The Lady Vanishes
Movies in the Mountains
Now You See Her, Now You Don’t
Now You See Her, Now You Don’t
Nearly 80 years after it was first released, The Lady Vanishes still thrills us—and amuses us. The writing is witty, the photography is deft, the entire cast is at the top of their game, as is their director—Alfred Hitchcock. The then young Hitchcock had the support of Michael Balcon, perhaps the most creative producer and studio head in Britain during the first half of the twentieth century.
Britain had sacrificed much young talent in the Great War. During the European post-war depression of the 1920s, sclerotic leadership within both government and private industry was blind to the radical changes in markets and ignoring the need for technological investment–especially in nascent industries, and neglecting the general welfare of much of its citizenry, especially in the north country.
One micro economic result was the smothering of the under-financed, noncompetitive British film industry. Inferior film stock and machinery (true, later, also of its early sound technology) stunted and stalled what was possible to achieve on film from the 1920s into the mid-1930s. Result: British audiences favored Hollywood films and Hollywood stars.
Further, British screenwriters and directors fell into another trap, reverently filming static recreations of stage plays instead of using film to fluidly tell stories. [The most competent and imaginative work in 1930’s British film studios were John Grierson’s documentaries. They held their own against those of any other nation because the Grierson team eschewed propaganda for archival journalism.]
Michael Balcon, too, had a mission: To build a profitable and distinctly English film industry and increase the technical capability and worldwide competiveness of British films. He pursued and achieved his goals by nurturing a young generation of skilled filmmakers, first at Gainsborough Pictures, then Gaumont-British and, most fully, as head of Ealing Studios 1938–1959.
One of Balcon’s finds was Alfred Hitchcock, (1899–1980), and no director became better known or as well liked by the public as he.
Hitchcock understood early on that his success would be forged from an amalgam of skill, quirky geniality, publicity and discipline. He directed about seventy feature films in all (including ten silents) in the UK and USA, of which fully a quarter of them were showered with awards and still appear on most lists of all time classic films.
Hitch understood when and how to seize opportunity. The proof was the seven-year run of a half-hour television drama series titled Alfred Hitchcock Presents and three more years of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Testimony to his canny long-sightedness.
As was true with many of the cleverest movie directors, Hitch worked his way up the creative and technical ladder from props to art director, set designer, production manager, scriptwriter, assistant producer and film editor. That breadth of experience prompted Michael Balcon, to engage Hitch to help design, write and produce then direct at Gainsborough. That studio was awhere Alfred met Alma Reville (1899–1980), script-girl and film cutter, who became Hitch’s wife, assistant director and film editor of the first feature to which Balcon assigned them. It was with the encouragement and guidance of his boss Balcon that Hitchcock created The 39 Steps in 1935) and Sabotage and Secret Agent in 1936. The critical and box office success in 1938 of The Lady Vanishes (1938) earned Hitchcock a ticket to Hollywood. He left England just before Nazi bombers began to rubbish the British film studios along with other industry, much of London and its people. Michael Balcon never forgave him.
Alma Reville was Hitch’s unsung and unsung collaborator. She advised him on everything from projects to casting and helped direct and cut his films.
Two movies were made recently about the relationship between Alma and Alfred. One portrays Alma as used; the other as complicit.
Hitchcock adapted to Hollywood filmmaking quite easily; in turn, he influenced it. Some fans prefer his American films for their big-budget production values; others find his English films more interesting and original and not as slick.
The Lady Vanishes was Michael Redgrave’s first movie, yet he smoothly adapted his stagecraft to the sound stage. Though boyishly handsome, his best portrayals were of troubled men, and few of his films were more than mortgage and tuition payers. Like other classical actors of his generation (Gielgud, Richardson and Olivier), Michael Redgrave (1908–1985) won his highest marks on stage. Today Redgrave is better remembered as the father of daughters Vanessa and Lynn and son Corin, with his wife and actor Rachel Kempson.
Top-billed Margaret Lockwood was a lovely and capable actor—popular for more than a decade, but lacked the distinctive personality needed to sustain stardom.
Cecil Parker who eventually made over a hundred films, excelled in roles that required duplicity, militant steadfastness and pomposity in both dramas and comedies. A superb actor, Hungarian Paul Lukas saw his screen options shrink into hero, victim and villain roles with the rise of Nazism and onset of World War II.
Naunton Wayne & Basil Radford created obsessed cricket fans Charters & Caldicott whose slow-realization of the threat of Nazism typified that of some British people and politicians who chose to ignore rather than confront the menace that was Hitler.
Their pairing so engaged and amused movie audiences, that the two men repeated their ‘double act’ in a dozen more films. After the death of both Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford, other actors revived the characters of Charters & Caldicott on film and television.
Although truly an ensemble picture, it is undeniable that Dame May Whitty had the central star role. Her understated acting commands audiences’ eyes and ears. May Whitty (1865–1945) became in 1918 the first woman actor to be honored with the title of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire–but that was for her devoted and extensive hospital service during WWI. Acting it seems, was still an unsavory calling—yet, on that same occasion, opera singer Nellie Melba was also awarded the DBE —for singing.
To fully appreciate the collective skill brought to The Lady Vanishes in 1938, of director Hitchcock, scriptwriters Reville, Launder and Gilliat, cinematographer Jack E. Cox, cutter R. E. Dearing, and actors Redgrave, Whitty, Lockwood, Lukas, Wayne & Radford, try to watch the sadly misguided 1979 and 2013 remakes.
— Frank Cullen for MM