"Midnight in Paris" and golden ages of railroads

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, September 5, 2011

Movies have unexpected effects on me. Cathie drags me kicking and screaming to see Midnight in Paris, she saying it is a “romantic comedy where two people fall in love.” Okay, a chick flick. Not until the opening credits do I realize it’s a Woody Allen screenplay that he also directed. The plot: Gil (Owen Wilson), a young Hollywood screenwriter and would-be novelist and his fiancé and her parents are vacationing in Paris. The fiancé is a voluptuous but brainless shopaholic, he a romanticist who worships what Paris must have been like when America’s artistic Lost Generation inhabited the city during the 1920s.

One night, alone and slightly drunk, he is lost, sitting on some steps when at the stroke of midnight an antique car comes and faces beckon from within. Gil soon realizes he has been transported back in time and cavorts with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Cole Porter, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and his soon-estranged lover, Adriana. Gil falls in love with Adriana, who thinks her Paris shallow and believes the city’s real Golden Age to be the 1890s. Eventually, Gil and Adriana are time-transported to that earlier era, where they meet Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gauguin and Edgar Degas, who profess that their Golden Age was the Renaissance. Get the picture?

Believe me, Woody Allen is better writing and directing screenplays than I am describing them. I totally forget about napping and enjoy the movie. Later, having drinks with Cathie, I wonder aloud what our Golden Ages would be. She said Paris in the 1920s wasn’t a bad time and place to plop down “if you can leave before 1930” and avoid the following 15 years of economic depression and war.

Sitting there, I decide to apply Allen’s thesis to my own life. The premise of his script is that people over-romanticize earlier times and places, whereas people who inhabited those times and places did not think half as much of them as we do now.

After a bit of thinking and munching on pizza, I conclude that my Golden Age, both personally and professionally, would have to be the early to mid 1950s. I was around then, but a kid. In my screenplay, I would be born in, oh, 1932 instead of 1944. I would come of age in 1952 and get some small-town newspaper experience. The streamlined passenger train then was in its full zenith, and the steam locomotive, though clearly doomed, remained almost everywhere. The decade after World War II was a relatively good one for American railroads.

Seasoned a bit as a writer and reporter, I would apply for Wallace Abbey’s job when he resigned as Associate Editor of TRAINS in 1954. David P. Morgan would take me under his wing and in the next six years teach me all the things about writing and railroads that it took me 30 years to learn. Then about 1960, I’d thank David, and with this experience land a job at the Chicago Sun-Times roughly six years before I did in real life. I’d marry Cathie before she married her first husband and live happily ever after, more or less as I have the past four decades. That’s my script.

I explain this to Cathie, who likes the part of my stepping in front of her first husband. That’s about as far as my daydreams get. You see, every time I think about the 1950s, I realize what a colossal storm approached the railroad industry, one that would last a quarter century. The Interstate Highway Act devastated the freight railroad business by the 1960s. By the late 1950s, steam was all but dead in the U.S. and there went that bit of variety. By then as well, the passenger train was clearly in trouble. I’d compare new timetables with the issues they replaced to note the missing trains and closed depots.

The contraction of the railroad industry began in earnest by 1960 and continued past passage of the Staggers Act in 1980 because it took the industry years to shake off the mindset of public utilities.
 What I’m trying to say is that almost from my first infatuation with railroads in the mid 1950s, those of us who loved trains lived in a state of unremitted depression.

Compare that, please, to today. For the railroad industry, this is truly the Golden Age. I know without asking that Wick Moorman and Jim Young don’t want to be transported in time back half a century. Railroads are the only form of American transportation doing well financially and in good physical condition. This would apply as well to most short lines and regional railroads.

I am aware that life is not paradise today for train lovers. The Class I companies are depersonalized and bureaucratized. You can’t wave to an engineer and see him through the tinted windows. All Amtrak trains pretty much look alike. On the other hand, the cost of film to record these trains has gone to zero. The internet lets we train lovers communicate directly in ways we never could before. The Transportation Security Administration to the contrary, there is an ocean of information available today about railroads and their operations for anyone who cares to look long enough. To state it another way, the railroad industry you see today is a base that is building, not contracting. All in all, I like that better than any time in the past.

 As for Gil, he finally concludes that . . . . well, I’d ruin the movie for you, wouldn’t I? — Fred W. Frailey

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