Mild-mannered Gene Wilder boards a train from Los Angeles to Chicago (actually filmed in Canada), becomes involved in a mystery plot and is framed for murder. In order to get back on without getting caught, a small-time crook (Richard Pryor) puts him in shoe-polish blackface in a train station restroom, and coaches him on how to “act black.” Meanwhile, the F.B.I. has learned that the real bad guy (Patrick McGoohan of The Prisoner tv-series) is on board and enlists them for help. The Feds stop the train on a pretext and get all the passengers off, but McGoohan shoots the engineer and tells his assistant to get the train going or he’ll get the same – which he eventually does anyway.
In the early decades of Hollywood, a way of saving money was to find out when something was happening, film it, and write a movie to match the footage. Come to think of it, Roger Corman still uses this formula. Anyway, when Burlington Railroad (now Burlington Northern Santa Fe) decided to build the first lightweight diesel streamliner (powered by an experimental 600-hp diesel engine G.M. had been showing off at the 1933 World’s Fair), cameras were placed along the route and a script was written. The following year, this movie came out.
A girl in Nevada is dying. An iron lung (the cutting edge of 1930s technology) is loaded on board the Burlington Zephyr in Chicago for its inaugural run and off it goes. But there’s a bad guy on board who just might wreck the train. At the time, the Zephyr only went as far west as Denver, but I guess Nevada sounded better (it eventually went all the way to San Francisco as the California Zephyr, but that wasn’t until 1939). The real Zephyr, by the way, was actually wind-tunnel tested by M.I.T. because it was so light weight that experts were afraid it would fly off the rails. As it was, the Secret Service wouldn’t let the President ride it for the same reason. The 3-car train in this movie remained in service until 1960. And then there were the Zephyrettes, but that’s another story.
Stars: Arthur Lake and some other people you’ve never heard of. 72 minutes, black & white. Watch for it to turn up on American Movie Classics (AMC) or Turner Classic Movies (TCM)
What's the opposite of a runaway train? One that never moves. In 1965, the Christian Science Monitor reported that the "Sioux Chief" had been turned into the first "traintel", two Pullman cars and a Roomette passenger car. Guests stay overnight, to sounds of "clickety-clack" piped in, then leave the train the next morning at the same spot. 38 sleeping rooms and 44 berths. Owner Verl Thompson got the idea when he saw used train cars for sale in a yard in Chicago, now serving tourists on their way to Mount Rushmore. Want more weirdness? Check out Ripley's Believe It Or Not
A man is sitting on the train in Manhattan headed toward the Bronx. He is reading a newspaper and on his lap three kittens are sleeping. A woman watching this can finally stand it no longer and taps his newspaper, "Pardon me, but what on earth are you doing with those cats on your lap?"
He looks down and says, "I dunno, they musta got on at 59th Street."