 1940s movies, but trains are no longer just a nostalgic image. They are the (rail) road to the future.
Their flight to NYC is diverted, because of fog, to Boston. It is night, and Mr. Lemmon needs to be in NYC by early the next morning for his important business meeting. They grab a cab to South Station and try to get the next train to New York.
They just miss it, and one of my favorite lines is when Jack, panting, hollers, “Did you see that train?”
Sandy replies, “I didn’t see anything. I was running.”
“This Happy Feeling” (1958) here. The NY, NH & H had actually merged with Penn Central in 1968, but the Penn Central went bankrupt in 1970, the year this movie was released. It joined Amtrak in 1976.
I once heard a joke, something about clam juice being what New Englanders drink when they’re hung over. I can’t vouch for that. I’ve never had clam juice, and I’ve never been hung over.
(Note guy sleeping in luggage rack to the right. Now that's an overcrowded train.)
“Why don’t you put on four more cars?” Lemmon asks.
“Ain’t got four more cars. Nobody takes the train anymore. Everybody’s in a hurry.”
The state of American railroads in the late 1960s boiled down in a couple of lines of dialogue.
Conductors, I am happy to report, still wear those neat hats and still punch tickets. Some of them still sing, “Worcester-Albany-Buffalo and all points we-est. All bo-a-a-rd!.” You know you’re on a northeast train when they pronounce Worcester properly. I’ve heard it butchered south of DC.
You also know you’re getting closer to New England if New England clam chowder is on the menu. I once had a discussion in a dining car with an elderly gentleman from upper New York state about Manhattan vs. New England chowder. He was for the former. We agreed to disagree.
Check out the regional menus here. Chicken Tortilla soup on the Texas Eagle run. Southern catfish on the City of New Orleans.
We get a look at a less than resplendent South Station in Boston, likewise a run-down, dark and dirty Grand Central in NYC. The stations, like the train service, were falling apart, not maintained by the railroads. Grand Central was due to fall to the wrecking ball, a prize sought by developers, until some New Yorkers, Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis among them, fought to save and restore the Grand Central Terminal. Today, it is as magnificent a train station as you will ever see. (Though it does not currently serve Amtrak, which goes to Penn Station across town. Grand Central serves the commuter lines like Metro North.)
(Washington, D.C. - Union Station, JT Lynch photo)
(Cincinnati - Union Station, JT Lynch photo)
(Cincinnati - Union Station, photo by JT Lynch)
Most of these re-born stations have shops and services, and in the case of Cincinnati, a city historical museum inside. They have become more than just a place to pick up a newspaper or book a ticket.
(Cincinnati - Union Station, photo by JT Lynch)
But Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis trudge through a man-made hell of run-down infrastructure that is as horrifying as it is terribly funny. The future of train travel, or indeed, any kind of travel, looked bleak in “The Out of Towners”. It just goes to show, past is always prelude, but not always revealing of what is going to happen next. What happened next was Amtrak.
Come back Thursday when we discuss “It Happened to Jane”, which shows us the beginning of this era of railroad decline. Jack Lemmon is a bit younger here, much more idealistic, and helps Doris Day fight off greedy railroad executive Ernie Kovacs to save the train that serves their coastal Maine village.
This movie was actually shot in Chester, Connecticut, as well as in Hartford. Visit my New England Travels blog tomorrow for photos of what the locations in the movie look like today.
(The blogger waits to board. Photo by JT Lynch)