Saturday, May 12, 2018

Locomotion Cinema

Watching Richard Fleischer's amazing thriller The Narrow Margin on TCM's Noir Alley recently, realized that Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog has never devoted an entire post to movies with trains in them or set on trains. Fritzi Kramer of Movies Silently wrote an entertaining post on the origins of the Silent Movie Myth: Tied to the Railroad Tracks - that damsel in distress image from stage, deftly spoofed both by the likes of Mack Sennett's studio and, 45 years later, Jay Ward's Dudley Do-right of the Mounties cartoons - so by golly, we'll give this the old college try, starting with a musical interlude!

Since one of the first American-made movies to be a boffo hit was Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery, this sounds like a plan. So let's do the locomotion, first with Bulgarian-French Scopitone queen Sylvie Vartan.

Since today's compendium of clips and cartoons will have one unifying factor, locomotives, we'll kick this off with possibly the greatest train cartoon ever made, the 1936 Max Fleischer Color Classic Play Safe. There is a psychedelic quality to both the painted layouts and the 3-D tabletop sets a.k.a. the Fleischer setback camera technique throughout. The patented Fleischer 3-D effects in Play Safe are only surpassed by the studio's 1936 piece-de-resistance, Popeye The Sailor Meets Sindbad The Sailor.

Animation buffs have been arguing over The Fleischer Studio’s ‘Setback’ Camera vs. Disney realism for eight decades and maybe shall do this for at least eight more decades. Whether you prefer the Disney or Fleischer approaches, the multiplane camera or the revolving tabletop mini-sets, enjoy Play Safe, one of the greatest and most imaginative cartoons to emerge from the Fleischer Studio.

Now, the Fleischer studio made lots of cartoons on trains over nearly 30 years in production. A few years before Play Safe, the one, the only Betty Boop hosted her own train in The Betty Boop Limited. We assume Miriam Hopkins didn't want the job - and we are certain Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg were NOT interested, either!

La Boop, under contract to Paramount Pictures, no doubt had to do this cartoon, since the Fleischer Studio's #1 rival Walt Disney and ace animator Un Iwerks had already made Mickey's Choo-Choo in 1929.

That said, The Betty Boop Limited was at least the second train cartoon - well, that we know of - featuring Betty Boop.

The Fleischers had plenty of experience with train cartoons even before talkies. They were not alone; Disney made at least one train cartoon, Hungry Hoboes, starring Oswald The Lucky Rabbit. One of the numerous cartoons from the Fleischer studio's Inkwell Imps series features Koko The Clown as an engineer in Koko's Toot Toot.

As far as feature films set on trains go, this blogger's favorite, hands-down, remains Richard Fleischer's classic Narrow Margin, co-starring macho tough guy Charles McGraw with macho tough gal Marie Windsor. Yes, that's right - Richard Fleischer, son of Max Fleischer and nephew of Dave, the producers of the last three cartoons.

The very first train film this blogger was ever aware of was a silent movie starring comedian Monty Banks, Chasing Choo Choos. If Mr. Blogmeister remembers correctly, first saw this in one of the Robert Youngson comedy compilation features.

The Robert Youngson comedy compilation features, Laurel & Hardy’s Laughing 20's and Four Clowns in particular, constituted this writer's introduction to the films of The Hal Roach Studio.

There are so many Roach comedies involving trains - Get Out & Get Under, Now Or Never (Harold Lloyd), Berth Marks (Laurel & Hardy), Sundown Limited, Railroadin’ and Choo-Choo (Our Gang) and Show Business (Thelma Todd & Zasu Pitts), just to name a few - it would take further posts to come close to getting into all of them.

The mention of daredevil Harold Lloyd recalls another intrepid, triple-jointed acrobatic comedian from silents, Al St. John, who, very likely in response to John Ford's big budget epic of epics The Iron Horse, starred in the stellar silent comedy The Iron Mule. Roscoe Arbuckle, Al's uncle and frequent co-star (at Sennett and Comique) directed. And whenever there's a post-1922 Arbuckle and/or St. John picture, it's worth looking carefully for Buster Keaton, known to make cameo appearances in his friends' films.

And speaking of Buster Keaton, had the pleasure of seeing Buster's epic of epics to out-epic The Iron Horse, The General in one of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival programs and was completely, entirely blown away. If one is lucky enough to have an opportunity to see it on the big screen with an audience, don't miss it. The General is truly spectacular and loses a fair amount of its magic when viewed on the small screen.

One guy who very likely saw The Iron Horse, The Iron Mule and The General was cartoonist, animator and movie director Frank "Tish Tash" Tashlin. Among a slew of excellent Looney Tunes cartoons Tashlin directed, Porky's Railroad tackles the "modern vs. old reliable" storyline, bringing creative uses of pacing, editing, camera angles and great gags to the process.

Back to features, a big screen epic that very likely loses a great deal of its impact seen on TV, iPad or (God help us) smart phone is Cecil B. DeMille's 1939 Paramount opus Union Pacific, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea. Haven't seen it and thus cannot comment further with any authority or knowledge, but . . . WOW - the iconic Babs and McCrea are on hand and if the film is 1/10 as cool as the titles, it's movie fun exemplified. And besides, the Fleischers spoofed it with the Popeye cartoon Onion Pacific!

Out the same year as Union Pacific: one of the last British feature films of Alfred Hitchcock, The Lady Vanishes. Did Hitchcock have a thing about trains? Yes - both the prim Sir Alfred Hitchcock who made Number Seventeen and The Lady Vanishes and the not-so-prim Sir Alfred of Shadow Of A Doubt and Strangers On A Train. There are Hitch cameos three of the films!

Given that Hitchcock's 1936 feature Sabotage is not at all prim and in fact shockingly diabolical in its denouement, the character of Bruno Anthony in Strangers On A Train, played brilliantly by Robert Walker, remains the personification of the all-American movie psychopath and just one among several in the Hitchcock catalog: bloodthirsty scum of the earth, yet unnervingly clever.

It was no accident that when Patricia Hitchcock made an in-person appearance at an SRO screening of Strangers On A Train at the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, CA many years ago (but decades after the film's original theatrical release), the line ran around the block!

Now just what the link between The Master Of Suspense and mid-1960's pop music is, we don't know, have no idea, but while this blogmeister can't remember a specific episode of The Monkees TV show that takes place on a train offhand, what the hey, who cares, Last Train To Clarksville is a great tune - one of their best!

Fittingly, since we can't find a clip from Scrappy in Railroad Wretch, we'll stick to 1960's pop music and let recording artist Little Eva get the last word on today's post.

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