Riding the Rails


All aboard!

(1997) Documentary (PBS Bob “Guitar Whitey” Symmonds, John Fawcett, Clarence Lee, Rene Champion, Richard Thomas (narrator), Peggy De Hart, C.R. “Tiny” Boland, Jim Mitchell, James San Jule, Charley Bull, Arvel “Sunshine” Pearson. Directed by Lexy Lovell and Michael Uys

 

In this era of economic upheaval due to the pandemic, it is a good idea to remember the lessons of the Great Depression. While things aren’t quite as bad now as they were then, it is well to remember just how devastating it was. People who were living comfortably found that they lost everything, literally overnight. Many discovered that there was no work of any kind to be found where they lived. Their solution was to get out of town, but most of them couldn’t afford transportation.

Their solution was to hop on freight trains and “ride the rails” to whatever destination the trains were headed in. Not only was this illegal but incredibly dangerous; it wasn’t uncommon for people trying to hop a freight train to lose their footing and fall underneath the wheels of the train. There were also the railway police and local law enforcement who weren’t above administering a beating to those they discovered illegally hitching a ride.

Documentary filmmaker and historian Michael Uys was fascinated by a book written during the depression by Thomas Minehan called The Boy and Girl Tramps of America which depicted the lives of teenage hobos traveling from place to place. He disguised himself as one of them and rode the rails with them for awhile, getting their stories. Uys figured it would make a good film and thus came this documentary.

Originally, it debuted at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival but most who have seen this know it from its appearance on the distinguished PBS documentary series The American Experience back on April 13, 1998. Since then it has been rebroadcast from time to time and appeared on DVD off and on. Now, it is available for streaming for the first time.

Uys and co-director Lexy Lovell interviewed in depth ten former rail riders – nine men and a woman – who were in their 70s and 80s at the time this was filmed (as this was 15 years ago, several of them have since passed on). They share their stories of hardship and exhilaration. There are similarities in their tales; all of them speak of their experiences matter-of-factly as they talk about the dangers of the road, but also they speak of it with nostalgia. They all remark upon the freedom they had riding the rails; unconstrained by possessions, jobs or relationships, they would pack up at a moments notice, searching for the next town, the next horizon.

Many teens left home for just that reason – the allure of adventure, seeing the world when nothing held them at home. Some were informed by their parents that they had to leave as mom and dad could no longer afford to take care of them. Some fled abuse. None of those interviewed seemed to regret their time on the road.

In fact one of them, Bob “Guitar Whitey” Symmonds, was still riding the rails in the summers and invited one of the filmmakers along. “I’ll keep doing it until I can’t swing myself on board a boxcar any longer,” he declares. The filmmakers use archival photographs, often lingering on the evocative faces of the depression, and filmed footage to show contemporary accounts of the lifestyle. The soundtrack is rich with the music of the era, like Jimmy Rogers and Woody Guthrie, warbling about the allure of the rails, of the call of the horizon and of the loneliness of the road.

I wouldn’t say it’s a powerful documentary, although there are moments that are stirring. Mostly, it is just evocative – reminding us of a bygone era. As a historical document, it is absolutely invaluable. Most of those who rode the rails in the depression are gone now, their stories silenced. While I would have liked to see a little bit more context (perhaps some commentary from sa sociologist or a historian to better explain the history behind the depression and rail riding), it is good that the filmmakers were able to collect them, for succeeding generations to enjoy and learn from.

REASONS TO SEE: The stories are indeed fascinating. The archival photos and footage make wonderful use of close-ups. The Americana soundtrack is terrific.
REASONS TO AVOID: Could have used a little more background information and context.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity but otherwise suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Uys wrote to over 40 publications, including Modern Maturity, to find potential subjects for interviews. He ended up receiving over 3,000 letters in response and, realizing he would need help with the project, enlisted Lovell.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Hoopla
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/28/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The American Hobo
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Little Things

Gangster Land


This is how you vogue, gangster-style.

(2017) Gangster (Cinedigm) Sean Faris, Milo Gibson, Jason Patric, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Peter Facinelli, Mark Rolston, Michael Paré Sean Kanan, Al Sapienza, Don Harvey, Jason Brooks, Veronica Parks, Mark Krenik, Ronnie Kerr, Ryan Kiser, Danny Hansen, Joe Coffey, Shane P. Allen, Louis Fasanaro, Devin Reeve, Drake Andrew, James Bartz, Alan Donnes, Jody Barton, Kevin Donovan, Grace Fae. Directed by Timothy Woodward Jr

 

We Americans have always had a fascination with criminals. We have tended to idolize them and mythologize them, from Jesse James on down to Charlie Manson. We have a particular fondness for the gangsters of the Depression era; even though they were vicious, brutal men we can only help admire their brazen outlook as they lived life on their own terms – and often died by them.

This film is a fictionalized account of the rise of Al Capone (Gibson) as seen through the eyes of his top lieutenant “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn (Faris) who despite his name was actually of Italian descent; he changed it when he went into boxing because he could get more bouts as an Irishman than he could as an Italian. After the murder of his stepfather by a rival Italian gang, he decides to throw his lot in with Capone who had seen McGurn box and was an admirer.

At first McGurn is just hired muscle for the Italian gang under Johnny Torrio (Sapienza) but he rises through the ranks with his friend Al and when Torrio is killed, Capone takes control and begins a ruthless war with the Irish gang of the Northside for control of Chicago. The Northside Irish gang is led by Dion O’Bannon (Rolston) and after O’Bannon is murdered, George “Bugs” Moran (Facinelli). He meets and falls in love with dancer Lulu Rolfe (Sigler) who is unimpressed at first – McGurn doesn’t have much cash and never thought much about dressing stylishly. However he wins her over and she is okay with his lifestyle as a mobster. Now known as “Machine Gun Jack” for his preferred weapon for murder, the war between the two vicious gangs quickly and decisively escalates culminating in an infamous massacre on St. Valentine’s Day that will change Chicago forever.

There is a B-movie gangster vibe here that recalls some of the great movies of that era, of James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and George Raft only with graphic violence and plenty of foul language. Cinematographer Pablo Diez uses interplay between bright colors and dark shadows to give the film a kind of updated noir aspect that I found interesting. While most noir feels more natural in a black and white atmosphere, Gangster Land gave the color a very noir-ish feel which is quite the accomplishment from where I’m sitting.

There is a bit of an amateurish feel to the movie that negates a lot of the good stuff. The dialogue feels wooden and unnatural and the lines are delivered in a ham-fisted and over-the-top manner that considering the caliber of some of the actors involved is a bit baffling. It’s like they’re channeling a community theater troupe at times and that feeling is a bit disonncerting.

This won’t compare well to the better film of the genre like The Untouchables for example but it’s rip-roaring entertainment in any event. This is, to my way of thinking, more George Raft than Jimmy Cagney. Those of you who love the gangster movies of the 30s and 40s will find this right up your alley particularly if your alley is dark, foggy and filled with shadowy men in fedoras and overcoats furtively carrying Tommy guns.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography makes good use of light, shadow and color. Think of this as a nod to B movies with modern sensibilities.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is well over-the-top and sounds a bit wrong-headed at times. There is a lot of scenery chewing going on.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s violence, gore, profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: McGurn eventually became a pro golfer. He was assassinated in a bowling alley in 1936, a day after the seventh anniversary of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No reviews yet. Metacritic: No reviews yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Public Enemies
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Shadowman