25 May 2004 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Movies that take place aboard a railway train are often very exciting: the characters are rushing along at a steady pace, even if the plot is just spinning in circles. 'Florida Special' feels like several other all-aboard movies, such as 'Sleepers West', but has much less excitement and it runs out of steam before it reaches the last stop. Railway metaphors aside, the biggest problem with 'Florida Special' is that it combines elements of comedy and caper thriller, without quite integrating them properly.
'Florida Special' is based on a story by Clarence Budington Kelland, and thereby hangs a tale. In the 1920s and '30s, Kelland was a phenomenally successful author whose books and stories sold in huge quantities, and which were frequently filmed ... yet today, in the 21st century, Kelland is utterly forgotten and all of his many works are long since out of print. The author Harlan Ellison (a friend of mine) has offered Kelland's example as a warning for all authors and artists, including himself: Ellison is currently very popular and financially successful, yet he has proposed that he might be only the latest incarnation of Clarence Budington Kelland, becoming utterly forgotten and out-of-print in his own lifetime.
Although not the leading role in 'Florida Special', the central character in this hodgepodge is Simeon Stafford, a dyspeptic miser played by Claude Gillingwater. (No stretch for him; Gillingwater was typecast as dyspeptic misers.) Frances Drake is excellent and beautiful, as always, in her role as Stafford's niece. Stafford has booked a trip on the Florida Special, carrying a large quantity of gemstones on his person. Naturally, a bunch of gangsters board the same train, planning to rob Stafford. On the same train is Jack Oakie, as a newspaperman with a strong suit in wisecracking. (Is there any other sort?) He runs afoul of the gangsters.
When 'Florida Special' was made in 1936, a cross-country journey by train was a big deal. The famous Super Chief (and several other trains) offered facilities rivalling those aboard a luxury ocean liner. Passengers spent the night sleeping in Pullman berths, carefully prepared by Pullman porters. Among the other amenities was (sometimes) a recreation car, with a creche to keep children occupied while their parents were elsewhere on the train.
Back to our story. Oakie and the gangsters cross paths with Sally Eilers, who portrays the hostess in the recreation van. This being a very predictable movie, she helps Oakie get the gang on the goodsters ... I mean, she helps him get the goods on the gangsters. There are some good things in 'Florida Special', but all of them were much better done in earlier movies, and sometimes also in their later remakes. It's a doddle that 'Florida Special' will never be remade. I'll rate this movie 5 out of 10. The production values are good, but the pace is much too lacklustre.