There was a story my father used to tell me about the train he took to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first inauguration. It was a fabled train, covered in silver and gold, ablaze with lights, awash in forbidden alcohol, and filled with movie stars and platinum-blond chorus girls. But it was also a story of Hollywood's role in the election of FDR, a story of power, glamour and the Great Depression.
In 1933 the gilded train transported Tom Mix, America's favorite cowboy, his horse King, and a dozen beautiful young women to Washington to take part in the inaugural parade. The sparkling contingent of chorus girls rode a carousel float down Pennsylvania Avenue past a smiling president. Mix, a Saturday matinee idol, charmed spectators along the route by performing elaborate horse tricks. When he reached the reviewing stand, the actor paused dramatically and saluted the new president with a wave of his trademark 10-gallon white hat.
My father, Lyle Talbot, and the other actors on board the train, including Bette Davis, missed the parade, collapsing in their rooms like dead-tired couples in a '30s dance marathon. They had just completed an exhausting, boisterous dash across the country with dozens of public appearances, and they were trying to recuperate before that night's inaugural ball.
"That tour was the first time I realized what a powerful impact Hollywood movies were having on the country," my father told me. "I remember this big crowd standing in the rain in Boston with bands playing, and the guys with tubas turning them upside down to pour the water out, and I kept thinking, 'Why are all these people getting drenched just to see us?' "
Before he died in 1996, at age 94, my father was one of the last surviving actors from that extraordinary train trip, and he recalled it vividly. His scrapbook of brittle newspaper clippings and glossy black-and-white photos confirmed his deeply etched memories of one of Hollywood's most flamboyant presidential endorsements.
The trip was the idea of Charlie Einfeld, the Warner Bros. studio publicity chief, and it was one of those Hollywood lollapaloozas born of necessity and an instinct for spectacle. Einfeld's assignment was to promote the first Busby Berkeley musical, "42nd Street," and he knew the heat was on. The Depression had slashed the number of moviegoers from 110 million in 1929 to 50 million in 1932. That year Warner Bros. suffered a staggering $14 million loss. Now the studio was betting that a $400,000 investment in an out-of-favor genre, the Hollywood musical, would pay off.
It helped that "42nd Street" was a genuine innovation -- a punchy combination of backstage realism, catchy songs and stunning Busby Berkeley choreography. But the studio still had to lure wary audiences short of cash. Einfeld's solution was to round up a sampling of the studio's actors, put them on a dazzling train, the 42nd Street Special, and send them barnstorming across the country. They would arrive in each city, loudspeakers blaring, parade through town, and put on a live stage show to hype the premiere of the movie.
But that was not all. The upstart Warner brothers had backed Franklin Roosevelt instead of Herbert Hoover in the 1932 presidential election, infuriating MGM's Louis B. Mayer and the other Hollywood moguls who were stalwart Republicans. Studio chief Jack Warner raised money and organized rallies for Roosevelt in conservative Southern California, an act of political chutzpah that paid off. The cross-country train served as a reminder of the studio's newfound political clout. In a glitzy, ostentatious display of support for the New Deal, the trainload of stars would arrive in Washington for Roosevelt's inauguration, which in those days was held in March.
"They're off on the greatest ride since Paul Revere, spreading the news of a Revolution in Picture Art!" proclaimed full-page ads in Variety, the trade journal. The ads promised "a triumphant trans-continent trek -- bringing Hollywood to all America in 3-week super-ballyhoo -- climaxing at Washington Inaugural Day -- leaving a trail of millions of ticket-buyers for Warner Bros.' New Deal in entertainment."
The campaign by the Warners to elect a progressive Demo-crat to the White House began early in 1932 with a call to Jack Warner from his older brother Harry in New York.
"There's going to be a meeting, Jack. It's so secret I won't even talk about it on the phone. I want you here for it."
"In those days a call from Harry was virtually a command," recalled Jack Warner in his 1965 autobiography, My First Hundred Years in Hollywood. Harry was the family patriarch and the president of the corporation.
Jack promptly took a train to New York, where he joined brothers Harry and Albert in a private conference with a "palace guard assortment of powerful Democrats" that included Joseph Kennedy; the Democrat's 1928 presidential candidate, Al Smith; Roosevelt's campaign manager, James Farley; and party chairman John Raskob.
Jack Warner was perplexed about Harry's support for FDR because he and Harry had always been faithful Republicans, but his brother quickly set him straight: "The country is in chaos. There is revolution in the air, and we need a change."
These days when Hollywood is famous as a liberal bastion and a virtual ATM for the Democrats, it's hard to fathom that back in the '20s and '30s, the movie industry was staunchly Republican. Los Angeles was a dreamscape city that allowed Jewish entrepreneurs to create a new entertainment industry, but it was also an overwhelmingly white, Protestant city dominated by a conservative business establishment. The Jewish moviemakers, most of them sons of immigrants, wanted to assimilate, to take root and prosper. If the locals were Republicans, they would be, too.
But the Warners were different. They didn't like taking orders from anybody, least of all the pretentious Mayer. They were risk takers -- their late brother Sam had persuaded the other Warners to invest heavily in "talking pictures," and the gamble on sound technology was wildly successful. They liked playing the role of the outsiders, a little abrasive, a little pushy, and it was reflected in the movies they made, which were aimed at urban, immigrant audiences. Now the Warners were going to support the presidential candidate who said he was out to save "the forgotten man."
Jack Warner's assignment was to build support in California, a state where FDR was relatively unknown. That meant doing publicity for Roose-velt, sponsoring rallies, and trying to win over his powerful media friend, William Randolph Hearst, who initially supported Roosevelt's rival, John Nance Garner of Texas. It was uphill work, but Jack delivered.
"Roosevelt Thrilled by Dazzling Pageant of Filmland," trumpeted Hearst's Los Angeles Examiner, describing a massive rally in Los Angeles organized by Jack Warner for the Democratic nominee in September 1932. The Warners' radio station, KFWB, provided free advertising and broadcast the event. Some 70,000 people packed the Olympic Coliseum for a three-hour extravaganza honoring Roosevelt. Hearst had reluctantly decided to back FDR -- though he would soon turn against him -- and the newspaper tycoon permitted his mistress, actress Marion Davies, to co-sponsor the Hollywood mobilization, which doubled as a charity fundraiser.
Jack Warner made certain the Warners "stock company" turned out in force, including my father and all the actors who would later board the 42nd Street Special. Twenty marching bands, a polo team and illuminated floats captivated Roose-velt and the vast assembly. Every searchlight Warners could muster scanned the sky. Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, Will Rogers, Laurel and Hardy, and Boris Karloff added to the firmament of stars, but Hollywood Republicans, led by Mayer, boycotted the event.
In his landslide victory, Roosevelt carried California by nearly 500,000 votes. Jack Warner earned his trip to the inauguration, and he wanted his actors there, too.
"What a layout!" wrote an overwhelmed Variety reporter who boarded the train to see what Warner Bros. had concocted. "The dream of every publicity man come true. $1,000,000 worth of some of the grandest exploitation that ever flashed across the horizon of show business laid right in your lap and nothing to do but sit back and take it -- and like it."
Trimmed in silver foil and gold leaf, the 42nd Street Special featured a luxury dining car, private rooms for all the actors, an expansive stateroom for Tom Mix and a comfortable stall for his horse. Co-sponsored and fully equipped by General Electric Co., which was eager to showcase its vision of an all-electric future, the train even included its own portable radio station. GE rigged the six-coach express with outdoor lights and powerful speakers and provided an all-electric "health kitchen" complete with ultramodern oven, refrigerator and dishwasher. At each stop the public could tour the kitchen car and marvel at the appliances.
Eager to link its products to Hollywood stars, GE dreamed up a "Miniature Malibu Beach" theme car with palm trees, a mural of the Pacific Ocean and ankle-deep sand. The purpose of the surrealistic scene was to display GE's new sunlamps. Guides informed impressionable fans that the lamps allowed the actors to maintain their Southern California tans during the winter train excursion.
The 42nd Street Special, streaking across the country during the darkest nights of the Depression, transported a formidable cast. Mix was the lead. Although his days as a silent film star were over, he was still larger than life in his white Stetson, white topcoat and silver spurs.
The train's supporting cast included the young and sassy Bette Davis, soon to become a legend herself; the wide-mouthed comic Joe E. Brown; wisecracking Glenda Farrell, the tough gangster's moll in "Little Caesar"; Latin matinee idol Leo Carrillo; Olympic gold medal swimmer Eleanor Holm; two-fisted leading man Pres-ton Foster; vaudeville veteran Harry Seymour, the master of ceremonies; two effervescent blondes from the Warners stock company, Laura La Plante and Claire Dodd; and my father, then a handsome newcomer, who had just co-starred with Spencer Tracy in "20,000 Years in Sing Sing." At a few stops, Jack Dempsey, the former heavyweight champion, joined the entourage.
To supplement the appeal of actors and athletes, Warner Bros. dispatched a dozen Busby Berkeley chorus girls adorned in matching snow-white coats and hats. Actually, the studio selected 11 dancers to make the trip, but another, Doris McMahon, decided she had to go, too. Her colleagues concealed her on the train until it was too late for irate studio officials to send her back. In the end, McMahon received special billing as "the stowaway." One of the dancers, Mary Dees, was Jean Harlow's look-alike and stand-in. Another was a former Miss California. They never failed to excite the crowds that turned out to see them.
And the crowds were enormous. In St. Louis, thousands greeted the 42nd Street Special along with a beaming mayor wearing a big pink rose in his lapel. Nine thousand thronged the train at Kansas City's Union Station. "10,000 Dazzled as Film Beauties Arrive," headlined the Chicago American. At least 20,000 lined 42nd Street in New York to see the actors on parade, accompanied by a Goodyear airship. The turnout in Pittsburgh was as large as the city's welcome for Charles Lindbergh.
The train was scheduled to visit 14 cities in 17 days. But there were actually more than 30 stops, including a number of smaller towns. Like an early-'30s Warner Bros. film, the pace was frantic. "Bette Davis never knew where the hell we were," insisted my father. "She'd speak from the platform and say, 'It's great to be here in Columbus,' but we'd be in Cleveland."
On a typical day, the actors would arrive in a city, shake hands with the mayor, parade through town, speak to a crowd of 10,000 (as they did from the balcony of the Denver Post), submit to press interviews, do a live radio broadcast, tour a local General Electric showroom, attend a VIP luncheon or dinner banquet, check into a hotel, shower and dress, appear onstage in a musical revue at a downtown movie palace, slip out the back door while "42nd Street" screened, maybe wander into a nightclub, crawl back onto the train, and roll through the night until they hit the next town.
Somewhere in the desert -- my father thought it was Yuma, Ariz. -- the train made a brief stop, and a mother passed her infant up to be held by Joe E. Brown. The obliging comedian cradled the child while the mayor gave a welcoming speech. "The mayor had had a few drinks, I guess, and was feeling no pain, and he kept talking so long that the train took off with Joe still holding the baby," recalled my father. "The mother fainted in all the excitement and didn't see us leave." Finally, someone alerted the engineer, who had to reverse the train into town to return the baby.
Despite the demanding work schedule, the actors and dancers found the train to be an environment conducive to romance and revelry. For Bette Davis, who brought along her new husband, musician Harmon Nelson, it was a honeymoon. For others, there were more illicit pleasures. On occasion the actors got rambunctious. One night they partied in General Electric's model kitchen until a hefty, cigar-smoking Warners chaperon ordered them to stop trashing the sponsor's showcase. But no one was able to prevent the hard-drinking Tom Mix from riding his horse onto the dance floor of a nightclub during their stop in Pittsburgh.
Press accounts dubbed my father the "Romeo of the train." Tall, blue-eyed, with slicked black hair and a prominent widow's peak, he made the most of a virile image and an easy smile. Russell Baker once described my father on-screen in a tuxedo as "reeking with savoir faire." At the time, he was dating Eleanor Holm, the petite, gum-chewing swimmer who backstroked her way to fame at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. Warners hoped she could make the transition from pool to film, but she was "a lousy actress," confessed my father, and after the train trip, she quit. He missed her, but he was soon distracted by one of Busby Berkeley's long-legged blondes.
If the trip was aphrodisiac, it could also be sobering. As the 42nd Street Special made its way across the country, the financial crisis deepened, banks closed. In several cities politicians confided to the actors that they feared bank riots, and they thanked the entertainers for providing a diversion. On the eve of the actors' arrival in Indianapolis, the city's banks announced that "due to unsettled conditions in the country" a customer would only be allowed to withdraw 3 percent of his money "until further notice." Would citizens panic?
"What this country needs is just one big man to pull us out of trouble," Tom Mix reassured the Indianapolis Times. "Just give Roosevelt a chance and time and he will do things."
At a stop in Toledo, Ohio, people began arriving at daybreak, and by mid-morning some 25,000 people engulfed the train station, swarming down the slope from Summit Street, climbing onto the roof of the station, balancing on top of idle freight cars, even overflowing onto the tracks. When the train from Hollywood finally arrived, the crowd surged. Police feared they would lose control.
Mix was the first to emerge, waving his hat as he calmly rode his horse out of a baggage car and into the mob until even he could proceed no farther. As the police held their breath, the crowd cheered and pressed even closer. Next, Bette Davis and the chorus girls, clad in dazzling white, descended from the train into the maelstrom, at which point the police knew they had to act.
It required a phalanx of police, firemen and American Legionnaires, shoving and sweating for half an hour, to clear a path for the traveling troupers. Fortunately, the crowd seemed to enjoy the frenzy, and before any damage was done, officials hustled the movie stars into waiting cars for a parade downtown and a sold-out movie premiere that night at Loew's Valentine Theater.
Shortly after the actors checked into the Sherman Hotel in Chicago, my father received a phone call.
"I'm in the lobby, we're comin' up," announced Edward "Spike" O'Donnell. The year before, on the Warner Bros. back lot, O'Donnell, a notorious Chicago gang leader, had approached my father to congratulate him for his performance as a bank robber in a Barbara Stanwyck movie, "Ladies They Talk About."
"I like the way you rob a bank," Spike told him. "You got style."
Exactly how O'Donnell gained access to the off-limits movie set was a subject my father chose not to broach. But this was Warner Bros., home of the gangster movie, where Edward G. Robinson died, splattered with bullets, in "Little Caesar" and a cocky James Cagney twisted a grapefruit in his girlfriend's face in "Public Enemy." Real criminals sometimes mingled with the actors who portrayed them on-screen. Besides, any actor appreciates a compliment on his performance, especially when it comes from a professional.
Spike definitely knew his way around a bank, though he was caught once and served time in Joliet Prison for a daytime holdup of Stockyards Trust and Savings. But he was best known in Chicago as a Prohibition-era bootlegger who stole beer from the Johnny Torrio-Al Capone mob and lived to tell about it.
"Next time you're in Chicago, you're my guest," Spike had told my father. On this point, O'Donnell, who had twice been tried for murder, was a man of his word.
Before my father could figure out how the gangster managed to circumvent the Warners security man, O'Donnell burst into his room, accompanied by two bodyguards, Babe and Dingy.
"Welcome to Chicago, Lyle," boomed Spike, an imposing character in an elegant overcoat, homburg and spats. "I don't want anyone botherin' you, either, so Dingy here is gonna be your escort."
It was an offer my father couldn't refuse. Dingy occupied the room next door and shadowed him every time he left the hotel. This arrangement had certain drawbacks. When, for example, an eager movie fan approached my father for an autograph on the street, Dingy was inclined to shove the supplicant aside. It took patient explanation on my father's part to convince Dingy that an aspiring movie star actually delighted in the attention of a fan. "Beat it!" was not the appropriate response.
"I got along with Spike fine, but being with him was always nerve-racking," my father remembered. "I kept thinking about the guys who had been gunned down standing right next to him." In fact, there had been 10 documented attempts to kill O'Donnell.
While "42nd Street" played to a packed Chicago house, with Dick Powell singing "Young and Healthy," Spike
O'Donnell appeared backstage with his wife and two children. Years later, he would contact my father for advice on how his daughter might become an actress. When the Warner Bros. train left Chicago, Spike and his bodyguards were on the platform waving goodbye. Inside his locked compartment, my father discovered a burlap-covered package and opened it to find 24 pints of "prescription" whiskey.
On the morning of March 4, 1933, after barnstorming across the country, the 42nd Street Special arrived in Washington for the inauguration of the 32nd president of the United States.
"This great nation will endure as it has endured, and will revive and will prosper," Roosevelt said on that raw and windy day, declaring with grand reassurance, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
Tom Mix met privately with the new president and emerged to tell reporters that Roosevelt was "the real
McCoy," a leader who was "easy and not condescending, friendly without losing dignity."
That night, all the actors attended the inaugural ball, where they danced to the music of two popular bands, Rudy Vallee's Connecticut Yankees and Guy Lombardo's Royal Canadians. My father met Anna Roosevelt, the president's daughter. But after dancing long into the night, the actors got back to the business of selling tickets to their movie. The next day they dutifully hoofed, warbled and jested their way through a promotional revue at the Earle Theater. Apparently it did the trick. In Washington the musical was "doing smashing biz," reported Variety. "Stars here for Inauguration went on stage Sunday afternoon and S.R.O. sign went up half hour before shorts started. Town is plastered with leg art in store windows."
The Washington Post's movie critic, Nelson B. Bell, was breathless with enthusiasm: "Rushing along at as great a speed as the gorgeous special train bearing its name that sweeps into the Capital this morning from the West Coast, and boasting several times as many stars and pulchritudinous ladies of the ensemble as are aboard that ultramodern limited de luxe, 'Forty-second Street,' with its back-stage atmosphere, gay rhythms and pungent comedy, crashes the senses as a glib and glittering bit of gallivanting, ideally suited to the high spirit of this gala week-end -- or any other, for the matter of that."
As the actors departed from Washington, Roosevelt delivered his first "fireside chat," declaring that better times were on the way and urging Americans to "have faith."
For his efforts, Jack Warner got to spend a night in the Lincoln Bedroom, and he claimed in his autobiography that a grateful Roosevelt offered him a diplomatic post, which he politely declined. "Just think," the studio chief mused, "I might have been the first Jewish ambassador to Ireland!"
The alliance formed between Roose-velt and Jack and Harry Warner during the 1932 presidential campaign recalls Bogart's famous line at the end of that Warner Bros. classic "Casablanca": "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." Not that there wouldn't be tempestuous moments, especially when Roosevelt's Justice Department pursued the Warners under the Sherman Antitrust Act, forcing them to sell off theaters they owned. But Roose-velt understood how essential Hollywood was in shaping public opinion, and until the day he died he sought advice and help from the Warners, particularly during World War II when Warner Bros. -- the most aggressively anti-Hitler studio -- eagerly cooperated with Washington in making the patriotic, anti-fascist films Roosevelt wanted.
Bound for New York, their final destination, the actors and dancers received a rude message. Roused from bed by a studio official, they were told they had to take a 50 percent cut in pay, effective immediately. Jack Warner was a Roose-velt man, but he was also a studio boss, and business was business. The Warners feared bankruptcy if the "national emergency" continued much longer. Two months later, with ticket sales improving and its actors threatening to mutiny, Warners restored full pay, but that day the gravity of the Depression finally penetrated a train that had seemed impervious to reality.
At the time, my father considered himself incredibly lucky. He earned $500 a week when a third of the country was unemployed. He was surrounded by beautiful actresses and lounged in the California sunshine when he wasn't in the studio. It was a fantasy life in which the studios took care of everything, even down to the errant traffic ticket. But that incident en route to New York would have a great impact on him, and after several years of making movies at Warners, he decided to help organize the Screen Actors Guild, a move all the studios resisted. Warner Bros. offered him more money, but what he wanted most was a five-day week and some limit on the endless hours. Early members of the union had to meet in secret, ducking into alleys to avoid studio spies. My father was convinced that Warner Bros. blacklisted him because of his union activity. After 1936, he didn't work at the studio again until 1960, when he appeared in "Sunrise at Campobello," a Roosevelt biography.
When the hard-edged "42nd Street" played out for the New York audiences in 1933, it seemed particularly relevant, with its story of a bankrupt Broadway director desperate for a box-office hit.
Nearly 70 years later, the closing production number is still impressive -- the energetic title song enhanced by kaleidoscopic choreography and sweeping camera work. It's a panorama of life on "naughty, gaudy, bawdy, sporty 42nd Street," where "the underground can meet the elite" and violence is part of the cityscape. Amid the tap-dancing and crane shots, a woman screams, stabbed by her lover.
After this epic number, the final scene is deflated, almost downcast. Instead of relishing the triumph of his stage show, the director slumps in an alley outside the theater, overhearing patrons belittle his talent. It's a nice touch. In 1933, no matter how inspiring a movie was, you still walked out into the Depression.