There are criminal happenings on the Veracruz railroad and Adolfo Mariel is sent in to investigate. What he finds is a criminal gang led by the mysterious Ruby and the stationmaster’s inevitably beautiful daughter. This stylish action/thriller comes from Mexico.
I’ve been working on the railroad…
In many ways Gabriel García Moreno’s path to the movies was typical for the silent era. As a young man growing up in Mexico, he fell in love with cinema, particularly American adventure films, and worked as a projectionist as a teen before taking up a more sensible career as a banker. The movies could not be ignored. García Moreno wrote a screenplay that was adapted into a film and then made his debut as director in 1925 at the age of twenty-eight.
By the way, if the name Gabriel García Moreno sounds familiar, it is because the young director in question was a nephew (with a few “greats” added) of the Ecuadorean dictator who shared his name. It’s just a bit of trivia but it does make research something of a challenge.
El Tren Fantasma a.k.a. The Ghost Train was the second film made under García Moreno’s Centro Cultural Cinematografico banner and, fortunately for us, it survives more or less intact. There is a sizable sequence missing from the leadup to the grand finale and the intertitles are reconstructed but the picture is generally in good shape.
Anybody familiar with silent and talkie era railroad adventure films is going to find themselves in familiar territory but García Moreno also includes some distinctly Mexican flavors to jazz things up.
Adolfo Mariel (Carlos Villatoro, García Moreno’s regular leading man) has been sent to investigate shenanigans and goings-on at a particular rail yard in Orizaba, where García Moreno’s studio was located. Robberies and other unsavory things are afoot and our intrepid hero means to get to the bottom of it.
He is met at the station by Tomás, the stationmaster, and his daughter Elena (Clarita Ibáñez). There is some kind of international law stating that stationmasters must always have young and beautiful daughters still living at home. We wouldn’t want to make an illegal movie, would we?
Anyway, Adolfo is smitten but there is another fella hanging around Elena. Paco Mendoza (Manuel de los Ríos) is a stylish man-about-town but he is also (DA DA DUM!!!!) El Rubi, the bandit mastermind. Ruby has a major Les Vampires vibe going as he dresses in all black and commits acts of thievery and acrobatics. Fortunately, García Moreno respects his audience enough to avoid concealing Ruby’s secret identity and his nefarious planning (mwahahahaha!) forms much of the film’s suspense.
Paco is also incredibly jealous of Adolfo’s attentions to Elena and the fact that she reciprocates. Never mind the fact that Paco has a girlfriend already, tough girl Carmela (Angelita Ibáñez, Clarita’s sister). Nope, he is obsess with winning Elena’s hand and so he arranges to step into the bullfighting ring and hands Elena a note stating that he might meet with an accident.
I generally consider scenes of real bullfighting to be a dealbreaker for a movie but I’m letting this slide because a) the scene mostly shows the audience and not the fight itself, and, b) the bull wins. Paco gets himself knocked about by the bull’s horns and Elena decides that he is the man for her. Adolfo? Sweet, handsome Adolfo? Blech!
On the heels of this triumph, Paco decides to seal the deal by having his henchman hench on up and kidnap Elena so that he can heroically rescue her from their clutches. But who would fall for such an obvious ploy?
There was a recent poll that found 7% of the adults surveyed think that chocolate milk comes from brown cows. Elena would be in that 7%. There’s one born every minute and she is it. Yes, she truly believes that Paco is the bullfighting, bandit-punching hero of her dreams.
Will Adolfo outsmart Ruby and expose Paco’s nefarious ways? Will Elena ever get a clue? Find out in The Ghost Train!
The “stop the robbers, save the stationmaster’s pretty daughter” plot has been used in films since Thomas Edison and trains were particularly popular as action devices. They were a common means of mass transportation, true, but trains also created their own setpieces and there were thousands of ways one could use them in action scenes (as serial queen and train fanatic Helen Holmes proved). Add in a leading lady as the aforementioned daughter (and sometimes the action star) and you were really cooking with gas!
You may also notice that this setup also sounds a whole lot like The Flying Ace, an independent Florida production with an all-black cast. Both pictures were clearly indebted to the standard adventure tropes of the period but keep in mind that stating that a film employs tropes is not necessarily an insult and both The Flying Ace and The Ghost Train were carefully and successfully tailored to the tastes of their respective audiences. In fact, I recommend both pictures as a railroad double feature. I guarantee a good time will be had by all.
The Ghost Train is also enjoyable in the way it wears the youth of its cast and crew on its sleeve. These aren’t your granddaddy’s train robbers, as proven by Paco’s straw boater, Adolfo’s shawl-collared sweater and cloth cap, and the stylish bobs of Elena and Carmela. Hipster train robbers of the Roaring Twenties? What’s not to love?
Manuel de los Ríos makes a particularly strong impression as Paco/Ruby. One rather gets the impression that he is slumming it with the bandits but his addiction to adrenaline is finally his undoing. (One of the saddest loses in the case of this film is the reel in which Paco’s gang turns on him.) Carlos Villatoro also does good work as Adolfo, especially when he gets to perform a bit of Fairbanksian stunt work (he clearly did his own, by the way) in the film’s many chases. In general, the sort of go-getting, clean cut hero we would expect in this sort of film.
As for the ladies, both the Ibáñez sisters are good but Angelita has the more interesting character in Carmela. And, in a long and proud adventure movie tradition, the hero has far more chemistry with the bad girl than he does with the woman he is supposed to love. Elena is just a dull, dim character but that’s not Clarita’s fault and she does her best.
Gabriel García Moreno was clearly an avid viewer of American and French adventure films and serials and The Ghost Train is absolutely soaked in little nods to its origins. In fact, with very few changes, you could easily have used this screenplay for Douglas Fairbanks circa 1916. (I should also point out that Mexico did indeed make its own thrillers prior to this, most famously the legendary El automóvil gris of 1919. According to The Classical Mexican Cinema by Charles Ramírez Berg, it inspired young Mexican filmmakers to both adopt the Hollywood moviemaking technique and aggressively reject it in favor of creating a purely Mexican style.)
The film also contains a scene in which Tomás has fallen unconscious on the tracks and must be rescued from an oncoming train by Adolfo. Such sequences remain popular in Hollywood films (ironically, there are many, many more examples in sound films, from While You Were Sleeping to The Matrix, than there ever were in the silents) and, obviously, this cannot be considered a “tied to the train tracks” scene because nobody was tied to anything.
The Ghost Train supplements its Hollywood-themed plot with sequences showing off local color. We have the bullfighting sequence as well as shots of the mountain railway line, scenes that give the film the sort of authenticity that no studio backlot could provide.
García Moreno intended The Ghost Train for international distribution and even had Spanish-English title cards but other than a screening in Corona, California, his dreams of international viewership did not come true during his lifetime. Like Marion Wong before him, García Moreno’s quality craftsmanship was not enough to overcome distribution barriers.
After the sound transition, García Moreno ended up in Hollywood where he worked in technical departments for Hal Roach and Howard Hughes. He is credited with some interesting inventions, including a continuous-motion movie camera. Alas, he died of apparent food poisoning before he could return to directing.
Now it’s verdict time: Did The Ghost Train succeed in its efforts to entertain us?
I’m going to ask the question that I always ask when reviewing a genre picture: did it triumph in both entertaining us and fulfilling the requirements of its chosen genre? The Ghost Train is a definite yes. The action is exciting, we get plenty of trains and a snappy pace. (García Moreno would go into darker, Feuillade-esque territory with El puño de hierro, a film that deals with the drug trade, another popular topic in silent cinema. You can read more about the drug films of the silent era in Behind the Mask of Innocence by Kevin Brownlow.)
Here’s another test that works on thrillers: How much did I talk to the screen? “Don’t go in there! He has a knife! Hold on! Hurry!” You know, things like that. In short, how engaged was I in the adventuring of the film’s characters? The answer is very. Yes, I did indeed shout instructions to the cast of a 90-year-old movie. So, bully for them and congratulations.
Does this picture ask any deep questions about life, the universe and everything? No, but it never claimed that it would. The Ghost Train set out to be an action-thriller and that’s exactly what it is. Definitely worth your time, especially if you are a fan of railroad adventure films or Mexican cinema. Or if you just want a bit of wardrobe inspiration. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy the adventure.
Quick Note: This review is heavily indebted to the research of William M. Drew and Esperanza Vázquez Bernal.
Where can I see it?
Available for viewing on the Cultura UNAM website. The film is presented without a score but the intertitles (after a brief introduction in all-Spanish) are presented in both English and Spanish just as they would have been in 1927. I would love for this film to fulfill García Moreno’s dreams and receive international home video release with a suitable score.
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