Tuesday, November 10, 2015

My Train of Thought About Trains in Movies

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? 


  1. You left out my favorite, and a favorite for obvious reasons...Emperor of the North with Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine! The Depression-era film utilized real antique steam engines, trains & trestles and has one of the most brutal climatic fight scenes aboard a train (or any where, for that matter!) ever put on film.

  2. Once Upon a Time In the West - its train a living, breathing harbinger of civilization.

  3. Bill, I love your reference to the Sergio Leone classic. Dwayne, thanks for introducing me to Emperor of the North, which I haven't seen. There;s also Murder on the Orient Express, and so many more.

  4. You should check out Danger Lights from 1930, starring a pre-Kong Robert Armstrong. Basically it is a rather lightweight love triangle story, but filmed in the trains and trainyards of that era. It really captures the train culture of the time; one of my favorite scenes is a nighttime locomotive tug-of-war held during a celebration. And oh, who knew you could find so much moving camera work in a sound film of that era? The conventional wisdom has always been that the camera was locked down and stationary. Well this movie might surprise you.

  5. Sounds amazing. Thanks for chiming in, Ed!

  6. Silver Streak. The Great Train Robbery (1979). From Russia with Love. Live and Let Die. The Spy Who Loved Me. Octopussy. GoldenEye. The Narrow Margin (50's and 90's). Murder on the Orient Express. The Cassandra Crossing. And I love The Palm Beach Story.

  7. Murder on the Orient Express is one that occurred to me, but there was no space to write about it. (I'm very strict with my self-imposed word limit!) But I suspect we could go on all afternoon thinking about train movies. Hey, how about the opening of The Music Man? (It's much more fun on stage, where the various traveling salesmen have to simulate the lurch of the train as they talk-sing "But He Doesn't Know the Territory.")