Christmas-tery: Deanna Durbin in LADY ON A TRAIN (Universal 1945)

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!

Merry Christmas from Deanna Durbin!

Small But Powerful: HITLER’S MADMAN (MGM 1943)

Culver City’s MGM “dream factory” and Gower Gulch’s PRC were miles apart both literally and figuratively.  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer boasted “more stars than there are in heaven”, while tiny Producer’s Releasing Corporation films starred faded names like Neil Hamilton, Harry Langdon, Bela Lugosi , and Anna May Wong. MGM films featured lavish, opulent sets; PRC’s cardboard walls looked like they would fall over if an actor sneezed. Poverty Row PRC movies were dark and grainy; MGM created glossy, gorgeous Technicolor productions. MGM specialized in big budget extravaganzas, whereas PRC rarely spent more than $1.98. Miles apart – so why did major studio MGM purchase and release a movie originally made for minor PRC, HITLER’S MADMAN?

For one thing, it’s a damn good film, and an important one as well. Based on the true-life atrocity of the destruction of Lidice, Czechoslovakia on June 10, 1942 after the assassination of Nazi Reichsprotektor Reinhardt Heydrich, known as “The Hangman of Prague”, HITLER’S MADMAN was produced with loving care by German exile Seymour Nebenzal, the influential producer of Fritz Lang’s M (1931) and THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE (1933). Nebenzal was working as an independent producer for PRC at the time, and for one of their films it certainly has a big-budget look and feel; for MGM however, it looks made for the bottom half of a double feature.

Another German ex-pat made his directing debut with HITLER’S MADMAN: Douglas Sirk, later widely praised for his Technicolor 50’s melodramas like MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION, ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS, WRITTEN ON THE WIND, and IMITATION OF LIFE. Sirk’s style here is more film noir than 50’s kitsch, thanks in great part to DP Jack Greenhalgh… or is it? Another German refugee, Eugen Schufftan , is credited as “Technical Adviser”. Schufftan was one of Germany’s greatest cinematographers, working with all the legends of cinema in his native land. He was DP on Lang’s METROPOLIS and Gance’s NAPOLEON, and shot films for European giants like Pabst, Ophuls, Siodmak, and Zinnemann. But his U.S. status at the time was such that he couldn’t join the cinematographer’s union, so no DP credit allowed. The same thing happened on Edgar G. Ulmer’s BLUEBEARD (1944); Jockey Feindel got the screen credit, while Schufftan is listed as “Production Design”. Schufftan would later be unionized, and received an Oscar for 1962’s THE HUSTLER.

The screenplay by Peretz Hirschbein, Melvin Levy, and Doris Malloy (with an uncredited assist from Ulmer) is based somewhat on Edna St. Vincent Millay’s famous poem “The Murder of Lidice”. This fictionalized account tells of Karel Vavra, one of six parachuted into Czechoslovakia by the RAF to stir up support for the underground movement, bringing a message of hope and resistance to the downtrodden people. Karel is reunited with his lover Jarmilla Hanka , whose father Jan is wary of resistance, preaching patience and pacifism. When rabble-rouser Bartonek is arrested under the charge of “sabotage” on Heydrich’s orders, Jan goes with the man’s wife to plead with the Nazi Mayor Bauer. Their pleas fall on deaf ears; Bartonek returns home in a pine box.

Heydrich’s car, travelling on official business, is slowed down at Lidice because of a religious festival being held in the town. Angered by this foolishness, the Nazi gets out and begins to scold the villagers. Father Cemlanik turns the other cheek, only to receive a slap from Heydrich. His faith is tested as Heydrich tries to provoke him, and when the Reichsprotektor uses a sacred cloth to wipe the dust off his boots, Cemlanik can stand no more. Charging at Heydrich, the priest is shot dead in the street. Jan does an about-face and pledges to kill Heydrich, with aid from Karel and Jarmilla. They ambush his auto on his return, mortally wounding “The Hangman”. SS Leader Himmler places the call to Hitler himself as Heydrich dies. Der Fuhrer gives him a grim order: Lidice is to be “razed to the ground, her name to be eradicated from every signpost… all male inhabitants over 16 years of age will be shot, all women interred in concentration camps, all children taken from their mothers and placed in correctional institutions”.

Let’s take a moment to praise John Carradine’s performance as Reinhardt Heydrich. Unlike his hammy “mad doctor” roles, Carradine gives a restrained portrayal of pure evil. Carradine has ice water running through his veins, visiting a university teaching intellectualism (“Intellect is poison”, he tells them matter-of-factly), then rounding up the female students to “entertain” the brave German soldiers at the Russian Front, making him little more than a lowly pimp. He shows no remorse when one of the girls, rather than be enslaved, jumps out a window to her death. Even on his deathbed, Heydrich is evil until the end: “I should have killed all of them, not 30 a day, 300… 3,000”. John Carradine is absolutely chilling as Reinholdt Heydrich, scarier here than in any of his horror roles, and the performance is on a par with his work in John Ford’s STAGECOACH and THE GRAPES OF WRATH.

The rest of the cast amounts to what would’ve been an all-star movie by PRC standards. Universal leading man Alan Curtis (, BUCK PRIVATES,   PHANTOM LADY ) plays Karel, while former Paramount starlet Patricia Morison (who’s still alive as of this writing at age 102!) is Jarmilla. Her father Jan is Ralph Morgan, a PRC regular whose brother Frank (THE WIZARD OF OZ), worked for MGM. A round of applause goes out to comic actor Edgar Kennedy  in a rare dramatic role as Nepomuk, a hermit who lives in the woods. We’re never sure whose side Nepomuk’s on until the ambush on Heydrich when he aids the rebels. He also leads the men of Lidice in singing the Czech National Anthem as they’re lined up to be killed in a stirring scene, certainly Kennedy’s finest screen hour.

Ludwig Stossel is the Nazi Mayor Bauer, efficient and loyal to the party. He’s proud of his two sons – and gets word they’ve both been killed at the Russian Front. His wife Magda (Johanna Hofer) goes to pray at the village church shortly after Father Cemlanik is murdered, and meets Jan there. The scene reminded me of THE FIGHTING SULLIVANS , told from the German point of view. Cemlanik himself is played by Al Shean, formerly of the vaudeville duo Gallagher & Shean (and uncle of the The Marx Brothers! ). Others in the fine supporting cast are Howard Freeman (Himmler), Ava Gardner   (uncredited as one of the university students), Frank Hagney, Victor Killian, Vicky Lane, Michael Mark, Tully Marshall, Elizabeth Russell (heartbreaking as Mrs. Bartonek), Peter van Eyck, Blanche Yurka (Mrs. Hanka), and I’d swear I recognized Leon Askin (Gen. Burkhalter of HOGAN’S HEROES) as a Nazi, but he’s not listed on IMDb. Do any sharp-eyed readers know if it’s him?

This shocking, well-made film would’ve probably fallen into obscurity like many PRC movies if not for MGM. As it stands, Fritz Lang’s HANGMEN MUST DIE, released in March of ’43, is the better known film version of the story of Lidice. HITLER’S MADMAN was released five months later, and though it’s definitely low-budget, it’s a polished little gem, thanks in large part to the efforts of Nebenzal, Sirk, Schufftan, and John Carradine. The story of Lidice is not to be forgotten, a tragedy of human suffering and human evil, and I urge you Dear Readers to watch it as soon as possible.

A MEMORIAL TO THE MURDERED CHILDREN OF LIDICE STILL STANDS TODAY. NEVER FORGET.  

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