Robert Aldrich | 1973 | 118 mins | USA
There was a whole spate of films about the depression made in the 1970s. Paper Moon, Hard Times and Where the Red Fern Grows come to mind right off the bat, but I'd never heard of Emperor of the North Pole until last night, but it's a bit of a star studded gem.
Lee Marvin is A-No.1 (that's pronounced A Number One, in case you had any doubts), a top notch hobo who won't take anybody's guff and is determined to take down "The 19", a train that no hobo has ridden before. Ernest Borgnine is Shack, the merciless and sadistic railway conductor who wields a hammer against any hobo who dares set foot on the 19. An young and pretty-faced Keith Carradine is Cigaret, the brash young hobo-wannabe who latches onto Marvin's star and tries to ride it into the sunset.
I'm not sure that this strange, train-hopping adventure qualifies as one of my top ten Lee Marvin films, but considering the fact that Marvin starred in some of the best movies of all time, I guess that's not too harsh a criticism. The character of A-No.1 is loosely based on real-life Hobo King Leon Ray Livingston, who hoboed it up under that alias and is credited with being one of the gents who perfected the hobo symbol system. Livingston died in 1944 and did most of his rail riding before the Great Depression, so this isn't exactly based on real events, but it's still a really fun ride.
A-No.1 manages to get onto Shack's train only to find that he's been tailed by a loudmouthed tenderfoot (the adorable Carradine). In order to keep the kid from fouling up his plans, A-No.1 sets their hay filled train car on fire and crashes through the partially burned wooden side, leaving Cigaret inside to face the consequences of being found.
When rumours start to spread about some dirty 'bo riding Shack's train, A-No.1 takes it up a notch by announcing his intention to ride it all the way to Portland, by writing his travel itinerary right up on the a big tower adjacent to the train station. Shack gets ready for a battle, Cigaret gets ready to tag along, and A-No.1 gets ready for an epic battle.
There's a great deal of hobo wisdom to be learned from Emperor of the North Pole (for example, men are not trains, because men who are out of fuel can still run on dreams). Lee Marvin's climactic "you coulda been a meat eater" speech (delivered, of course, from the back of a speeding train as it careens through the scenic western countryside) is so stirring, it's almost the hobo version of Brando's "I coulda been a contender" speech from On The Waterfront.
The title itself is a nod to some Depression Era hobo lingo, referring to the joke that the world's best hobo was "Emperor of the North Pole" (i.e. the ruler of a desolate tundra). On the whole, this [essentially woman-less] film is about the romance of the rail-riding life, and it does paint a pretty compelling picture.
Extra points for an incredible poster.