Deanna Durbin was the best Christmas present Universal Studios ever received. The 15-year-old singing sensation made her feature debut in 1936’s THREE SMART GIRLS, released five days before Christmas. The smash hit helped save cash-strapped Universal from bankruptcy, and Miss Durbin signed a long-term contract, appearing in a string of musical successes: ONE HUNDRED MEN AND A GIRL, THAT CERTAIN AGE, SPRING PARADE, NICE GIRL?, IT STARTED WITH EVE. One of her best is the Christmas themed comedy/murder mystery LADY ON A TRAIN, one of only two films directed by Charles David, who married the star in 1950, the couple then retiring to his native France.
Our story begins with young Nikki Collins travelling by train from San Francisco to New York City to visit her Aunt Martha, reading a murder mystery to pass the time. Nikki witnesses a real-life murder committed through a window, and after ditching her wealthy father’s assistant Haskell (“of the New York office”), goes to the police, who laugh her off, thinking the crime novel’s gone to her brain. So Nikki seeks help from the mystery writer himself, Wayne Morgan, who wants nothing to do with this ditzy dame (and neither does his society gal, Joyce Williams). Nikki learns at a newsreel screening the man was shipping magnate Josiah Waring, whose body was moved from the scene of the crime to his Long Island estate to make his death look like he fell off a stepladder while decorating his Christmas tree.
The plucky girl heads to Long Island, and is mistaken for Waring’s “fiancé”, nightclub singer Margot Martin, by the deceased’s irresponsible nephew, Arnold Waring. She’s arrived just in time for the reading of the will, in which Arnold and his more sedate brother Jonathan receive a grand total of a dollar each, while the bulk of the estate goes to Margot. Nikki keeps up the charade, and finds a pair of bloody slippers stashed in Waring’s room. The trail leads to the Circus Club, where Nikki meets the real Margot, and she and Wayne get arrested for the murder of the club’s manager. Nikki’s bailed out, not by Haskell, but Arnold, and the entertaining comedy-mystery winds up with a suspenseful conclusion that’ll keep you guessing whodunnit right until the end.
Deanna’s a delight in a film that juggles elements of screwball comedy, musical segments, film noir, and straight mystery, never once dropping any of the balls. Deanna was one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood at the time (second only to Bette Davis), and the studio lavished attention on their star, with numerous costume and hairstyle changes throughout the film. Of course, her beautiful soprano voice is on display, and she sings “Give Me a Little Kiss”, Cole Porter’s “Night and Day”, and the Christmas perennial “Silent Night”, sweetly serenading her dad in San Francisco over the phone on Christmas Eve:
The supporting cast is a real Christmas present for Familiar Face spotters: there’s Ralph Bellamy as Jonathan Waring, Dan Duryea as his wastrel brother Arnold, the underrated and underutilized David Bruce (THE MAD GHOUL) as Wayne, the late Patricia Morison as Joyce, Edward Everett Horton as the flustered Haskell, Allen Jenkins and George Coulouris as a pair of henchmen, Samuel S. Hinds as the family lawyer, plus Jane Adams , Bobby Barber, Barbara Bates, Ben Carter (Mantan Moreland’s longtime vaudeville partner), Chester Clute, Joseph Crehan, Jaqueline deWit (as nasty Aunt Charlotte Waring), Tom Dugan, William Frawley , Thurston Hall (the unfortunate victim), a pre-stardom Lash LaRue, George Lloyd, Sam McDaniel (the friendly train porter), Matt McHugh, Maria Palmer (the real Margot), Addison Richards, and Bert Roach, among many others.
LADY ON A TRAIN’s screenplay was written by Edward Beloin and Robert O’Brien, based on a story by Leslie Charteris, who knew a thing or two about mysteries – he was the creator of Simon Templar, aka The Saint! DP Woody Bredell adds some shadowy shots reminiscent of his work on Universal’s horror and noir flicks that enhance the film’s overall atmosphere, and Bernard B. Brown (who once contributed sound effects for Warner’s early Merrie Melodies cartoons) garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Sound. Every Christmas season, I try to find holiday-themed films a little off the beaten track, and LADY ON A TRAIN is a real gem. Add it to your Christmas watch list!