Monday, May 7, 2012

The Out of Towners - 1970

“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.

(Springfield, Mass, photo by JT Lynch)

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.

(If you look really hard down those tracks heading east you can see Boston.  Look harder.  They're waving at you.  I swear, you need glasses.  You can't see 80 lousy miles?  Photo by JT Lynch.)

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.

Passenger service increasingly became less profitable for the railroads, which were all privately owned before Amtrak. Freight and mail contracts helped pay for passenger service, to a degree, but by the late 1950s and early 1960s, railroad executives wanted to get rid of their passenger service as unprofitable. They were not allowed to just stop it, the Department of Transportation would have had a few things to say about that, so they purposely refused to invest in maintenance and upkeep, they limited service, and cut out amenities. Train travel in the late 1960s, on most railroads, was a far cry from the glory days of the 1930s through the 1950s. Service was unreliable, cars were in disrepair, food was not so great, in an effort by the railroad executives to drive passengers away. They made train travel miserable, so that they could report there was not enough ridership to continue providing passenger service.

Private industry does not always have the public’s best interest at heart. Have you noticed?

Push came to shove, and the American public pulled off a grass roots drive to force the issue in Congress, demanding that passenger service be saved. Congress, fearful of the eventual necessity of “socializing” freight travel, never mind passenger service, enthusiastically responded. Signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon, it was the birth of Amtrak.

The first decade was rough, as a lot of traditional routes had to be scrapped in an effort to focus money and attention on the handful of routes that could be saved. Gone was the City of Los Angeles, gone was the Midnight Special from Alabama to Ohio, gone was the Montreal Limited and a number of routes. Equipment was hodgepodge and funding was an annual battle.

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.

Four decades later, more routes have been added, train cars are climate controlled, quiet, comfortable, and the food is good. Trains connect not just cities in the northeast, but downtowns. Trains reach areas in the Midwest and West that are not easily accessible by airports, or sometimes even by highways. A single high-speed route, the Acela, is top notch and growing in popularity.

Trains are the most economically efficient, and most environmentally advantageous way to move large numbers of people. Though we are still far behind Europe and Asia in the development of high speed rail service and commuter rail, this is where our future lies, because with the rising cost of fuel, and the congestion of highways and airspace, we have no choice.

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.

Which makes Jack Lemmon’s travails in “The Out of Towners” so ironic. This movie was released the year before Amtrak came into being. The movie, directed by Arthur Hiller, written by Neil Simon, shows a grittiness in its urban shots, both in Boston and in New York. We are entering a less colorful, more cynical modern world, yet the grittiness contrasts with how the travelers appear, not just Mr. Lemmon and Miss Dennis, but the sea of extras around them. Take a good look. All the men in suits. The ladies in dresses, and white gloves. More ladies, like Sandy Dennis, are going without hats, and many of the men are, too, but most people still dressed for travel. People in this film are slow to let go of their formality, have not become as inelegant as their train service.

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.”

A laconic red cap with the typical stereotyped “ayuh” New England accent informs them they can catch the train at the next stop in Longview. Back for another cab ride, and they finally get on board the train by the skin of their teeth.

Notice the logo on the side of the train. In this last year before Amtrak, the trains are still privately owned, and this one is the good old New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad. We had a brief visit on this train when we covered “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.

The train is monstrously overcrowded, and they must wait two hours in line to get to the dining car, where all the food is gone. All that’s left is peanut butter sandwiches and nothing to drink except clam juice and tonic water, “But they ain’t cold.”

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.)

The conductor, punching tickets, replies to Jack, with a typical stereotyped New England “ayuh” accent, “This train runs empty six nights a week, ‘cept when the New York airport is fogged in. Then they fly ‘em up to Boston. Then we could use four more cars.”

“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.

The cheerful waiter who seems bothered by nothing, even amused by the chaos, is played by Johnny Brown, whom you might remember from “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-in.”

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)

Many train stations, like the train routes of old, have undergone a renaissance in the past few decades, among them Washington D.C.’s Union Station and the Union Station in Los Angeles.

(Cincinnati - Union Station, JT Lynch photo)

Here’s some shots of the magnificent station in Cincinnati, with its beautiful Art Deco façade and inside, an enormous mural surrounding the dome in vivid colors.

(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)


policomic said...

Thanks for this excellent post. Your point about the (wholly necessary) partial public subsidization of all forms of transportation (roads, airports, etc.) is an important one that is too easily overlooked in simplistic public interest vs. private ownership debates.

Also, you look appropriately elegant in the final photo.

DorianTB said...

Jacqueline, I've loved train travel since I was a tiny tot (heck, I even like the subways in my hometown, NYC!). I remember THE OUT-OF-TOWNERS, including Johnny Brown (who I seem to recall doing the "Here come the judge" gag) and finding it funny in a comedy-of-cruelty way (Jack Lemmon's character was rather pig-headed, if I remember correctly), so your post brought back lots of memories!

I hadn't been familiar with the nefariousness surrounding the shabby treatment of the cross-country trains (not to mention the passengers!), so I especially appreciate your fascinating history behind Amtrak. For the record, when my dear late mom still lived in Florida, Shugie and I always looked forward to taking the train to Mom's house; it was a real highlight of the trip! Thanks for the memories and great pictures, my friend; I look forward to your post about IT HAPPENED TO JANE! All aboard! :-)

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you so much, Policomic, and especially for your last remark. I fear the lack of white gloves and a pillbox hat might have kept me out of the Really Elegant category.

Actually, that's one of the things I like about train travel. If you like to dress up, you can and not stand out because a lot of business travelers do -- I mean those not just traveling somewhere on business, but who are actually working, doing business on the train, in the middle of their workday. It's not like taking a flight where you're better off dressing down to be more comfortable -- both in the narrow seats and the security checkpoints.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Hi, Dorian, I've taken that trip to Florida, too. Nice run. Had a sleeper compartment on that one and one of the nicest car attendants in the world. Treated like royalty.

Like to watch the orange groves going by.

Talking with other passengers in the dining car is one of my favorite things. I recall an elderly woman who traveled back and forth to NYC with the summer and winter, a "snowbird" if she'd flown.

Another thing I like is to watch reunions on the platform, the longer the trip the more emotional the reunion.

Kevin Deany said...

I've never seen "The Out of Towners" but I love trains so I had to keep reading. Loved the post and the pictures of the old time train stations.

In Chicago, they have weekend mystery train excursions, I believe a round trip between Chicago and Milwaukee where passengers interact with actors when a "murder" occurs on the train. One of the passengers is the guilty party and it is up to the passengers and police to discover the culprit. I had a friend take this trip and she said it was a blast.

A great post, Jacqueline, and I'll now be on the lookout for "The Out of Towners."

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, Kevin. The Chicago station is another grand old building, a beautful structure. Unfortunately, I didn't have any really good photos of it.

The mystery train sounds fun. Though some famous classic films feature stories about murder on trains, I invariably recall the two-part "Laverne & Shirley" TV episode, "Murder on the Moosejaw Express." Just thinking of that still makes me laugh.

I hope you can see "The Out of Towners" one of these days.

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

Although Murder On the Orient Express is probably the most famous train mystery, there are others—I've got Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Man in Lower Ten, about a murder and mistaken identity in a Pullman car, on my to-read list. I've even got an idea for a train mystery of my own tucked away in one of my notebooks.

I missed Train Day last year, but I think I'm going to do a train-themed blog post later this week—it's too good an opportunity to pass up!

DorianTB said...

Hey, Jacqueline, Kevin, I think I remember that LAVERNE & SHIRLEY episode! If I remember right, Laverne (Penny Marshall) kept coming up with her own film noir-style narration on the spot,calling herself "the angel with the 'L'"! :-) Funny stuff!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Elisabeth, that Reinhart book sounds great. I may look for that myself. I hope you pursue your own idea for a train mystery. I'd love to read it.

Yeah, Dorian, that's the episode. Shirley came out of the baggage car dressed in a garment bag because somebody stole her clothes. Top secret microfilm and "beware the bald man" and every man on the train bald. I'm still laughing.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Holy spelling errors, Batman! That's "Rinehart". My apologies to her devoted readers everywhere.

Kimberly J.M. Wilson said...

I loved reading this--I am a history professor you know. Anyway, a mild correction regarding the train station in Cincy--we call it Union Terminal. I'm glad you included your photo of the mural. Every time I go there I stare up and just do a circular motion with my body.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks for the correction, Kim. I appreciate it. That is one lovely building, and I'm particularly fond of the history room that has the huge model train setup of actual Cincinnati neighborhoods at various periods in the past. Really neat.

historyonfilm said...

Hi Jacqueline

Thank you for the fascinating post. I love trains and genuinely hate flying, so it was a pleasure to learn about the formation of the national train system in the United States. Have you looked at Hell on Wheels, the AMC show about the construction of the transcontinental railroad?

Take care
Andrew Allen

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Welcome, Andrew, and thanks so much for stopping by. I haven't seen the AMC "Hell on Wheels", but I'm going to keep a lookout for that. Thanks for the heads up.

VP81955 said...

I traveled cross country by Amtrak in September 1996 -- New York to Chicago via the Lake Shore Limited, then Chicago to southern California via the now-defunct Desert Wind (it paralleled the current California Zephyr from Chicago to Salt Lake City, then veered south through Las Vegas, Nev. on its way to Los Angeles). Beautiful ride, wonderful scenery.

Every American should go coast-to-coast at ground level at least once during their lifetime to grasp the size and geography of this country, and how this nation evolved. With the growth of air travel, I think that's something we really don't appreciate anymore, to our detriment as a nation.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

"Every American should go coast-to-coast at ground level at least once during their lifetime to grasp the size and geography of this country, and how this nation evolved. With the growth of air travel, I think that's something we really don't appreciate anymore, to our detriment as a nation."

Magnificent observation, so well put. Thanks.

The Lady Eve said...

Jacqueline, I learned a great deal from this fabulous post - though some of what I learned was not fabulous - namely, that railroad companies intentionally allowed passenger service to completely deteriorate.

Loved your correlation of the story of the transformation of rail transportation with the travel travails of Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis in "The Out-of-Towners."

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks so much, M'Lady. I do love trains, and movies about train travel.

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