by Warren M. Sherk
Trains have figured prominently in several films scored by Dimitri Tiomkin, from High Noon to Last Train from Gun Hill. In recognition of the third annual National Train Day on May 8, we are highlighting two films from this particular portion of his oeuvre, Canadian Pacific and Night Passage, in which trains play a central role in the story line.
During the 1940s few epic railroad films were produced partly due to World War II when trains were needed to move supplies and material for the war effort. In 1948, exhibitor-turned-producer Nat Holt stepped in to fill the void with his first independent film, Canadian Pacific. Holt chose to film on location in the Canadian Rockies, in an area bordering British Columbia and Alberta at sites in Banff and Yoho National Parks, such as Lake Louise, Kicking Horse Pass, and the Yoho Valley, and the neighboring Indian reserve at Morley. A vintage 1880s wood-burning locomotive was procured from the Canadian government for the production. Gladwin Hill, a Hollywood correspondent writing in the New York Times, noted that for pickup shots back in Hollywood, a train from Nevada was used.
The Canadian Pacific railroad of the film’s title was built between 1881 and 1885 to link Canada’s coasts. Set against this historical background, filming began in August 1948 with a cast that included Randolph Scott, Jane Wyatt, and J. Carrol Naish. Writer Hill called the film the first railroad epic since Union Pacific, the 1939 film that producer Holt admitted was an influence. The film opened to generally favorable reviews in April 1949, most notably for its action sequences. It was jammed with action—“fist, gun, horse, girl and Indian”—according to one reviewer.
Tiomkin chooses to set up the love story in the main title music before introducing some march of progress music. Since the main titles contain a static shot of the mountains, the composer waits until nearly ten minutes in for a chance to musically accompany moving pictures depicting the sweeping majesty of the Canadian mountains. Even though there is music in 38 of the film’s 94 minutes, the film feels like it is sparsely scored. Perhaps this is because half of the nearly 30 music cues last less than a minute. The combined length of four powerful cues, “Canadian Rockies,” “Preparing for Indian Attack,” “Indian Night Attack,” and “Train Rescue, account for more than 13 minutes of the dramatic underscore.
In an interesting historical note, the film opened at the Palace Theatre in New York on the very day that vaudeville was revived at that theater. The Palace held special meaning for Tiomkin’s wife, choreographer Albertina Rasch. The Albertina Rasch Girls were among the last to perform at the Palace in 1932 when the twice-daily shows came to an end. And, of course, vaudeville was instrumental in bringing the couple together.
Another Tiomkin train-centric adventure came in 1957, with the Colorado Rockies and Animas Canyon serving as the film’s backdrop. Hollywood Reporter critic James Powers noted the visually stunning background and cited Tiomkin’s “good, rather folk-music kind of score” that includes two “nice” songs. The songs, both with lyrics by Ned Washington, are “Follow the River” and “You Can’t Get Far Without a Railroad.” The effect of the success of High Noon, with its main title theme-dominated score, can be felt throughout Night Passage. After we hear “Follow the River” in the main title and a visual vocal of the song, “You Can’t Get Far Without a Railroad,” the melodies from the two songs go on to permeate the entire score.
The film, released by Universal, pairs the stars from two of that studio’s highest grossing films, The Glenn Miller Story with James Stewart and To Hell and Back with war-hero Audie Murphy. In Night Passage, the actors play brothers representing good and evil, with Stewart portraying an accordion-toting musician. Stewart learned to play the piano from his mother, who also taught him to play melodies on an accordion that Stewart’s family had acquired in return for a debt. Stewart took to the accordion and gained experience playing at parties, public venues, and at school plays in college.
In the film, Stewart performs the songs onscreen, accompany his jovial vocals with an accordion on his lap. Stewart admitted to New York Times writer Douglas Robinson on the set in Durango, “that isn’t me really playing in the scene.” Although Stewart biographer Donald Dewey states, “most of his [Stewart’s] accordion playing in front of the cameras was subsequently recorded by a professional musician” this may not have been the case. While a professional accordionist did record the vocal-backing track, according to Robinson the music was pre-recorded in Hollywood and played on the set during filming.
The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad in Durango, Colorado, served as the center of the action. The Denver & Rio Grande Western line coal-burning steam locomotive served double duty, appearing onscreen and used behind-the-scenes to transport the cast, crew, and animals. The Durango train appears in a number of Hollywood movies and is in year-round operation to this day as a scenic tourist railroad.
- “Working on the Railroad Again,” by Gladwin Hill, New York Times, October 3, 1948
- James Stewart: A Biography by Donald Dewey (Turner Pub., 1996)
- “Outlaws and Oxygen,” by Douglas Robinson, New York Times, October 28, 1956
- “Night Passage Is Big, Exciting Outdoor Drama,” by James Powers, Hollywood Reporter, May 14, 1957
- “Night Passage” [film review], Variety, May 15, 1957
- The American Film Institute catalog