Sunday, December 16, 2018

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

One of the nicest things about Christmas is pulling favorite holiday movies off the shelf; it's like spending time with beloved old friends from year to year.

At the same time, it's always nice to discover a new seasonal favorite. Anyone wanting to add something a little different to their Christmas movie viewing can't do better than Deanna Durbin starring as the LADY ON A TRAIN (1945).

LADY ON A TRAIN is not a film about Christmas, as such; instead, it's a giddy mashup of murder mystery, screwball comedy, and musical, with the added plus of being set during the Christmas season.

Durbin stars as Nikki Collins, who takes the train to New York to visit her aunt for the holidays. While gazing out her compartment window at a station stop, Nikki is stunned to witness...a murder!

Nikki attempts to report the murder but a cranky police sergeant (William Frawley) refuses to pay attention to her fantastic story, so she hunts down her favorite mystery writer, Wayne Morgan (David Bruce), and asks for his help solving the crime.

There are two women in Wayne's life, his wisecracking secretary Miss Fletcher (Jacqueline deWit) and his jealous fiancee Joyce (Patricia Morison), who are perplexed by Nikki's frequent comings and goings, despite Morgan's protestations that he's never met her before. And despite the trouble she causes, by the time Nikki sings "Night and Day" in a nightclub, Wayne is looking at her like he's a goner.

We never do meet Nikki's aunt, and it would be interesting to know if Nikki ever did see her while she was in New York or if Nikki was too busy playing Nancy Drew for a visit!

Thanks to a newsreel Nikki realizes the identity of the murder victim and tracks down his relatives, played by Ralph Bellamy and Dan Duryea. Duryea is in great form as the wisecracking cousin who might be good...or might not. Bellamy plays the seemingly more benign cousin, who has a very...weird relationship with his aunt (Elizabeth Patterson).

Nikki must also contend with a pair of baddies (George Coulouris and Allen Jenkins) while she attempts to solve the mystery, and she's constantly followed by her father's employee, "Mr. Haskell of the New York office" (Edwards Everett Horton). All in all it's a wonderful cast of characters played by some of the best in the business. Look for bit players such as Tom Dugan, George Chandler, Barbara Bates, and Sam McDaniel in the supporting cast.

The movie was based on a story by Leslie Charteris, creator of The Saint mysteries. It's very well plotted and has some excellent dialogue; deWit and Horton, in particular, are a lot of fun, and their lines caused me to do mental double-takes a couple of times! Jenkins has a great moment where he pauses in the midst of his skullduggery to tear up over Deanna and Christmas.

Signs of the holidays are visible throughout the film, from the miniature tree on a police sergeant's desktop to a woman struggling with Christmas packages in a movie theater to characters exchanging gifts. There's even an attempt to cover up a murder with the theory the victim fell off a stepstool while decorating his Christmas tree!

Most sublimely, Deanna sings "Silent Night" over the phone to her faraway father; as the song ends, she looks out a window at falling snow, a truly magical moment.

There are some great sets, particularly the unique Circus Club, a nightclub where the staff dress as though they work for a circus. During the last part of the film the cast run in and out of Circus Club doors, as well as up and down stairs, and in the middle of the chaos Deanna somehow manages multiple wardrobe changes and hairstyles, along with spontaneously performing a couple of numbers for the nightclub audience!

Deanna is seemingly fearless playing someone who's a bit of a manipulative "wild child," clearly used to having her own way, but she gets away with playing a character who could be obnoxious in other hands because she's funny, talented, and had built enormous goodwill with her fans over her remarkable career. She's great fun as she escapes from Mr. Haskell, barges in on Wayne, insincerely coos "Yes, Daddy" to her father via long distance, and teases the nightclub audience with "Give Me a Little Kiss." Her final scene with Wayne is even a bit risque!

Deanna also looks amazing in a fabulous wardrobe by Howard Greer. Along with everything else, she was quite the fashionable clotheshorse in this. The cinematographer was Woody Bredell.

As a postscript, half a decade later Deanna Durbin would marry this film's director, Charles David; she retired and they lived in France, happily married until his passing 48 years later. Deanna lived another 14 years before she passed away in 2013.

LADY ON A TRAIN is a delightfully fun 94-minute film which gets better on successive viewings, and it's a terrific addition to the Christmas movie lineup! It's available on DVD in the Deanna Durbin Sweetheart Pack, which I very highly recommend, or as a single-title release in the Universal Vault Series. It also had a release on VHS back in 2000.

This post is adapted from a review originally published by ClassicFlix in 2015. I also previously reviewed the movie here in 2009.


Blogger Seth said...

It’s been several years since I’ve seen this, so I’m looking forward to it’s airing on TCM tomorrow night, especially since I’ve come to appreciate Dan Duryea in the meantime.

The Noir Alley website had listed another Durbin movie I’ve been wanting to see, CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, but looks like it’s been changed, which is disappointing.

9:50 PM  
Blogger Margot Shelby said...

This is such a fun little movie. Perfect entertainment.

SPOILERS: The second I saw Dan Duryea of course I thought he was the murderer. For once he wasn't.

10:11 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Do you think Agatha Christie saw this film? I do, and a dozen years later wrote 4:50 From Paddington with the the same set up.

5:59 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Seth, I hope you enjoyed revisiting this one! It's a favorite of mine. Eddie Muller had definitely planned on CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY but there was some kind of issue -- rights, I think. Maybe next year?!

Margot, Duryea's presence sure helped keep me guessing the first time I saw it! It really is a fun mvoie.

Barrylane, how interesting! I've got to check out that story. I do love stories set on trains!

Best wishes,

10:27 PM  

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