Thursday, May 9, 2013

Danger Lights - 1930 - National Train Day

“Danger Lights” (1930) is an offbeat amalgam of an Arthurian love triangle and a nuts-and-bolts industrial film.  Never before, or again, I suppose, has a gritty steam locomotive or grimy rail yard lit up the silver screen with such erotic passion. 

This Saturday, May 11, 2013, marks Amtrak's National Train Day here in the U.S., and this is our annual tribute to the iron horse in the movies.

To be sure, the train is the star in this show, but it’s supporting players, mere mortals, round out the cast nicely.  Louis Wolheim plays the manager of a Midwest train yard, a great bear of a man who barks orders, beats up hoboes, but with a gentle side he shows to those in trouble.  Unless they’re hoboes.

Robert Armstrong, who we love in “King Kong” (1933) here, and I think last saw in “Dive Bomber” (1941), plays a smart-aleck ex-engineer down on his luck, currently riding the rails with the hoboes.  He’s a feisty troublemaker, but Mr. Wolheim, after punching Mr. Armstrong’s lights out, gives him a job in these early Depression days, and puts him on the road to redemption.  And romance with his girl.

Wolheim’s girl is the much younger Jean Arthur, fresh-faced and lovely as the doting daughter of a railroad man who can no longer work because of an injury.  Louis Wolheim took them in and looked after them when Jean was a growing girl, and now that she’s grown, he intends to marry her.  Until Robert Armstrong complicates matters.

Frank Sheridan is Jean’s da, who is more in love with his benefactor Wolheim than is shy and diffident Jean.  Mr. Sheridan praises Wolheim to the skies, constantly hammers into Jean what they owe to him, and practically prostitutes his daughter for the sake of paying an old debt.

Hugh Herbert has a small but memorable role as a hobo with delusions of grandeur.

We start the movie with a shot of the engine face-on, barreling towards us.  Many shots have us placed on top of the locomotive or on the coal car facing forward, looking over the locomotive to the track ahead of us as if we are riding the shoulders of a great beast.  We enjoy the sensation of movement in this film, the thrill of a fast ride, over narrow trestles placed across deep river gorges, snaking around hillsides and cutting through winding valleys.  It reminds me of Emily Dickinson’s poem, I like to see it lap the miles:

I like to see it lap the miles,
And lick the valleys up,
And stop to feed itself at tanks;
And then, prodigious, step

Around a pile of mountains,
And, supercilious, peer
In shanties by the sides of roads;
And then a quarry pare

To fit its sides, and crawl between,
Complaining all the while
In horrid, hooting stanza;
Then chase itself down hill

And neigh like Boanerges;
Then, punctual as a star,
Stop--docile and omnipotent--
At its own stable door.

The movie was shot on location in the upper Midwest, much of it at Miles City, Montana, and also in Chicago.

Louis Wolheim was about 50 when this film was released (he died the following year), and was known for his beat-up mug that got bashed in when he played college football.  The story has it that Lionel Barrymore helped him out and advised him to try theater, that his ugly mug—or rather, his face would be his fortune, as they say.  He was a success on Broadway in Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape among other hits, and when Hollywood called, this urbane, multilingual former college math teacher made a career of playing Neanderthal palookas.

It’s an interesting aspect of old movies that the real age of the actors is often ignored, as it is in the case of Jean Arthur, who here plays a much younger woman.  In real life, she was 29 years old with already probably 50 or 60 silent films under her belt.  Robert Armstrong is 40 in real life, hardly the up-and-coming hotshot youth he’s playing.  However, Wolheim’s age, in real life 21 years older than Jean, is brought to our attention and is used truthfully and most poignantly in scenes where we see her discomfort at being pressured into a love match with man to whom she is very grateful, but does not love.

Jean Arthur, far from the sassy roles that would be her trademark in the coming decade, here delicately plays a troubled woman caught in painful dilemma.  She is passive, but no less gutsy for being quiet about it, and she grabs our attention for her very stillness in scenes where Wolheim is blustering, Armstrong is chewing the scenery, and Sheridan is making with the silent movie techniques of agony expressed in a claw-like hand clench.  She is the still waters running deep.

Wolheim’s character is presented to us in ways that keep us off balance.  First, he is a work-obsessed tyrant in the rail yard, “We got to keep the trains moving.  That’s our religion.”  He clobbers people who are slow to do what he tells them.  We may grow tired of Papa Sheridan’s constant praising Wolheim to Herculean status, particularly as we see Jean beaten down by that praise, flinching with guilt because she doesn’t love him.  Wolheim’s tenderness comes out when comforting a fellow railroad man whose wife has just died.  It’s a fine scene, and though we may suffer for Jean, we cannot deny that Wolheim is a good man.  A man everyone looks up to, but whose own love for Jean, though certainly genuine, is expressed with all the passion of patting a dog on the head. 

But Wolheim unwittingly keeps putting Robert Armstrong and Jean Arthur together.  He sends Jean down to the roundhouse with a message for Armstrong, where she meets him for the first time.  A lovely shot where Armstrong watches her walk away, delicately stepping across tracks, from the darkness of the roundhouse to the light-filled rail yard. 
Wolheim invites Armstrong to dinner at the house he shares with Jean and her father, and there is a meet cute with Jean bringing the squalling Armstrong a towel when he has soap in his eyes.  Wolheim is unable to take Jean to a company picnic, so he directs Armstrong to do it.  Finally, at the house party where he announces his upcoming wedding to Jean (Jean looks surprised and slightly sick), Wolheim pushes Armstrong to dance with her.

Robert Armstrong and Jean Arthur begin to fall for each other, but knowing the arrangement with Wolheim, each is careful not to express their love, both feel guilty, both owing something to Wolheim, and both miserable.

That the railroad is part of their forbidden courtship, used as a kind of metaphor to illustrate their passion, is fascinating.  At the company picnic, a nighttime affair, Jean and Armstrong watch breathlessly, awed, in the crowd as two locomotives have a kind of tug of war demonstration to see which is the more powerful.  Plumes of steam huff from the engines and sparks light up the night.

When he walks her home, they take a route through the countryside that brings them across a narrow train trestle perched high above a gorge.  The breeze billows her dress as they walk, stepping gingerly over the railroad ties.  It is a leisurely, adventuresome stroll, testing each other’s company.  Then, horror at a moment’s notice, they hear an approaching train whistle and see a light piercing the tunnel ahead of them.  Armstrong pulls Jean to the side where there is a outcropping platform for just such emergencies.  The train barrels past them, inches away, and the wake of night air whips Jean’s dress and her hair.  Mr. Armstrong’s hair stays nicely put, but then that is what a gallon of Brilliantine will do.

The power, the rumble of the train makes the trestle shake beneath their feet, and they suddenly, passionately kiss.  Such is the orgasmic excitement when a speeding train passes within 18 inches of you.  So it would seem.

When the train has passed and all is quiet, Armstrong pulls away from her and walks quickly away, leaving her there, bewildered and breathless.  We see he feels like a heel.

These scenes, by the way, are all location shooting.  The realism is stunning in an era where we are used to seeing more storybook-type controlled environments.

Another great romantic train shot is when Armstrong, at the controls of a train, glances out the window.  We see from our vantage point on the roof of the locomotive, that it slides by a few old houses built near the tracks.  (As Emily Dickinson might say: "And, supercilious, peer in shanties by the sides of roads...")  One is the house where Jean and her father live.  Next, we are inside the house, and Jean is silhouetted against the open windows facing the track.  Again, the train creates a breeze, even from this distance, sifts through her hair and, quietly captivated, she watches the train slide by.  Armstrong blows his whistle, like a mating call.


By the way, he’s pulling a dynamometer car, which is a maintenance car used for measuring a locomotive’s power and speed, etc., and it’s been noted on IMDb and Wikipedia that this is likely the only film in existence of a dynamometer car  for a steam locomotive of this era.

If you’re not as thrilled by that as I am, I don’t want to talk to you.

Mr. Armstrong and Miss Arthur eventually get around to spilling their guts and telling each other how much in love they are, but in the most miserable and guilty fashion.  (They are both half-lying across her bed when this scene takes place, a little pre-Code teasing.)
When a track washout pulls Wolheim away from their engagement party, Armstrong and Jean decide to run away.

It’s raining, pouring, like a Capra movie (only the director here is George B. Seitz and I love how beautifully he films this movie).  Jean and Armstrong, pummeled by the torrent, trudge along the tracks (apparently it never occurs to them to walk on a sidewalk), their raincoats shiny in the warning lights along the track.  Danger Lights.

Armstrong gets his foot caught in a rail switch, and wouldn’t you know it?  A train is coming.

There’s a few frantic moments, and then Wolheim catches up to them.  Jean’s da discovered their hanky-panky and squeals to Wolheim, who has arrived with the intention of killing Armstrong.  No need of course, the oncoming train will do that in a matter of moments.

But as we said previously, Wolheim is really a good guy underneath, and he wrestles Armstrong out of the way in time, only to be hit by the train himself.  Or rather, the dummy dressed to look like him is graphically plowed over.

If you’re not squeamish about that, then you’re surely not squeamish about spoilers.  It’s a little late for that anyway.

However, I’ll spare you the ending, except to say that it involves a high-speed mission of mercy to get Wolheim to the medical specialists in Chicago in time.  Armstrong drives the train, and we get a breakneck ride ourselves.  It’s a real treat to find ourselves tearing all over the Milwaukee Road until we at last pull into the yard at Chicago, and even get a few nice interior shots of Union Station.

I’ve been to Union Station in Chicago.  It’s swell.

It you want to see how the operation turns out, “Danger Lights” is now in the public domain and offered here as a free download on the InternetArchive website.

Let me end with a reminder that train travel is the most economic and environmentally friendly way to move people across this great nation of ours.  Make your next trip by train.  Maybe Robert Armstrong will be at the controls.


I'll be speaking at the Chicopee Historical Society, meeting at the Chicopee Public Library, Chicopee, Massachusetts on Thursday, May 16th with a PowerPoint presentation about topics from my recently published States of Mind: New England. That book will be available for sale at this event.  Also available in paperback here from CreateSpace.



Caftan Woman said...

Happy National Train Day.

You have drawn me to "Danger Lights" the way the sound of a train whistle at night draws my imagination. Will have to fit it in soon.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I forgot to mention, it's also available on YouTube.

Kevin Deany said...

I love train movies and I love Jean Arthur. Why haven't I heard of this one before? Thanks for the heads up on it. I'll definitely be checking it out.

Anne said...

I had no idea Jean did something besides peppy girl reporters etc from later years. I'll be going over to You Tube directly

When you write of these films, you put me on the edge of my seat like a good film itself . This is a gift

Wolheim’s tenderness comes out when comforting a fellow railroad man whose wife has just died. It’s a fine scene, and though we may suffer for Jean, we cannot deny that Wolheim is a good man.

That's very interesting because it makes the fact she can't love him even more painful ...there's no good reason not to for her to hide behind . She has to stand in the limelight of she just doesn't

Wolheim is unable to take Jean to a company picnic, so he directs Armstrong to do it

Och! Classic John Aldridge stuff

Such is the orgasmic excitement when a speeding train passes within 18 inches of you. So it would seem.

works for me!

That window sequence! WOW. Because a field separates them, she can be open to everything that whistle is saying.

Another gem you have alerted me to! Thanks!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks so much for your comments, Anne. I hope you enjoy the movie.

Anne said...

It was great. I have to say I love those early sound movies that are so close to the preceding era, silent techniques are still in use.

What words would be better than their faces when Larry learns Mary is Dan Thorn's intended? and we get to linger there ... in silence the bite is deeper.

The visual and the hearing are two different levels of perception and one has to pay close attention during silence

I actually found Dan more attractive than Larry...until there was, as you pointed out, no passion from Dan. It was all for the railroad. Larry had vastly more of the needed caveman impulse Mary was waiting for and won her( even thought the caveman stuff would not of won Mary for Dan...there would at least be some passion for her)

I found it interesting Larry was older than a "kid" as Dan kept calling him...because it was like Mary and this job Dan got him was his last best chance etc. heightening the drama

About the steam engines...Mother of Peal! I wasn't a big fab when the film stated, but wow I love 'em now


Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I like this bit here: "What words would be better than their faces when Larry learns Mary is Dan Thorn's intended? and we get to linger there ... in silence the bite is deeper.

The visual and the hearing are two different levels of perception and one has to pay close attention during silence..."

So well put, Anne. Glad you got a chance to see this oldie.

Yvette said...

Jacqueline I always loved the infrequent times when Robert Armstrong played hero.
SON OF KONG rolls lightly off my tongue.

He was a natural character actor, I think, but didn't make a bad hero.

I loved him most as the brash night club impresario in MIGHTY JOE YOUNG.

Don't think I've ever seen this movie, though. But I will definitely take a look at the free download.

Thanks too, for the Emily Dickinson poem. You write some wonderful posts, Jacqueline.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Yvette, I'm so please to find another Robert Armstrong fan. I've always had a soft spot for him.

And a Dickinson fan.

Thank you, Yvette. I was hoping to get down to some serious blogging in June, but life got in the way. I hope July will bring more free time.

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