Ladies in Loco-motion: Trains in Movies Starring Claudette Colbert

by Harry Heuser

One If by Rail

The locomotive and the movie camera: introduce the two and you got a match capable of generating enough sparks, steam, and pull to create a memorable and lasting on-screen romance.  This was being demonstrated as early as 1895, a mere quarter century after the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in America; the tracks to Elstree and Hollywood were laid by the Lumière Brothers who, showing their minute-long L’Arrivée d'un train à La Ciotat at the first public movie theater in Paris, discovered that reels and rails were indeed made for each other.  Sure, some spectators left screaming, but most came back for more.

In 1903, film pioneer Edwin S. Porter revolutionized American cinema with The Great Train Robbery, which brought home that motion pictures were more than pictures in motion, that they could be dynamic narratives unrestricted by the unities of time, action and place (Hamilton 2).  Bound and gagged beauties with their lives on the line, inexorable engines speedily approaching, and steel-nerved heroes dashing to the rescue—such are the images that make that up the sequences we still think of as being quintessential to silent screen cinema, indebted though they are to the sensation scenes of the Victorian stage.

More than settings for movie action, film trains can be vehicles for interaction. They set things in motion, bring about or manifest change.  To be sure, the static microphones of the early talkies proved a challenge to loco-mobility; but, as moviemaking and storytelling became more sophisticated, the plot-propelling and symbolic potentialities of the locomotive—from far-off soundings of its prophetic whistle to close-ups of its powerful wheels—were explored and exploited in virtually every emerging genre: in mystery (The Lady Vanishes) and musical (The Harvey Girls), in film noir (Double Indemnity) and Western (Union Pacific), in romance (Brief Encounter) and horror (Night of the Demon).

While it is true that the harnessing of the Iron Horse for the silver screen chiefly brings to mind plots involving “melodramatic action” (Douglas 363), locomotion—be it transcontinental travel in a sleeper or the daily commute on the El—plays a significant role as well in Hollywood’s romantic comedies of the 1930s and ‘40s.  It is in those love me/leave me narratives that trains and railway stations, platforms and Pullmans, feature as unstable or porous environments, as mobile or transmutable communities in which relationships are as readily forged as foreshortened.

At once liberating and restricted in their time-tabled, track-bound predictability, democratic yet class-conscious, pragmatic yet steeped in romance, episodes in transit are well suited to a comic rendering of the primal boy-meets-girl plot in which the temporary separation of two lovers, destined though they are to shuffle off to Buffalo, is an essential dramatic device.  Consequently, producers of Hollywood’s romantic comedies and their zippier, unsentimental cousin—the Hays Office headache known as “screwball”—were locomotivated to devise plots involving getaways by rail and chance encounters en route.

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