Halloween is just around the corner, which means it’s time to pull out all of my favorite spooky films. Being a scaredy cat, though, means that my definition of “spooky” is probably vastly different than most people’s. When it comes to Halloween, I turn to film noir, Universal horror classics, Tim Burton, and horror comedies like The Ghost Breakers. One of my most loved films for this holiday is Lady on a Train, a 1945 genre hybrid starring Deanna Durbin.
This probably seems like a weird choice, especially if you know who Durbin was. An operatic songstress with a sweet disposition, Durbin practically kept Universal Studios afloat for the entirety of her brief, stellar career. Breezy musicals were her specialty as they spotlighted her vivacious, feisty, and playful persona perfectly. Durbin could also excel at more dramatic fare, though, and Lady on a Train may be the best mixture of the woman’s talents.
With elements of romantic comedy, musicals, and film noir, this film should feel schizophrenic rather than the extreme fun that it is. When Nicki Collins (Durbin) happens to see a murder outside of her train window, her amateur detective skills go into overdrive as she sets out to solve the case. Making things more complicated for her is the fact that everyone believes the victim, tycoon Joseah Waring, died by accident. To help Nicki, she enlists her favorite mystery author, Wayne Morgan (a brilliant David Bruce) — or rather she persistently bugs Wayne until he finds himself caught up in Nicki’s sleuthing.
Supporting Nicki and Wayne is a dazzling cast. Bumbling Edward Everett Horton is the employee of Nicki’s rich father and the man who tries to keep an eye on her, but winds up with a black eye himself. Allen Jenkins is the sketchy chauffeur of Waring, while George Coulouris is Waring’s creepy personal secretary. Delightfully, Ralph Bellamy and Dan Duryea play the victim’s nephews, tapping into their respective “good guy” and “bad guy” personas to deliver the film’s climactic twist.
Aside from the murder mystery and suspicious characters, Lady on a Train‘s film noir DNA really shows in the gorgeous cinematography by Woody Bredell. The way he plays with light and shadow is striking and effectively adds to the plot’s tension, particularly in scenes where our protagonists are in danger.
Adding to the atmosphere is the score by Miklós Rózsa, as well as the direction by Charles David. Fun fact: Durbin married Lady on a Train‘s producer, Felix Jackson, the same year the movie came out. They divorced in 1948, but then in 1950, she married Charles David! They moved to France and were together until his death in 1999.
If you’re like me, one of the best things about Halloween is that it signals the start of Christmas preparations. (Yes, I’m one of those people.) Lady on a Train is great because it’s ghoulish enough to qualify for Halloween, but it actually takes place around Christmas, so it’s the perfect movie to help you get in the mindset for buying presents, decorating the house, and baking all sorts of holiday treats. The film even works in a fantastic scene where Durbin sings “Silent Night” to her father over the telephone.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for me when I first saw this film was David Bruce. Where did this guy come from?! I thought. In my book, Franchot Tone and Bob Cummings were Durbin’s best leading men, but Bruce definitely gives them a run for their money here as the hilarious and exasperated writer. He and Durbin play off one another so well, with their witty banter and amusing antics highlighting their sparkling chemistry.
That being said, it’s clear that this picture belongs to Deanna Durbin. Every frame she’s in, she draws the viewer to her. Clever, glamorous, charismatic, and just the right amount of sweetness, she justifies her popularity within minutes. Whether she’s pretending like she’s a chair to avoid detection at the Waring mansion or slinking around as she sings, Durbin is simply lovely. If you’ve never seen one of her films before, this is a really great place to begin.
Michaela Owens is thrilled to be the editor of A Place for Film. An IU graduate with a BA in Communication and Culture, Michaela has also been a volunteer usher at IU Cinema since 2016. She never stops thinking about classic Hollywood, thanks to her mother’s introduction to it, and she likes to believe she is an expert on Katharine Hepburn.