Thursday, December 17, 2009

Tonight's Movie: Lady on a Train (1945)

It's almost Christmas, and Nikki Collins (Deanna Durbin) is a LADY ON A TRAIN headed to spend the holidays with her aunt in New York. Nikki is idly gazing out her compartment window at a station stop when what to her wondering eyes should appear...but a murder!

This atypical Durbin film casts the actress as a giddy blonde Nancy Drew wannabe, and it's quite a lot of fun. The fast-paced movie combines elements of film noir and wacky screwball comedy, while also allowing Deanna to sing three numbers. All this, and Christmas too!

When a testy night desk sergeant (William Frawley) is more interested in decorating his miniature desktop Christmas tree than listening to Nikki's fantastic story, she enlists the aid of mystery writer Wayne Morgan (David Bruce) to solve the crime. Morgan is constantly surrounded by two funny women, his wisecracking secretary Miss Fletcher (Jacqueline deWit) and his jealous fiancee (Patricia Morison).

Nikki, sometimes shadowed by her father's employee Mr. Haskell "of the New York Office" (Edward Everett Horton), quickly learns the identity of the deceased and meets his relatives (Ralph Bellamy, Dan Duryea, and Elizabeth Patterson), his lawyer (Samuel S. Hinds), his nightclub singer fiancee (Maria Palmer), and other shady characters (George Coulouris and Allen Jenkins). Whodunit?!

The large cast constantly run in and out of doors, appearing and disappearing amidst some great sets, including a creepy old mansion and a bizarre nightclub called the Circus Club. The film is well plotted and maintains a nice balance between spookiness and humor.

The story seamlessly weaves in the chance for Nikki to sing two popular songs in the Circus Club, including Cole Porter's "Night and Day." The Christmastime setting also means we have the pleasure of hearing Deanna perform a lovely, very quiet rendition of "Silent Night," sung to her absent father over the telephone on Christmas Eve.

It's interesting to note that at times, including in this film, Durbin's characters can be a pain in the neck, yet we never dislike her, not only because of her inherent charm but also because of the goodwill she builds with her repeat audiences over time. She seems fearless playing a bit of a "wild child," whether she's escaping Mr. Haskell's watchful eye, chirping obediently (but not very sincerely) to her father over long distance, barging in repeatedly on the mystery writer, waking up with a frazzled mop of hair in the morning, or cooing "Give Me a Little Kiss" to nightclub patrons. She has a slightly risque scene at the end of the film which must have been a surprise to Deanna's longtime fans back in 1945.

Durbin's wardrobe (designed by Howard Greer) and hairstyles are fascinating -- she's almost got the forerunner of Princess Leia's hair buns in one scene -- and for the most part beautiful. We were rather amused by her very quick wardrobe and hairstyle change near the end of the film, which occur when she's trying to stay one step ahead of the unknown killer's henchmen. How she redid her perfect hair so quickly, while under such pressure, we'll never know!

The entire cast is energetic and there's some very good dialogue, particularly for the characters played by deWit and Horton.

I couldn't quite place a lovely hatcheck girl, and later realized it was a young Barbara Bates, seen last weekend in THE SECRET OF CONVICT LAKE (1951).

Other familiar faces abound, including Tom Dugan as a jailer, George Chandler in a seconds-long bit as a nightclub patron, Thurston Hall as the deceased, Ben Carter (who had a notable role in 1943's CRASH DIVE) as Morgan's houseman, and Sam McDaniel as a train porter at the opening of the film.

A fun bit of personal trivia: as a child I saw Patricia Morison playing the Baroness in a Los Angeles stage production of THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Her role here as the haughty fiancee was good training (grin). THE SOUND OF MUSIC also starred Sally Ann Howes as Maria with Werner Klemperer as Uncle Max.

This black and white film runs 95 minutes. The film was based on a story by Leslie Charteris, creator of THE SAINT. The score is by Miklos Rozsa. The cinematographer, Woody Bredell, shot several other Durbin films.

LADY ON A TRAIN was one of only two films directed by Charles David, who married Deanna Durbin five years later. The Davids moved to France and had been married nearly 50 years when David died in 1999. As noted here recently, Durbin celebrated her 88th birthday earlier this month.

LADY ON A TRAIN is available in a lovely VHS print. It is one of a small handful of Durbin films to have been released in the United States on DVD, as part of the Deanna Durbin Sweetheart Pack. The six-film set, which has several of Durbin's best films, currently sells at Amazon for only $ $2.25 a movie, that's an amazing bargain. (Update: This film is now also available as a single-title DVD release in the Universal Vault Series.)

The film has also had a Region 2 DVD release in Europe.

LADY ON A TRAIN provides a fun evening's entertainment which makes especially good viewing for this time of the year.

Deanna Durbin films previously reviewed here at Laura's Miscellaneous Musings: FIRST LOVE (1939), HIS BUTLER'S SISTER (1943), NICE GIRL? (1941), FOR THE LOVE OF MARY (1948), BECAUSE OF HIM (1946), MAD ABOUT MUSIC (1938), THE AMAZING MRS. HOLLIDAY (1943), THREE SMART GIRLS (1936), THREE SMART GIRLS GROW UP (1939), IT STARTED WITH EVE (1941), CAN'T HELP SINGING (1944), HERS TO HOLD (1943), and IT'S A DATE (1940).

March 2017 Update: I had the joy of seeing this film on the big screen at the Noir City Film Festival.

December 2018 Update: Here's a slightly different review of the movie, originally published at ClassicFlix in 2015.


Blogger Tom said...

This is one of my favorite movies! Need to watch it again. Thanks for reminding me.

8:22 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

It's a fun one, Tom. :) I especially enjoyed discovering that it was set at Christmastime -- I love discovering new "Christmas" films which aren't as well known as the classics.

Best wishes,

10:52 AM  

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