Friday, September 05, 2014


A series of wrecks has plagued the Southwestern Pacific railway company, and we see the latest; on a moonless night, a "phantom express" is seen racing down the tracks straight at an oncoming train. The engineer, Smoky Nolan, tries to stop, but the train derails, killing and injuring many, and the phantom train vanishes. Both Smoky and his fireman Axel insist they saw a train, but the signalman says he did not. Harrington, head of the railroad, reluctantly allows his playboy son Bruce to launch a secret investigation; Bruce's reason is that he’s fallen for Smoky's lovely daughter Carolyn. In a needlessly convoluted plan, Bruce gets his pal Dick to pose as Harrington's son while Bruce poses as his buddy, also named Bruce, and gets a job working at the roundhouse hoping to snag some clues from fellow workers. Time is of the essence for two reasons: 1) poor old Smoky is fired because of the wreck; 2) as it happens, a consortium of businessmen is trying to force Harrington to sell the railroad to them and there's a deadline of midnight—guess who winds up being behind the phantom train shenanigans?

When I run across little-known B-movie with titles like this, I get excited thinking I'm about to find a spooky and/or thrilling little gem. Usually I'm disappointed, but this one is an exception. The plot, though predictable, has a couple of nice twists, especially with regards to the explanation for the phantom train. For a 30s indie film, the effects and sets are good, combining some obvious but atmospheric use of miniatures with scenes that seem to have been shot at a real railroad yard. The acting is also notch above average. William Collier Jr. (pictured above) makes for an acceptable if unexciting hero, Sally Blane is good (though given little to do) as Carolyn, and Eddie Phillips is fine as the sidekick (who also has little to do but look distinguished pretending to be the boss's son). A man named Axel Axelson, who would seem to come by his thick Swedish accent naturally, plays Axel as a bit of a comic relief figure—Axelson seems to have never acted again. Best of all is J. Farrell McDonald as Smoky; he gives a genuinely moving performance in the scene where, after he's fired, he has to put on a smile for a surprise birthday party being given for him.

I recommend this wholeheartedly, but unfortunately it appears to be available only as a chopped-up print; the version I saw on YouTube was 55 minutes long, but other sources indicate it was released at between 65 and 70 minutes. Indeed, there are jagged jumps and moments where the screen goes black, though the story is intelligible, and in fact, what there is of the print looks good. [YouTube]

No comments: