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The Quick 10: 10 Famous Trains

It was this month in 1900 that Mr. John Luther Jones (that's Casey to you and me) lost his life while manning the Cannonball Express. As you'll see in a second, although he was killed in a train collision, his heroic act saved the lives of all of the passengers and crew aboard, so I think it's fitting that we honor him by talking about famous trains today. Also, I think my dad will like this one because he works for the railroad and has developed an affinity for trains over the years. Hi, dad! Without further ado"¦

casey1. The Cannonball Express, AKA the New Orleans Special, was Illinois Central Railroad's fastest line back in 1900. Casey Jones (so called because of his hometown "“ Cayce, Kentucky) volunteered to make the Memphis, Tenn., to Canton, Miss., route when the usual engineer turned up sick. The train was already 95 minutes behind schedule, but Casey loved a challenge and was excited to see if he could get the train on time. It's what he was known for, after all "“ his extreme punctuality. Legend has it that people would set their watches based on when Casey's famous whistle sounded as it passed through their town (he had a distinct train whistle). Anyway, it was looking like he had a pretty decent chance of making it to Canton "on the advertised," when tragedy struck: a train in Vaughan, Mississippi, was stuck on the tracks when it should have been pulled off to the nearby house track. An air hose had apparently broken and locked the brakes in place. Casey couldn't see the train on the tracks in advance because he was coming around a curve, but he did what he could to slow the train as much as possible and sounded the whistle continuously to warn the other train. He told Sim Webb, his fireman, to jump for it. He stayed in place until impact, still trying to slow the train as much as possible. Although he had slowed it from 75 mph to 35 mph, his position on the train and the force of the impact killed him, probably instantly. But thanks to his efforts, he was the only fatality.

orient2. I knew the Orient Express had been around for a while, but it's older than I thought: the first run was on June 5, 1883 from Paris to Vienna. At that time it was known as the Express d'Orient. Later that year, the route was expanded to include stops in Romania and Germany and by 1889 was going as far east as Istanbul. Services were halted during WWI, but in 1919 they expanded again to include Milan, Venice and Trieste. WWII interrupted service again, but they were resumed in 1945. You can still take the Orient Express from Strasbourg to Vienna, and you can recreate the path by taking a few other trains. But, sadly, the Direct Orient Express from Paris to Istanbul ended in 1977. Or you can recreate the experience by reading some of the famous books it has been mentioned in "“ Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, of course, but also Bram Stoker's Dracula, From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming, and Stamboul Train by Graham Greene, among others.

3. The Hiawatha trains, which ran from Chicago to Minneapolis, first appeared on the tracks in 1935. They were named after Longfellow's "The Song of Hiawatha." There was the Twin Cities Hiawatha, which ran straight from the Windy City to the Twin Cities; the North Woods Hiawatha, running from the main line through parts of Wisconsin; the Chippewa-Hiawatha, which ran through a different part of Wisconsin; the Midwest Hiawatha from Chicago to Omaha; and the Olympian Hiawatha, which took passengers all the way from Chicago to Seattle. Those have all terminated at this point, but you can still get from Chicago to Milwaukee using the Hiawatha Service, which should get you between the two cities in about 90 minutes.

california limited4. The California Limited is another oldie. She started her route in 1892, going from Chicago to L.A. What's fun about this one is that she was the first to feature "the best Fred Harvey meals on rails." The Fred Harvey Company was a chain of railroad restaurants "“ the first was in Topeka in 1876, but by the 1890, Fred set up a lucrative deal with Santa Fe Railroad to open up a bunch of his eateries along their routes and as a result they could be found about every 100 miles. I guess they were like the Waffle Houses of their day. Except Waffle House seems to be slightly more ubiquitous. Eventually the service spread to Santa Fe's dining cars, which had food and service staffed by the Fred Harvey Company. Fred and Santa Fe went their separate ways in the early "˜30s when Fred realized he could make more money by going beyond one line; in fact, he started to go off of the railways entirely, setting up restaurants over Illinois Tollway Oases.

zephyr
5. The California Zephyr is one you can still ride in its entirety from Chicago to Emeryville, California. The Zephyr was one of the first to be billed as a mini-vacation in and of itself; in the late "˜40s you would even find Zephyrettes on board. About 12 women were assigned to each train and they were tasked with doing just about anything (within reason, people, within reason) to make sure that their passengers had a relaxing trip "“ including babysitting and serving as tour guides. The Zephyr that rides the rails today isn't the original, but if you want to see a replica of the real thing, head to Disney's California Adventure, where a fake Zephyr houses a bakery and ice cream counter near the front of the park.

6. The Rock Island Rockets were notable because they were some of the first diesel-powered trains. And they had a line called the Des Moines Rocket, which ran from Chicago to DSM. I like to give the 515 a shout-out whenever I can, so consider my duty fulfilled for the week. Other Rockets ran from Chicago to Peoria, Fort Worth to Houston, Minneapolis to Kansas City, and Kansas City to Denver.

north coast7. The North Coast Limited started operations on April 29, 1900 "“ the day before Casey Jones made his fateful run on the Cannonball, but wasn't anywhere near the disaster "“ the North Coast Limited ran from St. Paul to Puget Sound. In her heyday, the NCL was known for consistently having the best dining car service in the business "“ fresh flowers adorned the tables set with linen table cloths.

8. The Orange Blossom Special is pretty well known thanks to the Ervin T. Rouse song that was later the name of a 1965 Johnny Cash album (which Johnny covered on the album). It ran from New York to Miami. Ervin T. Rouse and Chubby Wise saw the Orange Blossom when it was in Jacksonville, Florida, and were inspired to write a fiddle tune about it (Chubby was a legendary bluegrass fiddler)"¦ at least, that's the story. Records show that the train they saw was a streamlined train, which wouldn't have been the Orange Blossom, which used heavyweight Pullman sleepers, diners and coaches. If they did indeed see a streamlined train, it was likely the Silver Meteor, a streamlined train with stainless steel coaches.
Here's a double whammy for you: Mr. Cash performing both Casey Jones and Orange Blossom Special (he uses the harmonica instead of the fiddle).

royal blue9. The Royal Blue was the B&O Railroad's passenger train between NYC and DC starting in 1890. And it was royal indeed "“ one railroad historian called it "An inspired blend of majesty and mystique." The interiors of each car were made of mahogany, the cars were heated and lighted and the windows were made of leaded glass. The chefs were trained in France and prepared duck and terrapin. In the "˜30s and "˜40s they served meals on Dresden China and decked out the cars with glass chandeliers and colonial-style furnishings (they called it the "Martha Washington" series). FDR liked to ride the Royal Blue when he was in office, often taking a special presidential train from D.C. to the family estate in Hyde Park, New York. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip tried the train in 1957, but even their glamour wasn't enough to keep the line afloat "“ its last run departed from Washington Union Station at 3:45 p.m. on April 26, 1958, and was covered by Edward R. Murrow for CBS.

10. The Marrakesh Express is a real train, in case that Crosby, Stills & Nash song ever had you wondering. Graham Nash took the train from Casablanca to Marrakesh in 1966 and booked himself a posh first-class seat, but found himself bored and went back to sit with the "ducks and pigs and chickens."

Do you have any memorable train rides to tell of? Tell us all about it in the comments. I'm afraid I have nothing to contribute this time, although I'm suddenly inspired to take a cross-country train trip!

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25 Wonderful Facts About It’s a Wonderful Life
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Mary Owen wasn’t welcomed into the world until more than a decade after Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life made its premiere in 1946. But she grew up cherishing the film and getting the inside scoop on its making from its star, Donna Reed—who just so happens to be her mom. Though Reed passed away in 1986, Owen has stood as one of the film’s most dedicated historians, regularly introducing screenings of the ultimate holiday classic, including during its annual run at New York City’s IFC Center. She shared some of her mom’s memories with us to help reveal 25 things you might not have known about It’s a Wonderful Life.

1. IT ALL BEGAN WITH A CHRISTMAS CARD.

After years of unsuccessfully trying to shop his short story, The Greatest Gift, to publishers, Philip Van Doren Stern decided to give the gift of words to his closest friends for the holidays when he printed up 200 copies of the story and sent them out as a 21-page Christmas card. David Hempstead, a producer at RKO Pictures, ended up getting a hold of it, and purchased the movie rights for $10,000.

2. CARY GRANT WAS SET TO STAR IN THE ADAPTATION.

When RKO purchased the rights, they did so with the plan of having Cary Grant in the lead. But, as happens so often in Hollywood, the project went through some ups and downs in the development process. In 1945, after a number of rewrites, RKO sold the movie rights to Frank Capra, who quickly recruited Jimmy Stewart to play George Bailey.

3. DOROTHY PARKER WORKED ON THE SCRIPT.


Getty Images

By the time It’s a Wonderful Life made it into theaters, the story was much different from Stern’s original tale. That’s because more than a half-dozen people contributed to the screenplay, including some of the most acclaimed writers of the time—Dorothy Parker, Dalton Trumbo, Marc Connelly, and Clifford Odets among them.

4. SCREENWRITERS FRANCES GOODRICH AND ALBERT HACKETT WALKED OUT.

Though they’re credited as the film’s screenwriters with Capra, the husband and wife writing duo were not pleased with the treatment they received from Capra. “Frank Capra could be condescending,” Hackett said in an interview, “and you just didn't address Frances as ‘my dear woman.’ When we were pretty far along in the script but not done, our agent called and said, ‘Capra wants to know how soon you'll be finished.’ Frances said, ‘We're finished right now.’ We put our pens down and never went back to it.”

5. CAPRA DIDN’T DO THE BEST JOB OF SELLING THE FILM TO STEWART.

After laying out the plot line of the film for Stewart in a meeting, Capra realized that, “This really doesn’t sound so good, does it?” Stewart recalled in an interview. Stewart’s reply? “Frank: If you want me to be in a picture about a guy that wants to kill himself and an angel comes down named Clarence who can’t swim and I save him, when do we start?”

6. IT WAS DONNA REED’S FIRST STARRING ROLE.


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Though Donna Reed was hardly a newcomer when It’s a Wonderful Life rolled around, having appeared in nearly 20 projects previously, the film did mark her first starring role. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role today, but Reed had some serious competition from Jean Arthur. “[Frank Capra] had seen mom in They Were Expendable and liked her,” Mary Owen told Mental Floss. “When Capra met my mother at MGM, he knew she'd be just right for Mary Bailey.”

7. MARY OWEN IS NOT NAMED AFTER MARY BAILEY.

Before you ask whether Owen was named after her mom’s much beloved It’s a Wonderful Life character, “The answer is no,” says Owen. “I was named after my great grandmother, Mary Mullenger.”

8. BEULAH BONDI WAS A PRO AT PLAYING STEWART’S MOM.

Beulah Bondi, who plays Mrs. Bailey, didn’t need a lot of rehearsal to play Jimmy Stewart’s mom. She had done it three times previously—in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Human Hearts, and Vivacious Lady—and once later on The Jimmy Stewart Show: The Identity Crisis.

9. CAPRA, REED, AND STEWART HAVE ALL CALLED IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE THEIR FAVORITE MOVIE.


Liberty Films

Though their collective filmographies consist of a couple hundred movies, Capra, Reed, and Stewart have all cited It’s a Wonderful Life as their favorite movie. In his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, Capra took that praise even one step further, writing: “I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made.”

10. THE MOVIE BOMBED AT THE BOX OFFICE.

Though it has become a quintessential American classic, It’s a Wonderful Life was not an immediate hit with audiences. In fact, it put Capra $525,000 in the hole, which left him scrambling to finance his production company’s next picture, State of the Union.

11. A COPYRIGHT LAPSE AIDED THE FILM’S POPULARITY.

Though it didn’t make much of a dent at the box office, It’s a Wonderful Life found a whole new life on television—particularly when its copyright lapsed in 1974, making it available royalty-free to anyone who wanted to show it for the next 20 years. (Which would explain why it was on television all the time during the holiday season.) The free-for-all ended in 1994.

12. THE ROCK THAT BROKE THE WINDOW OF THE GRANVILLE HOUSE WAS ALL REAL.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 

Though Capra had a stuntman at the ready in order to shoot out the window of the Granville House in a scene that required Donna Reed to throw a rock through it, it was all a waste of money. “Mom threw the rock herself that broke the window in the Granville House,” Owen says. “On the first try.”

13. IT TOOK TWO MONTHS TO BUILD BEDFORD FALLS.

Shot on a budget of $3.7 million (which was a lot by mid-1940s standards), Bedford Falls—which covered a full four acres of RKO’s Encino Ranch—was one of the most elaborate movie sets ever built up to that time, with 75 stores and buildings, 20 fully-grown oak trees, factories, residential areas, and a 300-yard-long Main Street.

14. SENECA FALLS, NEW YORK IS “THE REAL BEDFORD FALLS.”

Though Bedford Falls is a fictitious place, the town of Seneca Falls, New York swears that it's the real-life inspiration for George Bailey’s charming hometown. And each year they program a full lineup of holiday-themed events to put locals (and yuletide visitors) into the holiday spirit.

15. THE GYM FLOOR-TURNED-SWIMMING POOL WAS REAL.

Though the bulk of the film was filmed on pre-built sets, the dance at the gym was filmed on location at Beverly Hills High School. And the retractable floor was no set piece. Better known as the Swim Gym, the school is currently in the process of restoring the landmark filming location.

16. ALFALFA IS THE TEENAGER BEHIND THAT SWIMMING POOL PRANK.

Though he’s uncredited in the part, if Freddie Othello—the little prankster who pushes the button that opens the pool that swallows George and Mary up—looks familiar, that’s because he is played by Carl Switzer, a.k.a. Alfalfa of The Little Rascals.

17. DONNA REED WON $50 FROM LIONEL BARRYMORE ... FOR MILKING A COW.

Though she was a Hollywood icon, Donna Reed—born Donnabelle Mullenger—was a farm girl at heart who came to Los Angeles by way of Denison, Iowa. Lionel Barrymore (a.k.a. Mr. Potter) didn’t believe it. “So he bet $50 that she couldn't milk a cow,” recalls Owen. “She said it was the easiest $50 she ever made.”

18. THE FILM WAS SHOT DURING A HEAT WAVE.

It may be an iconic Christmas movie, but It’s a Wonderful Life was actually shot in the summer of 1946—in the midst of a heat wave, no less. At one point, Capra had to shut filming down for a day because of the sky-high temperatures—which also explains why Stewart is clearly sweating in key moments of the film.

19. CAPRA ENGINEERED A NEW KIND OF MOVIE SNOW.

Capra—who trained as an engineer—and special effects supervisor Russell Shearman engineered a new type of artificial snow for the film. At the time, painted cornflakes were the most common form of fake snow, but they posed a bit of an audio problem for Capra. So he and Shearman opted to mix foamite (the stuff you find in fire extinguishers) with sugar and water to create a less noisy option.

20. THE MOVIE WASN’T REQUIRED VIEWING IN REED’S HOUSEHOLD.

Though It’s a Wonderful Life is a staple of many family holiday movie marathons, that wasn’t the case in Reed’s home. In fact, Owen herself didn’t see the film until three decades after its release. “I saw it in the late 1970s at the Nuart Theatre in L.A. and loved it,” she says.

21. ZUZU DIDN’T SEE THE FILM UNTIL 1980.

Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu in the film, didn’t see the film until 1980. “I never took the time to see the movie,” she told Detroit’s WWJ in 2013. “I never just sat down and watched the film.”

22. THE FBI SAW THE FILM. THEY DIDN’T LIKE IT.

In 1947, the FBI issued a memo noting the film as a potential “Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry,” citing its “rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘Scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.”

23. THE MOVIE’S BERT AND ERNIE HAVE NO RELATION TO SESAME STREET.

Yes, the cop and cab driver in It’s a Wonderful Life are named Bert and Ernie, respectively. But Jim Henson’s longtime writing partner, Jerry Juhl, insists that it’s by coincidence only that they share their names with Sesame Street’s stripe-shirted buds. “I was the head writer for the Muppets for 36 years and one of the original writers on Sesame Street,” Juhl told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000. “The rumor about It's a Wonderful Life has persisted over the years. I was not present at the naming, but I was always positive [the rumor] was incorrect. Despite his many talents, Jim had no memory for details like this. He knew the movie, of course, but would not have remembered the cop and the cab driver. I was not able to confirm this with Jim before he died, but shortly thereafter I spoke to Jon Stone, Sesame Street's first producer and head writer and a man largely responsible for the show's format … He assured me that Ernie and Bert were named one day when he and Jim were studying the prototype puppets. They decided that one of them looked like an Ernie, and the other one looked like a Bert. The movie character names are purely coincidental.”

24. SOME PEOPLE ARE ANXIOUS FOR A SEQUEL.

Well, two people: Producers Allen J. Schwalb and Bob Farnsworth, who announced in 2013 that they would be continuing the story with a sequel, It’s a Wonderful Life: The Rest of the Story, which they planned for a 2015 release. It didn’t take long for Paramount, which owns the copyright, to step in and assure furious fans of the original film that “No project relating to It’s a Wonderful Life can proceed without a license from Paramount. To date, these individuals have not obtained any of the necessary rights, and we would take all appropriate steps to protect those rights.”

25. THE FILM’S ENDURING LEGACY WAS SURPRISING TO CAPRA.

“It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen," Capra said of the film’s classic status. "The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud… but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”

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Listen to What Darth Vader Sounded Like On the Star Wars Set
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The voice of Darth Vader, provided by James Earl Jones, is one of the most iconic aspects of the original Star Wars movies. But James Earl Jones wasn't the actor wearing that outfit—it was British actor David Prowse, who was cast in part because he was huge (reportedly 6'5" and a former body-building champion).

George Lucas always intended to replace Prowse's voice, but it's still a bit of a shock to hear a muffled British voice coming out of Darth Vader's helmet. Here's video showing what Darth Vader sounded like on the set before James Earl Jones re-recorded the dialogue.

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