The Shiny Irons in Movies and Television

The Shiny Irons in Movies and Television

For over 150 years, the railroad has carried our goods, our selves and our hopes and dreams beyond the horizon to new worlds. As the motion picture carried our imagination over those same horizons, it often traveled by train. Indeed, one of the first motion pictures was a twelve minute silent film titled “The Great Train Robbery.” This film pioneered several film techniques and is considered the first American action film. The big screen has hosted innumerable plots set on the shiny irons: comedy, drama, musical, documentary; all genres used the railroad to get their point across. Morphing together the popular “wild west” story, the railroad and the movies, 1939’s “Union Pacific” featured the transcontinental railroad as its subject matter. Along with John Ford’s “Stagecoach”, released a couple months prior, Cecil B. DeMille’s rail-western raised the status of the western to something worthy of attention.

Several decades before the lights dimmed in the first motion picture theater, a couple of restaurants were opened on the Kansas-Colorado border. Fred Harvey, a freight agent for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, was dissatisfied with the food service available to travelers on the great plains railways. He formed a partnership and opened eateries at two locations on the Kansas Pacific Railroad, at Wallace, Kansas and at Hugo, Colorado. The partnership and the cafes lasted only a year, but the seed of an idea had germinated in the mind of the Leavenworth, Kansas railroad man. In 1876, Harvey formed another partnership, this time with the superintendent of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, and the Harvey House chain of diners grew from that seed. Harvey Houses were established along the railroad, catering to coach and first class passengers. At its height there were 84 Houses and in 1946 the chain was immortalized in celluloid. An MGM studios musical featured Judy Garland as Susan Bradley in “The Harvey Girls.” Garland also harmonized in an absolute gem from the movie’s soundtrack, “The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe” which gained lyricist Oscar Hammerstein the 1946 Academy Award nod for Best Original Song. The railroad, the Great American Desert and a creative filmmaker cooperated to bring us one of the great opening credits scenes in “Bad Day at Black Rock.” Credits splash over angular shots of a speeding Southern Pacific streamliner taking Spencer Tracy to Black Rock (where the “train hasn’t stopped here in four years”).

Dozens of other films rode the rails from the studio to the screen, and all, whether Classic or Clunker, rode smoothly and in style. Of course, Hollywood being as it is, no genre could ever be without a few major disasters! Perhaps no group has ever so completely embraced the metaphor of a “train wreck” like those model-building, computer simulating denizens of the special effects department! As with much of the sound and fury in the “action” genre, the crashes tend to be backdrop, in the film for their dramatic impact. Occasionally, the incident serves a plot turn as in DeMille’s “The Greatest Show On Earth”, where a train crash allows the redemption of Jimmy Stewart’s Buttons the Clown. And, occasionally, the film depicts a real-life event – or tries to. A stellar example is 2010’s “Unstoppable”, a celluloid retelling of a runaway train incident from 2001. The facts of the case are similar, but the actual incident was handled and the runaway brought under control with much less noise and excitement than the film portrayed.

In the early 1950’s a couple of technologies long in development began to make their presence known to the masses; Diesel electric locomotives and television. Both of these quickly became mainstays of their respective industries and the small screen was as comfortable on the rails as its larger sibling. The “western” television show quickly became as popular as the western movie, and in these, the train was as important in TV as it had been in movies. The railroad brought settlers and supplies to those dusty towns in your living room, and outlaws such as Jesse James robbed those trains during serialized weekly adventures. In 1956, one of the most famous trains in movies got its first TV job.

Sierra No. 3 , a 4-6-0 steam locomotive, was built in 1891 by the Rogers Locomotive and Machine Works for the Prescott and Arizona Central Railroad. The loco served with distinction for three decades, leaving the railroad in 1920 to pursue an acting career. Its first role was in 1920’s “The Terror.” In addition to dozens of big-screen roles, the little engine that could… act got its first television role in 1956, (again playing a locomotive) in “The Lone Ranger.” Sierra No. 3 played alongside stars such as Clint Eastwood, Stuart Whitman and even Ronald Reagan, finally securing a starring role as the Hooterville Cannonball in the 1964 hit “Petticoat Junction.” The next year it played the main ride for James West and Artemus Gordon in the pilot for “The Wild, Wild West.” Sierra No. 3 was unable to reprise this role for the regular series though, and that part was played by an 1875 Baldwin Locomotive-built 4-4-0.

In recent times, the small screen has shown documentary type programs such as “Extreme Trains” and “Tricked-Out Trains” among the standard fare. The 1988’s drama “In the Heat of the Night” opens with an Amtrak passenger train, echoing the opening scene of 1967’s silver screen production. As the passenger railroad declined in importance, the appearance of the shiny irons on TV declined as well. The role of a train in a movie or on TV today will be much more the “supporting actor,” a backdrop for actors with more box-office clout. Reaching back in history for subject matter, the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad set the scene for AMC Networks’ 2011-2016 series “Hell on Wheels“, though it could be said that the series was “about the Railroad in the same way ‘King Kong’ was about the Empire State Building”… ahhh, ever a co-star, never a star!

Thank you for joining us, and keep the rails shiny!!

The REAL “Fast Track”…

In 1804, Richard Trevithick of Cornwall, England won a bet for his boss. An ironworker, Trevithick had designed a steam-powered hammer for the Pen-y-Darren Iron Works. Already inflicted with the passion to marry engine to wheels, Richard soon convinced his boss to make the engine a locomotive. Samuel Homfray, the obliging proprietor of the iron works, made the bet with the owner of a competing firm, and “Pen-y-Darren” proved its mettle, hauling ten tons of iron, 5 wagons and 70 men from Penydarren to Abercynon. The powerful puffer averaged a blistering 2.4mph, covering the 9.75 miles in 4 hours, 5 minutes. Another Trevithick locomotive set a speed record for track-guided vehicles the next year, breaking the 5mph barrier.

“Fast” forward a couple of centuries to the speed test of the TVG. A passenger trainset designed and built by the French Alstom company, the train runs a route between Paris and Southern Germany. During acceptance trials in April, 2007, trainset number 4402 set a record for wheeled track guided vehicles. Not to be confused with a trainset you or I could buy, this train was extensively hot-rodded, running three specially modified cars, larger wheels, increased voltage to the caternary (the overhead electric power transmission structure which supplies power to the train), and over 600 sensors!

From the BBC web site:

A French high-speed train (TGV) has smashed the world record for a train on conventional rails by a big margin, reaching 574.8km/h (356mph).
The previous TGV record was 515km/h (320mph), set in 1990.
The record attempt by a modified TGV took place on a track between Paris and the eastern city of Strasbourg.



Play A Train Song

As the train established itself as the preeminent method of travel, the irons also became the preeminent metaphor for travel… travel to new and exotic places, travel from bondage to freedom, and travel from this life to the next.  Woody Guthrie’s spiritual, “This Train is Bound for Glory”

An ensemble cast, from Woody’s 100th birthday celebration Live at Kennedy Center.

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    […] Movies and Television”, Leavenworth, Kansas railroader Fred Harvey’s restaurant chain Harvey Houses provided the plot for Garland and […]

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