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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

The Lady Vanishes

“What most surprised me about this early British offering from Hitchcock was not that it is a superbly crafted suspense-thriller, which indeed it is, but that it also offers a hefty dose of humor, much of which had me laughing out loud.”
Thomas Scalzo, notcoming.com

“Watching The Lady Vanishes is like going into an attic and finding a jewel from another place, another time.”
Joe Valdez, thisdistractedglobe.com

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Country: United Kingdom
Year: 1938

Background

Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born in London in 1899 and died in Bel-Air, California in 1980. Between 1922 and 1976, Hitchcock directed almost 60 films (although the exact number seems to vary depending on which source you believe, and several have been completely or partially lost).

Hitchcock was educated in a Jesuit school until the age of 14. He was an overweight, lonely child, and his parents were nuts (though most parents around that time seem to have been nuts, so maybe it’s a generational thing). When he misbehaved, Alfred’s father would send him to the police station with a note asking the Chief to lock him up (not forever; just for a few hours to scare him straight). His mother would lie in bed and berate Alfred, who was required to stand at attention at the foot of the bed, sometimes for hours. I’m no Freud, but… yikes. Some of Hitch’s scripts acquire a new layer of meaning after reading that.

In 1920, he got a job designing titles for Islington studios. By 1925, he was given his first directing credit, for The Pleasure Garden. It was a resounding flop.

In an article for Slate, Nathaniel Rich called The Lady Vanishes “Hitchcock’s First Hitchcock Film,” but Nathaniel Rich is wrong. Hitchcock’s first “Hitchcock Film” was 1927’s The Lodger, released eleven years before The Lady Vanishes. The Lodger marks the first appearance of the “Wrong Man” plot device, which would re-appear in many of Hitch’s films over the next five decades.

Hitchcock’s assistant director on The Lodger was Alma Reville. Just prior to the release of the film, Alfred and Alma were married. They remained married until Alfred’s death, and Alma became his most powerful ally, writing or co-writing many of his scripts and collaborating with him on nearly every film. They had one daughter, Pat, who gives a very funny performance in the opening scenes of Psycho, and who also seems to appear in every single documentary made about Hitchcock.

While The Lodger – along with Blackmail, The 39 Steps, and the original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (starring Peter Lorre!) – were commercial successes, a number of Hitchcock’s other “British” films were critical and commercial disappointments. The Lady Vanishes was Hitchcock’s first big hit after a string of three flops in a row, and enabled him to negotiate a better deal with David O. Selznick when he relocated to the U.S. a couple of years later.

If I ever end up writing about one of Hitch’s later, U.S. films, I’ll write about his later, U.S. career. Today, however, I’m going to end with this final anecdote about The Lady Vanishes: According to Michael Redgrave, it was during the making of today’s film that Hitchcock first uttered his infamous remark that “Actors are cattle.” Unsurprisingly, given that his chosen career put him in fairly constant contact with actors, this comment came back to bite him in his (ample) backside. During the filming of Mr. & Mrs. Smith (no, cultural Philistines, not the Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie film), Hitch arrived at the set one morning to find his actors missing. Instead (courtesy of wise-ass Carole Lombard), he found loudly mooing heifers with nametags identifying them as “Carole Lombard,” “Robert Montgomery” and “Gene Raymond”. Later, Hitchcock protested that he had been unfairly misquoted: “I said ‘Actors should be treated like cattle’.”

Synopsis

The film opens with a nice matte painting of a mountainside, with cool Art Deco titles appropriate to the 1938 release date.

There is a small town (fairly obviously a model, but a nifty one, complete with little moving cars). An avalanche has blocked the train tracks, and a motley group of travelers are stranded in the hotel. We are in the (non-existent) European country of Bandrika, on the eve of WWII. A desk clerk goes on at some length in his native tongue (which I think is supposed to be Bandrieken, but which sounds suspiciously Italian), gesticulating wildly, speaking with great animation to guests and employees as if he is performing in an opera.

Two British cricket fans, Charters and Caldicott, are unmoved by this display:

“What’s all this fuss about, Charters?”

“Hanged if I know,” replies his friend.

The sudden influx of guests has thrown the desk clerk for a loop, to the increasing consternation of the Brits:

“Meanwhile, we have to stand here cooling our heels, I suppose, eh? Confounded impudence.”

“Third-rate country; what do you expect?”

In ones and twos, we are introduced to the rest of the cast: a kindly old lady who I’m betting is the titular “Lady” who “Vanishes” (played by Dame May Whitty);

…three young American women (one of whom is our spunky heroine, Iris, played by Margaret Lockwood);

lady_iris1

…and an unhappy couple (Mr. and – ahem – “Mrs.” Todhunter) who request separate rooms.

Iris is betrothed to a Lord something-or-other Fotheringail (sp?), despite her friend’s reservations. Ten bucks says she breaks her engagement before the film is over. There’s a funny (and kinda naughty for 1938) scene with the stuffy room service waiter coming in to find the trio of young American ladies in their unmentionables:

…and another with the maid blithely undressing in front of the flustered and harrumphing Brits. Sexy!

And, yeah, if you were wondering if possibly Charters and Caldicott are supposed to be gay? You are not alone. Later, there’s an interesting scene where the two men hide in a bathroom or closet together which is a little odd, so watch for that.

Finally, we meet our raffish male lead, Gilbert the musicologist (played by Michael Redgrave), who nearly sparks a riot with his clarinet playing (long story). Suffice to say, his disregard for hotel protocol and Iris’ irritation facilitate a perfect “meet cute” scenario.

“You’re the most contemptible person I’ve ever met in all my life!” she sputters.

“Well, confidentially, I think you’re a bit of a stinker, too,” he replies, and now we know who she’ll end up marrying instead of the painfully dull Fotheringwhatsisname (sp?).

The kindly old Not-Yet-Vanished Lady is in her room, being serenaded by a strolling musician. We see hands reaching for the throat of the musician, and his song ends abruptly. (Having watched the rest of the movie now, I still have no idea why this guy was killed. Anyone with an explanation, please speak up.)

The next morning, the snow has been cleared off the scale model railroad, and the train prepares to leave. Iris and the Lady Who Will Eventually Vanish meet again, and there is another mysterious murder attempt which ends with Iris taking a flowerpot to the cabeza.

During a conversation in the dining car, the old Lady Who Should Be Vanishing Any Minute Now explains the spelling of her last name by tracing the letters in the dust on the window (which I’m guessing will come into play later in the film): “F-R-O-Y. It rhymes with ‘joy’.”

After they eat, Iris and Miss Froy return to their compartment. Iris takes a nap while her new friend does an “acrostic” (whatever that is). A montage of passing electrical lines tells us that time has passed. When Iris awakes… The Lady has (wait for it…) Vanished! “There has been no English lady here,” intones the creepy Baroness Atona (wife of the Bandrieken Minister of Propaganda), and the rest of the passengers in the compartment are no help, either, which is not surprising, because they are sneaky Italians.

Even the porter insists that he has seen no kindly old English lady doing acrobatics, or acrostics, or whatever. Clearly, one of two things is going on: a) Iris is crazy (possibly driven ‘round the bend by the thought of her impending marriage to Featherstone (sp?)), or b) the rest of the passengers and the entire crew of the train are aligned in some sort of monstrous conspiracy to kidnap a helpless old lady. Occam’s Whatchamacallit would indicate that a) is more likely, but I’m going to go out on a limb and put my money on b).

In another not-very-surprising-now-that-you-mention-it turn of events, Iris’ clarinet-playing nemesis (and – let’s face it – future husband) Gilbert is also on the train. Iris protests angrily that she doesn’t need his help, but he insists: “My father always taught me never desert a lady in trouble. He even carried that as far as marrying Mother…” (ba-da-bing!)

Iris and Gilbert begin questioning the passengers, including the science-minded Dr. Hartz, “brain specialist” (played with silky elegance by Paul Lukas). We gradually come to realize that several of the passengers have their own reasons for not wanting to get involved: The Todhunters are adulterous lovers traveling incognito; Caldicott and Charters are desperate to make their next connection in hopes of catching an important cricket match, etc.

Hartz, the brain man (clever, that), concludes that the flowerpot is to blame: “…a simple concussion may have curious effects upon an imaginative person.”

At the next stop, Iris and Gilbert watch the exits for any sign of Miss Froy disembarking, but they see nothing except an unconscious patient of Dr. Hartz, bandaged from head to toe, being carefully bundled onto the train.

Hopes are raised when a little old lady, dressed as described by Iris, appears in Miss Froy’s seat. But her name is Madame Kummer, and she is not the same woman. “She says she helped you into the carriage after you got the biff on the head, then went to see friends,” Gilbert translates helpfully. This solves the mystery to everyone’s satisfaction. Everyone except Iris, of course.

She promises to let go of her suspicions and accept the majority judgment that Miss Froy was only a figment of her concussion-addled brain, but then… Iris remembers the writing on the window! Before she can point triumphantly, the train goes through a tunnel and… the dust on the window is blown away? Or something? I didn’t really understand this part, but it ends with Iris going mental, yanking the emergency brake, and passing out.

The train is restarted, but Iris is resolute: Miss Froy exists, and must be found! Eventually – mostly because Iris is so dang adorable – Gilbert is convinced, and they commence a clandestine search of the entire train. Clues, needless to say, are uncovered! Turns out one of the passengers is a magician, for starters.

Then there’s a wrestling match in the luggage compartment over some spectacles which may or may not have belonged to the vanished Miss Froy. That faceless, bandaged patient is definitely a key player, and there’s a nun wearing suspiciously sexy shoes.

Dr. Hartz? Knee-deep in the hooplah. Our romantic leads are poisoned (or are they?), there are some nifty rear-screen-projection-enhanced hijinks on the outside of the train, and the cricket fans show their true mettle during a blazing shootout in the Bandrieken forest.

Secrets are revealed (SPOILER ALERT: one of the main characters is a spy!), Britain is triumphant, true love prevails, and poor, oblivious Lord Fotheringate (sp?) gets dumped.

What I Liked

The Lady Vanishes is by no means a perfect film, but there’s so much to like! The Lady Vanishes is pure cinematic F-U-N, a frothy concoction of sparkling repartee, memorable characters, thrilling escapes, ridiculous twists, a few semi-bawdy jokes that would probably even make my dad laugh, and senior citizen espionage agents smuggling out wartime messages encoded in the musical notes of a song.

The plot is full of absurd coincidence and ludicrous contrivance, yet it moves so quickly, with such buoyant good humor, that none of that matters. I felt as if Hitchcock was winking at me, letting me in on the joke, assuming that I enjoyed the ride, and I did.

As I seem to mention frequently, all of the character actors in these British studio films of the 30’s through the 50’s are uniformly excellent. I’m guessing a lot of these folks also performed in the theater, or in radio dramas, and they bring the best of those practices into these films. The Lady Vanishes is filled with delightful, chewy, funny, smart performances, all with hilarious little character tics or bits of business.

Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne are particularly good as Charters and Caldicott, the two dim-witted, cricket-mad Brits, all “I say, old chap!” this and “confounded impudence!” that. They are so funny, and were received so well by British audiences, that they went on to become a popular comedy duo. They appeared together as Charters and Caldicott in Night Train to Munich (1940) and Millions Like Us (1943), then in a series of radio serials.

Here’s a sample of their dialogue in Night Train to Munich:

Charters: I bought a copy of Mein Kampf. Occurred to me it might shed a spot of light on all this… how d’ye do. Ever read it?
Caldicott: Never had the time.
Charters: I understand they give a copy to all the bridal couples over here.
Caldicott: Oh, I don’t think it’s that sort of book, old man.

They appeared in several other films and radio serials as virtually the same characters, but with different names: Straker and Gregg, Bright and Early, Woolcot and Spencer, Berkeley and Bulstrode, Hargreaves and Hunter, Fanshaw and Fothergill. They were even featured in the original script for The Third Man, although the final version combined them into a single character, Mr. Crabbin. In 1985, the BBC resurrected the characters of Charters and Caldicott in a short-lived TV series – with different actors, obviously.

Michael Redgrave (father of Lynn and Vanessa) is just as British, but much more likable and much less cartoonish, than he was in The Importance of Being Earnest, from a few weeks back. (Funny side note: Redgrave was reluctant to leave the stage for film. Guess who talked him into accepting the job? John Gielgud.) Margaret Lockwood is a perky, attractive, and very likable wiseacre, casually adept at tossing off the screwball dialogue and also tough and determined when the plot requires it. They are both charming, and their gradually-blooming romance is sweet and believable without ever going soft and mushy.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

The Lady Vanishes was so much good-natured fun that it seems like splitting hairs to point out its faults. Even the obvious models and not-very-convincing rear screen projection shots were more charming than bothersome.

I suppose if I was given to nit-picking, I would say there were a few plot holes that could have been fixed, a few questions that could have been answered more clearly. For one, why did the strolling musician get strangled at the beginning?

Should You See It?

Yes. Recommended without qualification. The Lady Vanishes is frothy, romantic, exciting, clever, charming, and the most unadulterated fun I’ve had watching a movie in… well, weeks, anyway.

Next: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

7 Comments

  1. A great review and very accurate. I have just written a book about Charters and Caldicott and the four films that they appeared in; it’s titled Charters and Caldicott As War Begins. I also run the Charters and Caldicott website http://www.chartersandcaldicott.co.uk.

    • Thank you, Peter! I had no idea there was an official Charters and Caldicott website… will give it a look. You can see a brief clip of C & C in the compilation video we made when we finished this film series:

      https://thefifiorganization.net/janus/the-wrap-up/

      Our boys appear around the 8:30 mark.

  2. A-HA! You are undoubtedly correct, Cassie. Thanks for that.

  3. Jumping in rather late here, but I think Mrs. Froy dropped the coin down to the musician as a signal that she’d heard the song and knew it well enough–that the code had been transferred. Anyway, fun movie!

  4. I agree with you about the comedy at the beginning of the film – VERY funny stuff. Sort of suprising, in my opinion, as to how it starts off on such a silly/comedic note.

    Also note, I did not see that Jodie Foster film where her daughter disappears on a plane but I understand they used the same “writing on the window” plot device that they used in “Vanishes.”

    Word.

  5. Of course! You must be right about the minstrel-murder motivation. That went completely over my head. Thank goodness you’re adding your thoughts, or I’d be lost!

    Also right: Not Hitchcock’s best, though I enjoyed the early, comedic section so much that I didn’t care that the thriller plot took a while to get rolling.

  6. To answer Jason’s question at the end of his review I think…(I did not go back and check this out) that the musician at the beginning was playing the song that is used to break the code that Miss Froy hums to Redgrave later in the film….I THINK…

    On to my review:

    In the film “Monty Python’s Meaning of Life” there is a scene where the most obnoxious character possible goes into a fancy restaurant and throws up on everyone and everything. Mr. Creosote is his name and puking is his game. The point of the sketch, though, isn’t his absolute crudeness but the fact that everyone else in the restaurant puts up with it. No one says anything for fear of offending the grotesque oaf.

    In “The Lady Vanishes” I got the same vibe. Not so much that Mr. Creosote is going to walk in and puke on everyone but, simply, how no one wants to get involved. Especially the two British men who are more interested in making a Cricket match instead of helping a young lady find the woman who has vanished. They’re not the only ones…

    The film starts out in full comedic mode as everyone in this small town has to suffer through an extra night at a hotel due to the train being late. Though our initial British heroes make due, there are others who have issues with it. Now, I’ll admit I’ve seen a lot of Hitchcock films and I was a bit bothered by the fact that the lady has yet to vanish and I’m 30 minutes through the film. But what Hitchcock does well, is set up the story in his typical fashion. I will say right now that I don’t think it’s Hitchcock’s best and Jason probably already stated where it was in Hitchcock’s chronological repertoire – so it bears noticing, though, that Hitchcock’s touches are already in place. Some great camera work, some delicious murders, some laugh-out-loud comedy and a heroine in distress (kinda).

    Back to the story….

    Once all the residents of the hotel are split up into various rooms our female lead takes issue with a gentleman who is staying in the room directly above her. It’s obvious that they hate each other which also makes it obvious that they will fall in love by the end credits.

    One bit of flavor in this small town is a man who plays his trumpet at night, peeling out a tune that enamors an elderly lady. Soon, though, the man is “murdered.” (Or at least we assume)

    Soon everyone is on a train heading to England. Our heroine is meeting up with her fiancé for some good British lovin’ – though she’s American (the train is a bit of a melting pot).

    Still the young lady hooks up with Miss Froy – the old lady. How do we know her name is Froy? She “writes” it on a window on the train (this will come in later).

    Now, as much as I’m expecting the hot gal to go missing the next thing we know is that Miss Froy has gone a wandering on the train. At this point the young gal begins to panic. No one wants to HELP HER! What is their problem? Did Mr. Creosote show up for everyone to look the opposite way? Of course the Brits don’t much care. A bit o’ tea and a Cricket match is all they care about – and to be damned anyone who stops this train.

    The gal and her gentleman friend (the one who had issues with her) start investigating. He believes her (and she sees Miss Froy’s name on the window).

    Forgot to mention that our young gal got a nasty “bump on the noggin’” when she was waiting for the train. Due to this nasty bump people REALLY start questioning her. Especially a brain doctor who is just a tad too friendly for my liking. Oh, and a nun who wears high heels.

    I’ll keep the details to a minimum and just explain that the story, which started out slowly, picks up speed pretty quickly.

    Next thing you know is that Miss Froy is, indeed a spy, and the tune she was listening to is a coded message that must get to British intelligence. All these other nefarious characters (the doctor, his assistant, the nun, a magician…) are all in on the plot to kill Miss Froy.

    Once the cat is out of the bag, the war is on. Well…a war with very weak sounding guns and our British Cricket fans FINALLY getting involved.

    It all ends, pretty much, how you expect it to.

    What I liked:

    The story was quite a bit of fun…once it got under way. There is some wonderful comedy in the mix.

    What I didn’t like:

    I’m SOOOO tired of the “I hate you, I love you” relationship that is front and center in this film.

    The film took a bit to pick up the speed. I would have liked some vanishing to come a bit earlier.

    Some of the characters are pretty one-dimensional.

    The gun fire seemed to go a LOOOOOONG time, though my thought is that the guns should have run out of bullets 15 shots ago.

    Weak gun sound-effects.

    Overall:

    A fun movie, but not Hitchcock’s best. If you can suffer through some early scenes to when the film picks up – you’ll find it a pretty solid winner. If you CAN’T suffer through that – then you might lose interest pretty early on.

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