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Friday, September 27, 2013

Greenbriar Still Aboard The Train

A Runaway Express From 20's Beginning to Blu-Ray Destination

I'm really drunk on this runaway train, enough so to delve further into its progress through theatres and homes during  20's peak of popularity. What motivates the search, of course, is having been blown away by restoration of Lyman H. Howe's Famous Ride on a Runaway Train as six-minute highlight of the National Film Preservation Foundation's DVD release from a well-publicized New Zealand find. Long-missing till now, this is a thrill ride you can show doubters who claim silent pics are dull affairs, the best helping of pre-talk I've had this year. DVD booklet notes by Scott Simmon reveal that Howe's short made a splash at Broadway's Capitol Theatre in 1921 and scored two bookings there. Indeed it did, first in April of that year, playing behind stage overture The Queen Of Sheba, the Capitol's Ballet Corps, and Maria Samson of the Royal Opera of Budapest singing Bird Song from Pagliacci. What came after the Runaway Train was Percy Granger on a Duo-Art piano, a Mack Sennett comedy, "a potpourri of Irish melodies," and finally, the feature, Made In Heaven, with Tom Moore. Now how is that for a loaded bill! It's said that movies were often Broadway-cut by whole reels to accommodate live acts. Given the dollop here, I don't see where there was time left for hapless Made In Heaven, which must have unspooled in any case to a numbed audience.

Despite horn of plenty, the Runaway Train stood out, so much so that Capitol management repeated it a month later, this time backing more live bits from Pagliacci, further ballet dosage, Harold Lloyd's "first three-reeler" Now Or Never, and Will Rogers in Boys Will Be Boys. The Capitol's overture tendered selections from Faust. Here was footloose mélange of high and low culture, not at all untypical of palace entertainment that sought to please everyone filling the Capitol's 4,000 seats. The hit Howe's train ride made led to Educational Film Exchange, Inc. buying distribution rights in June 1921, barely a month after the Capitol splash. What clicked in Gotham, after all, could be expected to do so elsewhere. Educational was after "a big share of the short subject requirements of American exhibitors in 1922," according to 12/31/21 coverage in The Exhibitor's Trade Review, and Lyman H. Howe's Famous Ride on a Runaway Train would join a pipeline of comedies, travelogues, and other one-to-three reel novelties.

Among 16mm Offerings To Home Collectors
For March 1928 is Howe's On A Runaway Train
Further Lyman Howe shorts aspired to Runaway Train's "famous" stature. Thrills and Spills had explosions and fire from New York City's waterfront, auto racers cracking up, etc. This sort of thing was always good to warm edge-of-seats, as Robert Youngson would remember when he reprised the brand thirty years later with a series of daredevil/disaster shorts for Warner Bros. Others too knocked at Howe's door: Rapid Transit from John J. Iris (great name for a filmmaker) had traffic careening up Fifth Avenue with audiences in a perilous driver seat. Film Daily liked it, but noted that "the idea has been done previously." Well, of course it had, and with success sufficient to make such joy rides welcome no matter how oft-repeated. Another thing that kept Howe's Runaway Train "Famous" (Howe himself had died in 1923) was its availability to collectors in 16mm, that offering made by the Bell-and-Howell Company in 1928, On A Runaway Train among Howe's Hodge-Podge reels. These "amateur movies" sold to home hobbyists were a thriving alternative to theatregoing during the late 20's. Far fewer silents would survive if not for preservation effort by these "amateurs" who held on to their 16mm after studios junked 35mm prints and camera negatives.

A Tilted Subjective Camera Spikes The Thrill of a Train Run Amok

Educational's Revamped Ride with Sound, Released 6/15/29
"The short feature that played five times on Broadway, and broke all records for repeat runs all over the world" was back via Educational Pictures in June 1929, now with a disc-recorded soundtrack tarted with full-steam effects and music sped to accompaniment of a frenzied train whistle. What began as placid departure, the locomotive chugging off to a Chopin melody, becomes a race against disaster as titles warn that THE TRAIN IS RUNNING AWAY. Audiences knew that Howe's reel was stuff of thrill legend; it had been around decades after all, in some incarnation or other. Now Educational fired the engine again with appropriate bells and whistles to make new-fangle talkies look stock-still by comparison (which in 1929, they pretty much were). Educational could safely call this Runaway Train "The greatest single-reel novelty thriller in film history!," its value to exhibitors exponentially increased now that sound was added to ramp up excitement.

Film Daily's review of the new version (6/16/29) called Ride On A Runaway Train "a sensation when it was released seven years ago," and acknowledged "real exploitation value" in the vintage reel. There was nostalgia built-in for having back an old favorite that stood up so well, "offering as it does a comparison of thrillers of years ago, with those of today." Fox West Coast Theatres issued periodic guides for showmen in search of kid content for matinees. Thematic tie-ins with notable dates or anniversaries could often fill a bill in celebration of, for instance, birthdays of Sir Walter Scott (Scotch-themed adventure) or Herbert Hoover (patriotic/American historical). A suggested theme for Saturday, August 16, 1930 was centennial of the Schenectady and Albany railroads joining, Fox Theatres suggesting an all-rail program with local engineers, locomotive firemen, and other railroad personnel invited to stage-lecture, with foyer displays illustrating progress made in engines and cars (talk about a Golden Era of exhibition!). Recommended screen subjects included John Ford's The Iron Horse, Lon Chaney in Thunder, and The Runaway Train. Noteworthy here are at least two things: silent features being still viable for 1930 Saturday attendance (were children less inclined than their parents to discard non-talkers?) and Lyman H. Howe's Famous Ride on a Runaway Train being listed by altered or abbreviated title, at least a fourth such I've come across in following its tracks. Could there be other extant prints of this subject bearing one of several differing monikers?

Thanks to the splendid resource that is LANTERN and ongoing enrichment of film history by David Pierce and Eric Hoyt. Also thanks to Scott MacGillivray for sharing of Educational's Lyman H. Howe Hodge-Podge trade ad.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

That editing machine in the ad is pretty similar to the one I had for my 8mm camera eons ago.

5:16 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer contemplates what early film could do toward manipulating reality ...

There seems to be a progression from the first demonstrations by the Lumiere brothers of the cinema, to Lyman H. Howe's cinematic adventure, and finally to "This is Cinerama" or even the early IMAX films. At each step, the unique qualities of the cinema triggered a visceral reaction in the audience. The ones who saw the film of a train entering a station were thrilled and frightened, because their understanding was such that an image of a train could not exist unless a train actually was approaching them closely, and in that very theater. In time, however, such experiences allowed them to differentiate between the world of reality as they knew it to be and the appearance of reality on film, which in itself became an aspect of that reality. Thus, to repeat the thrill of the initial experience, it had to become more and more vivid--more life-like--so that there was for a moment no separation between film and commonplace reality. Lyman H. Howe's film was more enveloping than that of the Lumieres, so that his audiences were less able to disassociate themselves from what they were experiencing in the theater, or at least, better able to suspend an appreciation of that difference as they had already come to understand. "This is Cinerama" carried the process much further, surrounding the audience with an image in full color and with directional sound, again in an attempt to obliviate the distinction between film and reality. The term "obliviate" is deliberate. It means to forget. What Lyman H. Howe sought or any of the others was a kind of forgetfulness, and what was achieved, if only for that moment, was a state of being or awareness resulting from that lack of remembering. We've come to understand it ourselves in any number of ways growing up, even from our first acquaintance with film or love. Nothing will ever be for us as it was, for the first time. But if we remember how it was--if we do not forget--some residue of that sense of wonder remains, and we know ourselves, at least, just a little better for that.


8:18 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

What surprises me is that Educational didn't make this reissue a talking picture. It would have been easy to add narration for realistic dialogue effects ("All aboard," etc.) without the bother of lip-synching. Imagine the you-are-there effect of an offscreen announcer exclaiming, "Hold on to your seats... the train is running away!"

I guess the title cards stayed in for the benefit of those theaters that hadn't yet wired for sound, so Educational could release it both ways.

4:03 PM  

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