Cecil B. DeMille’s Union Pacific tells the “history” of the building the of the Transcontinental Railroad
At #16 on Trains “100 Greatest Train Movies” Union Pacific (from Hollywood’s golden year of 1939) is a grandly entertaining Western that mangles history (specifically, events surrounding construction of the transcontinental railroad) while casting gunslingers Joel McCrea and Robert Preston in a contest for Barbara Stanwyck’s affections.
One of the last bills signed by President Lincoln authorizes pushing the Union Pacific Railroad across the wilderness to California. But financial opportunist Asa Barrows hopes to profit from obstructing it. Chief troubleshooter Jeff Butler has his hands full fighting Barrows’ agent, gambler Sid Campeau; Campeau’s partner Dick Allen is Jeff’s war buddy and rival suitor for engineer’s daughter Molly Monahan. Who will survive the effort to push the railroad through at any cost?
Behind the Scenes:
The golden spike used in the ceremony scene is the same one used on May 10, 1869. Filmmakers borrowed the spike from Stanford University, where it is on display today.
After nearly 65 years of service, Paramount Pictures purchased the ex-Virginia & Truckee No. 18 and began it’s new career first as UP 4-4-0 No. 58. V&T #8 was actually built a few years after the 1869 ceremony in 1873 and is currently on display at the Nevada State Railroad Museum.
The movie premiere took place simultaneously at 3 different Omaha theaters on April 28, 1939.
A special Union Pacific train transported the director and the stars from Hollywood to the Omaha for the premiere. The 3 day trip made several stops along the way drawing large crowds.
Re-release trailer for the 1939 Cecil B. DeMille frontier epic, UNION PACIFIC, starring Joel McCrea, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Preston, AQkim Tamiroff and Lyn Overman.
“The legend of Union Pacific is the drama of a nation, young, tough, prodigal and invincible, conquering with an iron highroad the endless reaches of the West.” This stemwinder of a foreword strikes the pseudo-biblical/American Empire keynote for Cecil B. DeMille’s “history” of building the transcontinental railroad. Only the bombast–and Arthur Rosson’s second-unit direction–rises to the film’s epic mission. The mustache-twirling villainy is right out of 19th-century melodrama, and the romantic triangle of Joel McCrea’s railroad troubleshooter, Barbara Stanwyck’s aggressively “Oirish” postmistress-on-wheels, and their black-sheep chum played by newcomer Robert Preston is a feeble distraction. Worse, the stars do their stuff on studio sets, in sterile isolation from the locomotives, Indians, and buffalo hovering slightly out of scale on process screens behind them. There’s not one but two train wrecks (always a DeMille favorite); in every other department, John Ford had C.B. beat 15 years earlier with The Iron Horse. —Richard T. Jameson
Cecil B. DeMille’s contribution for that sterling movie year of 1939 was, of all things, a Western; but it’s a brawling, two-fisted, action-packed Western. It is the story of the Union Pacific Railway, which was destined to link two oceans and open up the West. It’s like a rough-and-tumble heavyweight slugfest-exciting, thrilling, gory and cumbersome. Stanwyck is excellent as the Irish Molly Monahan and as Jeff, Joel McCrea is first-rate – as Dick Allen, Robert Preston is terrific. DeMille’s first choice for Molly was Jean Arthur; when she was unavailable, her turned his favorite, Barbara Stanwyck – they had worked together many times on the LUX RADIO THEATRE. The exterior shots were filmed in Iron Springs, Utah and Canoga Park, California (to double for Promontory Point). Interestingly enough, the golden spike used in the movie was the actual one used at Promontory Point. DeMille had it exhumed from the vault of Wells Fargo in San Francisco! Joel McCrea commented that Stanwyck was “Absolutely fearless and has more guts than most men”. Also: “I have never worked with an actress who was more cooperative, less temperamental and a better workman, to use my term of highest compliment, than Barbara Stanwyck”. – Cecil B. DeMille.
If it’s directed by Cecil B. de Mille, you know there’s going to be plenty of spectacle, and this film is no exception. Joel McCrea stars as a man hired by the Union Pacific railroad to be a troubleshooter as the build the railroad across the country. Not everyone wants to see it built, so sabotage causes lots of delays. Things get even more complicated for McCrea because his old pal Robert Preston is partnered with Brian Donlevy, one of the men trying to delay the construction. To add to it, Preston and McCrea are both in love with the same woman, an Irish lass named Molly played by Barbara Stanwyck. Train wrecks, Indian attacks, brawls, and other De Mille touches enliven the story. The actors aren’t given much to work with, as in most De Mille spectacles, but they do well enough, although Stanwyck’s accent is a little hard to swallow. Akim Tamiroff and Lynne Overman, as men hired to protect McCrea, add a lot of humor to the film with their knowing performances. The story moves along at a good pace, and although I like to make fun of Cecil B. De Mille movies, I must admit that I enjoyed this one more than some of the others I have seen. I like the time period and the trains, and in De Mille’s hands, it’s certainly not boring.
Stephen H. Wood “Film scholar and vintage movie lover”:
My favorite in this first-class boxed set is Union Pacific, a thrilling 139 minute saga about the building the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860’s. The cast is magnificent–Barbara Stanwyck (with Irish brogue) as an engineer’s daughter torn between marshall Joel McCrea and train robber Robert Preston. The chief bad guy is always dependably evil Brian Donlevy, while Akim Tamiroff and Lynne Overman are McCrea’s aides, always ready with pistol and whip. Boy, I love this movie, which has impeccable sets and photography. I know movies were frequently made on studio back lots, with a lot of rear projection. But Union Pacific really looks as if it were shot out in the desert and with real trains. It may be fiction, but it makes me feel like a kid again, watching all twelve chapters of a cliffhanger serial at one sitting. It is one of Mr. DeMille’s crowning achievements for me.
De Mille’s last black and white film, Union Pacific is something of a rarity these days, rarely revived on TV and forgotten in the wake of the Biblical epics that form only a small part of his repertoire. Harking back to his earlier The Plainsman, instead of friends Gary Cooper and James Ellison fighting over Jean Arthur against the background of the Indian Wars on the Great Plains we get friends Joel McRea and Robert Preston fighting over Barbara Stanwyck against the background of the building of the first coast-to-coast railroad. McRea’s the agent assigned to stop Brian Donlevy’s saboteurs, with old friend Preston among their number and Stanwyck the Hollywood Irish engineer’s daughter they both love. Throw in train wrecks, Injun attacks, the odd gunfight, plenty of spectacle, Akim Tamiroff and a complete disregard for history and you’ve got the closest thing to talkie version of John Ford’s The Iron Horse going. It’s not up to the 1939 gold standard, but it is entertaining hokum.
The final film is the best of the set. “Union Pacific” is a rousing western set around the building of the railroad which opened up the west. A sterling cast is headed by Barbara Stanwyck at her most appealing as a rough and tumble Irish heroine fought over by Robert Preston and Joel McCrea. The film was made with the co-operation of the Union Pacific Railroad so it looks and sounds authentic.