Last week I experienced a personal first: I traveled from Los Angeles to San Diego not by car, not by plane, but by railroad. The comfy Amtrak Surfliner whisked me from L.A.’s Union Station to California’s southernmost big city in just over three hours. There were no security lines to deal with; my seat was roomy; I didn’t need to fasten a seatbelt. And, of course, the view of the California coastline was spectacular.
So, naturally, I found myself thinking about movies. From the beginning, Hollywood motion pictures have always been partial to railroads. Way back in 1903 there emerged the first movie ever to boast a narrative story line Yes, I’m talking about The Great Train Robbery. This film (which famously ends with a bandit aiming his gun at the viewer) also marked the first, but hardly the last, use of a railroad train as the setting for a suspense thriller. The title itself has been pressed into service twice more. And what could be more suspenseful or more thrilling than the car-versus-train chase in 1971’s The French Connection?
In the silent era, not all railroad movies were grim. One of the funniest films I’ve ever seen is The General (1926), which stars Buster Keaton as a Civil War-era railroad engineer who saves the day for the Southern cause. The subject matter sounds serious, and yet the physical antics of the solemn-but-hilarious Keaton are guaranteed to generate laughter.
When talkies came along, musicals (“all-talking, all-singing, all dancing”) quickly followed. I can think of several that featured a big train number. In Busby Berkeley’s 42nd Street (1933), cute Ruby Keeler both sang and danced in “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” an elaborate tribute to honeymoon railway excursions to Niagara Falls. Keeler may have been the era’s most leaden-footed tap dancer, but she had charm, and the screen was filled with perky chorines bouncing in and out of sleeper berths, under the Pullman porters’ solicitous gaze. Thirteen years later, a musical called The Harvey Girls paid tribute to the plucky waitresses who served hot meals to travelers taking the train out west. Judy Garland played one of those waitresses, young women hired by the real-life Fred Harvey chain to bring civilized amenities to the western territories. Not much of the movie’s plot unravels on the rails, but The Harvey Girls introduced one of the great train songs of all times, the Oscar-winning “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe.”
While I’m talking old, old movies, I should also mention The Palm Beach Story, the 1942 screwball comedy written and directed by the great Preston Sturges and featuring expert farceurs Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea. The plot is too complicated to explain, but Colbert’s Gerry, having decided to divorce her husband, boards a train for Palm Beach, Florida where she expects to meet and marry a millionaire. Unfortunately for Gerry, she ends up in the amiable but potentially lethal clutches of the Ale and Quail Club, a gaggle of wealthy hunters who get stinking drunk and proceed to shoot up the train car. It’s extremely funny, if you don’t take it too seriously.
Alfred Hitchcock, though, took trains very seriously indeed. In such suspense films as The Thirty-Nine Steps and North by Northwest, he saw them as places of unnatural confinement, where almost anything could happen. Then there’s Strangers on a Train, in which a naïve young man who befriends his seatmate is lured into committing a murder. Fortunately for me, my trip to San Diego passed without a single Hitchcock moment. All aboard!
Yes, I’ve left out "The Darjeeling Limited." Others?