Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Union Pacific - 1939

“Union Pacific” (1939) is a Cecil B. DeMille spectacle on the joining of the transcontinental railroad, making this great big country a little smaller, or as it is said, uniting the country “with a wedding ring of iron”.

No longer did passengers need to suffer the dangers of a prairie crossing in a Conestoga wagon, or round Cape Horn in a six-month sea journey around South America to get to the west coast of the U.S. It seems we have Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea to thank.

Miss Stanwyck plays the daughter of a train engineer on the Union Pacific. She holds court in the caboose as the postmistress for the workers laying track. She reads their letters to Irish immigrants, like Regis Toomey, who are illiterate.

As it is said of her, “She belongs to the railroad, although you’d think the railroad belonged to her.”  She uses an Irish accent in this film, which is pretty credible when she holds onto it, but she seems a bit self-conscious in this movie, as if trying to hold onto that accent is taking all her concentration.  She seems much less natural and relaxed than in other performances.

One of the film’s stunning images comes at the very beginning when we see her standing precariously atop the car of firewood on the moving train, bringing her engineer father, played by J. M. Kerrigan, his dinner pail. They lovingly verbally abuse each other in the manner of Irish families.

Our first glimpse of McCrea is a dramatic ride on horseback to catch up to the moving train, leaping onto the platform.  His character doesn't go through a lot of change or development in this movie, but his low-key heroism is always a pleasure to watch.

Joel McCrea is the other “Captain Butler” of 1939, an ex-soldier from the Civil War now on security duty for the railroad, keeping crooks like Brian Donlevy in order. Robert Preston is McCrea’s old army buddy, who is now in league with the evil Mr. Donlevy.

Preston is years, maybe light-years we could say, away from his future movie stardom as a happy go lucky flim-flam man, but he has his roots here as the charming ne’er do well in a pencil-thin mustache. He competes with Mr. McCrea for Miss Stanwyck’s affections.

One of the fun things about this movie is spotting (or at least reading credits on the IMDb site) all the minor characters and extras who found a job, for only minutes, on this movie. They include Ward Bond, Lon Chaney, Jr., Monte Blue, Will Geer -- who most of us remember more as the grandfather in “The Waltons” television series, Anthony Quinn -- the director was his father-in-law, Evelyn Keyes, and Bert Stevens, who was Barbara Stanwyck’s real-life brother.

Better known character actors like Lynne Overman and Akim Tamiroff play Joel McCrea’s sidekicks. They supply a bit of comedy relief, but with an unusual courage and capability not often granted to sidekicks in the movies. They are shrewd, sensible, and protect McCrea’s back on repeated occasions. He would be dead several times over if it weren’t for them.

Henry Kolker plays the crooked banker whose plans to scuttle the Union Pacific provide much of the plot. He played a lot of bankers, and you might remember him as Katharine Hepburn’s stuffy banker father in “Holiday” (1938).

Nameless are the scores of real-life Navajos playing the Indians who contemplatively watch the smoke-belching iron horse tear across the wide open landscape, who in other scenes, attack the beast with ineffectual courage against the passengers who fire at them with rifles. In a one scene they wreck a train and pillage its contents, causing anxiety for McCrea, Stanwyck, and Preston, who are trapped inside trying to hide. The idea that these three could send a Morse code message by tapping an electrified wire on the barrel of a shotgun pre-dates any of “MacGyver’s” antics by decades.

I’ll not do a play-by-play on the plot. Cecil B. DeMille was a showman, and what is most powerful about this film are the showman’s images, not necessarily the story (which has so much action and so many arcs it seems like a several-part serial shown all at once). We pretty much know who the good guys are, who the bad guys are, and in the mire of stereotypes, there really aren’t too many surprises.

Oh, the train wrecks are startling, but not really surprising. I think we expected them.

The images tell stories all on their own, quite apart from the plot. Those Native Americans watching the train thunder by, the one warrior on his pinto pony that rears up at the precise moment. It reminds one of those 1940s or 1950s magazine advertisements for the Santa Fe “Chief”.

Though the movie was filmed in many western locations, much of the interior work in the cars was obviously shot in the studio, though the rear-screen projection of the desert with distant rocky spires and buttes that slides on by us out the train windows is done pretty well. The train cars rock and sway as Barbara Stanwyck walks through and tenderly replaces the bonnet on a sleeping woman, and the top hat on a snoozing gent, careful to tuck his train ticket in his hatband.

The scene with the heard of bison roaming around Stanwyck’s and McCrea’s solitary handcart looks a bit more artificial, technically. Unlike the Sioux that look so picturesque watching the train from their ponies, there is no sense of foreshadowing of doom for the bison, though we know most of them were decimated by white hunters shooting them for sport, often right from trains.

There is instead the distasteful scene when one of Donlevy’s henchmen, played by Harry Woods (not Robert Barrat, thank you Caftan Woman), takes up a bet with Anthony Quinn that he can shoot an Indian for sport out the window of the train.

The warrior who rides along the train waves, and we see him smile, as if he is playfully challenging the train to a race. The bad guy takes his rifle, and, shockingly, murders the happy rider instantaneously. There is much less destruction in this instant than the later train wreck(s), and yet it is more heartbreaking. We hear the sounds of shock and anger from other passengers, the disdain over their complaints from the bad guys, “What’s one more dead Indian, more or less.”

Joel McCrea slugs it out with the murderer, while his sidekicks keep boss Donlevy and the other henchman at bay. Mr. Tamiroff is pretty handy with a bullwhip.

The murderer falls off the train platform. We see him roll in the dirt, and the train pulls off into the sunset, becoming smaller and smaller while the land gets bigger and wider, with the lone figure standing in the foreground. He is made small and insignificant in the shot, now that the train has pulled away, and tension builds as he is also probably in danger from the warrior’s tribe when they catch up with him, alone and unprotected.

The train is a world unto itself, and when it leaves in the distance, it takes civilization, protection, and companionship with it. But, the is not a very comfortable world, the hard train seats, the soot and smoke, the days on end of riding a swaying, narrow wooden box across an enormous wilderness.

The train heads for “end of track” where still another world is set up. Donlevy’s gambling house and saloon is there to lead the track workers astray. The supplies for track building, and everything needed for a temporary town, are hauled in, and Stanwyck sets up her post office in the caboose. End of Track is like Oz, but a whole lot less pretty and dream-like.

Back to the train wreck that imprisoned McCrea, Stanwyck, and Preston -- another dramatic image is when Stanwyck turns her back to the gentleman to pray for their salvation, and McCrea points his pistol at the back of her head, ready to do a mercy killing to keep her from getting captured or tortured by the Indians. A very eerie shot.

At the final moment, they are saved -- by another train. Trains are the real heroes in this movie, Joel McCrea notwithstanding. Even the U.S. Cavalry that comes to their rescue arrives by train.

In this world where the train is everything, the most iconic image, of course, is the final Golden Spike scene, where a bit of humor is injected when conniver Henry Kolker, having been forced by Tamiroff and Overman to pay for his evil deeds by driving spikes with a sledgehammer until he’s surprisingly gotten very good at it, does the honors.

The two trains meeting nose to nose is as familiar as any image we have of 19th century America, of the West, and of the post-Civil War era when uniting North and South seemed more troublesome than uniting east and west. The throng of people climbing on the engines, the dignitaries in their top hats, the photographer and his bulky camera on a tripod to catch what everyone at the time knows is going to be the most historic event of their lives.

I first remember seeing this movie when I was quite young, perhaps as young as 8 or 9 years old, and as the movie played, tracing with my finger the route of the Union Pacific on a map of the U.S. Some place in Nebraska called Omaha to another place in Utah called Ogden, about four inches away. I sat on the floor with the coffee table as my desk. I think it was a Saturday afternoon, and I can still recall the play of afternoon sunlight, with one strong beam splashing on the map from the window behind me, so strong a light I could see the dust in the air.

I understood nothing of the history or the politics in the plot of the movie (even Ulysses S. Grant shows up at one point), but the images were easy enough for even a child to grasp. Maybe that’s what Mr. DeMille really excelled at, a simplified but still dramatic image. Most of his epics have more splash than depth, but they are eyecatching.

This post is part of our celebration of National Train Day, this Saturday May 7th. The train has an unusually iconic place not just in our history, but in classic films. This movie, throughout the jumble of carnival showmanship, imagines how important the train was to a 19th Century America with growing pains. It also shows Hollywood’s love of the train as a set, as a metaphor, and as a plot device.

It ends with a swell of patriotic music and a shot of a modern streamliner roaring past the camera.

Trains would continue to be important to America in the first half of the 20th Century, and to the movies for the first several decades of the film industry. Come back Thursday when we’ll have a look at “The Narrow Margin” (1952), which shows the other end of the romantic timeline of the train in American history and American film. It’s a sleek, modern train, faster and more elegant. There are no pioneers on this trip, even though it’s heading west to California, but there is plenty of danger, and almost all of it is on board.

And have a look here for National Train Day this coming Saturday.



Thanks! I'm sure now, I've seen that film as a kid. I like McCrea (1936 and 1943 with Jean of course) and actually Barbara too -- anyway I haven't got enough films with Barbara. So some of these days I'm gonna order that flicker -- is definitely on my list now....

My dad stuffed us kids with American history at table. :)
And after each western he got up saying, "These are the men who made America great!" Well, he most certainly influenced me, so I like this kind of films. But I don't like modern westerns. They're kinda heartless. I dislike modern films anyway. ;)

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, Clarissa, thanks for stopping by. Two of my favorite of McCrea's screen partners were Barabara Stanwyck and Jean Arthur, his quiet strength played well off their abundance of energy.

I agree that a lot of us probably got our first influence on American history from movies like these -- which itself has good and bad points as we've discussed in other posts. Perhaps you're right that the modern westerns lack a sentimentality that made these old Westerns less cold. This one's not a very in-depth study of the era, but it makes an attempt at least to cover a huge event in history.

Caftan Woman said...

"Union Pacific" is one of those movies that satisfactorily fulfills all of your entertainment expectations. It would be interesting to watch it in comparison with John Ford's "The Iron Horse".

It's amazing to think of what a baby Robert Preston was at only 20 years old!

Small note, if you'll pardon me, from an old western fan. It is Harry Woods who plays the nasty who shoots the Native from the train. Robert Barrat is the big tough holding up the laying of track that McCrea has to beat to get the men back to work.

Looking forward to "The Narrow Margin". I think I'll give it a rewatch in preparation. It certainly won't eat into the day the way "Union Pacific" would, for all its' fun and spectacle.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks for the heads up about my mixup on Harry Woods and Robert Barrat. Always glad to have my mistakes fixed.

Re-watching "The Narrow Margin" in preparation for the next post. Dang, a love a reader who does her homework before the next class.


Maybe there is a little resemblance to "The Plainsman"? It has been said very often, Jean's Calamity Jane was very different from the historic Calamity Jane. It isn't easy to like the historic Jane, so it's obvious Jean's WAS different, because one simply MUST love her. So this kind of films could be considered kind of 'improved history' -- or let me call it 'sweeter history'. That must be the reason why we love to 'eat' that. :)

I 'lived' in the past once. It was the early 18th century, and I had even an original newspaper: On April 15, 2000 I really read the paper from April 15, 1700 &ct-&ct. That went on until December 31, 1701. Besides I had a 'pen-friend', who of course died over 250 years ago. She wrote an awful lot of letters. All that was interesting, but very-very tough. The project I have today is much easier to take: Today starts "Broadway Melody of 1936", with Eleanor Powell. Very easy to love that pretty harmless stuff -- much better than plain history. ;)

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Your time travel project sounds interesting. Putting ourselves in the shoes of those that lived long ago, whether through newspapers or correspondence, is always a learning experience.

Since you bring up Jean's Calamity Jane in "The Plainsman" (DeMille liked working with both Stanwyck and Jean Arthur by the way, high praise for both ladies), I'm planning on doing a series at some point this summer on the various movie interpretations of Calamity Jane. Still kicking that one around in my head.

John said...

Superlative post Jacqueline on one of my real favorites from 1939. I think your right about the comic book element but I also believe that is looking at the film from today's perspective. I am a big fan of director Howard Hawks as well as Jean Arthur and Mr. Grant so this film is a great way to spend an evening of adventure and romance. Great dialogue from screenwriter Jules Furthman.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you so much, John. But, I have to disagree that my comic book remark is based on a modern day perspective. At least not entirely. As we can see by the reference to "Smilin' Jack" and "Terry and the Pirates" (comics were much more influential then than now anyway), that this atmosphere of adventure in the jungle is more than just Hawks attempting to document the derring-do of pilots, and certainly no attempt at enlightening us on South America. I do think that the popular culture of comics, of movies, of true-adventure type books such as Frank Buck and Osa Johnson, were very much an influence in the look of this movie.

Just to be clear, I did not mean the comment for a criticism, only a description of the film's adventure setting.

I agree that "Only Angels Have Wings" is a terrific movie, and a great way to spend an evening.

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