Registering the Registry 2021: Hellbound Train (1930)
Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! Today, we continue the theme of early black filmmakers with an excursion to the Washington DC area, where James and Eloyce Gist Bible-thumped the dangers of vice and sodomy in all manner of churches, backed by a self-produced film embodying all the devil’s modern horrors. From 1930, it’s Hellbound Train, and it’s pulling out the station right quick, so get aboard and see what I’ve got to say!
At times, I feel a twinge of temptation to say an inducted film does not belong in the National Film Registry, on account of it flying against my sensibilities, or tweaking my moral center, or plain not sitting right in my stomach after a watch. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and its depiction of simulated child sex in the opening scene, fer instance, or The Fog of War for leaving Robert S. McNamara’s personal narrative about his non-culpability for the Vietnam War unchallenged and so helping perpetuate his lies. I do ultimately come out the other side of these feelings confident the films do deserve their status as important historical works — Sweet Sweetback kicked off the blaxploitation trend and exemplifies a down ’n’ dirty DIY sensibility despite the same leading to the director using his own son in said sex scene; Fog of War sees Errol Morris exercising a documentary style that would become prominent across the 2000s and acts as a window into McNamara’s head no matter how many lies he spins — but with as broad a slate of films as we face from so wide a sweep of history across the NFR, such temptations are bound to arise again and again. Hellbound Train, being an extension of Evangelical ministry from a Bible-thumping, fire and brimstone-type preacher, gets on my bad side for embodying and fervently advancing a narrative about goodliness and godliness as qualities only found beneath the Church’s umbrella, an all-damning narrative so pervasive and sickening that it still sits as root of many a societal ill and political hate campaign to this day. It is a film whose cited importance as an early self-determined work from black authors is difficult to see through its attempts at repressing already downtrodden black audiences of its day through Christian scaremongering. As such I again feel temptation to say it has no place in the Registry, and as such I must reiterate why I feel all films inducted must ultimately have their place, for my benefit much as yours.
While I am overly fond of characterizing the NFR as a collection of the last century and change’s best nature, its finest cinematic talents and keys to seeing ourselves in times and places long removed, one must remember no artistic medium can ever be called healthy if it only reflects the good in our world. Bad art — be it incompetently produced, vector for vile thought, lacking in originality or personal touch, no matter — is equally instructive and valuable if placed within the proper context and studied according to its position in the wider framework of history. Of course, determining exactly how a work fits into the quilt without allowing personal biases or incomplete information to sully our efforts always proves an immensely difficult challenge (enough to explain every academic and philosophical clash of the last coupled thousand years), but the effort must be made all the same. If we stripped, say, The Birth of a Nation its title as An Important Film for the sins of its frankly shocking racism and role in resurrecting the KKK, we would lose not only our chance to contemplate and frame the picture’s contributions to cinematic language, but denigrate the importance of that racism and Klan revival to understanding the social and political movements of 1910s America. Much the same goes for my discomfort towards Sweet Sweetback and The Fog of War, as it must go for today’s film. Hellbound Train makes me shift uncomfortably all over my chair as it rails against sinners I look on as innocents and preaches holiness as only found beneath one church’s roof, and in so doing provides a direct look at one prominent form Evangelical ministry took circa 1930; not at all a pretty sight, yet one we must preserve if the full story is to remain legible for future generations. Sometimes, one must look on something teeth-grinding and accept that how the world once was is our best instructor as to why the world is as now.
Today’s film is also illustrative and instructive towards kinder pursuits than a reminder of sin-mongering’s long history, so let’s look a little closer, why don’t we? Per Howard University film archivist S. Torriano Berry, Hellbound Train comes courtesy the husband-wife team of James and Eloyce Gist, a black couple who travelled the regions in and around Washington DC in the 1930s purveying their filmic and spiritual wares. Interviews with daughter Homolselle Patrick Harrison indicate James was an evangelist of uncertain denomination, while Eloyce was a follower of the Baháʼí faith, a relatively new religion from out’ve Iran professing unification between the tenants and teachings of the three main Abrahamic religions. For the purposes of our discussion at this moment, it must be understood Eloyce’s influence over the film as we see it today was relatively minimal: Berry claims in interviews for Kino-Lorber’s Pioneers of African-American Cinema he believes James shot the majority of the film in Indianapolis prior to meeting and marrying Eloyce, with her contributions consisting of editing the film into a new configuration and providing all title cards, as evidenced by massive splice marks on original prints. Though editing essentially IS a film according to certain perspectives on the medium, we unfortunately cannot know the exact shape Hellbound Train took in Eloyce’s hands, as a fire destroyed the majority of the couple’s archives at some point in the intervening decades (including all production notes), and by the time her family turned surviving materials over to the Library of Congress following her 1974 death, their work existed in scattered, largely degraded fragments of 16mm footage. Further, Berry’s restoration efforts in the 90s revealed multiple variations of the footage, entire sequences with different intros and outros, highly variable pacing, materials from one print wholly absent in at least two others. To hear him tell it, the final cut we have today is only partially adherent to the order implied by Eloyce’s title cards, the main order generated by Berry’s own sensibilities and an attempt to arrange the film as both a reflection of its original self and something appealing to modern audiences.
(Eloyce would reportedly lead the congregation in hymns and provide live musical accompaniment during presentations while her husband preached and lectured additional commentary, but as with With Car & Camera Around the World these aspects obviously don’t survive.)
Digging into the raw materials on display, Hellbound Train certainly needs a little help to play right in a contemporary setting. Start the film, and what you’ve got is essentially a cinematic spookhouse. Per James Gist’s vision, Satan as portrayed by an unknown uncredited actor in a rather silly cloth devil suit is conductor on a great train with stops in every town across the world on a leisurely timetable, doors wide open for anyone who wants a ride, so long as they’re fine getting off at only and final destination… HELL! Each car aboard the infernal coal-guzzler contains a pack of sinners, who in turn play out the moments what brought them so low. Satan’s assembled quite a motley lot aboard his locomotive: the indecent dancers, the bootleggers, the gamblers, liars, murderers, pickpockets, drunkards, grafters, absent fathers, disobedient children, women who get abortions, people who shirk attending church, and those dirty, filthy lowlives who’d dare listen to JAZZ. All shot in a rather amateurish manner in closed settings with usually poor lighting and actors who show themselves as greenhorns before the camera at every opportunity. In one respect, the parade of parables outlining the innumerable ways one can fall into the blazes below provides the class of 2021 two whole looks into African-American life in Indianapolis in the early 20th century — this one perhaps not quite as authentic as the Ringling Brothers Parade Film for the obvious staging during rare outdoor scenes, but you get James Gist’s take on what it looks like when young couples dance with their pelvises too close, crowds gathered to windowshop while a thief moves amongst them, children running down a road until a car barrels into them, homes in impoverished and median-income neighborhoods alike, even some short scenes of worship as it was practiced in those days. Although I can’t say the presence of a goofy demon man dancing and bouncing with glee every time someone falls under his power is a 1:1 report on what went down in Indiana ninety years back, I also can’t rule out the possibility Gist knew something I don’t.
All seriousness, I do find a tongue-in-cheek approach the best method for experiencing Hellbound Train in the now. Serious-minded aspirations towards academic credibility and historical discovery or no, it is a film built on taking you from sordid scene to seedy den, pointing an accusatory finger at everyone within, and running the, “Guilty, guilty, guilty, all of you are damned, none of you are free from sin,” routine. If you’re in the target audience, the fear tactics are nearly a century out of date and lack a good deal of the audacity present in scare films from the mid-20th century onwards; if you’re not in the target audience and don’t much respond to these tactics however fresh, the watch can get wearying as the same events play out over and over. So, why not have a bit of a laugh? There’s a card dealer in the section railing against gamblers who sits perfectly still and stonefaced through the entire sequence, wholly focused on his work to the point he doesn’t even react at the split second a frustrated mark pulls a gun and shoots him down. The frequently unfocused camera occasionally lines up with characters peering bleary-eyed at something just out’ve arm’s reach, as when a lazybones church-shirker looks at his alarm clock and gets ready hours too late. Scenes turn from perfectly hunky-dory to oh my god someone got stabbed everyone run while the camera sways about drunkenly and the Satan actor does a round of hopscotch around the body with finger-snap quickness at least five or six times. In my favorite passage, a woman simply sits there, listening to the newest jazz standard in perfect silence, reading herself a non-Bible book, when all of a sudden she is seized by mortal terror and calls on her children to turn off the record and bring her a hymn book. They succeed, but too late! Satan already has her soul, and she slumps down dead of a heart attack. Refuse to take the thing seriously, and it’s comedy gold.
Still, even with the benefit of some chuckles over the hyper-religious histrionics, it’s a terribly sad mindset on display all the same. When Gist gets into railing against the backsliders and former church members and people who are otherwise the very image of Christ in thought and deed but miss the important step of attending church to venerate God in His house, casting all of them as equally deserving the horrible flames in a blackened pit as portrayed at picture’s close, you see the ugly reality of an evangelist’s doctrine. The straight and narrow road to salvation is so terribly straight and narrow, one can hardly take a step without encountering some soapy slope into the abyss, and you’ll often find the path fraught with those looking to shove you off for sins you didn’t even know WERE sins just so you don’t taint the path with your filthy sinner’s shoes. There’s no room for understanding weakness and temptation as functions of larger systemic issues, no compassion for those who erred in the past and found their own way to forgiveness and betterment, no chance anyone except those who agree with you body and soul in condemning the world entire to hellfire will make it very far. Such a religion requires active, aggressive ministry, for without the vulnerability emergent out’ve participation in mass collective shaming and othering anyone not on the crowd’s side, it leaves one too paranoid to nudge a toe out of line, enjoy oneself, partake in certain walks of life or activities necessary for a happy and healthy existence. Crowd everyone onto the same hellbound train, and you may not be the devil ushering people aboard and conducting the thing as it speeds on down the line… but you’re sure as hell the person laying track and scheduling stops. Not much better than being aboard, honestly.
If we were to only discuss the film inducted into the Registry today, talk about Hellbound Train and leave it there, I might be inclined to finish on this dour note, or mayhaps report on the best title cards as I did when I first reviewed the film on my own time. Trust me, there are plenty winners in there: “THE GOOD TIME MIDNIGHT LIFE CROWD WILL BE LOST IN HELL.” “THE POOL ROOM is such an UGLY PLACE.” “While some serve God on the Sabbath, others worship AUTOMOBILES.” “THIRD COACH IS JAZZ MUSIC… It may bring happiness to you through life, but at the point of death… ‘Mary, Emma, come quick! Stop those blues! BRING HYMN BOOK!’” However, I’m not much for our takeaway being all, “Evangelical doctrine rots your soul and makes you no better than the devil himself!” and besides, if we stopped at just Hellbound Train, we miss the whole story. Kino-Lorber’s collection as hosted on DVD and the Criterion Channel contains two further films from the Gists: 1933’s seven-minute short Verdict: Not Guilty and 1935’s incomplete Heavenbound Travelers (whether this is an unfinished short, an unfinished feature, material collected for an indeterminate project, material from one of the other two films, or the surviving fragments from a picture of wholly unknown nature, it’s impossible to say). Per S. Torriano Berry’s research, these two films find Eloyce in the director’s chair, and after watching I find their focus and purpose markedly different enough from her husband’s work to merit some small examination towards a brighter conclusion.
Verdict: Not Guilty takes the form of an impressionistic pageant play, featuring Eloyce herself as a condemned woman brought before Heaven’s court to face God’s judgement. Death itself in the guise of a skull-faced nun acts as her jailer, the woman veiled and blinded as she pleads beneath a bearded Lord and two similarly veiled angels. The beatific Truth is her defense attorney, while the jester-like Falseness acts as prosecutor, bringing forth evidence of the woman as one who slept with men out of wedlock and bore children she could not properly rear, making her in his terms a “BAD WOMAN.” Falseness is assisted in his prosecution by Satan, who furthermore brings forth evidence the woman skipped on her church attendance and ALSO played cards, the last of which appears to be an entirely falsified claim, which leads to both the devil and Falseness’ expulsion from the court. Having taken all evidence into account, God looks on this woman who died giving birth to a bastard child, decrees she shall be granted Christ’s promise of everlasting life no matter what, and renders the title verdict. Meanwhile, Heavenbound Travelers sees Eloyce as a woman who looks after her neighbors but suffers the misfortune of a jealous husband, one who sees cheating in every male visitor and throws her out of the house alongside their young child for suspected adultery. Eloyce wanders the parks and friendly halfway homes in search of a new stable life, venerating god all the time, while her husband comes to hear voices of condemnation (or maybe just a well-timed vocalization of “Mmmmmmmm, oh yeah yeah yeah…” from Dr. Samuel Waymon’s newly commissioned score, present in all three films on Criterion), prompting him to go a-seeking. Too late, alas, as he finds only a tombstone, and the remainder of the film concerns itself with passages from scripture as white-robed figures make their way down darkened hallowed halls and ascend a staircase towards a sign reading “WE ARE HEAVENBOUND TRAVELERS,” with kicking an interloping devil down the steps at the close.
Taking what little we know about the Gists as close to truth as we can get, it wouldn’t be fair to assign all the talent between the pair to Eloyce for her shorts leaving higher visual impact. The footage between them doesn’t total one half Hellbound Train, and disquieted as I am by the particulars of James’ faith, his image of the devil as conductor of an inferno-powered engine whose cars house vignettes about the world’s great evils is a killer diller concept that maintains some power despite far outstripping his ability to make it effective cinematic reality. Eloyce’s work shows greater ambitions in her approach to vignette storytelling (if hampered by the same lacking budget and experience), but all surviving evidence indicates her two directorial efforts were still collaborations with her husband, as were their live presentations until his failing health put a halt to their ministry. All told, though, it’s not the visual differences I find noteworthy here; rather, my mind gravitates towards Eloyce’s differing morals, her spiritual sensibilities. Consider the contents again: the husband in Heavenbound Travelers is treated in these fragments as a tragic figure, wracked by guilt and crushed when he learns what cruelty his actions wrought, the film subsequently focusing on his wife’s ascent rather than his damnation. Verdict: Not Guilty calls out the devil’s lies while leaving the main crime of adultery unaddressed, the Lord sparing the woman’s soul and ascending her to heaven in plain forgiveness of a crime whose consequences Hellbound Train implied were completely irrevocable. Both short films use scripture as a means to balm and uplift far more frequently the feature’s full-chested bellowing of verse as curse and caution, both concern themselves with the angelic above the infernal, both speak to a guiding hand motivated by the sanctity in forgiveness.
I can’t pretend any authority to say why Eloyce Gist’s films seem more driven by what I’d call a healthy, recognizably Christian affect than the feature from her husband. One might speculate it has to do with her following the Baháʼí Faith given its deemphasized focus on eternal punishment over closeness to God and global unity, yet it is impossible to judge in absence of any surviving writings from the woman herself. What I can say is this: Eloyce’s emphases ring to me as truer of what religious practice ought be than those in James’ inducted picture. If one is to suppose the existence of a higher power, a creator with some meaningful measure of knowledge about and control over the goings on of the universe, such a force must operate on something beyond the merest animal instinct to survive, and must in turn be driven by something we’d recognize as compassion or kindness. Not in the classic atheist’s gotcha that a kind and loving omniscient God would never allow anything bad to happen, or the typical believer’s counter of suffering and horridity as necessary features to sort the wheat from the chaff in a mill of souls. In a sense that once the mortal flesh has fallen away and whatever comes next comes to pass, the fact of a living, breathing, thinking creature having accumulated a lifetime’s unique experiences necessitates an understanding guide into and through the hereafter. I’m no believer myself — never seen sufficient concrete evidence to elevate the universe above what modern science tells us, doubt I ever will — but if God is in man as man is in God, and if I and others seek to cultivate within ourselves a better nature based in mercy and forgiveness no matter how often we fall short, then I would expect to find a creator or cultivator or caretaker for All who matches to Eloyce’s guide up the stairs and wants nothing to do with James’ demon who drives the hellbound train.
So, grounding ourselves again after that flight into personal theology, and looping things back to the beginning, s’important to not let our gut reactions against art dominate our conception of what it can teach. I’m not too hot on watching Hellbound Train as a film for any purpose other than bemusement at how passionately it boards the world entire on a one-way trip to Hell, but it does provide an example of amateur filmmaking from a corner of the country whose cinematic output was ignored in its time and at risk of vanishing, and a platform for discussing the merits and shortcomings of varying religious perspectives, and a gateway to discussing Eloyce Gist’s directorial outings where she would otherwise be a forgotten ancillary creator to her husband. The National Film Registry is one of a great many curated filmic windows into our past; the time we spend contemplating its contents is not the time for hotheadedness. Leave that to those who preach fire and brimstone for a living.
Got a lil’ personal this week, didn’t we? All the more reason for me to ask what you lot think of Hellbound Train, I should say! Any standout parts, favorite title cards, further reflections on the nature of the hereafter? Leave your comment below, and be sure to keep an eye out for the next article two weeks’ hence! We’re back to Disney again, a 1932 Silly Symphony that stands as the first commercial film of any sort to employ the three-strip Technicolor process! Courtesy Burt Gillett and an animation team headed by Les Clark, it’s Flowers and Trees, which you can find on Disney+ legally, or any number of hosting sites illegitimately if you’re none too sweet on giving Didney money. Catch y’all then!