Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Overlooked (or Forgotten) Film Tuesday: LADY ON A TRAIN starring Deanna Durbin and David Bruce

This is my Tuesday entry in the weekly meme hosted by Todd Mason at his blog, SWEET FREEDOM. Don't forget to check in and see what other overlooked (or forgotten) films and/or audio visuals other bloggers are talking about today. Todd has all the pertinent links (and even some impertinent ones).

For those of you who may not know, I LOVE train movies. Probably because I've never actually traveled by train except for the NYC subway and once on a short trip from London to Oxford. Those hardly count. So, therefore, I've romanticized the whole thing from all the various trips I've taken by proxy at the movies.

I am definitely not Deanna Durbin's biggest fan, but LADY ON A TRAIN is a lot of fun. Totally improbable - parts of it make little sense - but still worth a look if you happen to be in the mood for a good comedy/mystery with a terrific cast. Not bad for a holiday movie either. I'll have to remember to queue it up in December. (I did and I do.)

The plot:

Young and impressionable Nikki Collins (Deanna Durbin) has traveled cross country from San Francisco to New York to spend the Christmas holidays with her aunt (whom we never see in the movie). As the train slows down on its approach to Grand Central, Nikki is comfortably reading a murder mystery. She looks up and is able to see from her compartment into the windows of a passing office building. She spots a murder taking place - an old man bludgeoned with a crow-bar by an anonymous figure. By the way, an incident similar to the one in Agatha Christie's 'What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw'.

Only this time out, it's not a woman being strangled, but an old man beaten to death.

Of course, once the train arrives at the station, Nikki goes straight to the police, but she tells such a confusing story that the cop at the desk (played with his usual irascibility by William Frawley) eventually tells her to get lost. (He's busy trimming a little Christmas tree.) And really, you can hardly blame him. Nikki is not the most coherent story-teller. Though you'd think the cop would be taken by Nikki's utter cuteness and fetching outfit.

Oh, meant to mention that the always wonderful Edward Everett Horton shows up as the utterly hapless Mr. Haskell (from the New York office - Niki's father is an important business mogul) sent to keep an eye on Nikki. Needless to say, she runs rings around Haskell and totally ignores his precautionary squeaks and protestations. In effect he is basically a chihuahua nipping and barking at a plucky pit bull of the female persuasion. I hate to compare Nikki to a pit bull but...yeah, she kind of is. A pit bull with lipstick. Hmmm, where have I heard that before?

But a pit bull who can sing a tune at the drop of a hat and does so in the movie - three times. The fact that this is a murder mystery doesn't mean no singing. She even gets to croon two stanzas of Silent Night, Holy Night over the phone to her daddy who calls her on a snowy Christmas Eve.

There are plenty of close-ups (Durbin later married the film's director, Charles David), and many MANY wardrobe changes - sometimes from scene to scene with no explanation of how it was accomplished. Not to mention, a variety of hairstyles all done, apparently, at the flip of a comb. I mean, my head was spinning.

Okay, so what is a heroine with tons of gumption to do when the cops prove useless and she is the only one who knows that a man has been murdered?

Nikki Collins and mystery writer Wayne Morgan meet cute. You must help me solve the murder even if you're only a writer and we've never met before.

Why, what else? She phones Wayne Morgan (David Bruce), the author of the mystery novel she'd been reading on the train and insists on seeing him. She assumes that a mystery author MUST know something about murder and who better to help her? The fact that she doesn't know Morgan and is calling him out of the blue on Christmas Eve doesn't daunt her in the least. In fact, she is taken aback when Morgan at first refuses to see or help her. No one says 'no' to Nikki Collins.

David Bruce plays Wayne Morgan and is totally wonderful, I've always liked him. I wish he'd had a bigger career. He has such a humorous screen presence in this film - he actually appears to be enjoying himself, even when he's getting beaten up by thugs. 

Do those braids come with the hat? Dorian is right, this is Nikki's Pippi Longstocking moment.

Wayne 's fiancee Joyce, the stiff-necked Patricia Morison is totally wrong for him - in fact, she reminds me of Cary Grant's fiancee in BRINGING UP BABY. So wrong for him. Oh, so wrong. There a point in the movie when Wayne is relieved that Joyce has broken up with him yet again - he's free! He's no dope. The look on his face is priceless.

Well, long story short, after making a nuisance and spectacle of herself in a crowded movie theater trying to get Wayne Morgan's attention - he has gone there with his fiancee to watch a film in peace - silly man. Nikki spots the murder victim's face in a newsreel. He is Josiah Waring, a moneyed business tycoon who has, apparently, died in an accidental fall from a ladder while trimming a Christmas tree at his home in Long Island. But Nikki knows better.

Ralph Bellamy apparently bewildered by Nikki's hat. She doesn't look too happy about it either.

Off she goes to the Long Island mansion of the reclusive dead man. Wearing a hideous coat made of two-toned cow skin, (and after outmaneuvering two LARGE dogs on the grounds of the estate), she waltzes into the house mistaken for the old man's mistress, nightclub chanteuse, Margo Martin.

Conveniently the family is gathered for the reading of the will and Nikki gets to meet the two creepy Waring nephews, Jonathan (Ralph Bellamy) and Arnold (Dan Duryea playing against type which is nice for a change).

Jonathan is under the thumb of snippy (and equally creepy as we later find out) Aunt Charlotte. She is played by the redoubtable Elizabeth Patterson who, I think, got to play every one's aunt in every movie ever made. (Yeah, I'm exaggerating. But she was almost as ubiquitous as Charles Lane who I looked for in this movie but this was one he apparently skipped.) I do like Dan Duryea, he can't help being stylishly sniveling and sleazy no matter what part he's playing. As Arnold he appears to be the black sheep of the Waring family. Certainly he gets the best comic lines.

At the mansion, Nikki also meets up with two strange Waring employees lurking about in the shadows, one holding a cat. The two are the always ominous George Coulouris (he's the cat man) and the always reliably thuggish Allen Jenkins. What they are doing in the mansion (besides lurking) is not explained.

Nikki conveniently finds the bloody slippers the old man was wearing when he was killed. Apparently it didn't occur to the killer to throw them away at the actual murder scene or toss them out of the moving car while transporting the body to Long Island to set up the false crime scene.

I'm not so sure that bloody slippers = proof of murder, but Nikki makes off with them anyway. Yuck!

From then on, everyone is after the slippers. This makes as little sense as just about anything else in this movie, but why quibble.

Well, it turns out that Waring has left all his millions to his mistress Margo who, one suspects, does not have long to live. Anyway, back we go to the city (the fact that it's a snowy night and the drive from L.I. to the city would naturally take hours doesn't faze anyone, least of all, Nikki).

She goes back to her hotel, changes her clothes yet again and off she goes to the Circus Nightclub (it's still Christmas Eve) where Margo Martin works. For whatever reason the singer/paramour never showed at the mansion though she knew she was the main heir - she wasn't bonking the old man for nothing.

At the club, still impersonating Margo, Nikki gets to sing (changing clothes again) and beguile everyone. The orchestra doesn't seem to think it strange that Margo has apparently disappeared and neither does anyone else. Very odd. Actually, Margo is locked in a closet - put there by Nikki.

More murders ensue, more running around and mis-direction, Wayne Morgan (David Bruce) shows up outside Nikki's hotel room in his pajamas (wearing an overcoat which is stolen when he's knocked on the head by Allen Jenkins) and is found lying on the floor in front of Nikki's door - okay, I laughed. David Bruce is so perfect for this sort of thing.

Later they both get arrested for murder and when Nikki is sprung from jail by Mr. Haskell, she's off and running to catch a murderer leaving Wayne behind bars.

Nikki in yet another outfit complete with hideous chapeau. Dan Duryea driving, obviously wondering why women wear the things they do.

Near the end, Nikki plays right into the mad killer's plans and is trapped in the same room where the old man originally died while the killer explains his modus operendi. (As all good killers should.)

But not to worry, suffice to say, that in the last shot we spy Wayne and Nikki in a train compartment on their way west, having apparently just gotten married. Fast work, Miss Collins...uh, Mrs. Morgan.

 A Deanna Durbin doll that looks nothing like her. Actually, it's kind of creepy.

Apologies yet again for the wonky spacing and google blogger's refusal to allow me to place the photos exactly where I want them and also refusing to allow me to center comments when necessary except when it feels like it. I've been working on this thing all morning trying to get it to look presentable and this is the best I can do. GAK!


  1. Sorry Blogger has been giving conniptions. I have seen a review or two of this one, as well, but haven't seen it (or more than a few minutes of it) yet...one previous review did Require the reprinting of the photo of Durban with her legs up on the seat...funny how that's Required, no?

  2. And, of course. most dolls are rather creepy.

  3. Yvette, this was so much fun. I've read a thing or two about this movie over the years, so I'm familiar with the story, but I haven't seen it yet. One of these days. Now I get the pleasure of watching with your comments in the back of my mind. Thanks.

  4. Not my favorite Durbin film (that would be First Love, but there are some great funny moments. My favorite is when Nikki asks one of the nephews (I forget which) if he's upset his uncle only left him one dollar, and he replies, "Oh, no. He once threatened to cut me out of his will completely!" :)

  5. Oh, I forgot—I'm planning on doing a post next week on a very entertaining train movie!

  6. New to me but Deanna Durbin isn't. She was a cutie.

  7. Todd, not ALL dolls are creepy. Though when they are, they usually are seriously creepy. Ha.

    As for that pix of Durbin, well it's the best shot of her on the train in the early part of the movie. See, she's holding the book she's reading and the author is the guy whom she'll later cajole into helping her stop the bad guys.

    But you men....HA! The legs are there for you, dearie. :)

  8. Thank you Jacqueline! Netflix has it for dvd viewing. (It should be on streaming, but when have they ever done anything that makes any sense?)

    This was a fun one to review. :)

  9. Elizabeth: Not a great movie, for sure, but lots of fun. That was Dan Duryea who said that. He got most of the good lines in the movie.

    I'll be looking forward to your train movie blog. Let me know when it's on, you know I have old lady memory and am liable to forget anything at any time. :)

  10. Yeah, she was cutie, Patti. Sometimes too sugary sweet, but what the heck, we all have our cross to bear.

    This film is perfect if you're in the mood for nonsense and fun and a couple of laugh out loud moments.

  11. Very creepy doll! Very nice choice Yvette and I much prefer it to the other 'adult' Durbin movie, Christmas Holiday, in which a lot of the time she seems to be in a very unsuitable make-up and just looks plain weird (much like the dill in fact ... hmmm).

  12. Yvette, I adored your LADY ON A TRAIN review, and not just because you were nice enough to include a nice link/shoutout to my own review over at TALES OF THE EASILY DISTRACTED -- beaucoup thanks, my friend! (Incidentally, the GIF I included on my blog seems to have turned into just a regular still photo. I'll have to ask my husband Vinnie about that, since he's Team Bartilucci's resident computer whiz. But I digress....)

    Your smart and snappy sense of humor was perfect for reviewing this daffy comedy-thriller, blending suspense, screwball comedy, and Deanna Durbin's lovely singing voice (Miklos Rosza's score didn't hurt, either). It was also nice to see Dan Duryea and Ralph Bellamy in change-of-pace roles, with rather nice comic chemistry with Durbin.

    One more thing: I agree, that so-called Deanna Durbin doll not only didn't look at all like her, but it really was pretty darn creepy! I hope her fans demanded their money back! :-) BRAVA on a truly delightful LADY ON A TRAIN post, Yvette!

  13. It's not Christmas! Why are you watching "Lady on a Train" when it isn't even Christmas?

    I loved your snappy look at the movie and its hats. Loved it.

    Maybe mine was the other blog you read on "Lady on a Train". Maybe:


  14. Hi Yvette! Visiting from Ryan's blog. When he says to check out a blog, I listen. LOL I am a huge fan of old films, but oddly enough, I have never seen this one. Must make a note to watch out for it. Has it ever played on Turner Classic Movies?

    I'm going to follow you via email. You have a gorgeous blog!

  15. Sergio, I know I've seen other Deanna Durbin films, I mean, I must have. But I have no memory so I can't compare.

    I liked this one enough to think I'll be re-watching it at Christmas. Especially if I need a chuckle or two.

  16. Well thank you, Dorian, m'dear. Glad you enjoyed it. It was thanks to you that I actually queued up this film and took a looksee. Otherwise, who knows if I would ever have seen it at all.

    I have to say though that Ralph Bellamy is so creepy (there's that word again) in this it's pretty hard not to intuit what's up. Also remember near the end when he explains about his and his aunt's 'special' relationship....UGH!!!

    I loved Dan Duryea in this. I read somewhere that he and Durbin became friends during this movie and he would visit her on her other sets, so.....I'm not hinting anything since later she did marry the director and lived happily ever after. She's still alive, far as I know. Still a recluse.

    P.S. What's a GIF?

  17. It might have been, C.W. I'll have to read yours and see. I always mean to make note of things I especially like and always forget.

    Don't worry, I'll be watching this at Christmas and listing it on my 'this would be a good present list'. :)

  18. Thanks for dropping by, Michelle. And thanks for following however way you do it. Much appreciated.

    I'm not sure if Turner shows this, but I think they probably do. Maybe around Christmas?? In the meantime, Netflix has it. And I'm sure other outlets online must have it to.

    It was a very fun movie. :)

    P.S. Ryan is a total dear.

  19. You know, Yvette, I must say that like you, I thought Dan Duryea and Deanna Durbin had a nice chemistry together in LADY ON A TRAIN, whether they were just good friends or something more! I wouldn't have minded seeing them in more movies together. Duryea needed more good-guy roles just for an interesting change of pace! :-)

    Vinnie says a GIF is short for Graphics Interchange Format. It's pretty neat, really, allowing folks to add a touch of animation to the movie stills we use in our blog posts.

    I say we all have a virtual party come Christmas season, and we can all celebrate via Twitter or Facebook or e-mail, and watch LADY ON A TRAIN together! :-) Here's a toast to Deanna Durbin and screwball noir! :-)

  20. I always thought he was sexy if he put his mind to it - in a creepy kind of way. Ha.

    Yes, there was nice chemistry between them. But let's not forget David Bruce - I like him an awful lot. Though I think she actually spends more screen time with Dan.

    That's a great idea for Christmas! You remember. You're much younger than me. HA!

    Oh, now I know what GIF means if I ever see it again. I've only had one of those on my blog a long while back. Laurel and Hardy dancing when the Giants won the Super Bowl. :)

  21. Very good, entertaining and hilarious movie review. And I appreciate the fashion commentary, too.

    I have not seen this movie.

    However, my favorite train movie is The Lady Vanishes. I have seen that so many times and always love it.

  22. Very fun (and funny post) on what sounds like a neat film! I like these older murder mystery/comedy movies(The THIN MAN series, of course, but also stuff like STAR OF MIDNIGHT and THE MAD MISS MANTON), and have read about this one at a few other blogs. I've never seen a Deanna Durbin film... I know this one isn't typical, but is it a good place to start? She looks pretty cute, and I like the idea of the mystery novelist guy getting involved. Will seek it out - thanks!

  23. CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY is a very peculiar movie all round - adapted (well, bowdlerised) from the Somerset Maugham novel, directed by Noir maestro Robert "THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE" Siodmak and co-starring Gene Kelly ... as a killer. You can imagine, people queue up to see a Gene Kelly - Deanna Durbin movie and get a wretchedly depressing Film Noir instead! I really am starting to think that the doll was made to support that release!

  24. Thanks Kathy, you would DEFINITELY enjoy this movie. It's no where near THE LADY VANISHES in quality, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth your time. I will be watching this again at Christmas. It is a lot of fun.

    Truth be known, I'd forgotten it takes place at Christmas. :)

  25. Jeff, this is probably not a typical Durbin film since everyone says so. But it's very enjoyable regardless. The fun is at times unintentional but that adds to the festive flavor.

    If you do get to watch it, let us know what you think!

    THE MAD MISS MANTON - is that Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda? STAR OF MIDNIGHT - don't know that one. I'll have to look it up. :)

  26. Sergio - never in my lifetime would I want to see a film in which Gene Kelly plays a killer. NEVER!

    So I think I'll avoid CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY. Thanks for the warning. :)

    What a name for a noir movie. Jeez. I'll bet they weren't even being ironic, just wanted to fool people into coming into the theater thinking they were in for a light-hearted treat. I'd have asked for my money back.

  27. I love train movies, too - I'll have to look for this one. Sounds like fun!

  28. I am so looking for this movie. I wonder if TCM ever plays it.

  29. I have this and haven't watched it yet. Thanks for the reminder!

  30. Deb, it is a great deal of fun. A very likable film.

  31. Ryan, don't know about TCM. I watched the movie on Netflix which is turning into a pretty good resource for lots of old films.

  32. What are you waiting for Lauren? Let's see what would make for a good Dinner and A Movie with LADY ON A TRAIN. How about a nice cheeseburger and French fries and a Pepsi. Sounds good to me.


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