Niles Museum celebrates the Transcontinental Railroad with movies and trains

I just discovered this mini-movie festival celebrating the Transcontinental Railroad 150 Anniversary. It’s happening at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, starting tonight and running through Sunday.

Some highlights:

The History of Railroads in the Niles Canyon, Friday, 7:30

The event starts with Henry Baum, President of the Pacific Locomotive Association, explaining the history of railways and specifically how Niles Canyon became the true last link of the Transcontinental Railroad. He’ll also discuss the Chinese immigrants and the racism they encountered.

The show will also include three silent shorts accompanied on piano by Greg Pane. The shorts are:

  • The Great Train Robbery: Many have called this 1903 one-reeler the first movie to tell a story, but that’s far off. More likely, it could be the first true western.
  • The Iron Mule: This 1925 Al St. John comedy uses the silly-looking train Buster Keaton built for Our Hospitality. Keaton’s version is much funnier.
  • The Girl and Her Trust: A D.W. Griffith one-reel potboiler from 1912.

Females To the Rescue!, Saturday, 11:30am

Four short thrillers built-around trains where the heroine, not the hero, saves the day. Two of them, Leap from the Water Tower and The Wild Engine, come from Helen Holmes’ series, The Hazards of Helen. Holmes did most of her stunts, and they were very impressive. The Lonedale Operator is one of Griffith’s best early movies. I don’t know The Ghost of the Canyon at all.

Also with Greg Pane on the piano.

The Iron Horse, Saturday, 7:30

John Ford’s first big-budget movie and first huge blockbuster hit plays as a trite but entertaining melodrama. The characters are simplistic pawns and stereotypes, and the patriotism overblown, with an almost God-like view of Abraham Lincoln. But the spectacular visuals and exciting action sequences, especially the final Indian attack (yes, it’s also racist, but that’s hardly unusual for the time), have an impact beyond the story and characters. They bring the mythic West alive—just as one would expect in a John Ford western.

Bruce Loeb will play the piano. I give The Iron Horse a B+.

The Signal Tower, Sunday, 4:00

This big-budget pleaser from Universal gives you everything you want in a melodrama. A likeable hero, a dastardly villain, and a family in danger. The rip-roaring climax involves a horrible storm, a run-away train, a wife in peril, a husband torn between his family and his professional obligations, and a little boy with a loaded revolver. Shot in Mendocino.

Bruce Loeb will accompany the feature, along with two shorts, on piano.

I give The Signal Tower an A.

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