Saturday, May 4, 2013
With a pert and high-spirited personality, strong, operatic singing voice and youthful confidence, Deanna Durbin was one of the most popular teenage stars of the classic movie age. Long forgotten by all but hardcore fans of Hollywood's golden age, Durbin has often been given credit for saving her home studio, Universal, from bankruptcy in the late 30's and early 40's and at one point she was the highest paid female star in Tinsel Town. Having a string of hits in her corner, this winsome warbler turned her back on Hollywood, retiring to France at the ripe old age of 27.
In 1945 Durbin was in transition from perky juvenile to sophisticated, though still vivacious, glamour girl. Lady on a Train showcased both a more adult Deanna, as well as her lilting singing voice, though, like most DD films, it would hardly be classified as a musical. It was however, the rare movie combination of comedy-mystery, with shades of the Bob Hope/Paulette Goddard classic, The Cat and the Canary. It also has a film noir feel about it. Dark, moody lighting, guns being brandished and danger (as well as laughs) lurking just around the corner.
Nicki Collins is a pretty and ebullient young San Francisco socialite who witnesses a murder via a passenger train while en route to visit her aunt in New York. When she confronts New York's finest about the dirty deed she has observed, they blow her off as a crackpot when they discover she has been reading murder mysteries. The determined damsel sets out to initiate help from the author of one of her pulp fiction primers, Wayne Morgan (David Bruce), and solve the mystery herself.
While watching a newsreel in a local theater, Nicki discovers that the murdered gent was a well-known and wealthy businessman. She heads out to his Long Island estate, only to get entangled with his "grieving" family and be mistaken for a nightclub singer with whom the dearly departed was having an affair. Other mishaps occur including getting between Morgan and his snooty upper crust fiancee, as well as causing a near nervous breakdown for her father's assistant (Edward Everett Horton, famous for his jittery, flustered persona), sent East to watch over the zealous lass.
Lady on a Train is fun. Deanna Durbin is fun in it, although it's not a completely typical example of what a DD movie is (as a bubbly teen the star sang more songs and was usually a matchmaker or problem solver of sorts). She does get to sing three tunes in this film, including a lovely rendition of "Silent Night" (the flick is set during the Christmas season), "Give Me a Little Kiss" and Cole Porter's "Night and Day," in a sultry voice and curvaceous outfit.
Surrounding the film's star are a slew of great supporting actors. As members of the deceased man's family, Ralph Bellamy, Elizabeth Patterson and Dan Duryea (in a good guy role....or is it?) join in the mysterious antics. Patricia Morison, Allen Jenkins and William Frawley (pre-Fred Mertz) round out the stellar supporting cast. It was even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Sound.
The movie is based on a story by Leslie Charteris, who created the crime detective character Simon Templar, aka "The Saint." Another very relevant literary connection to Charteris story and this film is mystery queen Agatha Christie. Her 1957 story "4:50 from Paddington" features a very similar story angle with the main character witnessing a murder while on a train (this story would be filmed as Murder, She Said starring Margaret Rutherford in 1961).
Lady on a Train was produced by Felix Jackson, whom Durbin would marry later the same year. They divorced in 1948, and in 1950, Durbin would marry the film's director, Charles David. It was shortly after this last marriage that the star would retire and live the remainder of her life in France.