Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Silly Cinema: Lady on a Train (1945)

If The Parent Trap (1961) is my very favorite movie, then Lady on a Train (1945) is pulling into the station right behind it.  It is another film that I can watch time after time and find myself both comforted by the familiarity and still keenly invested in the story.

Lady on a Train (1945)
"Deanna...on a Man (Oh! Man) Hunt!"

At its heart, Lady on a Train is a screwball comedy that also happens to be a musical, murder-mystery, film-noir, fashion-show romance.  As with many of my favorite films, Lady on a Train has a little bit of everything and every little bit is done well!

Like all classic pieces of cinema, this film was adapted from
the finest literary sources.  Actually, Lady on a Train might
be the exception that proves the rule; it is probably the one
time when the movie is better than the book!

The movie stars Deanna Durbin as Nikki Collins, a daffy San Francisco socialite who is obsessed with pulp crime novels.  On her way to New York to visit relatives for the holidays, she witnesses a murder outside of her train window.  With no victim and little evidence, Nikki enlists the help of the police, an executive from her father's firm, her favorite novelist, and possibly the murderer himself to solve the crime.  Certainly, the story practically requires a winch to assist in all of the disbelief that viewers are expected to suspend; the magnetism of one of Hollywood's most underrated stars, however, is enough to carry the audience happily along to the very end.  Even if one is not sustained by the plot, the sets, the costumes, the music, and the cavalcade of character actors are more than enough keep any "Silly Cinema" fan entertained.

The only way this movie could've been better was if we were able to see it
in the Streamline Moderne opulence of Broadway's Loew's Criterion theater!

From train compartment to elegant hotel suite, from industrial silo to luxury penthouse apartment, the sets in Lady on a Train are all fantastic and fully-realized.  They are but the stuff of community theater productions when compared to the brilliant, three-ring setting of the movie's biggest action, the Circus Club.

I'm not sure when things changed (or if there were ever such grand, themed night clubs outside of a Hollywood film), but how badly do I want to go to a circus-themed nightclub where the doorman is a giant, the emcee is a ringmaster, the foyer is a circus train carrying an animal band, the chorus line is Josie and the Pussycats, the waiters are dressed like Pagliacci, and all of the entertainment is performed under the acrobats' safety net?

I believe that Lady on a Train is Durbin's first film in which she appeared as blonde.  Growing up recognizing her as my grandfather's favorite chubby-cheeked brunette, it was a little jarring when I first saw Durbin in Lady on a Train.  After countless viewings, I'll willingly put her up against any "Hollywood blonde."  In fact, blonde is the perfect color for Durbin as idealized, post-War, noir-ish fashion plate.  Strangely enough, the film credits no one for the amazing costume designs.  It is particularly odd as Lady on a Train features a film-within-a-film moment when the main characters disrupt a theater full of movie-goers watching a film reel about forthcoming fashions (that incidentally features marionettes wearing miniature versions of the couture ensembles - wacky tacky gold).

Again, it is shocking that no credit can be assigned to a costume designer*.  Durbin's character has no less than one dozen distinct costume changes (plus a few variations), in a story that is set over the course of only a few days.  The costumes range from sight-gag rain slicker with Pippy-Longstocking braids to a bustled formal with peek-a-boo cut out at the back.  I call this movie part fashion show because within one scene, Durbin's character undergoes three dramatic costume transformations, all with equally dramatic and significantly-different hairstyles.  It is difficult to choose a favorite when the looks include a studded, cowhide jacket, a two-toned, hooded suit trimmed in fringe, an asymmetrical, cropped tweed jacket with one fur lapel, and an unbelievable chiffon-and-midnight-lace evening gown.

It was difficult but I managed to do it; my favorite ensemble in the film (and maybe in movie history) is this simple black suit.  The signature 1940s silhouette is achieved by a straight skirt and a jacket with a nipped waist and broad shoulders; the plume-covered hat with matching muff and the double-donut hair transform an otherwise elegant suit into something truly over-the-top and inspiring.

While the film is not a musical per se, there are a few beautifully integrated musical numbers that use Durbin's incredible voice to full advantage.  In spite of the fact that Durbin gained fame as the operatic counterpoint to Judy Garland's colloquial singing style, I much prefer when she lends her voice to more popular songs of the day, including a sultry rendition of "Gimme a Little Kiss."

"Gimme a Little Kiss" - Deanna Durbin from Lady on a Train

"Silent Night" - Deanna Durbin from Lady on a Train

"Night and Day" - Deanna Durbin from Lady on a Train

As if Deanna's charms aren't enough, Lady on a Train also boasts a roster that includes Ralph Bellamy, Dan Duryea, and David Bruce.  Yes, the stars shine in Lady on a Train but it is the supporting cast that truly brings the film to life.  As per usual, my favorite performances are delivered by the character actors.

William Frawley, Elizabeth Patterson, Allen Jenkins, and Edward Everett Horton are but four stand-outs amongst the film's unbelievable cast of supporting players.  These four are special because, whether series regular or guest star, each one of these character actors went on to appear on I Love Lucy.

Beyond the sets, the costumes, the music, and the cast, the most interesting part of Lady on a Train may very well be the marketing campaign.  The full-color movie poster at the beginning of this post makes it look like Nikki Collins (Durbin) is madcap man-trap who gets her fella by the point of a pistol and a goofy grin.  The below poster looks very much like an edge-of-your-seat noir thriller.  Much like the film itself, the ads for Lady on a Train are suffering from an altogether-entertaining identity crisis.

"A song on her lips - MURDER on her mind!"

What is your favorite movie?  Have you ever seen Lady on a Train?  Have you watched any of our other "Silly Cinema" recommendations?  If you are a fan of film-noir, romance, mystery, drama, comedy, thriller, musicals (that just about covers all the bases), or simply "Silly Cinema," then I suggest booking first class accommodations with Lady on a Train.  If Walter Winchell says, "It's big-time," then you know it's good!


Mr. Tiny

*Thanks to the superior cyber-sleuthing skills of our pal, Lauren, at Wearing History Clothing/Patterns/Blog, we learned that the designer of Ms. Durbin's screen wardrobe was the inimitable Howard Greer, known for costuming other well-known screwball-comedies including Bringing Up Baby and My Favorite Wife.


  1. Ok, I totally need to see this movie!

    1. I hope you do! I also hope I didn't oversell it! Let us know what you think.