The Ghost Train is a great little comedy mystery thriller based on a 1923 play by English playwright and actor Arnold Ridley. Arnold once made a stop at a deserted train station, the Mangotsfield Station near Bristol, England. Back then the station was surrounded on three sides by train tracks with an earthen embankment on the fourth side. A non-stop express train used a curved adjacent track on the other side of the station to bypass Mangotsfield but the curve and the embankment combined to reflect the sound of the train into the station, “Making it sound like a train was coming that would never arrive”. Arnold was so struck by the atmosphere of the deserted station and by the ghostly sounds of an rushing unseen train that it only took him a week to write The Ghost Train. Arnold wrote his play in 1923 but it has been adapted many times over the years for film, radio, and television. The first adaptation was in a 1925 film, the most recent adaptation was an audio version recorded in 2010. Arnold Ridley even played the crusty old stationmaster in several productions over the years. Fun trivia tidbit: Arthur Ridley is the granduncle to Daisy Ridley, star of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Popular radio and film star Arthur Askey is the star of this 1941 black and white version of The Ghost Train. Arthur Askey was a hugely popular radio, film, and television comedian and actor. He first rose to stardom on the BBC radio program Band Waggon. During Band Waggon, Arthur also began to partner with British actor and entertainer Richard Murdoch. When the duo began doing film, Richard’s tall athletic good looks and upper middle class persona and accent made an excellent foil for Arthur’s short stature, homely appearance and working class persona and accent. They play off each other excellently in The Ghost Train, sometimes seeming to work together, sometimes seeming at cross purposes.
The Ghost Train is a short film, running only a little over 81 minutes but it packs a lot into those few minutes. The story starts out simply enough. Arthur’s character, vaudeville entertainer Tommy Gander, loses his hat out a train window and stops the train so he can run and retrieve it. That stop causes the train to run late and Tommy and seven other passengers find themselves stranded at an isolated and spooky train station. There will not be another train for nine hours so they are stuck much to the displeasure of the crusty old stationmaster who glumly repeats: “You can’t stay here!” The stationmaster tries to get the passengers to leave by telling them the story of a doomed train that ran off a nearby bridge and killed all aboard. Now a long dead stationmaster haunts the station and the doomed train roars by in ghostly form and nobody dares to stay at the station overnight lest they end up as eternal passengers on the ghostly train. When the passengers doubt the story, the grumpy stationmaster proclaims in a wonderful accent: “If this be a natural thing, where do it come from, where do it go?”
The passengers reluctantly stay at the station when a fierce storm blows up but the crusty stationmaster deserts them and heads off. The film slowly builds tension as various passengers hear noises and give into nervousness and exhaustion. And the passengers are a great and varied bunch. We have Tommy Gander (Arthur Askey) who keeps trying to entertain and help the tired passengers and becomes a most irritating annoyance to them. Miss Bourne (played by Kathleen Harrison) is a fussy spinster lady carrying multiple bags including a parrot in a cage. There is a wonderfully stiff young couple heading to their wedding and a feared mother-in-law. Another couple, although their relationship is never really made clear, include the lovely Jackie, object of Tommy’s infatuation, and RG, who is really really REALLY annoyed by Tommy. There is also an elderly country doctor and Tommy / Arthur Askey’s perfect foil Richard Murdoch as Teddy Deakin. Teddy shares Tommy’s infatuation with Jackie and the two sometimes seem work together to try to impress her but Teddy also gets impatient with Tommy and gradually seems to be more than he first appeared. A couple of other characters later seek refuge in the storm lashed haunted station and everyone waits in growing dread of the coming of the Ghost Train.
I loved this little film. The passengers are all great but I particularly loved Tommy’s endless and misguided efforts to entertain the passengers and poor little Miss Bourne’s unfortunate reaction to some “medicine”. But there are also some really great bits of English life at the time. The group makes casual mention of the Blitz and a great bit of trivia is that Arthur Askey, because he had been traveling around the country working and making appearances, had no first hand experience of the Blitz until he arrived in London, suffering in the midst of the Blitz, to film The Ghost Train. But my favorite scenes involve the train station itself: fixing tea in the big old urn, having to go outside to get water (this also involves a great running joke of Tommy repeatedly having to go out in the storm to get water). These are just wonderful slice of life type scenes. I never knew what all was involved in simply getting water and making tea. I also just loved Tommy. He is so earnest and so desperate to entertain everyone and at the same time so amusingly annoying.
The Ghost Train is a black and white film that was made in 1941 and runs about an hour twenty-one minutes. There are some fun antics but also a great slowly developing tension over whether or not a haunted train will soon be barreling down on the stranded passengers. Audio and video quality are great although the film is sometimes a little dark and sometimes a little blurry. Of course, the best thing is that The Ghost Train is FREE in the Public Domain. You can watch The Ghost Train online or download it at the Internet Archive. You can see the deserted remains of Mangotsfield Station, where author Arnold Ridley first got his spooky inspiration, in a short three minute 36 second video at You Tube. If you, like me, are a fan of comedian Arthur Askey, please check out my review of his film King Arthur was a Gentleman complete with link to watch the film FREE. And if you enjoy spooky railroad experiences, please checkout Cheryl M-M’s review of The Signal-Man.