Saturday, June 1, 2024

#2,958. Lady on a Train (1945) - Films of the 1940s


On her way to New York to visit relatives for Christmas, San Francisco socialite Nicki Collins (Deanna Durbin) peers out the window of her train car and witnesses a murder.

Sounds like the perfect set-up for a film noir, doesn’t it? Only 1945’s Lady on a Train, directed by Charles David, is, first and foremost, a comedy.

And it’s a damn good one!

As soon as Nicki arrives at Grand Central Station, she dodges Mr. Haskell (Edward Everett Horton), the courier sent by her father to meet her, and rushes to the nearest police station to report the murder. But the police don’t believe her story, so she turns to her favorite mystery writer, Wayne Morgan (David Bruce), in the hopes he will be willing to help solve this case.

Morgan, unfortunately, is even less interested that the police, but when Nicki follows Morgan and his fiancé to the movie theater, she catches a newsreel announcing the “accidental death” of wealthy shipping magnate Josiah Waring (Thurston Hall).

Recognizing him as the man she saw killed, Nicki sets off to look for clues at Waring’s vast estate. Only she arrives just as his will is being read, and is mistaken for Margo Martin, a night club dancer and the deceased Mr. Waring’s young fiancé!

Thus begins a series of misadventures that will see Nicki being romanced by both Jonathan (Ralph Bellamy) and Arnold (Dan Duryea), two of the late Waring’s disinherited nephews; and on the run from Mr. Saunders (George Coulouris), the night club manager who is desperate to retrieve a pair of bloody slippers that Nicki uncovered at the estate.

With a story that would be right at home in a crime / thriller, Lady on a Train, with its sharp dialogue and funny situations, is instead a comedy with a decidedly screwball flare. The opening scene on the train, where Nicki is talking in circles, trying to find out from the conductor the name of the town that the train just passed, is hilarious, as are Nicki’s first interaction with Horton’s Mr. Haskell and her attempt to report the murder to a cop manning the front desk (played by I Love Lucy’s William Frawley). These scenes get Lady on a Train off to a very strong start, and the movie loses very little of its steam from there on out (it’s only during a trio of musical numbers that things slow down a little).

Though not as well-known today, there was a time in the late 1930s and early ‘40s when Deanna Durbin was box-office gold. Signed as a teenager by Universal, Durbin headlined a number of musicals, all of which turned a profit. She has even been credited her with saving the studio from bankruptcy!

But Durbin was anxious to explore more challenging parts, and, after a brief suspension by Universal for refusing a role, she was permitted her choice of director and project. Lady on a Train was one of the first two she selected, and though it was not a success financially, the movie proved, without a doubt, that Deanna Durbin was more than a pretty face with a golden voice.

Durbin has moments in this film where her comedic timing matches that of Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (especially in her scenes with Edward Everett Horton and David Bruce), and it’s a shame she didn’t make more movies like Lady on a Train.

With the studio and her fan base demanding she return to her musical roots, a frustrated Durbin appeared in only a handful of films between 1946 and 1948 before announcing her retirement in 1949. And to see her in Lady on a Train is to realize what might have been had she been allowed a bit more freedom.
Rating: 9 out of 10

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