The Littlest Hobo

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People often have memories, dating back to childhood, of things that, for unknown reasons, made a big impression on them. In my case, it is an obscure 1958 children’s film called The Littlest Hobo.

Here is a synopsis from Amazon:

While beloved collie Lassie captivated TV viewers, this simple, sweet-natured film, shot all over 1950s Los Angeles, follows a clever German Shepherd who hops off a freight train and soon rescues a lamb bound for slaughter. Along the way, the canny canine outwits the cops, a dog catcher and some predatory bums, even arriving at a soup kitchen as the preacher welcomes his “lost sheep.” He also helps a wheelchair-bound girl take her first steps and earns his woolly pal a gubernatorial pardon. Improbable? More like irresistible. So much so that The Littlest Hobo graduated to lasting fame in two popular Canadian TV series across two decades, first-time director Charles R. Rondeau became a prolific helmer of episodic TV, and young lead Buddy Hart would go on to play Chester Anderson on Leave It to Beaver. Buoyed by a breezy, jazz-inflected score by Ronald Stein and the lovely tune “Road Without End,” sung by Randy Sparks, The Littlest Hobo, long out of circulation but happily back to win over a new generation, is the doggonedest charmer ever.

And here is a more thorough version from Turner Classic Movies:

A German shepherd dog named London accompanies a hobo to Los Angeles aboard a freight train. After getting a bath from the railcar washer, London helps clean up at a nearby hamburger stand, but decides to move on when the hobo takes a job there. Later, while strolling down Wilshire Blvd., London is drawn to a striking French poodle, but is distracted by a passing truck carrying a young boy, Tommy, weeping over a lamb. London follows the truck to a slaughterhouse, where, realizing the lamb’s fate, the dog rescues him. Startled, the workers at the meat plant contact the police, who pursue the animals but lose them in a junkyard filled with abandoned streetcars. Coming upon an evangelist on the street preaching about “the lost lamb”, the animals are given food and spend the night in the mission. The next day London and the lamb, Fleecie, continue on and find themselves near the mansion of Governor Malloy. The governor is consulting Dr. Hunt about his young daughter Molly, who is confined to a wheelchair. Dr. Hunt tells Malloy that Molly must regain the desire to walk again. London leads Fleecie near Molly and pretends to attack the lamb in order to provoke the child into walking. Frantic to save Fleecie, Molly stands up and takes several steps toward the animals before collapsing. Her cries draw her father, but frighten Fleecie, who runs away. The police soon recapture the lamb and return it to the slaughterhouse. Malloy, however, has put a search out for Fleecie to please Molly. The Malloys find Fleecie and save the lamb just in time. Meanwhile, London locates Tommy and guides him to the governor’s mansion to show the little boy the happiness Fleecie has brought to someone else. Content that Fleecie is safe and cared for, Tommy departs, escorted by London, who remains with the boy a short while before again answering the call of the open road.

This was very much a low-budget film, which made great use of striking outdoor locations, in Southern California rail yards and on Terminal Island, where hundreds of LA interurbans and streetcars were stacked up like cordwood. Being just the right age for this film when it was new, these scenes remained vivid in my memory. In some shots, you can actually read individual car numbers.

Unfortunately, this film was unavailable for many years. Now it has been released on DVD, and after a wait of more than 50 years, I finally had a chance recently to watch the film again. Sure enough, for me, the most effective scenes in the film are the ones shot on Terminal Island, where Pacific Electric “Hollywood” cars were piled up alongside H and K-series streetcars from Los Angeles. Some say there were still car bodies there as late as 1966. Interestingly, a few cars were dumped into the Pacific Ocean off Redondo Beach, in order to create an artificial reef.

The film’s success led to a couple of long-running Canadian TV series, which I have not seen.

Here are some screen shots from the 1958 film, featuring the various railroad locations that were used as backdrops. To these, we have added some additional pictures from Terminal Island that we found on the Internet.

And while the great majority of LA’s streetcars and interurbans were already on the “scrap heap of history” by 1958, they did run for a few years longer before their final abandonments, the PE until 1961 and LA streetcars in 1963. But even then, that was not really the end.

In the years since 1963, electric transit in Los Angeles has made a comeback in a big way. And, thanks to a recent successful ballot initiative, LA’s system seems likely to continue to grow and expand for many years to come.

-David Sadowski


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Additional Photos

Stacks of carbodies signal the end of rail service in Los Angeles with these former Pacific Electric streetcars neatly arranged at a Terminal Island scrapyard. (Jack Finn Collection)

Stacks of carbodies signal the end of rail service in Los Angeles with these former Pacific Electric streetcars neatly arranged at a Terminal Island scrapyard. (Jack Finn Collection)

Pacific Electric Railway streetcars stacked at a junkyard on Terminal Island, March 1956.

Pacific Electric Railway streetcars stacked at a junkyard on Terminal Island, March 1956.

The final resting place. National Metal and Steel Corp., Terminal Island, Long Beach, California. Notice the stacks of Pacific Electric street cars in the background. May 1959. (Robert Vredenburgh Photo)

The final resting place. National Metal and Steel Corp., Terminal Island, Long Beach, California. Notice the stacks of Pacific Electric street cars in the background. May 1959. (Robert Vredenburgh Photo)

Pacific Electric street cars waiting to be scrapped. National Metal and Steel Corp., Terminal Island, Long Beach, California. May 1959. (Robert Vredenburgh Photo)

Pacific Electric street cars waiting to be scrapped. National Metal and Steel Corp., Terminal Island, Long Beach, California. May 1959. (Robert Vredenburgh Photo)

Pacific Electric red cars awaiting demolition on terminal island in Long Beach, CA.

Pacific Electric red cars awaiting demolition on terminal island in Long Beach, CA.

It's 1958 at the Terminal Island scrapyard where Los Angeles Transit Lines (and in this shot, Southern Pacific) units go to die an inglorious death. Three LATL (ex-Los Angeles Railway) units sit atop one another while being framed by former SP heavyweight cars. (L. Swanson Photo, Andy Goddard Collection)

It’s 1958 at the Terminal Island scrapyard where Los Angeles Transit Lines (and in this shot, Southern Pacific) units go to die an inglorious death. Three LATL (ex-Los Angeles Railway) units sit atop one another while being framed by former SP heavyweight cars. (L. Swanson Photo, Andy Goddard Collection)

Los Angeles Transit Lines (ex-Los Angeles Railway) car no. 1159 sits atop other units at the Terminal Island scrapyard. The image is dated November 2, 1958. (L. Swanson Photo, Andy Goddard Collection)

Los Angeles Transit Lines (ex-Los Angeles Railway) car no. 1159 sits atop other units at the Terminal Island scrapyard. The image is dated November 2, 1958. (L. Swanson Photo, Andy Goddard Collection)

Pacific Electric "Hollywood Cars" stacked for scrap on Terminal Island, near Long Beach.

Pacific Electric “Hollywood Cars” stacked for scrap on Terminal Island, near Long Beach.

AWAITING DESTRUCTION--Old Pacific Electric cars are piled up like toys at junkyard on Terminal Island, awaiting dismantling to become scrap metal. (Los Angeles Times Photographic Collection)

AWAITING DESTRUCTION–Old Pacific Electric cars are piled up like toys at junkyard on Terminal Island, awaiting dismantling to become scrap metal. (Los Angeles Times Photographic Collection)

Scrapping at National Metals on Terminal Island circa 1956.

Scrapping at National Metals on Terminal Island circa 1956.

Los Angeles streetcars at Terminal Island.

Los Angeles streetcars at Terminal Island.

(Ralph Cantos Collection)

(Ralph Cantos Collection)

Decommissioned former Pacific Electric streetcars are stacked prior to scrapping on Terminal Island. The date is February 23, 1956. (Alan Weeks Photo, Alan Weeks Collection)

Decommissioned former Pacific Electric streetcars are stacked prior to scrapping on Terminal Island. The date is February 23, 1956. (Alan Weeks Photo, Alan Weeks Collection)

Abandoned former Pacific Electric streetcars get piled high at the Terminal Island scrapyard in the 1950s. (Jack Finn Collection)

Abandoned former Pacific Electric streetcars get piled high at the Terminal Island scrapyard in the 1950s. (Jack Finn Collection)

Marine biologists inspect the street cars to be used in artificial reef pilot projects in 1959. (Photo, Artificial Habitat in the Marine Environment, Department of Fish and Game, University of California, 1964)

Marine biologists inspect the street cars to be used in artificial reef pilot projects in 1959. (Photo, Artificial Habitat in the Marine Environment, Department of Fish and Game, University of California, 1964)

A U.S. Navy salvage ship lowers an unknown trolley or streetcar into the Pacific off Redondo Beach / Palos Verdes in September 1956. (Photo, Artificial Habitat in the Marine Environment, Department of Fish and Game, University of California, 1964)

A U.S. Navy salvage ship lowers an unknown trolley or streetcar into the Pacific off Redondo Beach / Palos Verdes in September 1956. (Photo, Artificial Habitat in the Marine Environment, Department of Fish and Game, University of California, 1964)

Marine biologist Charles H. Turner inspects a submerged trolley in the South Bay, July 1959. (Photo, Artificial Habitat in the Marine Environment, Department of Fish and Game, University of California, 1964)

Marine biologist Charles H. Turner inspects a submerged trolley in the South Bay, July 1959. (Photo, Artificial Habitat in the Marine Environment, Department of Fish and Game, University of California, 1964)

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13 thoughts on “The Littlest Hobo

  1. Hi David, Thanks for bringing this film to my attention. I’m always interested in watching movies with railroad content, especially old ones. I even enjoy those 1920’s railroad thrillers starring Helen Holmes. She always seemed to be stopping runaway locomotives from crashing head-on into the “Limited”. Two of her better films are “Mistaken Orders” and “The Lost Express” both made in 1925.
    A few other somewhat obscure movies with great railroad scenes are “Murder in the Private Car” (1934), it has some good views of SP’s Dunsmuir, CA yard. “The Silver Streak” (1934) which starred the Burlington’s Zephyr, “The Rainmakers” (1935), and “Whispering Smith Speaks” (1935) All can be found, sometimes with some difficulty, on DVD. There are many more perhaps we all could list our favorites.
    A real treat for traction fans is Harold Lloyd’s 1924 film “Girl Shy” which features a long stunt filled runaway ride on a LA streetcar.

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    • Thanks… there are some interesting glimpses of PE cars in a couple of W. C. Fields films (Man on the Flying Trapeze and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break). The great comedians often had shots of LA streetcars in their movies.

      There is also an early 1930s feature film, whose name escapes me at the moment, about a streetcar company and a fraud scheme involving staged accidents.

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      • Hi David, When you recall the title of that 1930s’ film about the streetcar company and staged accidents, please let me know. That one sounds like a movie I would enjoy.

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      • It took me a while, but I finally figured it out. It’s called The Nuisance, and was released by MGM in 1933. It stars Lee Tracy, who played wisecracking tough-guy roles back then, not unlike James Cagney. It also features Madge Evans and Frank Morgan (who was best known for being the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz). Virginia Cherrill, who played the love interest in Chaplin’s City Lights, also has a part, as does Nat Pendleton, who plays a crooked streetcar conductor who pockets nickels and dimes.

        Here is a full synopsis from TCM:

        Joe Phineas Stevens is an ambulance-chasing lawyer who, with the help of Dr. Buchanan Prescott, an alcoholic quack, “Floppy” Phil Montague, a “professional” accident victim, and a crew of for-hire eye witnesses, specializes in defrauding his local streetcar company. After a series of particularly embarrassing and costly victories against them, Kelley and John Calhoun, lawyers for the streetcar company, plot to destroy Joe by playing as dirty as he. Subsequently, Joe is called to the scene of a streetcar collision where he meets attractive Dorothy Mason, an apparent accident victim, to whom he extends his services. Although at first cool and elusive toward Joe, Dorothy invites him to her apartment one day, and he eagerly accepts, unaware that she has been hired by Kelley and Calhoun to trap him. While Joe talks about faking spinal and vision injuries, Dorothy tapes his remarks on a hidden recorder. After Dorothy is examined thoroughly by three of the streetcar company’s physicians, who pronounce her fit, Prescott takes X-rays of her spine and promises her that he will have no trouble altering them to show a certain injury. Apprised of his methods, Dorothy finds out which speakeasy Prescott frequents and notifies Kelley and Calhoun of his whereabouts. While the lawyers chat with Prescott and pretend that they want to learn the accident “racket,” Dorothy takes Joe to a roller skating rink, where she has arranged for a photographer to shoot them skating. Instead, the cameraman takes a photograph of another one of Joe’s dubious clients, a supposed grieving widow, who subsequently is arrested. Unnerved by the photographer’s presence, Joe takes Dorothy to Prescott’s office, just as the drunken doctor is showing Calhoun and Kelley how he fakes X-rays. After Kelley tells Joe that Prescott will be subpoened, Joe denounces the doctor as a traitor. Overcome with shame, Prescott deliberately walks in front of a passing automobile and dies in Joe’s arms. In his apartment, a grief-stricken Joe confides in Dorothy that he became a crooked lawyer after the streetcar company mounted a phony defense against his first, legitimate client. Dorothy, who realizes that she has fallen in love with Joe, tries to confess her identity to him but, when she is unable, tells Calhoun that she is through with the case. After Calhoun threatens her with perjury charges, Dorothy rushes to the train station but is followed there by Joe. Confused, Joe tells Dorothy he loves her and convinces her not to leave, then finds a check from the streetcar company in her suitcase, which reveals her original mission. In spite of his discovery, Joe acts nonchalant and, at the trial the next day, proceeds with her “case” as usual. As expected, Calhoun reveals Dorothy as a plant and demands that she name Joe as the man who engineered the defrauding scheme. While she hesitates, Joe interrupts Calhoun’s questioning and reveals that Dorothy is now his wife and therefore cannot testify against him. Although Joe is not implicated, he denounces Dorothy as a stool pigeon and offers her money for a quick annulment. Crushed by Joe’s anger, Dorothy tries to plead her case but again is rejected. Later, after he learns that Dorothy has been arrested for perjury, Joe confronts Calhoun, who tells him that Dorothy knew she would be jailed before the trial. Convinced now of Dorothy’s love, Joe rushes to see her in prison but is snubbed soundly by her. Joe is determined to free Dorothy and arranges for a series of petty but expensive arrests of streetcar drivers and has Floppy fall in front of Calhoun’s car to force him to relent. After Dorothy is released from jail, Joe vows to go straight and become a legitimate lawyer and husband.

        This film airs from time to time on TCM and is also available from Warner Archives.

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  2. I don’t remember seeing this show, but I remember another episode, I don’t remember if it was Dragnet or an early fire rescue show, about a group of ‘boes hiding out in these cars, and then have to rescued when the car tipped over and the pile shifted…  But this one sounds neat.

    Mike Matejka Normal IL

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  3. I had never heard of this film; thanks for bringing it to my attention. I suppose I had aged out of “family” entertainment by 1958. Art students of that era were enthralled by Ingmar Bergman films. What is seared in my memory is the full page photo of the Pacific Electric Hollywood cars stacked up on Terminal Island (appropriate name!) published in Life Magazine. I did save that picture in my scrapbook. I will definitely get the DVD from Amazon.

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  4. Hi David, Thanks for the info about the movie “The Nuisance” it sounds like a good one. I’ve ordered both it and “The “Littlest Hobo” DVDs.
    Thanks Again!

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  5. I have to wonder how many boxcars are still run empty, and open, allowing hobos access to transportation? Probably not many, from what I’ve seen of freight trains on Chicago’s Nort’west Side.

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  6. I only knew of the Littlest Hobo from the Canadian TV series; never knew there was a film on which it was based. The TV series was the basis for the major plot line of an episode of the Canadian sitcom Corner Gas. No traction or railroad unfortunately.

    Always startling to see that pile of PE cars. Quite an indication of just how big that system was.

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