By Ken Withers, May 8, 2021

This month's installment of Hollywood Trainspotting features three movies that one can be forgiven for mixing up, because they are essentially the same story produced three different times, even with some of the same cast. The common thread is that they all take place at a resort built by a railroad, and all were produced and distributed with the cooperation and encouragement of the railroad.

As an example, the Sun Valley resort outside Kitchum, Idaho, was developed in 1936 by W. Averell Harriman, chairman of the Union Pacific, to drive traffic west. Harriman would invite celebrities to promote the resort - Gary Cooper, Ernest Hemingway, Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Marilyn Monroe, and others - all of whom would have publicity photos taken while riding on the world's first ski chairlift. The innovative chairlift was fashioned by engineers in UP's Omaha machine shop from the equipment used to unload bananas from barges to railway cars. UP would also engineer publicity by latching on to the movies - the most popular mass media of the time - with a million pounds of product placement in the form of the train.

Sun Valley Serenade (1941)
Glenn Miller Orchestra

Sun Valley Serenade (1941)
Dorothy Dandridge and the Nicholas Brothers


This silly MGM romantic comedy starred figure skater Sonja Henie and singer John Payne, assisted by comedian Milton Berle. It had very little plot to get in the way of the spectacular scenery and daring winter sports challenges, all designed to entice the movie-going public to buy their Union Pacific railroad tickets and head out to America's new winter wonderland.

This movie may be best known for introducing America to what would become her favorite train song, Glenn Miller's "Chattanooga Choo Choo." Although issued at the time by RCA Victor as the "B" side of a 78 RPM single, was nominated for an Academy Award and proved so popular that it sold 1.2 million copies the year of its release, becoming RCA Victor's first official Gold Record. The number is performed twice in the movie, back-to-back, first by Glenn Miller's orchestra and then by the breathtaking Nicholas Brothers, feathering Dorothy Dandridge.

The song is supposed to describe a trip on the Southern Railway's Birmingham Special from New York to points south. But it couldn't have left Pennsylvania Station from Track 29, because the station only had 21 tracks at the time. And you couldn't have had your ham and eggs in Carolina, as the train traveled west from Virginia directly into Tennessee, skirting past North Carolina. And, of course, it terminated in Memphis and Birmingham, nowhere near Sun Valley. But we won't let little things like geography get in the way of the fun.

Viewers will notice the unusual camera angles and editing of the Glenn Miller segment that make it feel like a primitive version of a modern music video, which it was. Studios at this time would edit the most popular musical numbers in feature films down to 3-minute shorts called "soundies," and distribute them as 16mm film loops to penny arcades, taverns, barber shops, and other locales to be viewed on specially built Panoram jukeboxes for 10 cents a play.

Springtime in the Rockies (1942)


Not to be outdone by MGM and the Union Pacific, the following year 20th Century Fox teamed up with the Canadian Pacific Railway to produce its own silly romantic comedy, this time set in CP's Lake Louise resort in the Canadian Rockies. They even nabbed John Payne to play essentially the same role that he played in Sun Valley.

There isn't much about trains in Springtime in the Rockies, although the producers couldn't help but poke fun at their rivals from Sun Valley with their own parody of "Chattanooga Choo Choo," sung in Portuguese by the inimitable Carmen Mirada.

The Union Pacific sold the Sun Valley resort in 1964 and discontinued train service to Ketchum. Lake Louise maintained corporate ties to Canadian Pacific until 2001 thorough the Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, which was a division of CP. The resort can still be reached by railroad, as originally intended, via the Rocky Mountaineer's "First Passage to the West" service.

Duchess of Idaho (1950)


A decade after Sun Valley Serenade, the Union Pacific resort became the backdrop for an equally silly romantic comedy getaway, only with higher production values. Duchess of Idaho also become an enigma for film historians, who ask why MGM would spend lavishly to have Lena Horne shoot three musical numbers (her last appearance for MGM), only to leave two on the cutting room floor, and ask why to cast young crooner Mel Tormé, only to cut out his one and only musical number, leaving him in the background as a hotel bellboy with a few short lines. At least they saved Eleanor Powell's fantastic tap dance number, although it has no relation to the plot. After all, she came out of retirement to appear in this picture and reportedly rehearsed until her feet bled.

The promotion of the Union Pacific in Duchess of Idaho is more direct than in the earlier Sun Valley Serenade. Although it may make us a little uncomfortable today to see the strictly segregated social structure of 1950, you have to admit that Van Johnson's club car number paints a compelling image of passenger rail travel in the mid-20th century, thanks to help from the Jubalaires gospel quartet.