Deanna Durbin juggles murder and romance in... Lady on a Train (1945)

Ever since I became a classic film fan, I've been hearing about Deanna Durbin. Since The Wizard of Oz was a giant favorite of mine, and since Durbin was the unofficial rival of Judy Garland, I was steadfast in believing that Durbin wasn't for me. It honestly made no sense, I know. I never had any interest in Ms. Durbin until this year's 1947 Blogathon, where I read a piece about Something in the Wind, an appealing picture starring Durbin, John Dall, and Donald O'Connor. I don't know what happened, but suddenly I couldn't wait to get my hands on anything Deanna Durbin. I bought a collection of her films (found here) and I fell in love. This gal was sweet and cute, but also smart and scrappy -- and yes, she could sing. Lady on a Train is one of her best, and in the spirit of Halloween, I thought it was a good time to bring you some murder and mayhem (of the fictional kind, of course). By the way, there will be major spoilers throughout this post, so if you don't want to know the twist ending, you might want to watch the movie and come back here later.

"I killed him. I had to kill him," Nicki Collins (Durbin) breathlessly says to herself in her train car. A murder confession already? No, it's just Nicki reading aloud the latest Wayne Morgan mystery. Engrossed in the story, Nicki mirrors the book's heroine by looking out the window, not expecting to find anything when the train comes to a stop at a station. She sees two men arguing, an intriguing but not unusual scene. Things quickly escalate, though, when one of the men hits the other with a crow bar, his back kept to Nicki.
The train moves on and Nicki is stunned. Did that really just happen? Arriving in New York, Nicki is met by Mr. Haskell (Edward Everett Horton), an employee of her father's at the NY office. Nicki is supposed to be spending Christmas with her aunt, but right now she's more focused on getting to the nearest police station, ditching Haskell by asking him to get her radio. Unfortunately, no one is willing to believe Nicki, especially the police desk sergeant (William Frawley) who becomes confused by her less-than-helpful replies to his questions.
When he finds out she's been reading Wayne Morgan's The Headless Bride (great title), he chalks the murder up to her imagination and dismisses her. Nicki isn't one to give up, though. She goes to her hotel to hatch a plan, discovering poor Mr. Haskell with a black eye -- apparently her radio actually belonged to one feisty old woman. I love it when she offers Haskell an ash can as an ice pack for his eye. Perhaps it's a callback to Top Hat, when Horton orders a steak for his black eye? Either way, it's goofy and perfectly Horton.
The audience learns that this isn't the first time Nicki has gotten into trouble over her imagination. Apparently she reported a suspicious man hanging around the Golden Gate Bridge, only to find out he was an FBI agent. The memory of that mistake doesn't stop our heroine, of course. Maybe Mr. Morgan will know what she should do -- after all, he writes such great stuff, that's practically like experience, right?

Dictating a novel to his secretary, Wayne (David Bruce) refuses to see Nicki, opting to crawl on his floor instead as he acts out his melodramatic words. His secretary, Ms. Fletcher, stays hilariously deadpan, and you can tell that she's less than impressed with her boss. Nicki barges in and asks for help, but he refers her to the police. He goes back to dictating and talks about returning to the scene of the crime. A light bulb goes off in Nicki's head and she thanks Wayne, right as his fiancee Joyce Williams walks in. This becomes a running gag throughout the film, with Nicki popping up to bother Wayne and Joyce assuming it's something sketchy.

When Nicki can't find the crime scene, she goes back to Wayne's apartment building, but misses him by seconds as he gets into a taxi with Joyce. She follows him to a movie theater and has zero tact as she tries to get his attention. Wayne brushes her off yet again, but one good thing comes of it when a newsreel about the accidental death of tycoon Joseah Waring plays. Nicki recognizes him as the man who was murdered and sets out for the guy's mansion in hopes of finding clues.

Hopping a fence and surprisingly not breaking her ankles in the process, Nicki barely makes it a few feet before a pair of dogs chase after her. Arnold Waring (Dan Duryea), nephew to the victim, arrives in time to stop the dogs from making dinner out of Nicki, and assumes that she is a woman named Margo Martin. Nicki goes with it so she can get into the house, stumbling into a very tense situation. Waring's will is being read that night, attended by Arnold, his cousin Jonathan (Ralph Bellamy), and Waring's scary sister Charlotte (Elizabeth Patterson).
Like Arnold, Jonathan is charmed by "Margo" and doesn't seem to hold anything against her, unlike the glaring Aunt Charlotte. As it turns out, Margo Martin was Waring's mistress and he left his fortune to her, cutting out the rest of the family, hence Aunt Charlotte's seething. Nicki slips away from the awkwardness and searches the house, ultimately finding a bloody pair of slippers that she remembers Waring wearing when he was killed.

Her snooping doesn't go unnoticed, though -- Waring's creepy personal secretary, Mr. Saunders (George Coulouris), is
clearly up to no good as he and the chauffeur Danny (Allen Jenkins) try to find Nicki and figure out what she's doing. You can tell Saunders is evil because of his ever-present white cat, one of many ways the film pokes fun at convention. Our gal outsmarts them, naturally, and successfully leaves with the slippers by accepting Arnold's offer to drive her home. He asks if he can drop by and see her nightclub act sometime, which she agrees to as she tries to nonchalantly find the slippers she threw in the backseat.

Back at the hotel, Haskell chides Nicki for disappearing on him again and questions her about the slippers. "It's good luck to find shoes on the street. You know, 'find shoes before dawn, have luck on the morn.' You never heard of that?" Durbin's delivery is exquisite, as is Horton's buying into the "superstition."

Unbeknownst to them, Danny has sneaked into the room to steal back the slippers. He knocks out Haskell and waits outside Nicki's bedroom for the right moment to snatch the shoes. He listens in as she calls Wayne, who still wants nothing to do with her. In a move reminiscent of Bringing Up Baby, Nicki frightens Wayne into
coming over by acting like there's a man in her room coming after her, not realizing just how close she is to the truth.

As she waits for Wayne to show up, she calls her father to wish him a merry Christmas and is asked to sing "Silent Night." You didn't think we'd have a Deanna Durbin movie without a song, did you? The whole thing is shot beautifully, complete with soft lighting and gorgeous close-ups of the star. You can't fault Universal for shoehorning this number in -- it's good stuff.
Anyway, Nicki's song may have moved Danny to tears, but it hasn't made him forget why he came. Wayne, still in his pajamas, catches Danny sneaking out of Nicki's room and tries to act tough by pretending the smoking pipe in his pocket is a gun. Danny sees right through it and knocks him out, stealing his coat so he can hide the shoes without attracting suspicion. Nicki is dismayed to see that the slippers are gone, humorously blaming Wayne for letting Danny get away.


Wayne trails her to the Circus, the club where Margo Martin works. Nicki tries to talk to Margo, but really gets nowhere, especially when Arnold arrives to take Nicki up on her offer. In a jam, Nicki locks Margo in a closet and takes her place in the show. Interestingly, no one freaks out at the substitution -- no floor manager, no customers, nobody. I guess they're so enthralled by Nicki that they don't care?
I'm probably in the minority here, but I enjoy Durbin's voice more when it's applied to pop songs instead of the operatic stuff. Obviously she was super talented and could sing anything; the pop tunes are just more my style. Her rendition of "Gimme a Little Kiss" is certainly not what I expected -- it's flirty and seductive, definitely showcasing a more mature Durbin. Trying to make Wayne uncomfortable, Nicki sits in his lap as she purrs the lyrics, something Wayne quickly decides he likes... until he remembers he came with Joyce and she stormed off.

Outside, Danny drives up with Jonathan and a reluctant Aunt Charlotte who's come to apologize to "Margo." Recognizing Danny as the man who hit him, Wayne forgoes explaining things to Joyce and follows the chauffeur, who actually just enters the club through the back. Meanwhile, in Margo's dressing room, the real Margo is arguing with Saunders -- she refuses to keep going along with his plan, earning her a sharp slap. Saunders then has Nicki brought to him, his threatening interrupted by Wayne. Nicki gets the slippers back from Danny and the couple flee.
Wayne's irritation has given way to curiosity and he decides he'll stick around. Nicki wants to take the slippers to the police to prove her story, but she's intercepted by Jonathan and forced to sit with the whole family. To escape being grabbed by Danny and Saunders again, she goes out on the floor and sings "Night and Day" (after a fast costume and hair change, of course). Nicki finds Wayne in the crowd and suddenly the number is very intimate as her singing becomes directed towards him. Yeah, I'd say there are some feelings there.


Everything's all warm and sweet, until suddenly shots ring out. Saunders is found dead, Wayne and Nicki taking the opportunity to leave in the ensuing chaos. The next morning, after staying the night at Wayne's for safety, Nicki and Wayne are arrested for Saunders's murder. Nicki thinks the slippers will clear them, but Wayne's butler accidentally cleaned them, rendering them useless.

True to form, Nicki uses her time in jail to cook up a new plan, which involves Wayne confessing to the murder and her
solving the case in the meantime. Wayne is understandably weary of this idea, although he does find a kind of romanticism in it, showing that he may not be more rational than Nicki after all. Haskell comes to bail her out, but gets preoccupied by trying to keep the paparazzi away. It turns out Arnold has posted her bail already, and the family wants to see her. Things start to look ominous for Nicki when Arnold reveals during their car ride that he knows his uncle was murdered. She then sees a newspaper headline touting the killing of Margo.
When Arnold pulls up to the Waring offices where they're supposedly meeting the family, Nicki remarks that the building looks closed. Arnold drives to the alley and incriminates himself even more by guessing what Margo's thinking: he killed Waring. Nicki makes a break for it, ignoring Arnold's pleas that he just wants to talk. She runs into Jonathan, who hides her from his cousin.

Nicki notices that the room they're hiding in is eerily similar to the room where Waring was killed. It dawns on her that Arnold isn't guilty... it's Jonathan! That's right -- Lady on a Train makes Ralph Bellamy a murderer and I love it. It would be way too easy to make Dan Duryea the killer, but sweet, bumbling Bellamy? And let me tell you, guy's got serious crazy eyes. He tells Nicki how he's going to kill her, frame Arnold, and then kill Arnold in "self-defense." Jonathan makes the classic villain mistake, though, by monologuing about his nefarious deeds, giving Arnold the opportunity to sneak into the room and wrestle his cousin for his gun. Apparently out on bail, Wayne has found his way to the room, but he hilariously misreads the situation, knocking Arnold over and giving the gun back to Jonathan. Wayne is pretty proud of himself until he realizes he's messed up. Luckily the police, who were following Wayne, arrive in time and all's well.

The film then ends as it began: on a train. Nicki is back to reading the latest Wayne Morgan novel, only this time she's married to the guy. He sits, patiently waiting for her to put the book down so they can, well, begin their honeymoon. It's a wonderful ending, as Wayne spills the beans on who the book's killer is in an effort to spoil it for Nicki. She's miffed until it dawns on her what her husband's motive is. She presses the call button for the porter to come make their beds and grins, with the final shot of the train a suggestive image that would make Hitchcock proud.

Although I wrote this for Halloween, Lady on a Train would make great viewing around Christmastime. Watching this in October was a bad decision for me -- I love Christmas, and I've been known to start preparing for it much too early. Seeing Deanna Durbin sing "Silent Night" and exchange gifts with Edward Everett Horton has gotten me all anxious to get out my tree and decorations. If you hate cheery, feel-good holiday movies, though, this film still works. Again: Ralph Bellamy murders people.

It's pretty exciting to see Dan Duryea play a good guy. The more I see him, the more I love him. I don't know what it is -- the guy just thrills me. Perhaps the biggest surprise for me, however, was David Bruce. Where did this guy come from?! I wasn't expecting much because I had always heard that Franchot Tone and Bob Cummings were Durbin's best leading men, and I had never come across Bruce before, but he was superb, almost Melvyn Douglas-like. He ended up being one of the film's many highlights. He and Durbin play off one another so well, it makes you forget that for most of the movie, they're not romantically linked at all. It's not love at first sight by any means -- until Nicki sings "Gimme a
Little Kiss," neither Wayne nor her realize that they have a spark. The murder mystery takes priority for them, allowing their romance to sneak up when they're not looking. There's never a big embrace or a passionate "I love you" -- they don't even kiss! Instead, the film deals in meaningful looks and minimal contact. When they wind up in jail cells side by side, Nicki asks Wayne to trade sandwiches; during the exchange, they end up holding hands as they talk. It feels authentic, although they're obviously in a Hollywood-ized universe.

 Although Nicki and Wayne are a fantastic part of Lady on a Train, it's clear that this picture belongs to Deanna Durbin. Every frame she's in, she draws the viewer to her -- clever, glamorous, charismatic, and just the right amount of sweetness, she justifies her popularity within minutes. Whether she's pretending like she's a chair to avoid detection at the Waring mansion or slinking around as she sings, Durbin is simply lovely. Universal made a very savvy move by snatching her up after MGM let her go; indeed, everyone agrees that Durbin kept the studio going all through her career.
Unfortunately for us, that career wasn't nearly as long as it could have been. It basically amounted to her being tired of Hollywood, telling producer Joe Pasternak "I can't run around being a Little Miss Fix-It who bursts into song, the highest-paid star with the poorest material." She would retire from public life in 1949 after Universal allowed her contract to expire. Interestingly enough, Durbin married Lady on a Train's producer, Felix Jackson, the same year the movie came out. They divorced in 1948, but then in 1950, she married the film's director, Charles David! They moved to France and were together until his death in 1999. Durbin still lived in France when she died in 2013.

While it wasn't popular with critics at the time because it wasn't a straight romantic comedy like Durbin's flicks usually were, Lady on a Train is fun from start to finish. It's like some genius put elements of films noir, comedies, mysteries, and musicals into a blender and this was the result. There are even flourishes of Citizen Kane seen in the giant Waring manor and the story of a Great Man's death. If you've never seen a Durbin film before, this is a really great place to begin.

I adore this Universal introduction.







In a bizarre tidbit, it turns out that Joyce is a society girl who gets featured in this movie newsreel, which oddly portrays her holding a smaller version of herself...? As if that wasn't enough, Joyce is also wearing the exact outfit that's on screen. Lots of weirdness.











Is this hat not insane?













With love,
Michaela

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This is my contribution to the Universal Blogathon, hosted by the fantastic Metzinger sisters. Check out the other ghouls and goblins here!

Comments

  1. The girl that saved the studio and entertained millions, retired on her own terms. Much as we would have enjoyed more, Deanna left a legacy to be proud of. "Lady on a Train" is a lot of fun and your enjoyment of it is infectious. Merry Christmas!

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    1. Merry Christmas to you, too! While a bigger Durbin filmography would be wonderful, you definitely can't fault her for wanting out. It's a shame she didn't even do interviews or a book in her retirement, but that's life.

      Thanks for reading!

      Delete
  2. I love how Deanna stepped away from her usual cutesy daughter/radio singer type roles and plopped herself into the role of an amateur detective. I wish Universal had made a follow up to this film, it really was one of her best. Thanks for contributing such a swell post on Universal's sweetheart. On a side note : Java's Journey reposted Durbin's last interview from 1983 which is very entertaining to read.

    http://javabeanrush.blogspot.com/2010/11/DeannaDurbinInterview.html

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. A follow-up would have been amazing! Just another film with Durbin and David Bruce would have been grand. I was excited to see they worked together in Can't Help Singing, but then I watched the film and Bruce isn't the male lead -- I don't think he even had ten minutes' worth of screen time. Thanks so much for the link! I read over and over that Durbin never gave an interview, so I'm glad to know that isn't totally true.

      Thanks again for hosting! I'm really loving your updating roster -- Count Dracula is doing a stellar job. :)

      Delete
  3. Oh, man a sequel would have been so good for David Bruce's career! But it was not to be.The movie has an interesting sex-role reversal, with Nikki (Durbin) the adventuring one and Bruce (Wayne) the supportive one. We love Lady on a Train today, but (usually male) critics of the day did not like it at all. They thought Durbin domineering, and often remarked she was getting "fat"! If you want to know more about David Bruce's career, join the club at https://waynemorganfan.wordpress.com.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good call on the role reversal! I didn't know that about the film's critics. I never look at the old reviews for many reasons, and this just kind of solidifies why I'm glad I don't. What really bums me out is that that bullshit still goes on today.

      Thanks for the heads-up! I will definitely check out your site!

      Delete
  4. Thank you for reminding me of this old Nancy Drewish favorite, which you've captured so well.:) And thanks too for volunteering for my blogathon (seems appropriate that one Hoosier help another too:)) I'm going to move it and change the topic since Fritzi at Movies Silently had the same idea for December, but will definitely bug you when mine is back in the works:) Leah

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sounds good! I had signed up for Fritzi's blogathon, but I figured I'd help you out with yours too -- it's certainly a good topic. Thanks for letting me know, and I can't wait to see what you come up with!

      Delete
  5. Loved your post! I am coming late to the Deana Durbin party and have only lately developed a real appreciation for her. So naturally, this is a must see for me. And I agree - I LOVE that sparkly Universal logo the best!

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    1. It took me far too long to see a Durbin film, but I'm happy I got around to it. If you're on the lookout for more Deanna, I've found two of her films on YouTube, It's a Date and Spring Parade -- the prints aren't the best, but they're cute movies.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      Delete
  6. I have to say I stopped reading midway because I don't want to be spoiled! But it sounds like a good film, I'll look for it. By the way, have you seen the short film Every Sunday, with both Durbin and Judy Garland? It's lovely!
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    Cheers!
    Le
    http://www.criticaretro.blogspot.com

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Totally understandable -- normally I wouldn't give out spoiler warnings, but I thought I probably should for this film. I hope you get to see it sometime! I have seen Every Sunday, but it's been quite awhile. I should probably revisit that soon.

      Thanks for reading, as always!

      Delete
  7. You know, I have not seen one film made by Deanna Durbin as an adult. This sounds like one to watch. Thanks!

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    Replies
    1. You're welcome! I've watched only one of Durbin's "child star" films (Three Smart Girls), and while she was still dynamite, I'm enjoying her more mature fare so much more. Not to sound like a broken record, but it does make you curious what Durbin's career would have been like in the 1950's -- after all, she had only made one film in color!

      Delete
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