The Runaway Engine (1911) A Silent FilM Review

Oh no! There’s a runaway engine on the rail line! And the only one who can save us is Alice Joyce! Joyce stars in a Kalem railroad romance, which features an inter-class love story and a pretty spectacular train wreck climax.

Home Media Availability: Stream for free courtesy of EYE.

The finale is a train wreck! That’s a good thing!

Alice Joyce was the perpetual lovely mother of the 1920s when she was only in her thirties. Joyce was just a few years older than fellow 1910s stars Lillian Gish, Norma Talmadge and Mary Pickford and was younger than top male talent like William S. Hart, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin, all of whom regularly played footloose and fancy-free singles in the 1920s. This led me on a quest to dive into Joyce’s pre-mom career and see her talent for myself.

Alice to the rescue!

An unexpected perk of this quest was discovering some rather thrilling titles produced by the Kalem company, Joyce’s studio in the early 1910s. Most of my Kalem viewing had been oriented toward the pioneering screenwriter, actress and possible director, Gene Gauntier, but Gauntier worked intensely with Sidney Olcott, who could capture beautiful imagery but couldn’t pick up the pace to save his life.

The director of The Runaway Engine is not listed but the picture is visually similar to The Hero Track Walker (1911), which also starred Joyce and was directed by Kenean Buel. Buel is one of the real hidden treasures of the early 1910s and I was quite impressed with his imaginative way of handling The Confederate Ironclad (1912) and The Mystery of the Sleeping Death (1914).

The kid just wants to play with trains.

The Runaway Engine is pretty standard fare as far as the plot is concerned. Allan Peters, the son of a railroad president, decides that he is going to learn the job from the ground up and will discretely take a job as a railway fireman. (I am certain that Allan is played by George Melford, whose distinct blond coiffure is unmistakable and who was employed as a Kalem leading man at the time. Melford, you may recall, went on to direct The Sheik and the acclaimed Spanish language version of Dracula.)

Meanwhile, Grace (Alice Joyce) is employed as a telegraph operator at a railway station. Allan is working for her father, the train engineer, and falls head over heels for her. In fact, he wants to get married as soon as possible and he and Grace send a telegram announcing their engagement to his father.

He loves her, I love her skirt.

Well, dear old dad isn’t having it. First the kid wants to be a fireman and then he wants to marry the first woman he meets? Nosirree! The president immediately sets out in his private engine to put a stop to this nonsense, practically dragging his son inside the train car by his ear. Meanwhile, a mishap at the train yard results in an unmanned engine hurtling down the tracks on a direct collision course.

Grace receives the telegram warning of the runaway engine but there’s nobody else in the yard. She climbs into another engine and speeds off to intercept the runaway train before it’s too late.

Claustrophobic shots taken inside the train engine heighten suspense.

Now, obviously, a big part of this film’s appeal is its plucky heroine, by no means an unusual sight in 1910s cinema but generally ignored by the general public. The idea of silent movie heroines being all screaming, all damsels, all the time has taken root in the public consciousness. Well, forget that. Joyce is dynamic and so is the entire railway race to the rescue scene.

There are three engines involved: Joyce’s, the president’s and the runaway engine. Joyce gets on the tracks just ahead of the president’s train and the film cuts between a camera mounted inside the engine, just outside looking in and on the front of the engine to capture the track ahead. So, we get a very tight and claustrophobic shot of the interior of the engine, then a medium shot showing Joyce’s trepidation as she tries to calculate when to give the engine additional steam for momentum to crash the runaway. Joyce jumps for it (I am assuming a stunt double was used). Finally, we see the runaway engine approaching and the final shot is from the point of view of Joyce’s machine.


I am assuming that the crash was accomplished by reversing the film: start with the engines face-to-face and a whole lot of steam and then have them move away from one another. A bit of undercranking to speed up the action and you have a convincing railroad accident.

The whole sequence is remarkably effective and one of the more vigorous railway scenes from this period. (And, I might add, The Runaway Engine pre-dates The Lonedale Operator by several months.) Absolutely worth the price of admission.

She saved your lives, guys, try not to give her a neck injury.

So, at this point, I feel I am well within my rights to remark that these silent movie heroes need to learn how to take care of themselves and not rely on their big-hearted fiancées to save them every time they land in a pickle.

Now, the film isn’t perfect. There’s a lot of setup before the main event and the probable George Melford is a bit overbuttered in his performance. (Good thing he switched to directing, eh?) However, Joyce’s charisma is obvious even this early in her career and she really sells the peril of the final third of the picture, even if she probably didn’t actually throw herself out of a moving locomotive.

Runaway train, never going back…

And let that be a lesson to you, ladies: if the future father-in-law disapproves, find yourselves a railway accident to prevent and you’re golden!

I was extremely impressed with the climax of this picture, easily one of the best I have seen from this period. And remember, this was released in January of 1911. (This was a time when months made a difference in motion picture development.) While the picture takes a while to get going, the grand finale is well worth the wait. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. It’s not deep but it’s exciting and that, after all, is what we want in an action-romance.

Where can I see it?

Stream for free courtesy of the EYE film museum. The titles are in German but it’s pretty easy to follow.


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  1. bcfilmguy

    This sounds like it could have been the prototype for “The Hazards of Helen,” particularly the episode “The Wild Engine.” Love the few episodes of “Helen” that show up in the “Treasures from American Film Archives” series.

    There’s something about silent tales of plucky girl telegraphers in peril that I find quite, quite wonderful!

  2. L.R.Dickerson

    Thanks for this review. An intersection of two interests, Railroads and Silent Film.

    I love the fact that this was shot on the East Coast (most likely New Jersey) whereas after the business moved to the West Coast we just see Santa Fe or Southern Pacific locomotives and passenger cars.

    The engine has the name of the railroad on the tinder covered with soap so we can’t see which line was used, however the engine has its firebox, where the fireman scoops coal well back of the main cab, which is why you see Alice Joyce in a cubbyhole looking forward. This was done because Anthracite hard coal was mined in Eastern Pa and transported by railroads that burned this coal. Anthracite required a wide firebox whereas in most other areas of the country bituminous coal was used which had a narrower higher firebox and the engineer and fireman were both stationed behind the firebox. Additionally the large coal chunks in the tender are Anthracite, bituminous being much small in size.

    New Jersey was criss-crossed with “Anthracite Roads.” I would guess this was filmed on the Lackawanna in New Jersey because the locomotives are stylishly similar to the one used in filming 1903’s Great Train Robbery, which filmed on that line in that state.

    Final film comment. At about 2:24 the station agent appears to be selling a ticket to a customer. The agent hands an envelope or other piece of paper thru the window, but the actor playing the customer is moving off his mark and the paper flutters down. Typical of the period, isn’t it, where maybe only one shot was taken of each scene?

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