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Can a magic glass eye save the world from the evil wrought by the Nazis? Not bloody likely - at least not outside the world portrayed in Ray McCarey's whimsical wartime parable Passport to Destiny (1944). Elsa Lanchester plays a lowly London cleaning woman who, believing she's protected by a lucky charm that once belonged to her late husband, treks to Berlin to put a bullet in Der Fuehrer and end all this bothersome war business once and for all. The glass eye, of course, isn't really what's protecting her. The overarching idea behind the picture is that bravery is what counts: Facing adversity with fearlessness is the only way to conquer it.
Passport to Destiny is a strange little curio, a low-budget what-if fantasy. It's unusual in that it's one of Lanchester's few starring roles. The actress, born in London in 1902, first appeared onstage at the age of 20. She'd trained as a dancer with Isadora Duncan, and as a young woman she established a musical dance club, did some modeling, ran a children's theater, and published a magazine (although she was its only contributor). Lanchester also ran an after-hours cabaret called The Cave of Harmony, which was frequented by British literary luminaries like Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh, as well as by the film director James Whale, who was working in London at the time (and who would later help shape Lanchester's most famous role in the 1935 Bride of Frankenstein.)
Vibrant, saucy and clearly intelligent, Lanchester was a sparkling figure in the London entertainment scene of the 1920s. The English novelist and journalist Arnold Bennett described this young entertainer and bon vivant as "very young, with a lovely complexion, a wonderful shock of red hair and a rather queerly blunted nose . . . full of virginal inventiveness and distinction." By the late 1920s, she was working almost exclusively as a film actress, and when she married actor and director Charles Laughton, in 1929, she was better known than he was. The two came to Hollywood together for the first time in 1932, though Lanchester would not settle permanently there until 1939. And though the union between Laughton and Lanchester was fraught with significant problems and potential deal-breakers - he was a homosexual, and his career success eventually eclipsed hers - the two remained married until his death in 1962.
In Hollywood, Lanchester - that stunning, now iconic turn in Bride of Frankenstein aside - appeared mostly in small character roles, in pictures like George Cukor's 1935 David Copperfield. Passport to Destiny gave her the rare chance to show off her comic gifts, and hints at her background as a dancer as well - Lanchester moves through the picture with remarkable agility and grace, as if it were a dance role as much as a comic one. Lanchester's feisty charwoman, Ella Muggins, may come from humble origins, but by the time she makes it to Berlin, and to Gestapo headquarters, masquerading as a deaf-mute (the better to overhear Nazi secrets), her self-confidence and bravery are already well-proven. She thinks she's safe because she has that glass eye in her possession - the alleged magic of this talisman is explained in an early scene, as Ella recounts some of the wilder adventures of her late husband to a few of her fellow charwoman friends. (When she points to a picture of the fellow hanging above the mantelpiece, we see a pompous, uniformed caricature of Laughton himself.)Lanchester's Ella, with her scrub brush and washbucket in tow, performs several unassuming but heroic deeds, and she's always a joy to watch, hitching up her skirts as she sashays nonchalantly out of a Nazi pooh-bah's office or expressing both dismay and wonder at finding herself in an airplane for the first time. The Nazis in Passport to Destiny aren't comic-book villains; if anything, they're strangely reasonable, even overtly accommodating. But realism, of course, isn't the point here. Passport to Destiny is a showcase for Lanchester's myriad gifts, and a reminder that she was much more than the wife of one famous man - and one famous monster.
Producer: Herman Schlom
Director: Ray McCarey
Screenplay: Muriel Roy Bolton, Val Burton
Cinematography: Jack MacKenzie
Music: Roy Webb
Film Editing: Robert Swink
Cast: Elsa Lanchester (Ella), Gordon Oliver (Franz), Lenore Aubert (Grete), Lionel Royce (Dietrich), Gavin Muir (Lord Haw Haw), Lloyd Corrigan (Professor Walthers)
By Stephanie Zacharek