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With The Lady Vanishes (1938), Alfred Hitchcock scored his biggest triumph inGreat Britain shortly before leaving to pursue a career in the U.S, wherehe would eventually become the world's most recognizable film director. Infact, the success of The Lady Vanishes helped him negotiate the bestpossible deal in Hollywood. It also gave film scholars a healthy helpingof those traits that would distinguish his films: deceptive appearances,sly humor, a tangled international plot and what he called "The McGuffin,"a nonsensical device used to motivate the action and suspense.
Ironically, although it was one of his biggest hits, The LadyVanishes was the only major Hitchcock film that he didn't initiatehimself. Two soon-to-be-successful British writers, Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, hadpitched a novel by Ethel Lina White (who also wrote the book on whichThe Spiral Staircase, 1946 would be based) to producer Edward Black in1937. The story, about a young girl on vacation in Europe who befriends anelderly woman then has to prove the lady's existence after she disappears,seemed a natural for the screen. Black gave them the go-ahead, assignedthe film to American director Roy William Neill, then sent a crew toYugoslavia for background shots. One of the crewmembers had a minoraccident there, and during the investigation the local police came acrossthe script. One look at the opening pages, which juxtaposed shots of theYugoslavian army with waddling geese, and the authorities deported theentire crew, which led Black to cancel the production.
A year later, Hitchcock was trying to find a film to end his contract withBlack so he could sign a deal with Charles Laughton's production companyand pursue offers from America following the success of The 39 Steps (1935). For once, he couldn't come up with a property. KnowingHitchcock was desperate to get on with his career, Black dusted off thescript to The Lady Vanishes and the director immediately agreed to theproduction. He suggested some changes to Launder and Gilliat thattightened the film's opening and made the finale more exciting,but basically shot the film as written, although he insisted on ascreenplay credit for his wife, Alma Reville.
Hitchcock was particularly lucky in his casting, awarding the leads to twoactors who would soon become major stars in England. After consideringLili Palmer for the female lead, he settled on a young actress, MargaretLockwood, who had long dreamed of playing one of White's heroines. Themale lead went to Michael Redgrave, a popular young stage actor who had played a bit part in Hitch's earlier thriller, Secret Agent (1936). The stage star wasreluctant to commit, however. He had just completed three plays inrepertory with John Gielgud and wanted to continue concentrating on hisstage work. It was Gielgud who convinced him that he'd learn a lot aboutfilmmaking from Hitchcock but the main lesson he learned was how tohandle himself on the set. Hitchcock put most of his work into preparing shotsand sequences, editing the film in the camera by shooting just what wouldend up on the screen. All he wanted from the actors was cooperation.Sensing that Redgrave had a swelled head about his stage work, on the firstday of shooting Hitchcock told him, "You know, don't you, that Robert Donat;the star of The 39 Steps; wanted to play this role in the worstway." When he realized that Redgrave didn't care, Hitch took a liking tohim, using his casual attitude as a part of the character. As a result,the film made Redgrave, in his first leading film role, an internationalstar.
For the title role, Hitchcock cast Dame May Whitty, a stage veteran who hadrecently scored a hit in Hollywood as the old lady murdered by RobertMontgomery in Night Must Fall (1937). Although a wonderful actress incertain roles, Whitty was somewhat set in her ways after almost threedecades of stardom. To unsettle her, Hitch interrupted her first scene,shouting, "Stop! That's terrible. Aren't you ashamed of yourself?" Fromthen on, she did exactly as he wanted and turned in a surprisinglyhard-edged performance as the title character who turns out tobe a spy.
As with Whitty, Hitchcock made several of the other actors play againsttype. Hollywood leading man Paul Lukas was cast as the villain, aseemingly compassionate doctor who turns out to be a cold-blooded espionage agent.Glamorous character actress Catherine Lacy played a nun with a twist --after a surprising shot of her wearing high heels under her habit, sheturns out to be one of the enemy spies. But his biggest success, at leastwith English audiences, was casting dramatic actors Basil Radford andNaunton Wayne as two comical cricket fans -- typical English tourists moreinterested in catching the latest scores than helping the leading lady findher missing friend. The two were such a hit in their roles that they wouldrepeat them in other films, including the classic horror tale Dead ofNight (1945).
The Lady Vanishes was one of those rare films that hit pay dirt onits initial release and has never lost its luster as a classic. When itopened in England in October 1938 it quickly became the most successfulBritish film to that time. Two months later, it was the hottest ticket inNew York, where it was named Best Picture of 1938 by The New YorkTimes and brought Hitchcock the New York Film Critics Award for BestDirector. It also helped him win a lucrative contract with independentproducer David O. Selznick, for whom he would work through most of the'40s.
Producer: Edward Black
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Alma Reville, Sidney Gilliat & Frank Launder
Based on the novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White
Cinematography: Jack Cox
Art Direction: Alex Vetchinsky, Maurice Carter, Albert Jullion
Music: Louis Levy
Principal Cast: Margaret Lockwood (Iris Henderson), Michael Redgrave(Gilbert Redman), Paul Lukas (Dr. Hartz), Dame May Whitty (Miss Froy),Cecil Parker (Eric Todhunter), Naunton Wayne (Caldicott), Basil Radford(Charters), Catherine Lacy (The Nun), Googie Withers (Blanche).
by Frank Miller