wed 30/07/2014

DVD: The Flying Scotsman (1929) | Film reviews, news & interviews

DVD: The Flying Scotsman (1929)

The locomotive movie which inspired The Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps

In those shoes? Intrepid Pauline Johnson tries to avert disaster in The Flying Scotsman.Optimum Releasing

It is, of course, a masterpiece - not Castleton Knight’s primitive 1929 British talkie, but Sir Nigel Gresley’s LNER Class A3 4472 Flying Scotsman, which iconic steam locomotive is currently being refurbished for commissioned runs in the spring. It enjoyed its inaugural London-Edinburgh journey on 1 May, 1928, and so excited the public that it generated a silent comedy-thriller, to which sound was added in 1930. The talking scenes, introduced halfway through, weigh down the story but sound effects enhance the thrilling train action that was shot with Gresley's co-operation.

Moore Marriott, best known as Will Hay’s ancient foil in the railway classic Oh, Mr Porter! (1937) and other Hay comedies, plays Old Bob, a 30-year veteran driver of the express service (which started in 1862). The day before retiring, he shops his stoker Crow (Alec Hurley) for drinking on duty. His place is taken by jeering rookie footplateman Jim (24-year-old Ray Milland in his debut), who the night before Bob’s final run is rescued from a dancehall fracas by the driver’s daughter, Joan (Pauline Johnson), though neither knows the other’s identity; kisses ensue. That this refined beauty was sitting alone in what looks suspiciously like a clip joint adds unintended frisson.

With the Scotsman hurtling north the following day, Bob bashes Jim on the head after discovering he's Joan's lover, while vengeful saboteur Crow sets up a catastrophe. There’s amazing stunt work by Johnson - in cloche and high heels! - and Hurley edging along the outside of a carriage that shames the back-projected Robert Donat (on the Scotsman) and Michael Redgrave in Hitchock’s The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes respectively. (Those are just two entries in the school of 1930s British train films that The Flying Scotsman partly inspired.)

Knight, who later produced documentaries about the 1948 Olympics and the Queen’s Coronation, made expressive transitional use of steam and dissolves. He was blessed by his collaboration with Theodor Sparkuhl, a former Eastern Front newsreel cameraman who had shot many of Ernst Lubitsch’s Berlin silents before heading to Hollywood via England. His use of trackside low-angles, long shots of the speeding train and close work in, around and under the cab makes The Flying Scotsman a must for train buffs, though its appeal is general.

The DVD release of this exquisitely restored picture follows its premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival last Saturday. Sadly, there are no extras.

Watch a clip from the restored film

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