Monday, June 11, 2018

Drama, comedy, history, ethnic stereotypes: 'The Iron Horse' (Thursday, 6/14) has it all!

Thursday, June 14 is Flag Day, one of those quasi-holidays that doesn't quite meet the "three-day" weekend test.

But at a time of divisiveness, why not use the occasion to celebrate something that helped bring us together as a nation?

I'm thinking of the Transcontinental Railroad, built after the Civil War to link California and the Wild West with the nation's settled East.

And I'm thinking specifically about 'The Iron Horse,' an epic 1924 silent drama that tells its story as only Hollywood (even then) could do.

This movie, directed by a very young John Ford for the Fox Studio, will be screened on Thursday, June 14 at 8 p.m. at the Capitol Theatre in Arlington, Mass.

More details in the press release below.

Laying track, with locomotive in wait, in 'The Iron Horse' (1924).

For now, let me just say that 'Iron Horse' is from the P.T. Barnum school of filmmaking: there's a little something (and sometimes a lot) for everyone.

Drama? Check. Slapstick comedy? Check. History and geography? Check. Ethnic stereotypes? Check. Cameo by Abraham Lincoln? Check. Lots of steam engine and train action? Double check!

All this made for a really successful picture in 1924—one that holds up pretty well today, I think, as long as you understand what Ford and his collaborators were going for.

They weren't trying for straight drama, or pure comedy, or really any kind of disciplined genre. Rather, they were celebrating a national achievement that was in living memory of many in the audience at the time. The continent-spanning railroad was something of which most Americans were still quite proud, and justifiably so.

And in the new-fangled movie business, there was a market for this kind of a feel good "parade" film—one that brought to life one of the many true-to-life legends that fed into the American story. 'The Covered Wagon' (1922) was another one.

So not really a documentary, and not completely fiction, either. Instead, 'The Iron Horse' comes off as a refreshingly upbeat and uncynical Valentine to an era when big things seemed possible.

Wow, I think we need films like this more than ever. See you at the Capitol!

* * *

I'll be watching you: a vintage poster promoting 'The Iron Horse' (1924).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

John Ford's 'The Iron Horse’ with live music Thursday, June 14 at Capitol Theatre

Building of transcontinental railroad is focus of legendary director's groundbreaking silent film epic

ARLINGTON, Mass.—The battle to complete the transcontinental railroad provides the setting for 'The Iron Horse,' a John Ford-directed silent film epic that mixes history and fiction.

Shot in the wide open spaces of New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada, 'The Iron Horse' set new standards for location photography and was a huge hit for Fox Studios when released in 1924.

'The Iron Horse' will be screened with live music on Thursday, June 14 at 8 p.m. at the Capitol Theatre, 204 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington, Mass. Admission is $12 adults, $10 kids and seniors.

A live musical score will be performed by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist.

Though based on actual historical events, 'The Iron Horse' weaves fictional story lines into the massive effort to build a railroad across the West, linking California with the rest of the nation.

The project, authorized by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862 at the height of the Civil War, was not completed until 1869 with the driving of the Golden Spike in Utah.

Although only a half-century in the past when 'The Iron Horse' was made, the completion of the transcontinental railroad had already taken on a mythic status as part of the nation's story.

The film's narratives includes appearances by iconic historical figures such as Lincoln, Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok.

Director John Ford was just 31, but already a veteran of 35 features and dozens more two-reelers, many of them westerns, when he lobbied William Fox to helm 'The Iron Horse.'

Madge Bellamy and George O'Brien, and horse, on location in 'The Iron Horse' (1924).

For the leading role of Davy Brandon, Ford cast an unknown. George O'Brien had been a stuntman, extra, and camera assistant when Ford, impressed by his screen tests and his pluck, cast him over the studio's reservations.

'The Iron Horse' made O'Brien a western star and his subsequent career included many more Ford films as well as the lead in F.W. Murnau's masterpiece 'Sunrise' (1927).

The female lead was played by Madge Bellamy, a major leading actress of the silent film era.

Taking advantage of the movie camera's flexibility, Ford and his crew shot the film on location in New Mexico, Nevada, and Arizona. Locations were chosen for wide open spaces and dramatic landscapes.

The production battled snow constantly, and the shooting day often began with the entire company shoveling and sweeping the snow off the streets of the sets.

To add authenticity, Ford brought in real Native Americans to play the "Indians" (they also doubled as Chinese laborers for a few shots) and hired local cowboys for the riding scenes and stunts.

The film opened to rave reviews and became one of Fox's biggest hits of the silent era, earning over $2 million on a negative cost of $250,000.

Yet another vintage poster for 'The Iron Horse' (1924). If nothing else, the flick was well-promoted.

Ford would go on to win a total of four Academy Awards for directing, a record that still stands today. His later films include 'Stage Coach' (1939); 'The Grapes of Wrath' (1940); 'How Green Was My Valley' (1941); and 'The Quiet Man' (1952).

'The Iron Horse' is the latest in a series of monthly silent film screenings at the Capitol Theatre. The series aims to recreate the lost magic of early cinema by assembling the elements needed for silent film to be seen at its best: superior films in best available prints; projection on the big screen; live musical accompaniment; and a live audience.

“These films are still exciting experiences if you show them as they were designed to be screened,” said Rapsis, accompanist for the screenings. “There’s a reason people first fell in love with the movies, and we hope to recreate that spirit.”

For each film, Rapsis improvises a music score using original themes created beforehand. None of the the music is written down; instead, the score evolves in real time based on audience reaction and the overall mood as the movie is screened.

Upcoming titles in the Capitol's silent film series include:

• Thursday, July 5, 8 p.m.: 'The Beloved Rogue' (1926) starring John Barrymore. Epic costume adventure based on the life of the 15th century French poet, Fran├žois Villon

• Thursday, Aug. 16, 8 p.m.: 'Her Sister from Paris' (1925) starring Constance Talmadge, Ronald Colman. Talmadge in top form playing two very different sisters in this effervescent battle-of-the-sexes romantic comedy.

• Thursday, Sept. 13, 8 p.m.: 'The Last Laugh' (1924). In this ground-breaking character study from director F. W. Murnau, Emil Jannings delivers a tour-de-force performance as a doorman in a swanky Berlin hotel.

• Thursday, Oct 18, 8 p.m.: 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923). Just in time for Halloween: Lon Chaney stars as Quasimodo in this sprawling silent film adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic story.

John Ford's 'The Iron Horse' will be shown on Thursday, June 14 at 8 p.m. at the Capitol Theatre, 204 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington, Mass. Admission is $12 adults, $10 kids and seniors. For more info, call (781) 648-6022 or visit

Below: a vintage newspaper ad promoting 'The Iron Horse' (1924).

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