Hitchcock’s Ticket to Hollywood: “The Lady Vanishes” (1938) starring Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave, Paul Lukas, & Dame May Whitty

Iris Henderson [talking to her girlfriends]: I’ve no regrets. I’ve been everywhere and done everything. I’ve eaten caviar at Cannes, sausage rolls at the dogs. I’ve played baccarat at Biarritz and darts with the rural dean. What is there left for me but marriage?

This film was a hit in his native England; it helped Sir Alfred Hitchcock get a 7 yr. contract w/ David O. Selznick. Orson Welles loved it so much that he saw it 11 times! Hitchcock was inspired by a legend of an Englishwoman who went w/ her daughter to the Palace Hotel in Paris in the 1880s for the Great Exposition: “The woman was taken sick and they sent the girl across Paris to get some medicine in a horse-vehicle, so it took about four hours. When she came back she asked, ‘How’s my mother?’ ‘What mother?’ ‘My mother. She’s here, she’s in her room. Room 22.’ They go up there. Different room, different wallpaper, everything. And the payoff of the whole story is, so the legend goes, that the woman had Bubonic plague and they dared not let anybody know she died, otherwise all of Paris would have emptied.” The urban legend, known as the Vanishing Hotel Room, was also explored in Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955) in S1, E5, “Into Thin Air,” starring Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia (who has a supporting role in Strangers on a Train).

Miss Froy: I never think you should judge any country by its politics. After all, we English are quite honest by nature, aren’t we?

Passengers on train out of a fictional Central European country (Mandrika) are delayed due to an avalanche. They get up close and personal w/ each other while staying at an overcrowded inn one night. Once the train departs the next morning, it seems an elderly English governess, Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) may or may not be on it. Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood), a wealthy playgirl who was vacationing w/ gal pals before getting married, is certain that Miss Froy was on the train. They sat in the same compartment and had tea together in the dining car, but the passengers/staff who could corroborate Iris’ story say they never saw the lady! Iris could have possible concussion, as brain surgeon Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas) declares; she was hit over the head before boarding the train. A young ethno-musicologist, Gilbert (Michael Redgrave in his first movie), is willing to listen to Iris and help her search for Miss Froy.

Gilbert: My father always taught me, never desert a lady in trouble. He even carried that as far as marrying Mother.

Vivien Leigh screen-tested for the role of Iris. The cricket-obsessed pals, Charters and Caldicott (played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne), were such popular characters that they were paired up in 10 more movies, incl. Night Train to Munich (1940) which also starred Lockwood. The censors wouldn’t allow the villains to be identified as Germans, though the plot has references to the political situation leading up to WWII. The Brits end up working together to fight off the foreigners, aside from the lawyer, Mr. Todhunter (Cecil Parker), who raises the white flag of surrender. At first, it seems like a short, light, and breezy film. On second look, we note how two women are at the focus of the story; they’re both strong-willed, confident, and capable (when life gets tough).

[1] Many regard this as the best of Hitchcock’s early work, and it is easy to see why: the film demonstrates his growing talent for building suspense from an unlikely mix of the commonplace and the incredible.

[2] Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood simply sparkle as the main couple who of course initially can’t stand each other. Once on the train, the ensuring mystery and sleuthing are riveting,and full of fantastic little details… The shootout is excellently staged and still quite exciting. The laughs are constant…

[3] I think my analysis of Hitch would be his championing the moral fiber of everyman. I think that is why Hitchcock films still stand today as some of the best ever made.

[4] The scene in the hotel showing Caldicott and Charters sharing a bed (and a pair of pajamas) never would have gotten by the American censors. The relationship between the Todhunters as well, was quite obvious and rare for the American cinema of the day.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

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