by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was a 1932 low-budget independent thriller called The Phantom Express, made by Majestic (one of the better indie studios of the time) and opening with some quite spectacular footage of a train hurtling down the track on a dark night. The train’s engineer, D. J. “Smokey” Nolan (J. Farrell MacDonald), and his Swedish-accented comic-relief fireman Axel (Axel Axelson), get spooked when they see the headlight of a train going the opposite direction on the same track bearing down on them. Anxious to avoid a collision, Nolan pulls the brake to try to stop the train, but it derails as it stops and there’s a horrendous accident from which Nolan and Axel walk away but some of the passengers die. The railroad’s owner, Mr. Harrington (Hobart Bosworth), convenes a board of inquiry and learns that none of the personnel at any of the stations that train would have had to pass saw it coming (or going) and therefore it doesn’t seem as if the train existed at all — only Nolan swears he not only saw but heard it, and so do some of the neighbors living along the track. Nonetheless, Harrington fires Nolan.
Meanwhile, Harrington’s scapegrace son Bruce (William Collier, Jr.) and his friend Dick Walsh (Eddie Phillips) go undercover to see if they can find the secret behind the wrecks — there’ve been at least two others before that, all with the engineers similarly reporting a “phantom express” bearing down on them which they stopped and derailed in an attempt to avoid colliding into — and see if they can confirm Harrington, Sr.’s suspicion that the wrecks are being staged by agents of a rival railroad that are trying to acquire Harrington’s line and drive the price down by making his line appear unsafe. At the start of the movie Bruce Harrington is a ne’er-do-well young man whose only interests are yachting and girls — though his latest girlfriend de jour walks out on him when she catches Bruce flirting with Carolyn Nolan (Sally Blane, Loretta Young’s real-life sister), daughter of “Smokey” Nolan, who works in the railroad office as a secretary.
Appalled by the injustice of Nolan’s firing — which he learns about at a birthday party for him at the little house he and his proletarian family live in — Bruce ultimately discovers that the wrecks were indeed being staged by agents of the rival railroad, and he learns how: they rigged up an airplane with a giant light in the front to make it resemble the headlight of a train, and also outfitted it with an amplifier and large speakers so they could play a record of train sounds at a volume similar to that of the real thing, so they could make it appear both to the hapless engineers and the neighbors living alongside the tracks that the “phantom express” was real, while the station personnel swore that no train had passed them because none had. In a good action climax, Doyle has to get himself and Bruce to the railroad office before midnight, when Harrington, Sr. is about to sign the papers selling the line, and deliver the news in person since there’s been a major storm that has blown both the telegraph and telephone lines — and Doyle barrels the train down the track under the worst possible conditions and somehow gets himself, the boss’s son and the train to the city despite various obstacles, including a weak bridge who (stop me if you’ve heard this before) collapses just after Doyle gets the train over it safely.
The director was Emory Johnson, who also co-wrote the script with Laird Doyle (who would later jump to the major studios and write some of Bette Davis’s early vehicles at Warners) and the production designer was Albert D’Agostino, who would take over the art department at RKO in the early 1940’s after Van Nest Polglase drank himself out of the job. The Phantom Express is a nicely done thriller that would have been even better at a major studio — imagine it at Warners with James Cagney in the lead! — where the trains hurtling through the night wouldn’t have been so obviously models and a musical score would have added to the tension, but even as it stands The Phantom Express is a well-turned movie, exciting and relatively inventive in its plot resolution (even though one would have to think a band of unscrupulous financial manipulators seeking to wreck a rival railroad to pick it up at a fire-sale price would have been able to come up with a less elaborate way of doing it!) and with enough hell-bent-for-leather action and at the same time some genuine pathos: the scene in which Smokey Doyle learns he’s been fired is very carefully staged for maximum emotional impact without sliding over into soap-opera bathos.