Lady on a Train (1945) is the first in our Deanna Durbin Christmas movie twin-pack (come back next week), but though it has a noir title and features a murder mystery, it is decidedly not a noir movie, unlike Christmas Holiday of the previous year, which did not have a noir title but was noir as heck.
Just to throw us another curveball, Deanna’s a blonde in this one. How do they expect us to keep up?
This post is part of the countdown to Christmas coinciding with the launch of my newest book, Christmas in Classic Films.
Keeping up with Miss Durbin is a challenge for everyone in this movie, as she breezes through the screwball scenarios like the madcap heiress she is, and has a bit of comic relief to help her: the wonderfully befuddled Edward Everett Horton as the head of her father’s New York business office, “Haskell of the New York Office” as he proudly identifies himself. When Deanna arrives from California to spend Christmas with her aunt, whom we never see, Mr. Horton is charged with taking charge of her. Fat chance.
The action charges off the blocks from the beginning: on a train pulling into Grand Central, Miss Durbin glances up from the mystery novel she is reading to see a murder committed in the window of one of the brick buildings that border the railroad line into the city. When our old pal William Frawley, who plays the desk sergeant, gingerly decorating a tiny Christmas tree at the local station house, refuses to believe her, she tries to enlist the help of the writer of the mystery story she had been reading. He is played by David Bruce, who had a minor role in Christmas Holiday.
Mr. Bruce is a little wacky himself, a self-absorbed, constantly distracted writer with a glib and perennially unimpressed secretary played by Jacqueline deWitt, and a jealous society dame fiancée played by Patricia Morison.
Following him to a newsreel theater (yes, there were such things), the pesky Miss Durbin suddenly discovers the identity of the man who was murdered—a wealthy scion who lived in seclusion on Long Island and is reported to have died by falling off a stepladder while decorating his Christmas tree. (I know this isn’t a noir, but have you ever heard of anything so un-Christmas-y?) Deanna knows this isn’t so; his body must have been dragged back to his mansion. She is more determined than ever to follow the mystery, whether she gets anyone to help her or not.
Playing Nancy Drew, she sneaks out to the mansion, arriving in time for the reading of the will. Elizabeth Patterson is the old auntie, the disapproving and controlling family matriarch. The family mistakes Deanna for a nightclub singer whom the rascally old man was dating, and are worried she’s there for her piece of the pie. All are surprised that the nightclub singer has inherited everything.
Wonderfully goofy/smarmy Dan Duryea is one nephew and stalwart Ralph Bellamy is his brother. There is sneaking around the house to explore for clues, a clever sight gag where she pretends to be a covered-up chair to escape groundskeeper Allen Jenkins, who is truly sinister in this movie. She finds the old man’s slippers with blood on them, knowing he was killed wearing them. A clue! Proof she can show to the police! She steals the slippers, but sinister George Coulouris, a nightclub owner who has caught on to her, sends Mr. Jenkins after her to get back those slippers. Mr. Coulouris constantly carries around a limp white cat which he continually pets. It doesn’t seem like an affectionate act; more like a nervous habit.
Wait a minute, time for a spot of Christmas. There is a large tree in Miss Durbin’s hotel suite (a tree in everyone’s suite, apartment, mansion, office, etc.), and she sings “Silent Night” over the telephone to her father in California, a leisurely loving version while she is lying on her bed. In the other room, Allen Jenkins is waiting to kill her for the slippers.
The movie is really a lot of fun, and it is stunning that the fast-paced screwball aspect of the plot is balanced by a very suspenseful mystery. Danger lurks at every turn, and the tension ratchets up in odd moments. We get a big laugh at a clever line, and then a bit of a fright.
Deanna gets trapped into pretending she’s actually the nightclub singer she said she was at the theme nightclub “The Circus.” There is a clever bit with a two-way mirror which Durbin will later have to smash to escape. Caught into performing when Dan Duryea shows up, along with the rest of his dour family, as well as the hapless befuddled writer and his snooty fiancée, Durbin sings, “Give Me a Little Kiss” in a low, sultry manner. She teases and flirts with male customers, including the writer, boldly infuriating Patricia Morison. Deanna almost accidently starts to fall for the writer, and he is stunned to find himself captivated by her. David Bruce is very likeable in the role and after a while, becomes her partner and protector in the search for the murderer, and he actually seems to be a pretty good detective, for a mystery writer. He certainly gets beat up enough to be a real detective.
On Christmas Eve, among the nightclub hijinks there is a keepaway game with the slippers and the fast-moving plot stops long enough again for Deanna to sing “Night and Day,” this time in her upper register, unleashing a bit of her operatic chops. Beautiful camera work lovingly follows her, and when she locks eyes with David Bruce, we know she is seducing him. It’s not teasing now, she really wants this man.
Because her singing in this movie is at realistic moments, i.e., in a nightclub or to her father as a Christmas greeting over the phone, the film doesn’t have that launching-into-song-for-no-reason feeling of a musical.
We end up in the writer’s apartment, where Deanna is hiding out from the bad guys chasing her. She is in his bed wearing his jammies, while he’s on the couch. When Miss Durbin wakes, she fondly gazes at the snoring Mr. Bruce and asks his secretary, “Does he always snore like that?”
The secretary, deadpan, responds, “I am his secretary.”
The ever-capable secretary serenely and with no end of humor attempts to cover for them when Haskell of the New York Office shows up. She puts his robe over her clothes and says “Good morning, darling.”
That secretary’s a good egg.
It’s Christmas Day and after another melee, they end up in jail, but Dan Duryea bails her out. Hmm, not sure that’s a good idea. Is she safe with him? Mr. Bellamy comes to bail her out, too. She sees a newsboy with the headlines showing the real nightclub singer was murdered.
Somebody in the old man’s family doesn’t want to share the inheritance.
Duryea takes Durbin to the company warehouse—where the old man was murdered. It occurs to her that he killed him. Luckily, Ralph Bellamy shows up and they fight. Very cleverly, we are taken into the room where the murder was committed, the suspense builds and the screwball comedy is frittered away like a dying laugh. A light shines from a suddenly passing train.
Deanna is in danger. One of the brothers is the murderer, and she is trapped. David Bruce finally shows up, almost bungles things, but luckily, has brought the police with him.
Cut to another train compartment, with Deanna reading another beloved mystery book, but this time, the writer is sitting across from her, in his jammies, wishing she would finish. The soundtrack bleeding away from the rhythmic thunder of train wheels to a few cords of “The Wedding March” tells us they are married and on their honeymoon. Impatient, he blurts out the name of the murderer to her, spoiling the story. Her annoyance fades as the penny drops, and she rings for the porter to make up their berth.
Lady on a Train is not the acting challenge for Deanna Durbin that Christmas Holiday was the year before (which we're going to have a look at next week), but she gets to show that she was brilliant in comedy. She clearly had a sense of the absurd. A strikingly beautiful young woman, with certainly a lovely singing voice, Durbin could have rested on those laurels alone, but fortunately for us, she, or someone at the studio, was willing to attempt more.
Christmastime was the setting of the story, but Christmas was not necessary to the telling of the story, which in turn, had no message of yuletide sentiment. It was released in August 1945, so even cashing in as a Christmastime movie was not the point. Beyond just about every room having a tree, we might not even remember it is Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Deanna Durbin doesn’t seem to recall it either; Haskell of the New York Office does her shopping for her.
Come back next week for another tale with Deanna Durbin in Christmas Holiday (1944)! It's a film noir Christmas.
Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Movies in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century and Hollywood Fights Fascism. Her latest book is Christmas in Classic Films. TO JOIN HER READERS' GROUP - follow this link for a free book as a thank-you for joining.