Saturday, May 20, 2017

Stubs - The Lady Vanishes

The Lady Vanishes (1938) Starring: Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave, Paul Lukas, May Whitty, Cecil Parker, Linden Travers, Naunton Wayne, Basil Radford, Mary Clare. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder. Based on the novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White. Produced by Edward Black. Black and White. United Kingdom. Drama, Comedy, Mystery, Thriller.

There never seems to be enough time to watch everything you want to. Sometimes I record movies on my DVR with the thought of someday watching them. Such was the case with The Lady Vanishes, which was the oldest selection on my DVR, having been recorded a couple of years ago when it appeared on TCM’s Sundays with Hitch series a couple of years ago. Finally, with a free Saturday night we had a chance to watch it. Now that I’ve seen it, I wonder what took me so long.

By the mid-1930s there was no bigger filmmaker in England than Alfred Hitchcock. Already, American producers, most specifically David O. Selznick, had their eyes on him and it was only a matter of time before he came to Hollywood. But before he made the move, Hitchcock had a few films still to make for Gaumont British. The penultimate one was one of his better ones, The Lady Vanishes.

But Hitchcock was not the first British filmmaker to try to make a movie out of Ethel Line White’s 1936 novel The Wheel Spins. Originally called The Lost Lady, a young filmmaker named Ray William Neill was assigned by producer Edward Block to make the movie. A crew was sent to Yugoslavia to do some background shots, but when authorities found out they weren’t portrayed well in the script, they were kicked out of the country. The film project was abandoned, but not for long.

Needing a project to fulfill his contract with Black, Hitchcock was given this project using the original screenplay, though some tightening was done on the beginning and ending. When casting the film, Hitchcock originally wanted Lilli Palmer, a German-born actress who would later marry Rex Harrison. Palmer had fled Germany when the Nazis took over and gone to Paris, where her cabaret act garnered the attention of Gaumont British, which signed her to a contract in 1935.

Instead of Palmer, Hitchcock went with Margaret Lockwood for the lead. Lockwood, who had been born in British controlled India, had been on stage since she was twelve and in films since 1934. Her big break came in The Beloved Vagabond (1936) starring Maurice Chevalier. Still, Lockwood was still relatively unknown when Hitchcock cast her.

Michael Redgrave, the patriarch for the acting family, was even more of an unknown in films. At the time, Redgrave had only been acting professionally since 1934 and had made his London debut in 1936, in Love’s Labours Lost at the Old Vic. The Lady Vanishes would be his first major role in cinema. The film would make Redgrave an international star, even though the actor and director did not get along very well. Redgrave wanted more rehearsals, while Hitchcock valued spontaneity.

The film was shot in England, but U.S. studio MGM was also involved. British Gaumont and the Hollywood studio had recently signed an agreement by which MGM would pay half of the production costs for a British Gaumont film they would release in the U.S. Even with this in place, 20th Century Fox would handle the film’s U.S. distribution.

The Lady Vanishes opens in the lobby of the "Gasthof Petrus" inn in the country of Bandrika, where English tourists are waiting for the next train out. Keen to get back to England are Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne), who want to return in time to see the last days of a cricket test match in Manchester. (A test match in cricket is a competition between two national teams that last up to four days, if not longer, and “test” the endurance and talents of the two teams.) But travel in and out has been stopped due to an avalanche that has blocked the only rail line.

Passengers waiting for the train out of Bandrika include Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne).

Stranded, the tourists are forced to scramble for rooms and food. Charters and Caldicott are late to the front desk and the only room available is the maid’s room. The two men are very shy around her, even though they are not too shy to share her single bed.

Another couple, a lawyer named Todhunter (Cecil Parker) and "Mrs. Todhunter" (Linden Travers), take separate rooms, much to Mrs. Todhunter’s chagrin.

But there is one guest who seems to have the run of the place, Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood). She is there with her girlfriends, Blanche (Googie Withers) and Julie (Sally Stewart). Iris is on her way home to marry a man described as a “blue-blooded cheque chaser” and is on what would be the equivalent to a girls’ weekend in Vegas prior to her wedding, only they’ve chosen Bandrika, "one of Europe's few undiscovered corners."

When Iris and her friends breeze into the hotel, the manager (Emile Boreo) is at her beck and call. Her room is already available and she orders room service. Upstairs in her room, her friends try and talk her out of getting married, but Iris is ready to settle down.

Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is on a pre-wedding trip with a couple of her friends.

Meanwhile, Charters and Caldicott dress for dinner and force their way to the first open table only to find out that there is no more food. Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), an older Englishwoman with a fondness for tweed, offers to share her cheese with her tablemates. She tells them that she’s been in Bandrika as a governess and music teacher and is anxious to return to England.

Charters and Caldicott dress for a dinner they won't be eating.

Later, after Blanche and Julie have returned to their room, both Iris and Miss Froy are disturbed by the loud noise coming from the room upstairs. Not only is there loud music, but dancing as well. Iris calls the manager, who dutifully goes upstairs to confront the occupant.

Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) is recording the movements of local folkdancers up in his room.

In the room, Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) is putting three locals through a folkdance so that he can sketch the various positions for a book he is writing. Unable to get Gilbert to shut up, the manager comes up with another plan and, fresh from another bribe from Iris, has the man kicked out of his room under a rouse that it was rented by someone else first.

But Gilbert does not go gently into the night and instead invades Iris’ room, threatening to share her bed unless she gets the manager to reverse his stance and get him back his room. Wanting to avoid a scandal, Iris acquiesces.

Gilbert bursts into Iris' room and creates enough of a nuisance that she recants her getting him evicted.

Meanwhile, Miss Froy enjoys the playing of a guitar playing man down in the garden. She doesn’t realize that the man is murdered in mid-song, as she throws down a tip to him.

The next morning, all the guests are at the station to catch the train out. When Iris goes to help Miss Froy with her bags when she is hit on the head by a flower pot. Her friends try to convince Iris to stay, but Miss Froy promises to look after her and helps the still stunned Iris onto the train. But once on board, Iris blacks out.

Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) takes charge of Iris after a potted plant lands on her head.

By the time she wakes up, the train is already moving and Miss Froy is sitting across from her. But they are not the only ones in the compartment, though none of them appear to understand English.

Miss Froy takes Iris to get some tea in the diner car. On the way, the train bucks and Miss Froy is thrown into the compartment occupied by the Todhunters. He is particularly rude and closes the door and draws the blinds after she excuses herself. In the dining car, Froy insists on a special Mexican tea that her still living octogenarian parents swear by, so she does, too. She gives a packet to the waiter with specific instructions on how to make it. When they find they have no sugar, Miss Froy asks Charters and Caldicott, who are using the cubes in the discussion of cricket strategy, to give her theirs.

When they finally get around to properly introducing themselves, Iris can’t hear Miss Froy over the noise of the train. To help out, Miss Froy spells out her last name with her finger in the fog on the window next to their seat. After they have their tea, they return to the compartment, where Iris falls asleep.

Miss Froy spells out her name on the window when the two of them have tea.

But when she awakes, Miss Froy is gone and no one, not even the strangers in her compartment, seem to remember there ever being anyone with her. When Iris goes looking for her, even Todhunter acts like he has never seen the woman. When his “Mrs.” Questions him about why he lied, he says he doesn’t want to get involved. Neither do Charters and Caldicott, who mostly don’t want anything to distract them from their discussions on Cricket and worry involvement might delay them from the match they are so anxious to get home for.

Signor Doppo (Philip Leaver) and his wife Signora Doppo (Selma Vaz Dias) don't remember seeing Miss Froy.

Iris finds an unlikely ally in Gilbert, who is also on the train in second class. He offers to help. They run into Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas), who is a noted brain surgeon whom Gilbert has heard about. Dr. Hartz believes that Iris is merely imagining Miss Froy due to the blow on her head. Dr. Hartz is on the train to pick up a patient who is in desperate need of an operation.

Another woman dressed like Miss Froy appears in the compartment.

Even though another woman appears in the compartment dressed similarly to Miss Froy, Iris and Gilbert continue to search. At the next stop, they watch both sides of the train to see if Miss Froy gets off. Gilbert watches as Dr. Hartz’s patient is wheeled on already on a gurney and bandaged.

Gilbert and Iris speak with Mrs. Todhunter (Linden Travers) while Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas) looks on.

Iris and Gilbert start their search of the train in the luggage car. They find the effects of Signor Doppo (Philip Leaver), who they discover is a magician on tour. When they start going through his things, including a vanishing lady’s closet used in the show, they muse that he might be involved in Miss Froy’s disappearance. Their suspicions seem to be justified when the knife-wielding Doppo attacks them. Gilbert manages to hold him off and with Iris’ assistance they knock him out. But when they check on him, they find they’d locked him in a chest with a false back and he’s managed to escape.

They continue to search the train and decide to check on Dr. Hartz’s patient, thinking she might be Miss Froy. Suspicious that the nun (Catherine Lacy) sitting by her bedside is wearing high heels, they are about to uncover the bandages when the doctor returns to the room. He offers to help them and agrees to plan their search over a drink. Dr. Hartz insists on meeting them so he can check on his patient. Instead, once they're alone, he conspires with the nun to poison Iris and Gilbert’s drinks.

While the nun (Catherine Lacy) watches, Gilbert examines Dr. Hartz's patient.

Over drinks, Dr. Hartz renews his offer to help them search. They tell him that they suspect the nun because of her high heels, but he insists the patient isn’t Miss Froy. He accompanies them back to a vacant compartment next to his and, assured that they are poisoned, confesses to them his part in the conspiracy. He then goes off to pay off his co-conspirators leaving Gilbert and Iris incapacitated, but not dead.

Dr. Hartz admits his plan to Gilbert and Iris after he thinks they've been poisoned.

But it turns out they weren’t poisoned after all. The fake nun, a fellow British citizen, didn’t follow through with Dr. Hartz’s instructions out of loyalty to her fellow countrymen. Gilbert rouses Iris, who had passed out, and they go into the next compartment and free Miss Froy and hide her in the closet of their compartment. They replace her with Mrs. Doppo, who has found out about their plan.

When the train stops at the next station near the border, Dr. Hartz and the gurney get off the train. It is not until he gets on the ambulance that Dr. Hartz discovers the deception. He stops the Nun who is exiting the train and forces her back on, where she confesses what she’s done or in this case, not done.

Dr. Hartz has one of the railway men detach the last cars on the train and then has it diverted to a branch line where soldiers await. Thinking they have gone past the border, Gilbert and Iris free Miss Froy from her hiding place. But when they discover they’ve been fooled, they to rally the other British onboard to their cause. They are all reluctant at first, but when a soldier boards the train and requests that they accompany him to the British consulate, they instead attack him and take his gun. Another soldier fires, wounding Charters in the hand, and a shootout begins.

A soldier (Charles Oliver) boards the train and offers to take the passengers to the British consulate.

Mr. Todhunter announces that he has a gun, which he is reluctant to use, so they take the gun from him. Turns out Caldicott is quite a good shot.

Caldicott takes aim with Mr. Todhunter's gun.

During the gunfight, Miss Froy reveals to Gilbert and Iris that she is in fact a British agent who must deliver a message to the Foreign Office in Whitehall. The message is encoded in the tune that the folk singer was singing that night at the inn. She asks Gilbert to memorize it in case she doesn’t make it out. He agrees and learns the song before helping her out the window. While she is running through the forest, a shot is fired in her direction and neither Gilbert or Iris is sure if she was hit or not.

Miss Froy confesses to Gilbert and Iris that she is, in fact, a spy.

Todhunter thinks he’ll be okay if he surrenders and he leaves the train waving a white handkerchief. One of the soldiers with Dr. Hartz shoots him dead. Down to only one bullet, Gilbert and Caldicott then commandeer the locomotive with an empty gun. While the engineers get the train going, both are shot dead by soldiers. Gilbert then takes over the controls and the group races for the border. But the soldier who was knocked out regains consciousness and control of his gun. When the train stops at a switch he holds everyone at bay but the fake nun manages to slip out and throws the switch despite being shot by their pursuers. She gets shot, but only in the leg as she scrambles back aboard the engine. The other passengers manage to subdue the soldier and the group escapes across the border.

Dr. Hartz and his men shoot at the train, which still manages to get away.

Safely back in London, Charters and Caldicott discover the Test Match has been abandoned due to flooding. Iris who has been waiting for her fiancé suddenly jumps into a cab with Gilbert to avoid him. Gilbert kisses her and instructs the cab to take them to Whitehall. By the time they arrive at the Foreign Office, Gilbert and Iris are engaged, but when they are allowed to see the Minister, Gilbert is suddenly unable to remember the vital tune.

Just then they hear the melody being played on the piano and in the office are reunited with Miss Froy.

Like most films based on novels, The Lady Vanishes is not a strict retelling of the story. For example, Gilbert is called Max Hare in the book and is not a traveler documenting European folk dancing, but an engineer building a dam. Iris isn’t hit by a flower pot, but rather suffers from sunstroke. Also, the train never stops in the novel and there is no final shootout either. And finally, the characters of Charters and Caldicott were created for the film and do not appear in the novel.

The film is somewhat typical Hitchcock, putting his characters in a dangerous situation and with humor and cunning they manage to get free. You see it again in Foreign Correspondent (1940), his second film for Selznick, and again in Torn Curtain (1966). The fight onboard the train with Doppo reminded me of a similar one in Torn Curtain wherein Paul Newman’s character, Professor Michael Armstrong, and a farmer’s wife must subdue a Soviet agent who refuses to die until they hold his head in a gas oven.

Also typical is the thrusting together of a man and woman, who fight each other, but come together for the better good. The 39 Steps (1935) in which Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll must overcome their own distrust to thwart the conspiracy is one example, but we see it again in Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur (1942), Notorious (1946) and North by Northwest (1959) to name a few. This makes for a happy ending, as the two seem to have overcome their differences and are on the road to happy-ever-after with each other.

While Hitchcock never shies away from being politically relevant, this one can be seen as a little more overt. With the real world moving ever closer to war, the film is a bit of a microcosm as it relates to the British, which was its presumed audience. When their little world of Cricket Test Matches, books on folk dancing and love affairs is threatened by an authoritative government, the British tourists must turn to each other for survival. The only one that decides to surrender, lawyer Todhunter who uses a white flag, is shot dead as soon as he steps off the train. While the war was still a year away, Hitchcock can be seen to be saying the only way to survive is to fight back.

Despite the seriousness of the story, there is still a lot of humor in the film, much of it provided by the dialogue. Charters and Caldicott are basically comic relief for most of the film, as they dissect the most mundane aspects of Cricket throughout. Add to that the fairly witty dialogue spoken throughout and you have a dark subject handled with a light touch, something else Hitchcock was able to do effectively throughout his career.

Like all of his films, Hitchcock seems to get the best from his actors, in this case Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave, who deliver their best early performances on film here. Both actors would go on to long careers on film and stage. Lockwood for a time was the most popular British actress of her day and commanded $112,000 a year in a contract she would sign in the 1952, making her the highest paid actress in British films. Though she would ply her talents in the U.S., she would return to England before World War II and would later find some success on stage in Noël Coward's Private Lives in 1949 and as Peter Pan in J. M. Barrie's play in 1949, 1950 and 1957 (the last with her daughter Julia Lockwood as Wendy). She would also appear in the films Night Train to Munich (1940), The Man in Grey (1943), The Wicked Lady (1945) and The Stars Look Down (1940), the latter with Redgrave.

Redgrave would go onto a very successful career, appearing in such films as Mourning Becomes Electra (1947) for which he was nominated for Best Actor by the Academy; The Browning Version (1951); The Importance of Being Earnest (1952); Mr. Arkadin (1955); The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962); Alice in Wonderland (1966), a BBC production featuring music by Ravi Shankar; Goodbye Mr. Chips (1969); and The Go-Between (1971). In addition to appearing on stage and on TV, Redgrave is also the father of actresses Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave and actor Corin Redgrave.

On a side note, while the characters of Charters and Caldicott were written for the film, they proved to be so popular that they would appear in other films, most notably Night Train to Munich; Millions Like Us (1943); Crook’s Tour (1941), which grew out of a BBC radio series; and in Secret Mission 609 (1942). The two actors, Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford would also appear as similar characters in such films as The Next of Kin (1942) as Careless talkers on train; Dead of Night (1945) as Parratt and Potter; A Girl in a Million (1946) as Prendergast and Fotheringham; Quartet (1948) as Garnet and Leslie; It’s Not Cricket (1949) as Bright and Early; Passport to Pimlico (1949) as Gregg and Straker; Stop Press Girl (1949) as The Mechanical Types; and Helter Skelter (1949). There was even a TV Series in 1985 that ran for 6 episodes, starring Michael Aldridge as Caldicott and Robin Bailey as Charters.

So popular were Charters and Caldicott that they would appear in other movies.

The Lady Vanishes was popular on both sides of the Atlantic, becoming the most successful British film to date and named the Best Picture 1938 by the New York Times. Hitchcock would receive his only honor for directing when he won that years’ New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director.

Hitchcock once again showed himself to be one of the great directors, mixing wit and intrigue and producing a very entertaining thriller. His films are usually so good that it doesn’t matter where you start when starting to watch his oeuvre. If you have never seen his The Lady Vanishes, then I would highly recommend you see it as soon as possible. There is no reason to wait.

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