Classic Film Review: “The Lady Vanishes (1938),” Hitchcock films a farce

The director later known as “The Master of Suspense” never lost his sense of humor. But it rather curdled into something dry and droll by the time he filmed “The Trouble With Harry” and his last “action comedy,” “North by Northwest.”

Just before he wound up the British portion of his filmmaking career and was lured to Hollywood by Selznick and good ol’greenback dollars, Alfred Hitchcock pulled out all the stops for the closest he ever got to a knockabout door-slamming farce.

“The Lady Vanishes” is packed with one-liners, stuffed with insufferable Brits Abroad (and those damned “foreigners” they so loathe) and almost frantic in its dive into amusing, implausible situations.

Soundstage-bound, with models and beautifully-rendered painted Alpine backdrops, it gives you the sense that this is about as far as a master-in-the-making could go in the malnourished British cinema, and that he knew it. And that knowing it, dammit-to-heck, he was going to have some fun with it before flying the coop for La La Land.

The first act is genuine farce, a bunch of avalanche-stranded travelers are packed into a snowed-in pan-European hotel in Mandrika, some sort of Austro-Italo-Swiss winter wonderland that to British snobs is just another “third rate country…Fortunately, I’m used to squalor.”

There’s the English “playgirl” (Margaret Lockwood) bound for home to be married because “I’ve been everywhere, seen everything” and done all there is to do — save marriage.

The fussbudget traveling companions (Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford) fret over the lack of “news” from home, “England on the brink” and all. What they mean is, of course, the “cricket test” in Manchester. Let’s just say their relationship isn’t explained, and they use the word “queer” in its traditional sense often enough for modern audiences to chuckle and notice.

There’s a tetchy, married (not-to-each-other) couple on some sort of Grand Tour fling, and this “complete cad,” a snide musicologist (Michael Redgrave as a “blue-blooded chick chaser,” never funnier) who gets under the skin of playgirl Iris.

Then the snow is cleared, they all pile onto a train, including a new friend Iris has made, an elderly English expat (May Whitty) who becomes Iris’s on-train confidante. Until, that is, “The Lady Vanishes.”

Iris asks about her and no one seems to remember Miss Froy ever being aboard. As we’ve seen Iris has had a window-ledge houseplant dropped on her, maybe she’s imagining it.

“If you must know, something fell on my head!”

“When, in infancy?”

And that’s rather the way of things from here on out, Iris and a first-reluctant bounder Gilbert (Redgrave) questioning, finding clues and wondering just what the heck happened to Miss Froy, with other passengers either oblivious or sinister in their reasons for not saying she was ever there.

Paul Lukas, later famous for “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” plays the exotically-accented brain specialist who offers opinions and endures jokes, uniformed Mandrikans intervene, pistols are drawn, discharged and never really reloaded.

It’s all a lark and all good, clean (ish) fun, sort of a British take on the “screwball” farces common in Hollywood in the ’30s, with Hitchcockian mystery and villainy.

The director’s cameo comes very late, FYI, the moment our cast arrives back in Blighty.

But if you only know “The Master” for “Vertigo” and “a boy’s best friend is his mother,” this “Lady” is a corker, still hilarious after all these years.

MPA Rating: unrated, “approved”

Cast: Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave, Paul Lukas, May Whitty, Linden Travers, Naunton Wayne, Emile Boreo, Mary Clare and Basil Radford.

Credits: Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, script by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, based on a short story by Ethel Lina White. An MGM release.

Running time: 1:35

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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