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THE PHANTOM EXPRESS (Majestic, 1932), written and directed by Emory
Johnson, has the makings of a weekly chaptered serial told in only 65
minutes, short enough for any viewer not to lose his train of thought.
The title that indicates a supernatural theme, it comes close to that
as terror rides the rails, terror being some sort of mysterious ghost
train. With William Collier Jr. heading the cast, this feature
presentation relatively belongs to the third billed J. Farrell
MacDonald in one of his few on-screen opportunities to play the central
character. Interestingly, MacDonald assumed the role as a railroad
engineer the very same year as the release of THE PHANTOM EXPRESS, a
chaptered serial titled THE HURRICANE EXPRESS (Mascot Studios) starring
John Wayne and Shirley Grey. With similar titles, it's understandable
to get these two movies confused.
The story begins with D.J. "Smokey" Nolan (J. Farrell MacDonald), a veteran engineer of the Southern Pacific Railroad, running his locomotive "101" through the darkness of the night accompanied by his friend and partner, Axel (Axel Axelson). The signal lights tell him that the track is clear, but suddenly Smokey notices a headlight of another train directly ahead, forcing him to put the train into an immediate halt, pulling much of the attached railroad cars off its tracks. Following this incident, the headlight suddenly dims out. Accused of negligence, Smokey appears before John Harrington (Hobart Bosworth), the railroad president. Later, four more similar wrecks occur, Harrington finds himself pressured in selling out his railroad line, which causes Smokey dismissal from duty. In the meantime, Harrington's son, Bruce (William Collier Jr.), a pampered youth whose idea of responsibility is sleeping all day and dining with young ladies at night, surprises his serious-minded father by volunteering to investigate the mystery of the "Phantom Express" mainly for the purpose of becoming more acquainted with Smokey's attractive daughter, Carolyn (Sally Blane). Assuming the name of Bruce Smith and having his friend Dick Walsh (Eddie Phillips) pretending to be him by acting as railroad assistant, Bruce acquires the position as railroad mechanic, gets to room and board in the Nolan household and becomes better acquainted with Carolyn (sometimes addressed by Smokey as Caroline). During his investigation, Bruce realizes he's on the right track as he stumbles upon an amazing discovery.
The supporting players includes David Rollins as Jack Nolan, Smokey's younger son; Claire McDowell as Mrs. Nolan; Lina Basquette (star of Cecil B. DeMille's THE GODLESS GIRL in 1929) briefly appearing as Collier's temperamental girlfriend, Betty; Tom Wilson as James Callahan, and Jack Pennick, C. Huntley Gordon, among others. Axel Axelson, who performs his task in typical Swedish fashion, accent and all, gives a performance that echoes the likes of the more familiar John Qualen, who might have assumed the part in that fashion had he been cast. The second billed Sally Blane (Loretta Young's sister), has little to do in this mystery, but performs well in what she is given as Collier's love interest and kidnap victim.
A poverty-row mystery with a neat ending twist, THE PHANTOM EXPRESS is surprisingly good in theme and action, however, occasionally comes off a little weak with some of its typical 1930s dialog and somewhat laughable staged fist fights between hero and villain. Aside from these minor faults, it's most notable scene occurs midway as Smokey (MacDonald) returns home to be surprised by a birthday party from his family (hundreds of candles on the cake and miniature train on track circling around the table), and unable to tell the bad news of his dismissal. Shortly after leaving the event, Smokey finds himself alone in his bedroom to grief and glaring at an old picture frame as he cries and laughs at the same time, causing him to throw and break the frame as it crashes onto the floor. All this is underscored with the use of violins. Quite original and effective.
After many years of obscurity with limited reissues, THE PHANTOM EXPRESS, became one of many public domain titles distributed onto video cassette in the 1980s, as well as getting some exposure during the after midnight hours on various TV channels during its early years of cable television, appearing on such networks as Christian Broadcast Network, Tempo and Channel America, before disappearing from the airwaves. A movie like THE PHANTOM EXPRESS might not be worthy of 15 academy award nominations, but is an interesting look back at the sort of programmers produced by independent film studios during the bygone 1930s, and something of interest mainly for its concept, if nothing else. All Aboard!!!!! (**)
Trains are being derailed along a particular line by a "phantom
express" (or so the old drivers think). They see engine lights and hear
train noises before their engines are derailed. Nobody else can see
William Collier Jnr.(from "Little Ceasar" (1930)) plays Bruce Harrington, the bosses son who wants a chance to prove his worth. He begs to be allowed to investigate the mystery of the train wrecks.
J. Farrell MacDonald is outstanding as the old engine driver who is convinced something is up. The scene when he is sacked and comes home to his birthday party is very powerful. The emotion he gives to the scene where he is looking at his medals for bravery is very sad.
The exquisitely beautiful Sally Blane plays his daughter Carolyn. One look at her across a desk and Bruce is willing to forgo his playboy lifestyle and work under cover at the railroad - it is not that hard to believe!!!!
Claire McDowall, an original member of D.W. Griffith's stock company plays the mother. David Rollins was a handsome leading man in a few of the early sound musicals (he partnered Sue Carol in "The Breakaway") has the small part of the son Jackie. Lina Basquette was a Follies beauty and a star for Cecil B. DeMille (she starred in his "The Godless Girl") - she has a couple of fiery scenes as Betty, a girl friend of Bruce's. There is a ton of talent in this film - names that conjure up memories.
This is an outstanding drama that was not at all predictable. How they solve the mystery of "The Phantom Express" is surprising and not what you would expect.
Trains are crashing thanks to the sudden appearance of a phantom train
on the tracks ahead of them. As the stock of the railroad plummets
thanks to the crashes, the son of the railroad's owner begins to
Very good little movie that tells a rather exciting story of sabotage. The train scenes are all exciting, even if they were done with models, and the fact that we get a good number of them helps to keep the tension up. If there is a problem with the movie is that some of the middle section is a bit too talky since its a bit too clear why things are happening, even if we don't know how.
Definitely worth a look, especially on a rainy night
Without a doubt, The Phantom Express (1932) is my all-time favorite early talkie, railroad-themed movie. J.Farrel McDonald is outstanding as Smokey Nolan, the long-time engineer. I've seen a few other movies where McDonald plays a railroad-related part (e.g., with Victor McLaglen in The Broadway Limited) and it would appear that McDonald probably worked for the railroads prior to becoming a very good character actor as he played his parts with a great deal of ease and apparent intimate knowledge of the subject matter. Phantom Express was also very interesting from the standpoint that it was shot in live action, in/around LA and the Southern Pacific Railroad (including real shots of the SP boardroom at the old Central Station at 5th and Alameda), the SP Alhambra Roundhouse, Burbank Tower, etc. Also, the special effects modelling scenes were very much ahead of their time in terms of realism. All together, an excellent film of which I own several copies.
The Phantom Express is an early talkie that impresses in a few ways.
It's about a series of train accidents caused by an unexplainable
phantom express whose headlights appear every few nights on the tracks.
This mysterious train bears down on other locomotives causing them to
brake suddenly and derail. The driver of the latest train to encounter
the phenomena is fired in disgrace as the investigators do not believe
his story. It's left to him and the son of the railroad president to
clear his name and find out what is behind the notorious phantom
The Phantom Express is a fine example of one of the many mystery films released in the 1930's. Admittedly the actual mystery itself is a little easy to work out and the plot is structured such that it's obvious that the rival railroad company are behind things in some way. Nevertheless, there is still much to admire in this cool little film. As poverty row movies go, this has to be one of the better put-together. Where other cheap genre films of the 30's often restricted themselves to two or three studio-created locations, The Phantom Express includes many scenes set on the grounds of the rail-yard construction site. This authenticity is welcome and adds nice detail to proceedings. Conversely, I really enjoyed the model-work used for the train scenes. It was very well done and looked very cool, giving the film a lot of character and soul. This model-work was well integrated with the live action, especially in the final ride through the storm and was effective in generating suspense. A similarly well-handled thrilling scene was where the signalmen are tied up by thugs and made to helplessly watch the oncoming phantom express bear down the tracks on another train. Great stuff. Ultimately, the mystery of the phantom express is resolved with an explanation that I thought was kind of funny. I won't give anything away so will leave this little amusement for first time viewers to discover for themselves.
The cast acquit themselves well but a special mention should be made for J. Farrell MacDonald who is excellent as the fired train driver. The scene where he breaks down at his birthday party after being sacked is very good; MacDonald certainly put a lot of emotion into that moment. I also have to mention Axel Axelson, who plays MacDonald's trusty sidekick. Not only does he have a name that sounds like it should belong to an 80's hair metal guitarist, but he also has one of the craziest accents you are ever liable to hear. It seems to be a mix of Swedish, Dutch, Irish and possibly Martian. It's difficult to say with any certainty but it's funny as hell.
The Phantom Express comes recommended to anyone interested in early talkies and/or 30's mysteries. It's a very worthy little obscurity that has a great deal of charm about it.
"A senior engineer is fired from his job after derailing his train,
which causes many injuries and deaths. The engineer claims he derailed
the train to avoid running into another train coming towards him in a
tunnel, although there are no signs another train existed. The
engineer's daughter and the railroad owner's son sent out to
investigate the truth behind the accident and clear the engineer's
name," according to the DVD sleeve's synopsis.
This mystery doesn't know where to point its story. After beginning as the story of elderly train conductor J. Farrell MacDonald (as "Smokey" Nolan) experiencing trouble on the job, it switches to focus on playboy William Collier Jr. (as Bruce Harrington) finding true love with beautiful Sally Blane (as Carolyn Nolan). Add a confusing suggestion of some supernatural force at work (note the title). But, the cast is great. You also get to see handsome David Rollins (as Jack Nolan) and hear silent screen veterans like Claire McDowell and Hobart Bosworth.
***** The Phantom Express (8/15/32) Emory Johnson ~ J. Farrell MacDonald, William Collier Jr., Sally Blane, David Rollins
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
An engine driver thinks he sees a train coming towards him, applies the brakes too harshly and crashes the train. The ne'er-do-well son of the railway owner takes a shine to the engine driver's daughter and investigates the occurrence. A rival firm is bidding for the line and is using an aeroplane fitted with headlights and loudspeakers to fool the drivers into having accidents, thus lowering the share price. Mystery solved, boy gets girl. The railway models were of a very high order; the scenes filmed in and around real railway depots were particularly interesting. Towards the end of the film, the owner as told the bidders he will make a decision by midnight. At the other end of the line, the plot is uncovered, and the owner has to be told. However, it is a wild and stormy night and the telegraphs are down. The engine driver reckons he can get Ol' 97 (or some such number) through and heads off at high speed as most of the railway is washed away or flooded. He just gets his engine over a vital bridge before it collapses, and makes it to depot in time to stop the owner selling. The question arises as to whether it might have been better for the owner if he had not got through. Though the offer price was low, the costs of the rebuilding works after the storm would have driven the stock price even lower, such that the owner would have been unable to raise the money for the works. In other words, he would have been better off with the cash the crooks were offering. Given all the sillinesses in the film, this is just one more.
This film begins with what appears to be a model train going down the
model tracks. However, at least it is a pretty good model train!
Anyway, it's supposed to be a real one and an accident is caused when
the headlamp of another train appears to be heading right for themand
the train derails trying to avoid it. However, it turns out there was
no other trainit's some sort of trick. So, the playboy son of the
railroad owner decides to go undercover to investigate.
While this all might sound interesting, despite an interesting premise, the film really bogs down and shows that it's only a cheaply made film by a cheap-o studio. After all, the ending is just god-awfulwith ridiculous stunts and an explanation of the mystery that made my brain hurt. I can clearly understand why this film was allowed to slip into the public domainit's bad and there's little to recommend it.
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