Thursday 17 April 2008

Danger Lights (1930)

This must have been quite some ambitious project back in 1930. It was very early days for sound, when actors were generally tied to very static positions because of the need to remain in close vicinity to the very large microphones. Yet here we seem to be mostly outdoors, in train yards or in the middle of the countryside. The sound is amazingly good given the circumstances but that doesn't mean it isn't muddy and needing a lot of careful attention to catch everything that's being said, especially with Louis Wolheim and his deep voice leading the cast.

He's Dan Thorn, the tough guy in charge of a tough railroad yard and the man who can get done whatever needs doing. While clearing the track after a rockfall, he puts the hobos to work and finds himself impressed by one of them. It turns out that he's a railroad engineer himself, who was fired for insubordination. He's Larry Doyle and Thorn puts him to work. The upside is that he gets a good man, against all the odds; the downside is that Doyle falls for Thorn's girl Mary, played by Jean Arthur.

It seems natural to think of this as earlier in her career, given that all the roles she's known for came in the sound era and notably later than this. It was really The Whole Town's Talking that made her name, and then a few Frank Capras and screwball comedies and on up the years to Shane. Yet I was surprised to find that over half of her 92 films were silent movies dating back as far as Cameo Kirby in 1923. On the flip side Louis Wolheim was best known for silents, partly because he was so recognisable and so good in them but partly because he died in 1931, only a year after this film's release. This was his first film after All Quiet on the Western Front and he only had three more after this one.

I know other names here too. Larry Doyle is played by Robert Armstrong, who I've only seen earlier than this once, in 1929's The Racketeer. He was still waiting to make his name but he'd only have three more years to wait before he'd be sailing to Skull Island to meet Kong. There's also comedian Hugh Herbert as a hobo called the Professor and he's at once completely recognisable and yet surprisingly shy of his trademark 'woo woo!' At least he gets half of one in towards the end of the film. Armstrong and Herbert are both fine, as are Arthur and especially Wolheim, but the rest of the cast isn't necessarily up to scratch.

There are some great shots here. A stern Dan Thorn coming out of the dark and the rain with anger in his eyes, a stolen kiss on a bridge with a train raging past, a head on battle between steam locomotives in a kind of reverse tug of war to push each other backwards on the track. I'd never even heard of this film but I'm really glad I recorded it. I'm no trainspotter but the trains sucked me in. The plot may has as many holes as a lump of Swiss cheese and a few actors can't keep up with the leads but it's a fascinating and very memorable film. It's good to see attention being given to the railway on film at a time when everyone seemed to be focused exclusively on the air.


Anonymous said...

If you enjoyed this train film, don't miss TCM's airing of "Murder In The Private Car" (1934) next week. It airs early Thursday morning April 24th at 1:15 a.m. eastern time.
Instead of an "Old Dark House" comedy-thriller, this is an "Old Dark Train" comedy-thriller with Charlie Ruggles and cowboy star Ray Corrigan in his gorilla suit. The final 5-10 minutes of this 63 minute MGM release features some incredible footage of a runaway car racing down hilly tracks through railyards and roundhouses. Much of the footage is "sped-up" but is still spectacular viewing and a time capsule of a long-ago era of train travel.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

Hola John,

Yep, I had this one set to record. Any early thirties movie with Una Merkel doesn't need any other recommendation to me, but I really didn't know anything else about it so thanks for the heads up.

We really enjoyed it, though as I put in my review, it had a whole heck of a lot more fun than quality.

Review here: Murder in the Private Car.