Thursday, August 16, 2007

All Aboard - Trains in the Movies

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.


J.C. Loophole said...

Ahh- some great train flicks:
North by Northwest- Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in the dining car is very erotic if you know how to listen to the dialouge. Nobody needs the naughty stuff shoved in our face when there is competent directors, good actors and excellent writing around.
James Bond rode the train through Europe several times and almost bought the farm on the train in From Russia With Love
A more modern funny train movie is the Silver Streak with Gene Wilder, Jill Claybough and Richard Pryor!
Hollywood used the train for all kinds of films for romance, action and adventure- (How about At the Circus, Murder on the Orient Express or Strangers on a Train? the list could go on and on) The train used to be glamerous on celluloid. I remember when I rode my first train (not a Carnival ride, but an actual trip) was a passenger train in Brazil. Boy was I disappointed. I though I was going to be able to sit an elegant place setting in the dining car, meet a beautiful woman who would entangle me, an average Joe, in an international scheme involving money or a painting or something and murder- and only I could stop them because the police were not on the train! None of that happened! Gee Whiz...
On a different note... (if I am remembering the film correctly)I think the best "train" movie that really didn't take place on the train (but the train was central to the story) was David Lean's Brief Encounter.
Great post! This was fun!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Wow, J.C., you've named some great films here, great job!

I know what you mean about expecting movie-style intrigue when you get on a train. I'm the same way. Ships, too. Nothing much ever happens, but I'm always on the lookout. (Sigh.)

SoNSo1 said...

The Lady Eve -- Stanwyck unleashes her plan against the hapless Hopsie while on their honeymoon train ride.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Welcome aboard, Sonso1. Very, very good. Considering I'd recently blogged about "The Lady Eve", it was silly of me to forget that scene. Thanks for throwing that one out to us.

Laura said...

The first two which come to mind:

The raucous partying of the Ale & Quail club and Claudette Colbert crushing Rudy Vallee's glasses on the train in THE PALM BEACH STORY...

The climax of HOLIDAY AFFAIR with Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh's reunion glimpsed through the train windows. (Jack Kelly of MAVERICK has a bit part as the drunken partygoer who gets in their way...)

Fun topic!

Best wishes,

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Welcome aboard, Laura! Dining car is one car down, we're all meeting there for some intrigue.

Those are two terrific examples of train scenes. Thanks so much for your input.

Campaspe said...

I love all train scenes, it's something of a rule of mine. Just saw a honey in "Five Fingers", the Mankiwiecz spy film with James Mason. And "The Narrow Margin" (the original of course) is a splendid train movie, with no soundtrack, just the train noises. I thought it captured the actual discomforts of train travel for the masses quite well.

I wish I could get a tape of an old 60 Minutes segment they did about the (temporary as it turned out) mothballing of the Orient Express. It included a marvelous montage of people popping their heads out of compartments. How I want compartments!

Since you brought up this hobbyhorse you should really see this over at the blog The Art of Memory, it is quite a feat.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Welcome aboard, Campaspe. The porter will be getting your compartment ready directly. Go have a drink in the bar car while you're waiting. There's a spirited discussion and some arm wrestling going on.

Thanks so much for that excellent link to The Art of Memory. What a magnificent list of train films and collection of photos. All you train fans, please go to the link and have a look.

Related Products