April 22, 2011

Lady On A Train (1945): A Leslie Charteris Premise with a Lucille Ball Twist

Deanna Durbin’s film career can be divided into three overlapping eras: the adolescent years, from which comes the perky (and profitable) Durbin formula of youthful tenacity and pluck; the post-adolescence/struggle era, where the now-grownup star fights for mature material and sometimes wins; and the resignation years, when Universal’s movie veteran - weary over the struggle for challenging scripts - essentially gives in to whatever work is offered.

Lady On A Train comes near the end of the post-adolescence/struggle era. During this time, there is a definite schism within some of Ms. Durbin’s films, trying ever to balance maturity and childlike vivacity, drama and screwball. One of Ms. Durbin’s earlier works, It Started With Eve (1941), finds a near perfect balance in her relationship with Charles Laughton’s mentor-like character. Train, however, swerves wildly from one to the other.

Train follows Nicki Collins (Durbin), a San Francisco socialite, traveling by train to visit relatives in New York for the Christmas holidays, when she witnesses a murder occurring in a building while pulling into Grand Central Station. The police do not believe her, so Nicki decides to solve the murder alone. The amateur sleuth becomes involved with the victim’s family and ultimately becomes a target for murder herself.

It’s an interesting premise -an original story proffered by the author of the Simon Templar novels, Leslie Charteris- but the final product sometimes offers  the kind of zany misadventures that Lucy Ricardo might find herself in. Nicki retrieves the victim’s bloody slippers which leads her chaperon (Edward Everett Horton) to believe that the debutante has invited a man into her rooms. To put him off the scent, Nicki invents a supposed bromide about finding lucky shoes… and it works! So that she may take a performer's place onstage, Nicki tricks the singer into a (soon-to-be-locked) closet by tossing the lady’s flowers inside... and it works! And there’s a mystery writer (David Bruce) of whom Nicki seeks help, but manages to get them both into scrapes instead (there‘s even a running gag about his jealous fiancée).

It’s no wonder Train may seem like a sitcom at times since the two credited screenwriters- Edmund Beloin and Robert O'Brien - would later excel in writing scripts for movies and television shows featuring comedians Bob Hope and Lucille Ball. The silliness in parts of their Train script require a comic professional’s deft touch to be effective and a practiced vacuity that is at odds with Ms. Durbin’s desire to project worldliness.
David Bruce and Deanna Durbin

But it’s not all fun and games. Train’s cinematographer Elwood Bredell and director Charles David (later, Ms. Durbin‘s 3rd husband) give us truly frightening noir images of a would-be murderer chasing a terrified woman in a dark warehouse. Further, there is a strange, unexplored relationship between the victim’s nephew Jonathan Waring (Ralph Bellamy) and Aunt Charlotte (Elizabeth Patterson) who has been “more than an aunt.” The dark scenes and eccentricities are so far removed from the comedy, it’s as though two separate movies converged on the same reels of film.

Nicki may be child-like in the comic scenes, but she sobers up quickly for mature moments . As Pauline Kael puts it in 5001 Nights at the Movies,

“One minute she is just a little girl in pigtails lost in a great big raincoat, and the next minute she is a many-curved siren crooning ‘Give Me a Little Kiss, Will You, Huh?’ ….”
 Ms. Durbin’s maturity and sensuality are so pronounced in this film - with tight-fitting skirts and come-hither stares - one wonders whether the “Daddy,” to whom she coos over the phone, is actually her father or some guy with whom she has a secretly-arranged relationship.

By this time, film noir and crime dramas were in full swing; Basil Rathbone had already donned his famous deerstalker and embodied one of the world’s most famous sleuths; William Powell and Myrna Loy had cornered the market on sophisticated, witty American murder mystery teams; and Alfred Hitchcock had made innocuous train compartments the stuff of bad dreams. Though it has stiff competition, Train works as a murder mystery; you’re not exactly sure “whodunit” until the end. What doesn’t work are the disconnected episodes of comedy and drama in Train, which -though enjoyable in and of themselves- are like oil and water; each needs its own separate vehicle.

Novelist  Leslie Charteris, in part, provides a separate vehicle for the tragedy in the plot. After coming up with the original story for the film, Charteris fleshed out his own dramatic version of the premise which was published as novel of the same title in the same year as the film’s release (and features Ms. Durbin‘s likeness on the cover). Charteris notes with humor in the introduction of the book that he is inaugurating a new order of business in Hollywood by writing the book after the movie script is finished.

The author adds that if anybody wants to complain about there being no connection between the movie and the novel,
"...he will have to squawk about the book being changed from the picture instead of the picture being changed from the book. This for a change will leave the motion picture industry looking rather pure and angelic, while Charteris can be called the vandal and the heel.

Now while I am awaiting the presentation of a small gilded lily awarded by the Motion Picture Academy for this distinguished service I am privileged to whisper in your ear that wherever this book is different from the picture it is because I think that this is definitely an improvement.”

Though there is humor, the author’s frustration with the changes to his story is prominently displayed.

Train was a popular film, which, although garnering mixed reviews with the critics, was nominated for the 1946 Academy Award for Best Sound, Recording. It lost out to The Bells of St. Mary, which scooped up numerous nominations and wins that year. Perhaps it helped that Bells - also a Christmas film - was released near the actual holiday, whereas the Durbin film -featuring a lovely rendition of “Silent Night” - was released in the sweltering dog days of August. Even in the release date you get the feeling there was plenty of compromise somewhere in this micro-managed movie.

It’s a fun film, but expect jarring mood swings.

  • Felix Jackson is the credited producer. Jackson was married to Ms. Durbin two months prior to the release of Lady On A Train.
  • Early production charts list Frank Shaw as the producer, according to American Film Institute Catalog of Motion Pictures, even though many others sources credit Felix Jackson in that position. Shaw would be credited as associate producer for other Durbin features including Can’t Help Singing (1944). 
  • Songs: “Give Me A Little Kiss,” music and lyrics by Roy Turk, Jack Smith and Maceo Pinkard; “Night and Day,” music and lyrics by Cole Porter; “Silent Night, Holy Night,” music by Franz Gruber, lyrics by Joseph Mohr, English lyrics, anonymous.


  1. This is actually my FAVORITE Deanna movie! It has everything I'm looking for - murder, suspense, music, trains, comedy, great costumes, some of Hollywood's best character actors and Deanna Durbin. I always thought the relationship between Jonathon and his aunt was gross and hilarious. My grandfather's favorite star was Ms. Durbin and I inherited that from him. Thanks for a cool blog!

  2. I'm surprised Universal was so reluctant to let Deanna play truly adult roles after her scorching rendition of "Gimme a Little Kiss." It's such a shame that her true range as an actress was subsumed by her marvelous vocal ability. She only ever fully developed her singing, and never had the chance to become either the dramatic or comedic actress she might also have been.

    Great blog! Thank you.

  3. Great review. I'm with wacky tacky - this is my favorite out of all her films, too. Love all the photos in this post.

  4. deanna u r the bestApril 22, 2013 at 1:37 PM

    i am amazed at how many things i learned here being a fanatical lover of all things deanna! thank you!