PUTTING THE THRILLS INTO RAILROAD
Making the Movies by Ernest A. Dench
New York, The Macmillan company, published 1915 (now in the Public Domain)
The producing of a railroad film drama does not end by the leasing of a side track, a brace of locomotives and six or more coaches. Oh, by no means, let me assure you! That done, the task, in fact, has hardly begun, for the director has yet to put his players through the mill. And, believe me, theirs is no enviable task: they must think nothing of breaking their necks and generally flirting with death. It must be said, however, in fairness, that all human precautions are taken to prevent accidents.
Probably the biggest railroad spectacle in the history of motion pictures was staged in the fall of 1914 at Milltown, New Jersey, on a spur of the Raritan River Railroad. In this case, a break from the ordinary rule was made, the thrill being that a train made up of one old locomotive and three coaches, should fall into the water when passing over a trestle across a lake, on account of the supports giving way. This was accomplished by erecting a trestle specially for the occasion. It joined the main line seventy-five feet from the shore and had a sharp curve of one hundred and seventy-five feet. An expert took charge of the dynamiting arrangements and everything was carefully timed. The engineer was told to set the speed at fifteen miles per hour before deserting the cab, so that the eight camera men, stationed at different points, might get a panorama as the train made its fatal journey. If it travelled any faster it would blur on the film. But the engineer had evidently opened the throttle too wide, for the train slid by at double the desired speed. The dynamite near the end of the trestle then exploded, sending the train and the supports into the water.
The front of the engine came to a standstill within a few feet of one of the dare-devil operators who was busy filmng the wreck from a small platform. Everybody present feared that the locomotive would knock the platform over and despatch the young man to the icy depths below. Although he was spared this fate, he was simply deluged with sprays of water, sent up by the plunging train. Yet this did not deter him from continuing to grind.
But this was not all, for Mr. Film Director believes in getting his money's worth. Now for the grand finale. Dynamite was placed inside the engine, which floated on the surface and exploded quite satisfactorily. This nice realistic incident was dubbed a "boiler explosion" when seen on the film. In the wrecked cars were dummies, and after the wreck, the twenty or so players who were cast as the passengers jumped into the lake from a float. There was, however, a genuine ring about their cries for help and attempts to rescue each other, for the water was very chilly and they nearly all caught the cramps. A skiff was immediately despatched from the shore and eventually rescued the party, some only in the nick of time.
Earle Williams, the Vitagraph star, however, managed to swim with the help of a boy, although several times he seemed to be on the verge of sinking. He was in an exhausted condition when taken out.
The railroad scenes for the Pathe production, "The Taint," were taken in New Jersey by permission of the Wharton Railroad. An engine was purchased with the intention of converting it into scrap iron for the film.
The perilous task, the hero, Ed Jose, had before him was to elude his attackers by letting the engine rush at a headlong pace and then escape by jumping off. All went well until the siding hove in sight; then Ed leaped over the embankment. The somersaults he made down that steep bank would have done credit to a trained acrobat. He was all aches and bruises afterward.
The camera was set up just a few feet from the ditch where the engine was to fall and narrowly escaped destruction. But luckily the locomotive eneded its career just a few feet away, sending streams of earch and stones over the plucky operator.
Who, then, will now say that railroad dramas are tame propositions for those who make them?
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