Lady on a Train
In 1936, two teenage singers dazzled audiences with their spectacular singing in an MGM short called Every Sunday. Both 13-year old Judy Garland, who sang pop songs, and 14-year old coloratura Deanna Durbin, who sang classics, had remarkably mature vocal abilities. Hollywood legend has it that MGM chief Louis B. Mayer looked at Every Sunday when he was trying to decide which of the two girls he would keep under contract. Supposedly, he told underlings to "get rid of the fat one." Although both girls were plumpish, Garland got the contract, and Durbin got the axe. Universal saw the potential, immediately snapped up Durbin, and starred her in Three Smart Girls (1936). In another version of the story it was a Universal executive who saw Every Sunday. He wanted Garland, but an assistant signed Durbin by mistake. However it happened, Three Smart Girls made Durbin a star, and made Mayer furious. It would take Garland a little longer, but her stardom would soon equal, then surpass, Durbin's.
Initially, however, Durbin was the bigger star. In the late 30's and early '40's, she went from success to success, and is credited with saving Universal from bankruptcy. In 1938, Durbin, along with Mickey Rooney, received a miniature Oscar for "bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth and as juvenile players setting a high standard of ability and achievement." By 1945, Durbin was the highest-paid female star in the country. Now in her 20's, Durbin had outgrown the spunky-teenager roles that were her forte, and was branching out into more sophisticated parts.
Lady on a Train (1945) offered such a role. The film was a thriller, but with generous helpings of the fast-paced comedy at which Durbin excelled. It opens with Durbin, a naive young woman on a train heading into New York City. As the train approaches Grand Central, she sees from her window a murder being committed in a nearby office building and spends the rest of the film trying to solve the crime, with the help of a mystery writer, played by David Bruce. Along the way, Durbin impersonates a nightclub singer and croons a sultry version of "Gimme A Little Kiss, Will Ya, Huh?"
The script for Lady on a Train was based on a story by Leslie Charteris, who created the dapper detective known as "The Saint." The comedy came courtesy of screenwriters Edmund Beloin and Robert O'Brien, who had written for Jack Benny's radio show, and would go on to write films for Bob Hope. The film also had an exceptionally strong supporting cast of comedy stalwarts such as Edward Everett Horton, Allen Jenkins, and Elizabeth Patterson; interesting heavies like George Coulouris and Dan Duryea; and the always-dependable Ralph Bellamy.
Still, in spite of a few good reviews like Variety's ("Deanna Durbin explores the hazardous path of farce comedy...and does a bang-up job of it"), critics were not kind to Lady on a Train. Some, like John McCarten of the New Yorker, were gratuitously mean-spirited about Durbin's appearance: "she has developed a marked resemblance to [journalist] Dorothy Thompson, who is a handsome but hardly cute type...juvenile capers can become sticky when cut by a fairly substantial young matron." It seemed that the critics either didn't want to let Durbin grow up, or were confused by the mixture of comedy and crime. Today's critics, however, have no such problems, and are much more enthusiastic about Lady on a Train. Leonard Maltin calls it "a lighthearted whodunit," and "the most successful attempt to adapt her earlier persona to a grown-up Deanna."
Lady on a Train was produced by Felix Jackson, whom Durbin would marry soon after they finished making the film. They divorced in 1948, and in 1950, Durbin married Lady on a Train director Charles David. Soon after, Durbin retired from the screen and moved to France. Widowed in 1999, Durbin remains happily out of the spotlight. She has not given an interview since 1949. Perhaps for that reason, she's nearly forgotten today. Lady on a Train gives viewers a rare opportunity to get reacquainted with the delightful Deanna Durbin.
Director: Charles David
Producer: Felix Jackson
Screenplay: Edmund Beloin & Robert O'Brien, based on a story by Leslie Charteris
Editor: Ted J. Kent
Cinematography: Elwood Bredell
Costume Design: Howard Greer
Art Direction: John B. Goodman, Robert Clatworthy
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Principal Cast: Deanna Durbin (Nikki Collins), Ralph Bellamy (Jonathan), Edward Everett Horton (Mr. Haskell), George Coulouris (Mr. Saunders), Allen Jenkins (Danny), David Bruce (Wayne Morgan).
BW-95m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri