The 20th Cenutry Limited in the 1930s and Kim Novak in the 1950s…

A promotional film made in 1935 by the New York Central Lines. Features a journey on the 20th Century Limited, once America’s premier train.

The New York-Chicago market was the premier intercity passenger service for Eastern railroading and the New York Central’s 20th Century Limited competed with rival Pennsylvania Railroad and its Broadway Limited for top honors (although based from traffic figures the 20th Century Limited did have an edge over the Broadway). While it will likely always be argued which train was the most successful what cannot be argued is their distinctive different styles with the20th Century Limited catering to business travelers and “new money” with its modernistic cool, sleek designs and colors while the Broadway Limited featured light, airy, and cheery accents and accommodated more to the older crowd. Ultimately, the rapidly declining interest in rail travel by the public through the 1950s forced the NYC to give up on its vaunted train and it made its final run in 1967.

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Movie-star Kim Novak in the dining car on the New York bound 20th Century Ltd in 1956.  Packed with businessmen, all eyes are on the beautiful celebrity.  

The 20th Century Limited had its beginnings dating back to 1902 when the train began operating between New York and Chicago (the Pennsy began operating a plush passenger train between the two cities in 1902 as well but until 1912 it was known as thePennsylvania Special). For the first thirty years the train, including its rival theBroadway Limited was quite conservative and changed little aesthetically, using standard heavyweight passenger equipment and traditional steam locomotives. However, when the streamliner craze began to take root in the 1930s that all changed.  The PRR and NYC were constantly watching each other to make sure that neither upstaged the other. In the case of streamlining it was the Central which got things started.

In 1936 the NYC experimented and custom streamlined its Mercury which operated between Detroit and Cleveland. That same year, rather pleased with the results of the Mercury, the Central began to seriously consider also streamlining its flagship. With no streamlined train yet of it’s on, after hearing of this the PRR approached the Central wondering if the latter would be interested in a joint effort of streamlining their flagships, which the NYC agreed to.  The builder of their trains was the industry standard of the day, the Pullman Company (of which the Pullman-Standard division built the actual equipment). What’s interesting is that both trains, from a blueprint standpoint were virtually identical as Pullman was well known for standardization as a cost savings tool (today, the practice is widespread).

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The 1930s 20th Century Limited ready to depart from Grand Central Station.  A “red carpet” was rolled out on departure for the deluxe Pullman passengers. 

However, from an aesthetic standpoint the two trains could not have been more different inside and out after designers were finished adding their touches.  With its order of 62 cars the Central set to designing the new streamlined 20th Century Limited inside and out (all 62 cars were used exclusively for the flagship and a typical train included, in order, a mail-baggage car, dormitory-buffet-lounge, five sleepers, two diners, two additional sleepers, and finally a sleeper-lounge observation). To accomplish this the railroad hired distinguished industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss. What Dreyfuss created has been argued as the most beautiful and endearing passenger train worldwide of all time. Whether this is the case or not the train was certainly quite stunning.

To create Central’s flagship Dreyfuss used a process of keeping elements in their basic form when designing different aspects of the train (a concept known as “cleanlining”). Similarly Dreyfuss kept the theme of New York City and urban settings throughout the train and used tones of light and gunmetal gray for the interior and exterior (which was especially stunning inside the train matched against the urban theme). For instance, the diners served double duty. During the day they were used for general fine dining, serving exceptional meals that rivaled the most exquisiterestaurants of the day. However, after the final evening meal was served the white tablecloth linens would be replaced with rust-red linens and the car would become a nightclub known as “Café Century.” Dreyfuss also broke up the dining cars to make passengers feel less like they were in railroad cars and more as if they were in an actual restaurant using glass wall partitions.

Perhaps Dreyfuss’ crowning achievement with the train was the sleeper-observation. Here he used urban murals, soft lighting, the train’s ubiquitous gunmetal gray colors, and touches of partitioning to group passengers together in seating of twos or threes (which featured blue leather upholstery). Coupled with Art Deco artistry and the car was something to behold. As Loewy had done with the Broadway, in the 20th Century Limited Dreyfuss, near the back of the car, partitioned the observation sectioning off the extreme end of the car (by way of a large urban mural and a rounded loveseat with table) where it featured seating facing towards the windows so passengers could watch the landscape retreating away from them.

Unlike the Pennsylvania, which never bothered to match its locomotives with the rest of train, Dreyfuss and the Central kept everything linear using tones of gray for the livery. The locomotive, a streamlined Hudson became one of the most endearing streamlined steam designs ever conceived. The locomotive featured matching colors, of course, and Dreyfuss gave it subtle, yet, unmistakable sheathing whereby the running gear was exposed for everyone to witness and take in the power of the locomotive in motion yet with elegant curves and angles to make it appear in motion, even when it wasn’t!

The signature trait of the steamer was its bullet nose and distinctive protruding fin, which wrapped vertically all of the way up the nose and was given a flushed finish all of the way back to the cab of the locomotive. All in all, everything from the leading Hudson to the sleeper observation, inside and out, exuded speed, elegance, and royalty. The 20th Century Limited was built for style and stardom (the train conveyed the New York lifestyle) and it tailored perfectly to young executives and “new money.” So popular was the train that the Central often had to run to trains, one in each direction.

Both the PRR and NYC misread the boom in WWII traffic and purchased millions in upgrades for its passenger fleet and as rail travel began its slow recession in the 1950s both likewise lost millions on the gamble. While the Central purchased more in upgrades than the Pennsy it was also the first to call it quits with its flagship. In 1967, the same year that the PRR dropped “All Pullman” status on its Broadway Limited the NYC discontinued its20th Century Limited, an ominous sign of just how derelict the passenger rail market was by that time. While arguments will persist over which train, the 20th Century Limited or Broadway Limited, was most regal both reigned supreme in the east. Each train’s renowned status can be measured purely on how well it is remembered where after decades since each were operated by their original creator they continue to talked and written about.

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About Michael L. Grace

MICHAEL L. GRACE is part of the award winning team that created the internationally performed award winning musical SNOOPY, based on PEANUTS by Charles M. Schultz. SNOOPY continues to be one of the most produced shows (amateur & stock) in America/Worldwide and has had long running productions in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and in London's West End. There are over 100 individual productions every year. He has written movies for TV, including the award-winning thriller LADY KILLER, various pilots and developed screenplays for Kevin Costner and John Travolta. Besides co-writing and co-producing SNOOPY, he wrote and produced the one-man play KENNEDY. He produced P.S. YOUR CAT IS DEAD by pulitzer prize winning author James Kirkwood. He wrote the stage thriller FINAL CUT which had productions in the UK, South Africa and Australia. His one-man play, KENNEDY - THE MAN BEHIND THE MYTH, was developed for HBO and has starred Andrew Stevens, Gregory Harrison and Joseph Bottoms. He has recently been involved in European productions with CLT-UFA, Europe's leading commercial television and radio broadcaster. He wrote MOWs THE DOLL COLLECTION, THE BOTTOM LINE and LAST WITNESS for German television. While in college and graduate school he worked as a foreign correspondent for COMBAT, the famous leftwing Paris daily, and as a travel writer. He visited more than 50 countries. He struggled as an actor, then joined the enemy and entered the training program at William Morris. He became a publicist and worked for Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley's manager, at Paramount and MGM. He followed with a brief stint as a story executive, working in the frantic horror genre period of the early 80s and wrote THE UNSEEN. He went onto write for episodic television and develop series pilots. He was a continuing writer on such series such as LOVE BOAT, PAPER DOLLS, and KNOTS LANDING. He developed screenplays for such major award winning directors as Nicolas Meyers, Tony Richardson and J. Lee Thompson. He has written for all the major networks and studios. He has been hired numerous times as a script doctor, doing many uncredited rewrites on TV movies and features. He is currently writing A PERSON OF INTEREST, a thriller novel, and, IT'S THE LOVE BOAT... AND HOW IT CHANGED CRUISING BY SHIP a non-fiction book dealing with how the hit TV series as a major cultural phenomenon and altered the style of cruising by ship. He was raised in Los Angeles. He attended St. Paul's, USC and the Pasadena Playhouse. He received a B.A from San Francisco State University where he majored in theatre arts and minored in creative writing. He is listed as a SFSU leading alumni. He also apprenticed at ACT - The American Conservatory Theatre. For a brief period he had intentions of becoming an Episcopal(Anglican) priest and attended seminary at Kelham Theological College in the UK. When "the calling" wasn't there, he left seminary and did graduate work at the American University of Beirut. He has guest lectured at USC, UC San Diego, McGill, Univ. of London and the Univ. of Texas on the business aspects of making a living and surviving as a writer, focusing on development hell, in the Hollywood entertainment industry. Grace is a lifetime member of the Writers Guild of America, the Dramatist Guild and former regional chairman of the Steamship Historical Society of America. He resides in Palm Springs.

One comment

  1. I’ve watched An Affair to Remember MANY times — I have the DVD! Thank God for DVDs — because they sure don’t make movies like that anymore. And there just aren’t the stars with the looks and Class like Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant in today’s world.

    I remember when one just dressed up to go downtown or even take a flight or train somewhere. Now we can’t do that — someone might think we’re rich and we’d get mugged.

    In 1965 I was fortunate to return home to America from Greece on the Queen Anna Maria — in time to have
    my baby girl. It was unfortunate indeed that I had to travel alone since I was so far in my pregnancy that I could delay no longer. So that wasn’t much fun (my husband was waiting for his Visa to clear) — but I did so enjoy the music on the intercom and, especially “More” (a new hit at that time).
    (It was that ship’s “maiden” voyage.)

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