By Ken Withers, February 13, 2021 (Updated June 12, 2021)

The movies I've selected for this month's installment of Hollywood Trainspotting have a common theme: The building of the American railroad system. There is some great footage of moving trains in all four, although the human actors tend to get in the way, and at times they are highly destructive.

The Iron Horse: finale


My first selection is a 1924 silent western, "The Iron Horse," which was John Ford's first major production. It's a fictional portrayal of the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. To Ford's credit, the movie depicts the Irish, Italian, African American, and Chinese laborers who made the railroad possible, but with all the racial stereotypes of the period. Hollywood lore has it that some of the Chinese extras in the production were retired Central Pacific employees who actually worked on the railroad 60 years before. Publicity at the time of its original release claimed that the locomotives featured in the clip opposite were the original locomotives at Promontory Point in 1869, but that is false, as both locomotives -- Union Pacific No. 119 and the Jupiter -- had been scrapped long before 1924. But the reenactment of the events of May 10, 1869 is eerily similar to the famous photographs of the day.

The Harvey Girls Official Trailer (1946) (available on YouTube)

Judy Garland and Cast, "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" (Harvey Girls, 1946)


My next selection is that classic Hollywood musical, The Harvey Girls, starring Judy Garland as a plucky but naive young woman who boards the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe with promise of marriage. She arrives in the dusty frontier town of Sandrock with great fanfare - one of Hollywood's most spectacular production numbers - only to discover that the marriage proposal was an elaborate practical joke instigated by the owner of the local gambling hall. To show her resilience and to get revenge, she joins the staff of the respectable and strait-laced Harvey House, vowing to bring law-and-order to the town and put the gambling hall out of business. Her chief rival, a dance hall singer played by then 19-year-old Angela Lansbury in her movie role, ends up taking the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe to the next stop - a new, lawless town called Flagstaff, Arizona.

The opening credits and Garland's grand entrance provide some great footage of a vintage steam locomotive.

Canadian Pacific: Opening narration

Candian Pacific: Short clip

Candian Pacific: Construction support train steams to railhead, but without the pay car

Candian Pacific: Yea! The cavalry arrives, with guns, money, and probably a lawyer or two


My next selection is a conventional Cowboys-and-Indians Western, but with some twists: Instead of a backdrop of Monument Valley or a dusty plain, it takes place in the majestic Canadian Rockies. And Randolph Scott doesn't play a sheriff or rancher, but a railroad company surveyor. And when the cavalry arrives in the nick of time, it arrives by Iron Horse. The thin plot involves efforts to blast a pass through the Rockies to establish a rail link joining British Columbia to the East. Historically speaking, this effort was fraught with difficulties, not least of which was opposition by local indigenous peoples, for whom this project was about as popular as the Keystone XL Pipeline is today. But this historical tidbit is all you need for a good old Western, with Scott's young frontier fiance pleading with the locals to let the railroad though ("The railroad brings civilization") and the villainous trading post owner, who senses commercial competition, stirring up trouble with the local tribes ("The iron monster will swallow your land"). It all comes to a head in a battle royal.

When this film was released, the critics hated it but the audience loved it. There are several scenes of moving steam locomotives and work on the track, and of course, there is the battle at the end.

Saratoga Trunk: The famous crash scene


My third selection is Saratoga Trunk, based on a best-selling novel by Edna Ferber sand tarring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman. Bergman plays the illegitimate daughter of an otherwise prominent New Orleans family who intends to marry a rich and powerful man to prove that she is as good as her snobbish relatives. Cooper courts Bergman but never intends to marry, as is out for revenge against the railroad promoters who ruined his father in Texas. These two grifters are a match for each other, and they end up in Saratoga, with Bergman planning to snare a rich husband at the resort. Their mark is the wealthy young railway heir played by John Warburton. His tiny Saratoga Trunk line has suddenly become incredibly valuable as the connection between the northern Appalachian coal mines and upstate New York, but it is being threatened by the financial machinations of the same promotors who ruined Cooper's father. Cooper offers to help Warburton fight off the interlopers - literally - in exchange for a stake in the company. Warburton agrees, there is a great battle scene, and victorious Cooper is now a rich man. The movie ends with Cooper and Cleo now plotting to squeeze Warburton out. Such nice people.

The battle scene is well worth viewing. It combines live footage with models, back-lit screens, and special effects, but you can clearly see the locomotives involved.