The Lionel trains in The Fabelmans movie will enthrall postwar O gauge enthusiasts, if only for a little while. The motion picture, released in November 2022, provides a partially autobiographical look at the early life of famed director Steven Spielberg.
At the beginning of The Fabelmans, young Sammy Fabelman – based on Spielberg – is taken by his parents to a showing of The Greatest Show on Earth, released in February 1952.
A key scene toward the end of that movie involves an automobile intentionally driving onto a main line to cause a steam-hauled circus train to stop. Instead, the train crashes into the car before plowing into another train carrying circus performers and wild animals. Some of the main characters are injured and animals set free.
The Lionel trains in The Fabelmans
Sammy is horrified and fascinated by what Cecil B. DeMille, renowned director of The Greatest Show on Earth, has done. His curiosity piqued by the unbelievable special effects, the youngster schemes to replicate the dramatic scene in his family’s basement and capture it on film.
Sammy asks his parents for a Lionel set for Chanukah. He plans to use it as a stand-in for the circus train. He also hopes his father will let him borrow his home-movie camera to make his movie.
Chanukah arrives and over the eight nights Sammy receives a terrific Lionel passenger outfit. He also gets plenty of track and a couple of cars more likely to have come in a freight set.
Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle), is shown carefully unwrapping passenger cars from the long orange-and-blue boxes used by Lionel through the 1940s and to the end of the 1950s. He patiently removes the Nos. 2421 Maplewood and 2422 Chatham Pullman coaches from the slick brown paper inside.
Then, after cajoling his indulgent mother into allowing him to use the camera for a crash she insists must be captured in a single take, Sammy starts his train rolling.
In addition to the pair of short silver passenger cars, we catch a glimpse or two of a No. 6454 Pennsylvania RR boxcar and a No. 6457 Lionel Lines deluxe Southern Pacific-type caboose with interior illumination. The mixed train is being pulled around the big oval of track on a sheet of plywood by a steam engine and tender.
Getting it right
Any Lionel postwar collector who has seen the movie wants to know exactly what appeared in those scenes in The Fabelmans. Too often, prop masters miss the mark with an item, sometimes by many decades. In The Godfather that supposedly took place right after World War II, there were toy trains made 25 years later in the early modern era!
The people who selected the Lionel trains for The Fabelmans weren’t far off the mark, but they did take a few liberties with what they filmed. Seeing the pair of No. 2420-series passenger cars led me to the 1952 Lionel catalog. I wondered if Sammy received the only set with those cars that was led by a steamer and tender.
The No. 1484WS came with those two Pullmans plus a third one (No. 2429 Livingston) as well as a matching observation (the No. 2423 Hillside).
Closely inspecting the locomotive and tender led me to conclude that they weren’t the No. 2056 small Hudson and No. 2046W whistle tender Lionel packed with the 1484WS. Instead, the trailing trucks looked like those found on the No. 2025 2-6-4 steam engine, also available in 1952. The tender resembled the No. 6466W.
As for the boxcar and caboose shown coupled to the passenger cars, I just figured Sammy’s father had done what many others did throughout the postwar era. He purchased additional items for his child to enjoy.
Indeed, the Lionel train Sammy Fabelman successfully used to replicate the spectacular wreck in The Greatest Show on Earth came near to being the passenger set a youngster – maybe Steven Spielberg himself – could have received more than 70 years ago. Its motive power differed slightly, and a couple of neat models had been added.