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Monday, September 04, 2017

When Trains Were King

Whispering Smith (1948) Is Book and Film Locomotive

Got curious about origins of this character and so read the 1903 novel where he was introduced. Frank H. Spearman didn’t work for railroads, but was vested in life aboard trains, his novel a glossary on things that can go wrong where tracks are laid, whether result of nature or human agency. Trains were supreme miracle of steam power before electricity found its feet and lit the world. Village folk would gather just to watch a locomotive pass through. For these, the wonder of rail passage never went away. I wonder if even flight could unseat trains as thrilling-est mode of travel. How many men and boys were bitten by bug that was prior century iron horses? Consider tens of thousands dedicated to model railroading, plus those who’d dream of growing up to be an engineer. I was into electric trains before whole-hogging to movies, and recall friends whose fathers kept basement O-gauge in readiness. It seemed an only occasion where otherwise stern and remote authority figures became kids again.

Illustration Artist N.C. Wyeth Supplied Art For Spearman's Novel
Of childish things put away when boys of the 20’s and 30’s became men, electric trains were exempt, being only toys kept by Dads for whom larger issues were a Great Depression, then conscription into WWII. For them I suspect Whispering Smith was choice literature. For us, at least me, it is choo-choo clinical to point of fatigue, with ensemble a trial to keep track of. There are “classical” novels, then ocean that is the rest. Like old movies or old anything, you'll find diamonds among lots of rough. What Spearman tumbled onto, and others made capital of, was the name, “Whispering Smith” to resonate in flocks of film to come, then TV. Surprise to me was that character being minor to the book, a party to action but only in spasms. What we’d like and remember of Whispering Smith was what movies did with him, a case so often where print was translated to pictures.

Gary Cooper Visits The Set To Instruct In Gunplay

There were silent versions, a number of them, including a serial. George O’Brien was first to lend speech to Smith, a closer-to-B western produced by Sol Lesser, who had bought the literary property. The book meanwhile stayed in print, Whispering Smith a character that action fans, if not a wider public, would recognize. Knowing the name was in-part presold, Paramount did Whispering Smith on large scale with Alan Ladd, his first western, said publicity, plus a first for the star in Technicolor. Both claims could be nit-picked by resort to IMDB, a crutch viewers at the time didn’t have. Suffice to say, Whispering Smith was Ladd’s first go at a starring western, and with color. Paramount spent freely thanks to banner year that was 1946 and prospects ahead (re-use of sets and expanded western town). Much of Hollywood splurged in belief that gravy would flow forever. Frontier sprawl was built on studio premises. It covered five acres, these traversed by rails laid down so a train vital to action could figure into story.

Work was underway by midpoint 1947, money well invested for free flow of westerns Para would do over years to come. Really lavish sets, built new and talked around the town, often became tourist attraction for insiders. 20th Fox had a same year lure with its carnival to house Nightmare Alley, and Hollywood wouldn’t forget a chariot race staged for the silent Ben-Hur, which a near-whole of industry turned out to see. Clarence Brown recalled how he and other directors visited the Fox lot to study revolutionary sets conceived by F.W. Murnau for Sunrise. Period recreation for Whispering Smith, let alone with full-scale trains, would bring guests from all the lots to see what Paramount had wrought. Here was temple building to announce prosperity to the town at large, and by extension, a public invited to buy theatre tickets and see how rich movies had become.

You could call Whispering Smith an ideal part for Alan Ladd --- soft-spoken, laid back … till riled. If Whispering Smith had been a better movie, the character might have become as much an alter-ego for Ladd as Shane later would. As it was, the cake rose to level in accord with most Paramount “A” westerns from the 40’s: OK, but no cigars. This went too for California, a 1946 remake of The Virginian, and several by DeMille. Each was expensive, over-produced and top heavy with narrative and repetition of incident. An 80 minute cap would have helped the lot, but bloat was endemic not just to westerns of the period, but all genres where energy was spent for stature their content didn’t merit. Just as with MGM and committee mentality guiding films, Paramount bore burden of too many cooks, over-surplus of ideas, and no one ramrod to steer progress. Something for, and by, everyone, but little for viewers to retain beyond the evening spent.

Whispering Smith is, of late 40's Paramount westerns, a most satisfying, not trying to be epic where an efficient vehicle for Ladd would do. Book and character of Whispering Smith would stay on stands, this assured with postwar wide spread of paperbacks and movie tie-in editions. There was oddity of a British feature called Whispering Smith vs. Scotland Yard (1952), aka Whispering Smith Hits London, with Richard Carlson as lead --- anyone seen this? A television series, done at Universal and starring Audie Murphy, would be filmed in 1959 (25 episodes), delayed until 1961 for broadcast, cast off by ratings disappointment, critic drubbing, then abandon by the network after 20 segments ran. You’d think such an orphan would vanish forever, but TV’s Whispering Smith, the whole of it, can be had on DVD from Shout! Factory. Paramount’s Whispering Smith plays TCM, lately in HD, where it looks marvelous.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

So what do the other characters call him? Whispering? Whisp? Smith? Quiet Guy?

8:13 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

That WHISPERING SMITH VS. SCOTLAND YARD one-sheet, being RKO and vintage 1952, has the heavy hand of Howard Hughes all over it. Greta Gynt is no Jane Russell but what the hey, boys, let's sell this thing!

9:12 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Train books! Model trains! The romantic lure of railroads lasted well into the late twentieth century. The overlap of film geeks and train fanatics in the fifties and sixties was The Blackhawk Films catalogues. Hundreds of really old movies for sale, yet dozens of best sellers were nothing more than footage of trains!

10:00 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Ladd has to be standing on a stool or Coke crate in the photo with Cooper.

11:07 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

"The romantic lure of railroads lasted well into the late twentieth century"

Later than that, if you've heard of Thomas.

6:00 PM  
Blogger Lionel Braithwaite said...

And they exist now with calls in some quarters to have the USA build bullet train lines all over the nation.

9:15 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Richard M. Roberts shares some info on WHISPERING SMITH VS. SCOTLAND YARD:


You asked if anyone has seen WHISPERING SMITH VS. SCOTLAND YARD, yes, I have, it's one of Robert Lippert's Hammer co-productions shot in England with an American star. It's an enjoyable detective romp, but has not a darn thing to do with the western character. My guess is Lippert got the rights to the name somehow, and the film looks like it was the first of a proposed series that did not go further. I did not know it had an RKO release in the states, that may be why Kit Parker hasn't released it, he said it is in some sort of rights limb.

7:55 AM  
Blogger Richard KImble said...

Irresistible story about the TV Whispering Smith. During the interminable production that delays that kept preventing it from getting on the air, one of the co-stars, up and coming character actor Sam Buffington (he's the surgeon who flies in to operate on Elvis' father in King Creole) committed suicide (reference sources all claim he was only 28 when he died -- I definitely question that number, but it'll have to wait for another day).

Upon hearing the news, Audie Murphy allegedly said, "He must have seen the rushes".

7:59 AM  
Blogger Lou Lumenick said...

WHISPERING SMITH VS. SCOTLAND does not appear to have had any theatrical playdates in New York City, where it went into heavy rotation on TV for a few years beginning in November 1954.

9:01 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Wow. They didn't give it much time for theatre use before the tube grabbed hold. Maybe exhibs were tipped off to the scheme and stayed away accordingly. Thanks for this info, Lou.

6:22 AM  

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