EXILE EXPRESS. Grand National, 1939. Anna Sten, Alan Marshal, Jerome Cowan, Walter Catlett, Leonid Kinskey, Irving Pichel, Harry Davenport, Feodor Chaliapin, Byron Foulger, Vince Barnett, and George Chandler. Written by Ethel La Blanche and Edwin Justus Mayer. Directed by Otis Garrett.  Currently available on YouTube here.

   A star on her way down, a studio on its way out, a movie that ain’t bad.

   Anna Sten was imported to this country by Sam Goldwyn, who saw her as another Garbo. Problem was, we already had one, and after three flops, Ms Sten was cast loose in the film industry, where she continued to work at fitful intervals into the 1960s. Exile Express was her first film in three years and a far cry from the lush work of Goldwyn.

   Grand National was a scrappy little “B” outfit with an eye out for novelty. They snagged James Cagney at the height of his popularity (and in the middle of a contract spat with Warners) for two films, but lost him when they passed up Angels with Dirty Faces for a limp musical that was nothing to sing about. Undaunted, Grand National went for the ready-made publicity of Heavyweight Champ Joe Louis (Spirit of Youth) Lamont Cranston (The Shadow, with silent star Rod LaRocque) and Doctor Robert E Cornish’s home-movie footage showing him supposedly restoring a dead dog to life (Life Returns) which left the lovely Anna Sten literally following a dog act on the bill.

   Withall, nevertheless, and notwithstanding, Exile Express is pretty good: mostly light and inconsequential, but a few moments stick in the critical conscience like venial sins. Ms Sten plays a refugee, and when she speaks of her plans to become a US citizen, she conveys real feeling. Then, of course, the plot rears its banal head; she’s working for a scientist engaged in top-secret research, and when he’s killed and his notes stolen, she falls under suspicion. Acquitted of any crime, he is ordered deported on general principles and put aboard a train from San Francisco to Ellis Island — hence the title Exile Express.

   The rest is mostly sub-Hitchcock, with the train hurtling across the Land of the Free while Enemy Agents try to sneak her off — it seems they need her to fill in the gaps in those stolen notes — and a handsome young reporter takes a bemused interest in the whole thing. We get the usual complement of colorful characters and comic interludes, well-played by reliables with faces you never forget and names you never remember, but there’s also a quiet moment on the train when a gangster being kicked out of the country brags about how big he’ll be back in the Old Country, then falls sadly silent as he looks out the window and sees America passing by.

   I should also put in a word for George Chandler as a gawky near-bridegroom replaced at the last minute by the handsome hero. Chandler had a pivotal part in what is undoubtedly and beyond debate the greatest film ever made (The Fatal Glass of Beer) and he uses his typecast sincerity to here to excellent comic effect.

   This was the last film from Grand National, and if it didn’t go out with a bang, it was at least more swan song than whimper.