Train wreck mystery: Hollywood or San Luis Obispo?

Posted by David Middlecamp on September 20, 2013 

Railroads usually try to avoid wrecks.

But a railroad that has fallen on hard times may consent to wreck a precious passenger car for a Hollywood stunt.

In 1935, the movie “Diamond Jim” needed to stage a train wreck, and the Pacific Coast Railway obliged.

Within a decade, the narrow-gauge tracks would be gone — pulled up and sold for scrap ending a little more than a half-century lifespan.

In a scene posted on YouTube, gambler Diamond Jim, played by Edward Arnold, wagers that the steel train car he invented is safer than a wooden train car.

To prove it, he straps himself into the steel car as the engines back the cars into position.

Unbeknownst to Diamond Jim, his girlfriend, Lilian Russell, played by Binnie Barnes, hops aboard the car just before the locomotive engineers set the throttles and jump from the cabs.

She unstraps Jim and tries to convince him to jump but he wrestles her into the safety chair and prepares for the crash.

If you don’t want to go through the setup and just want to see a train wreck, set the cursor to the three-minute mark of the clip.

The cast, including Arnold, Barnes and a youthful Cesar Romero, “a recent find of the studio,” were on location for almost a week.

Oddly, some articles in the Telegram-Tribune say that the crash took place on a Hollywood miniature back lot, not in San Luis Obispo. Perhaps the paper was saving the crippled railroad from embarrassment.

For example, the May 15, 1935, Telegram-Tribune article by Evelyn Hansen read: “In their flag-draped grandstand, the railroad officials and ‘extra’ group watched the head-on collision … almost … of the two trains used in Brady’s demonstration.”

On Sept. 12, 1935, as the movie opened at the Elmo Theatre, the story said: “Working with them (the stars) in the costumes of 1890 were local people used as ‘atmosphere’ in the grandstand scene which culminates in a train wreck later filmed at the studio.”

However, according to the book “The Pacific Coast Railway” by Kenneth Wescott and Curtiss Johnson, passenger car No. 107 was weakened and another was made to look like a steel car by covering sides with fiberboard and fake rivets. Cars were repainted as “New York Railroad.” The book also shows a 1939 photo of a wrecked passenger car in the salvage yard. Some of the car interior views look like back lot shots, but the wreck appears to my eye to be local.

Perhaps an expert on Hollywood trick photography has the answer.

An article published May 17, 1935, said that location photography had finished after four days with several additional days of construction and takedown. The movie company left praising Wiley Masengill, superintendent of the Pacific Coast Railway. The locomotives had been dressed up with old-style smokestacks, and a grandstand and tents had been set up at the Portuguese Flats area. The Heritage Shared website identifies this as the area south of San Luis Obispo near the Octagon barn, settled by many families from the Azores, Portuguese islands. More than 125 extras came up from Universal City, and hundreds of locals were also hired as extras or for set construction.

The chance at a job and diversion would have been welcome.

According to Internet sources, the film had a budget of $750,000, a lot in Depression-era money.

The CPI inflation calculator converts this budget into $12,803,485.40 in 2013 dollars. A small-budget picture today.

A movie ticket only cost 40 cents, 25 cents for a matinee. Not much to get a vicarious look at glitz and glamour.

When the film came out, it was booked for a four-day run at the Elmo Theatre.

Advertisement in the Sept. 12, 1935, edition shouted:

“DIAMONDS! GOLD! JEWELS! AMERICA’S GREATEST SPENDER COULD BUY EVERYTHING … BUT THE ONE WOMAN HE WANTED! THE BROADWAY OF ITS HEYDAY LIVES AGAIN!”

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