East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

The Lady Vanishes, 1938

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My admiration for Margaret Lockwood is on record – a beautiful woman, an excellent actress, protagonist of at least three indispensable films.
One of these happens to be a film by Alfred Hitchcock, whose anniversary was a few days back. The movie is called The Lady Vanishes, and was shot in 1938, based on a novel by Ethel Lina White, called The Wheel Spins, and published in 1936.


Orson Welles watched it, he said, eleven times, and Truffaut pointed it out as his favorite movie in Hitchcock’s opus.

11217And for some strange coincidence I have been browsing White’s novel these days – having acquired a few of her titles. White was beloved by screenwriters, and another of her thrillers was adapted into the classic The Spiral Staircase. Another, was the seminal “haunted wax museum” story. Today she is largely forgotten, but in the 30s she was considered on a par with Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers as a thriller writer.
I’ve half a mind of doing a post on her books, because they intersect a number of interests of mine.

But for the moment, there’s a lot of good reasons for a post on the 1938 novie: Hitch’s anniversary, my love of Margaret Lockwood, my recent discovery of Ethel Lina White.
Let’s see…

The plot of The Lady Vanishes is known – while on holiday in the unlikely Alpine/Balkan state of Bandrika (a Ruritania built in the studio with scale models), the young Iris Henderson befriends the elderly Miss Froy.
During a train journey that will bring them back home, Miss Froy disappears – and no one outside Iris seems to remember ever meeting her.


With the help of the young musicologist Gilbert (Michael Redgrave, in his film debut), who is the only one that believes her story, Iris tries to find out what is happening.

26461_2_largeThe film has been redone twice:
. first in ’79, from Hammer with Cybill Shepard and Elliot Gould in the roles of Lockwood and Redgrave, and Angela Lansbury as Miss Froy. It’s not much – and after its release, for thirty years Hammer stopped making movies.
. the second time in 2008, by the BBC, with Tuppence Middleton in the role that was by Margaret Lockwood – and I did not see this, but sure would like to.
And yet, the original – that Hitchcock almost did not make due to contractual problems – is still perfect.

The Lady Vanishes is a quite tense spy thriller that uses the sophisticated comedy ways to build its own narrative – and if today the premise is not very original, in ’38 it certainly was.
Lockwood and Redgrave bicker with obvious fun.
The inhabitants of Bandrika are all wonderfully ethnic (and speak a curious mix of Italian, Yiddish and different languages), and by today’s standards, certain characterizations would be enough to cause a diplomatic incident and send a lot of gentle souls in crisis due to a fundamental lack of political correctness.
But even the British are thoroughly mocked, thanks to the couple Charters & Caldicott, two classic examples of British fauna, desperately yearning to return home to civilization, and to attend the cricket finals.


The main action is almost entirely set on board a train, then with rigid temporal and spatial boundaries (the set did not reach twenty meters in width) and the story lends itself easily to the claustrophobic intrigue. But it is the a mix of comedy and spy action that makes the film so light and fun – despite the fact that it is a 1938 film that discusses how a Central European nation is showing totalitarian and warmongering signals.
And we also get a little bit of sexy – well, OK, sexy for 1938.


There are a lot of little games hidden in the film – the most interesting is probably that apart from the opening credits, all the music in the film comes from inside the film, played or performed by the characters.

The film had a remarkable success and turned the two main actors – at the time almost unknown – into superstars.
It also gave rise to an interesting spin-off – the two cricket aficionados, Charters & Caldicott, were so successful that they appeared in eleven other films, including the equally essential Night Train to Munich, again with Margaret Lockwood (a film of which we will perhaps speak again). And then a series of radio adventures, and also a BBC TV series, about these two cliche Brits.


For anyone interested, The Lady Vanishes is in the public domain, and you can find it easily on the net, on Youtube and elsewhere. It is almost eighty years old, in black and white and highly recommended.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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