Full Steam Ahead...
At the Grand Cafe on the Boulevard de
Capucines in Paris on the 28th. of December 1895, an invited audience and the public who
paid one franc saw L'Arrive d'un Train en Gare,
(The Arrival of a train at La Ciotat Station), the first public showing of a motion
picture and the first ever recorded scene of a train pulling into a station filmed by the
Lumiere brothers during their family holiday in July that same year. Reports soon appeared
that the audiences had ducked behind their seats fearing that the oncoming engine would
run over them. In this way the first "horror" film was born.
Such was the success of the short film,
that imitations inevitably followed including "Phantom Rides" which mounted both
the camera and cameraman on the front of a locomotive and recorded the passing scenery.
Hales Tours sat audiences in a mocked up railway carriage on springs surrounded by a giant
screen displaying the scenery from a train in America.
Narratives soon followed with George A. Smith's A KISS IN THE TUNNEL (1900),
Charles Urban's When the Devil Drives (1907) and Georges Melies' fantasy films Voyage a Travers l'Impossible (1904) and La Tunnel Sous la Manche; ou, le Cauchemar Franco-Anglais
America joined the ranks with Edwin S. Porter's ROMANCE OF THE RAILS (1902) a
publicity film made for the Thomas A. Edison Company. This was then succeeded by Porter's
landmark film THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY of 1903 that made full use of what we now
know today as the storyboard technique and led many men including Carl Laemmle and D.W.
Griffith to see the huge potential in the new mass medium. Griffith who had began
directing since 1908 made his own variation of THE
GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY with THE LONEDALE OPERATOR (1911) and even included the
locomotive into the climactic scenes of INTOLERANCE some five years later.
Film serials soon made full use of the romance of the railroad with titles such as THE
HAZARDS OF HELEN (1914-17) and THE RAILROAD RAIDERS (1917) that provided
audiences with thrill-a-minute escapades as desperados rode on top of trains to their
freedom and maidens struggled with the ropes that bound them to the train tracks.
Audiences had to wait until the following week to find out how their heroes and heroines
would avert their impending doom.
The train also provided the great silent comedians with some of their finest moments
including Buster Keaton who starred in THE GENERAL (1927), a film that is now
regarded as a masterpiece of the cinema and is high on the list of many people's favourite
Other train films of significance include Abel Gance's extravagant LA ROUE
(1919-23), John Ford's THE IRON HORSE (1924) and Fritz Lang's Der Spione (1927) that features a full on railway crash when the
"Nord Express" collides head-on in a tunnel with a detached carriage.
Arnold Ridley, better
remembered today as the lovable Private Godfrey in BBC television's long-running Dad's
Army series, first began his successful career as a playwright during the 1920's with
"The Ghost Train". Born 1896 in Bath, Ridley had shown aspirations to
become a schoolteacher, but like so many others, plans were cut short by the advent of the
First World War. After front-line activity in France, Ridley was invalided out of the army
in 1917 suffering from injuries that caused him to blackout. After working for his father
in a bootshop, Ridley wrote his first play and despite approaching a London theatrical
producer, the play was rejected.
While enduring a four hour delay during a train journey from the Midlands, Ridley found
himself on the deserted Mangotsfield Station platform and quietly conceived the idea for
another play. In the following seven days of 1925 The Ghost Train was completed.
Despite receiving only lukewarm reviews after a brief premiere in Brighton, the play
became a success after a huge advertising campaign for performances in London's St.
Martin's Lane Theatre. Although not technically easy to produce for the stage, the sounds
of the train were acheived by using a drum, a thundersheet, a cylinder of compressed air
and a garden roller. The play continued to run for 600 performances as the story of a
group of passengers stranded at Cornwall's isolated Fal Vale station at night and
were terrorised by a phantom train, captured the audience's imagination.
J.C. Trewin describes the fascination: "No-one in life enjoys waiting bleakly at
midnight, dead of night's high noon, in a bleaker waiting room. Never mind, bring the
scene to the theatre and all will respond clamorously. Add a presumed special train, a
silly-ass comedian, a huddle of assorted passengers, a station-master voluble and
venerable, and a quite absurd explanation about china-clay and gun-running, and everyone
will be as happy at the evening's end as any train-spotter on the prow of a busy
Arnold Ridley immediately wrote The
Wrecker, to follow up his success, a play that centres upon a rapt old engine driver
who believes in "rogue" engines. The finale includes a spectacular train crash
and the play was produced again at St. Martin's Lane Theatre running for 165 performances.
In 1929 the play became a film produced by Michael Balcon for Gainsborough,
directed by Hungarian Geza M. Von Bolvary and starring Carlyle Blackwell, Joseph Striker
and Benita Hume. The 74 minute silent feature was later treated to a soundtrack to make it
more palatable to demanding cinema audiences.
Although some believed The
Wrecker to be better than The Ghost Train, it was the latter that delighted the
public. In 1927 the play was adapted for the screen by Gainsborough in a joint venture
with the German UFA. studios, resulting in a feature that employed many of the German
techniques using miniatures and rapid cross-cut editing. Cast in the role of a detective
posing as a simpleton to uncover the activities of a band of gun-runners was Guy Newall
(1885-1937), a popular leading man who appeared in many silent sentimental dramas with his
wife Ivy Duke. The supporting cast was made up mainly with German actors while the railway
scenes were shot on the Hurtsbourne-Fullerton line in Hampshire. The exteriors of the
"haunted" station were filmed at nearby Wherell. Also directed by Geza Bolvary
and produced by Balcon, this first film rendition of The Ghost Train thankfully survives in the collection of the National
Film Archives and is available for viewing at the British Film Institute.
It was only
until quite recently that Gaumont-British's 1931 version of The Ghost Train resurfaced after many years believed lost. The
original nitrate negative had deteriorated to the point of destruction while in storage
leaving only five reels available for restoration. David Meeker of the National Film
Archives salvaged what remained including the soundtrack for the last three reels.
However, the absence of two reels makes the restored copy all the more frustrating. Again
the British Film Institute have a copy
of this available for viewing.
The plot stays close to Ridley's original play with passenger's en route to Truro being
left stranded at lonely Fal Vale train station. It just happens that a team of gun-runners
importing arms from Russia conceal their activities by perpetuating the legend of a ghost
train. One passenger is actually a detective who becomes wise to the
"supernatural" events and causes the smugglers who are on board the train to
plunge to their deaths in a ravine when the swing bridge is left open. This final effect
was acheived using miniatures. The Great Western Railway provided Gainsborough with their
facilities for the exterior scenes which included Paddington, the Barmouth viaduct, the
Limpley Stoke-Camerton branch line and the construction of the "haunted" station
on a GWR sideline near Bath. Interiors were filmed at the studios in Islington, but the
extensive night shooting created many problems with lighting. To offset this the train
used was painted white and then undercranked in the camera to acheive the effect of the
train hurtling through the station.
Photographed by Leslie Rowson and scripted by Angus MacPhail, Lajos Biro and Sidney
Gilliat who incidentally was uncredited, producer Michael Balcon, who later became the
head of Ealing Studios, chose Walter Forde to
Born 1896 in
Bradford as Thomas Seymour, Forde began his career as a music hall pianist and for a brief
period provided musical accompianment for silent films. Gradually Forde showed a flair for
comedy which he developed into his own stage act. At 25 he entered the film industry and
became Britain's only screen comedian to compete with the likes of America's Chaplin,
Keaton, Langdon and Lloyd. His appreciation of Harold Lloyd's work influenced his own
screen adventures, most of which he wrote. After dabbling with two sound features WOULD
YOU BELIEVE IT? (1929) and YOU'D BE SURPRISED! (1930), Forde switched his
attentions to directing with marvellous results in the field of comedy. Soon he became the
favourite of many major film companies, but he did not give up acting entirely and appears
in many of his films including The Ghost Train where he can be spotted as one of
Singled out for the leading role of Teddy
Deakin was the effervescent Jack Hulbert who appeared in the film with his wife Cicely
Courtneidge who was cast as the suffering Miss Bourne. Both had built a successful career
treading the boards and had only ever appeared on film once before in extracts from the
revue film ELSTREE CALLING (1930). The Ghost Train provided a welcome break
for both comedians and began a new and fruitful career for them in the cinema. Hulbert was
popular and remarkably athletic, not only was he a good comic, he could also play a
convincing romantic role. Jack Hulbert recalls in his memoirs his first day at the
Gainsborough studios for a screen test, "I forced myself to imagine I was playing
to that audience of Michael Balcon with his studio staff and technicians watching this
test tomorrow morning in the projection theatre. I said something like this: I understand
that the boss of this outfit is a chap called Balcon. His name means nothing to me. Korda,
yes, he's O.K. But Balcon...never heard of him. And if he knew anything about making
pictures he wouldn't be wasting time looking at me. I'm a song-and-dance man and if he's
thinking of casting me for the hero in The Ghost Train, he must be raving mad...and let me
tell you Mr. Balcon, film making calls for a high degree of intelligence and efficiency. I
suggest you try something else. Thanks for the use of your studio which obviously I shall
not be seeing again. Good afternoon".
To his relief, the insulting tactic worked and Jack Hulbert secured the part.
All those concerned with the production of The
Ghost Train were enthusiastic as to how the film was to be presented. Hulbert was
asked to rewrite his dialogue which he was delighted to do, but he could not get used to
seeing himself on the screen and started to believe that what he had said about Balcon was
actually true. Hulbert also mentions in his book that Walter Forde always had a piano on
the set that he used to play between takes to express his mood. "H.M.S.
Pinafore" signalled that he was pleased, but "Tosca" meant that things were
On the exteriors Hulbert recalls an incident where "...we had a shot where I had
to run in front of the train to cross the line immediately to deliver an urgent message.
Here was a chance, I thought, to make it sensational. The train was gathering speed, I ran
along with it, neck and neck, then I accelerated and crossed the line within inches of
being hit by the engine. The woman screamed. They thought I'd had it, but I emerged
laughing to be told by everyone it was a crazy thing to do and when I reflected I began to
think they were right. But it was worth the risk. It should be a hair-raising sight on the
screen. When I saw the rushes it meant nothing at all, just an odd-looking young man
running in front of a train. All that risk and nothing to show for it, but it had a very
salutary effect on my thinking. No more dangerous thrills for me. It could all be faked
and look much more convincing."
Also in the cast is Donald Calthrop (1888-1940), a popular figure of
British films during the Thirties cast as train guard Saul Hodgkin; Ann Todd (1909- ) as
Jackie Winthrop; the wonderful actor with a distinct resonant voice Allan Jeayes
(1885-1963) as Dr. Sterling, plus Cyril Raymond, Angela Baddeley, Henry Caine, Tracy
Holmes and Carol Coombe.
The Ghost Train's success was assured, even in America where it had a profitable
week's engagement at the celebrated Roxy Theatre in New York City during February 1933.
The trade paper "Bioscope" remarked "With a deft touch Walter Forde has
guided his artists through a none too convincing story, extracting from it every ounce of
credulous virtue; every gasp of dramatic intensity. The result is one of the most gripping
British films ever produced".
In Hungary, director Lajos Lazar made another version of the play released in
1933, a print of which is also held at the National Film Archive. This variation retained
all the distant shots of the original players, but replaced all the others with popular
Hungarian performers as the cast.
The Ghost Train's success led to an upsurge of mystery thrillers made during the
early Thirties and provided Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge with lengthy contracts for
appearances in comedy films that proved to be a tonic for a public suffering under the
Depression and a growing threat of war.
Walter Forde and Michael Balcon collaborated again the
following year for the Gaumont-British production of ROME EXPRESS (1932). Forde's
direction was described as 'masterly' for this prototype train thriller which was the
first film made at the re-built Lime Grove studios in Shepard's Bush. Cast in the lead
role of Zurta was Conrad Veidt, his first
film after his exile from Germany and his emigration to Britain. Zurta is a master
criminal on board the Paris-Rome express who becomes involved in murder, blackmail and
theft among the passengers on the journey. As a result ROME EXPRESS was touted as
one of the best British films ever made and gave a further boost to a multitude of train
thrillers that were made during this period. The film was later remade almost scene for
scene as SLEEPING CAR TO TRIESTE in 1949 directed by John Paddy Carstairs for Two
One man who became synonymous with the train thriller
was Alfred Hitchcock whose first contribution to this sub-genre is NUMBER SEVENTEEN
(1932) which featured a superb chase scene on board a train during the film's climax. The
train also featured predominantly in THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS (1935) starring Robert
Donat and a train crash ends SECRET AGENT (1936) starring Peter Lorre and John Gielgud. In THE LADY VANISHES (1938) the
story is set on the Transcontinental Express where the elderly Miss Froy played by Dame
May Whitty vanishes without a trace. Michael Redgrave and the delectable Margaret Lockwood
attempt to unravel the mystery. In 1951 Hitchcock again utilised the train for STRANGERS
ON A TRAIN (1951) for Warner Brothers after his relocation to America in 1939. In this
Farley Granger and Robert Walker begin a discussion that leads to the two men swapping
murders to solve each others problems.
On December 20th. 1937 television was
taking it's first tentative steps with a forty minute presentation by the BBC of Arnold
Ridley's The Ghost Train performed in front of bulky "Enitron"
cameras by John Counsell, Joan Lawson, Don Gemmell, Alex McCringle, Clifford Benn, Arthur
Young, Daphne Riggs and Laura Smithson. Smithson portrayed spinster Miss Bourne on the
West End stage and because the character spent so much of the play asleep that Smithson
was allowed a mattress to lie on. However, under the glare of the television cameras this
little luxury was not allowed.
1937 also saw the
production of a film that has come to be regarded as a timeless comedy classic and
the best of the Will Hay comedies. In OH, MR. PORTER! the
incomparable Will Hay (1888-1949) stars as the new Stationmaster of the Northern Ireland
train station at Buggleskelly. His cohorts are portrayed by Moore Marriott as Jeremiah
Harbottle and Graham Moffatt as Albert and together they encounter the legend of
"One-Eyed Joe" an apparition who is said to haunt the lonely station. The village postman, (Dave O'Toole), takes great relish in relating the
legend to the new Stationmaster.
"And every night when the moon gives light, The ghost of the miller is seen, As he
walks the track with a sack on his back, Down to the Black Borheen.
And the mill wheels turn though the night is still, And the elf lights flash from the
ruined mill, He haunts the station, he haunts the hill, And the land that lies
Again the legend is but a ruse used by
gun-runners to conceal their criminal activities. The supporting cast included
"Gladstone", a Victorian engine built in 1899 that was rescued from the
scrapheap for the film. Originally called the "Northiam", Gladstone was still in
regular use until 1941 when it was withdrawn from service and sold as scrap metal.
Buggleskelly was actually a semi-derelict station at Cliddesden on the abandoned
Basingstoke-Alton branch line of Hampshire's Southern Railway, the same location used for
THE WRECKER in 1929.
During the height of World War II, Gainsborough returned to The Ghost
Train for a 1941 remake featuring the bright new star of British comedy Arthur Askey
(1900-1982). This peppy character with a thousand catch phrases tickled the country's
funny-bone on radio with a show titled "Band Waggon" which was adapted for the
cinema and served as Askey's screen debut during 1939. Askey's straight-man Richard
"Stinker" Murdoch (1907-1990) became equally as popular and on the strength of
the radio show's success, both comedians naturally went on to star in film.
For The Ghost Train the nominal hero of the
story was divided into two, Murdoch portrayed Teddy Deakin, the hero and romantic lead
while Askey was introduced into the plot as Tommy Gander, an entertainer travelling to
Cornwall for an engagement on the sea-front. Kathleen Harrison, a superb comedienne,
appears in the role vacated by Cicely Courtneidge. Harrison began her film career as a
teenager in 1915 and continued to act until her recent death in 1994 at the age of 96.
Also amongst the cast is the reliable Raymond Huntley as Price and Linden Travers as his
daughter Julia Price who provides the obligatory terror filled screams as the phantom
train, with its whistle blowing, thunders through the deserted station. During her scenes,
even Askey's wise-cracking interruptions are laced with a certain morbidity.
Also in the cast is the grim looking Herbert Lomas (1887-1961) as train guard Saul
Hodgkin who relates in his own sepulchral tones the legend of the "ghost train"
when 43 years ago as the "special" driven by old Ben Isaacs (shown in flashback
with D.J. Williams making another brief
appearance as Isaacs), plunges into the river when the swing-bridge was left open by
stationmaster Ted Holmes after he collapsed with a heart attack.
The only departure from Ridley's original play other than the splitting of the lead roles,
was to update the criminals to be a gang of Fifth Columnists smuggling arms from an old
jetty on the beach at night.
Walter Forde again directed this third and to date final version that was shot almost
entirely at the Lime Grove studios primarily because the use of railway stations for the
film were unavailable during the war. For all the efforts to highlight the comic aspects
of the story, it is the added touch of the macabre that set the picture alight. British cinema at this time was going through a stormy period
of censorship disapproval in the wake of the newly imposed "H" for Horrific
certificate that limited the potential of any film containing any hint of disrespect. For
this reason most of Britain's genre output was restricted to whimsical fantasies, with
very few exceptions to the rule being made.
As war swept through Europe like a plague, Arnold Ridley returned to France as a Major,
but he again was invalided out when his previous injuries became known to the War Office.
He joined ENSA. and planned a national tour of his play The Ghost Train to be
directed by himself. It was during this time that Arnold met his future wife, actress
Althea Parker who he married after the Armistice. Parker gave birth to their son Nicholas
in 1947. Ridley resumed an acting career when in 1952 famous impressario Emile Littler
agreed to produce a musical version of Ridley's play titled Happy Holiday on the
proviso that Ridley gave him half the rights to The Ghost Train. However, this
particular incarnation proved less than successful, but the royalties received by Arnold
from other companies producing the familiar play proved to be a great money-spinner. All
achieved from that one instance that Ridley spent alone at the train station.
In 1962 Arnold Ridley joined the cast of
one production as the station porter to sell-out crowds at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in
Guilford, but it wasn't until 1967 that Jimmy Perry and David Croft were casting for a BBC
comedy series about the efforts of the Home Guard during World War II that Arnold found
himself becoming a household name. Originally six programmes were planned, but as the
popularity of the series grew, a total of 80 programmes and a feature film were made
between 1968 and 1977. The casting was nothing less than inspired, and alongside Clive
Dunn, John Laurie, John Le Mesurier and Arthur Lowe, Arnold Ridley gave a warm-hearted
performance as the rather slow, but well-meaning Private Godfrey. However, it was for his
services to the theatre that he was awarded the OBE in the 1982 New Years Honours List.
Unfortunately at the time failing health was overtaking Arnold, and his lively imagination
died along with him in 1984 at the age of 88.
The Ghost Train, with all its
interpretations has been likened to America's own successful mystery play The Cat and the Canary penned by John Willard in
1922. The Ghost Train could well prove to be a success for modern day filmakers,
but even though the story remains a popular theatre production, another film version has
yet to be made.
Without a doubt, the appeal and romance of the locomotive has served filmakers of the past
with a splendid setting for suspense thrillers, mysteries, comedies, westerns, musicals,
war films to name but a few, and I am sure we haven't seen the last train to thunder
through the station.
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