Ride the Sundown Limited

Posted by John Hankey
on Thursday, February 22, 2018

I have a headcold, generously shared by someone during a recent flight. It isn’t a bad one, and at least it isn’t the flu.

As often the case, when my head if full of fuzz and the old bones ache, I park in front of a screen and wander off into American popular culture from the last 200 years or so, looking for amusing railroad bits.

Growing up, the “media content” on the 1950s B&W television we had was pretty primitive. Baltimore offered three TV stations, and we could sometimes pull in a couple more from Washington.

The broadcast fare was depressingly lame—shows like Queen for a Day, Our Miss Brooks, Bozo the Clown, and all sorts of grown-up shows that I didn’t really understand. The short-lived program “Casey Jones” was one of my favorites—and perhaps the worst TV ever produced.

The best were reruns of Laurel & Hardy, Abbott and Costello, the Three Stooges, old Marx Brothers movies, and other shows from the 1930s, and 40s. It became clear decades later that my understanding of life was shaped by a peculiar version of the world as it existed on film in the Great Depression.

The Little Rascals were part of the mix. Hollywood producer Hal Roach created hundreds of movie theater short features from the mid1920s through 1944 with a constantly-evolving cast of talented child actors. It was noteworthy that the “Our Gang” or “Little Rascals” crew seemed to be unselfconsciously integrated at a time when most of the country was viciously segregated.

Today, all of the parents and production crew would be charged with reckless child endangerment and quickly locked up. Watching the films makes me cringe. And what on earth were the AT&SF or SP thinking? But these films are a record of their times.

Search YouTube for “Railroadin” (1929), “Choo Choo” (1932), and my favorite, “Sundown Limited” (1924).


Do check it out:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=05zjuLlF1Go


Sundown Limited is a 20 minute silent film with early camera tricks, stunts, special effects, and all sorts of visual gags. Hal Roach was a prolific film pioneer and lived to the ripe age of 100, dying in 1992.

What impresses me most is how deeply Roach and the production staff understood the everyday business of railroading—and how they reproduced it with pint-sized actors, a peculiar kind of model railroad, and an apparent lack of adult supervision. I would be fascinated to hear what UP or BNSF corporate counsel had to say about this today.

There is a whole lot going on in this film. It is politically incorrect, vaguely racist, downright scary with the kids, and offers absolutely no useful lessons to anyone. It is rippingly good fun and made me wish I grew up then and there.

It is also clever parody, comedy, social commentary, melodrama, and the kind of visual humor that Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and the Keystone Cops took to the next level. It may require two viewings to take it all in.

You can’t really enjoy the railroad references and sight gags unless you know a good deal about railroading, which most people did in those days. I have to think the prop guys had a lot of fun with this one.

Who knew how effective a one dogpower, two cat-turbo locomotive could be?

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