Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

22 April 2011

Train Movies: Part 3

Oh yes there is a part three of this business (and I'm pretty sure there will be a fourth).

Also, I understand my selection of train movies is arbitrary and rather absurd, but I am kind of enjoying the silliness of this selection. It makes me watch these movies slightly differently, too: like, I am watching for the trains – the way they are powered, the steam they let off, the way the filmmaker shoots the train – it's fun.

Night Train to Munich is a Carol Reed movie (he of The Fallen Idol and The Third Man – both must-see films noir.) I have been wanting to see Night Train since it was recently released by the Criterion Collection. Night Train is a kind of spy movie about World War II made in 1941. Like, this is some seriously current filmmaking.

But, well, Night Train doesn't quite work, really. There is cool stuff in it. Actually, there is quite a lot of cool stuff in it. The film stars a very young Rex Harrison and the soon-to-become-a-matinee-idol Paul Henried. And there is a plot twist early on in the film that I did not see coming at all: I literally gasped when it happened. In truth, the adventure part of the film is sort of fun once we are on the eponymous night train headed for Munich.

But Night Train is a sort of spy comedy: one of those pictures that has lengthy sequences with comedic characters who – it will turn out in the end – are integral to the plot, but make the film rather silly instead of action-packed or thrilling. This is part of Night Train's charms, or is supposed to be, but I wasn't having it. I wanted train action and intrigue. Instead, this movie has a wisecracking comedian foil the Nazis. And, well, the Nazis had a lot of problems, but I don't think they could have exactly been foiled by a string of good jokes. (This is an ethical question for the filmmaker, too, but I will leave that to the side.)

My other train film was the MGM musical from 1946, The Harvey Girls, which was more of a train movie than I thought it was going to be. The film stars Judy Garland, Angela Lansbury, and John Hodiak. The big number for the movie is called "On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe" and much of the film takes place on the trains between Ohio and Arizona or somewhere out west. Actually I have already forgotten.

The Harvey Girls is not exactly a great MGM musical. It's not terrible by any means, but I had a lot of trouble figuring out who was who in the actual plot. The side characters are all introduced awkwardly and (this is the most awkward part) the girls all look exactly alike. I couldn't tell them apart, honestly. I felt like my friend Wahima when she says that white people all look the same. These girls really do all look the same. And I guess this makes a sort of sense; they are all "Harvey Girls" after all. It is a type.

Actually, the real trouble with The Harvey Girls is the songs. "On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe" won an Academy Award, and it is memorable, certainly, but most of the songs in this film are totally forgettable. Others may disagree, but I felt myself rather bored by the musical sections in the film, whereas I sort of found the plot and the acting delightful. Part of this has to do with the inimitable Angela Lansbury as a kind of Mae West character in flamboyant showgirl drag (although it sounded to me like they dubbed her singing voice for some reason.) Anyway, if you like old movie musicals you've actually probably already seen this one, and if you don't like movie musicals, I can recommend about 20 others that you should rent before you get to The Harvey Girls.

Judy Garland – it needs to be said – was obviously fabulous in the movie.