Railways are featured in several Ealing films, but in the case of Train of Events the studio went the whole hog and and approached the newly formed London Midland region of British Railways to provide access to the engine sheds and mainline trains working out of Euston station. The resulting production is a good example of a film that misses several targets and has generally left critics cold, but for anybody interested in railways or representations of aspects of life in London in 1949 it offers a range of pleasures. This is one of Ealing’s ‘portmanteau’ or anthology/compendium films. The best known of these is Dead of Night (1945), which like The Halfway House (1944), goes for individual stories told because of a meeting of different groups of people around whom the segments of the narrative are organised. Each of these films has a slightly different narrative structure and a different feel in terms of genre. Train of Events deals with four separate stories which eventually converge on the 3.45 pm Liverpool express from London Euston. What happens to the train is revealed immediately after the credits and the four stories are told in flashback before a final sequence in the present.
There are three directors, four writers and two cinematographers involved and the large cast required the round-up of actors from other Rank partners as well as early roles for actors who would become well-known in the 1950s, such as Peter Finch, John Gregson, Anthony Quayle and Leslie Phillips. There are a host of familiar players who will have you scrambling for reference books. The first story, directed by Sidney Cole, focuses on the railway itself and the family of a senior locoman played by Jack Warner. Gladys Henson and Susan Shaw are his wife and daughter. Warner and Shaw were well-known to audiences at the time as key members of the Huggett Family films made by Gainsborough. In 1950, Warner and Henson were reunited in the police procedural, The Blue Lamp. This railway story offers us access to the engine shed at Camden and the streets around Somers Town, the district just to the North of the three mainline railway stations of Euston, St. Pancras and King’s Cross. The few minutes of documentary footage promise a fascinating story that isn’t really followed through completely. Cole was the least experienced of the three directors but the very experienced actors and camera crews carry the story segment. It’s the only time in my viewing experience that I’ve had the same thrill of a railway drama that could match Jean Renoir’s La bête humaine (France 1938), if only for a few moments. Currently, there are hundreds of historical railway films on YouTube, many made by the railway companies or British Transport films, but few of them with the professional crews of a studio like Ealing. Having said that, I don’t think Ealing’s crew members were very aware of which locos they were filming and how to ensure they had enough coverage of the loco on the 3.45 express. Still, 1949 was particularly interesting for transport historians as the railways had just been formally nationalised in 1948. Some of the locomotives on shed have the new numbering system and livery, others are still identifiable as London Midland and Scottish Railway engines.
The narrative structure means that the stories are not presented separately and instead there is some cutting between stories that takes us to different parts of London and includes some more documentary-style location shooting. It’s good to see trams crossing Westminster Bridge and buses around the West End. One story is set partly in the BBC television studio at Alexandra Palace and partly in Covent Garden. It features a conductor/composer (John Clements) and his music: a piece about one man and two women which in turn points to a comic drama about the two women in his life, his wife (Valeria Hobson) and the prima donna pianist (Irina Baronova). John Gregson plays a priggish young man interviewed in the studio about the ‘immoral music composition’. Directed by Charles Crichton, this is the weakest of the four stories for me. In parts it felt like it was borrowing from The Archers’ The Red Shoes (1948) but without the sure-footedness of Powell and Pressburger.
The other two stories are the responsibility of Basil Dearden. One is a different kind of arts/theatre story in which a young actor (Peter Finch) is rehearsing a part in the West End in a play about to go on tour. He is disturbed by the sudden appearance of his estranged wife who he hasn’t seen for some time. This story includes some night time street footage which is distinctly noirish. The fourth story involves a young woman who has fallen for a German POW who has possibly eluded the authorities for whatever reasons (repatriation or settlement of POWs was not completed until late 1948). Either way, the couple are on the run and the Liverpool train offers the chance of access to a boat leaving the UK. Both these stories have real possibilities and offer real drama rooted in the London of the time. They reminded me of Dearden’s 1947 film Frieda, one of my favourite Ealing pictures. One of the main problems with Train of Events is the shifting tone between the four stories with two stories including comedy and the other two tragedy. I think the problem lies with Michael Balcon as the studio head. It would have been better for me if the railway worker’s family story had had more bite, perhaps along the lines of It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) which as well as some noir railway footage includes both Warner and Shaw in its cast. I would have left out the ‘composer’ story altogether and developed each of the other stories. I would also have avoided the underlying message of the film which seems to suggest that the outcome of each story is based on the ‘moral behaviour’ of the central characters.