Friday, July 15, 2011

A Game of Love and Death: Margaret Lockwood and The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Director Alfred Hitchcock was best known for his blonde leading ladies. Indeed, as a lad discovering the movies of Alfred Hitchcock I had thought that every single leading lady in his films was blonde. I was then in for a bit of a surprise when I first watched The Lady Vanishes (1938). Here was a film in which the leading lady was decidedly not blonde. Indeed, the leading lady reminded me of Vivien Leigh, on whom I had a crush ever since I first watched Gone With the Wind (1939).  It should come as no surprise, then, that I was immediately taken with Margaret Lockwood, the brunette beauty who starred in The Lady Vanishes as Iris, the wealthy young playgirl on a train who investigates the disappearance of an elderly passenger (Dame May Whitty).

While Margaret Lockwood was new to me upon my first viewing of The Lady Vanishes, she was hardly new to film when she starred in the movie. She had made her debut on stage at the age of only 12, playing a fairy in a production of A Midsummer's Night Dream at the Holborn Empire in London. She trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and made her film debut in the 1935 version of Lorna Doone. By the time she starred in The Lady Vanishes, she had already appeared in several films, including Dr. Syn (1937) and Bank Holiday (1938).  Along with Bank Holiday (1938), it was arguably The Lady Vanishes which would propel Miss Lockwood's career to the astronomical heights it reached in the Forties (at least in the United Kingdom).

The Lady Vanishes  was based on the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White.  It was that same year that Ted Black of Gainsborough Pictures purchased the rights to the novel at the insistence of screenwriter Frank Laudner. Mr. Laudner and his writing partner Sidney Gillat then set to work on a screenplay. American expatriate director Roy William Neil was assigned to the project and in August 1936 a crew as sent to Yugoslavia to shoot exteriors for the film. Unfortunately, Fred Gunn, the assistant director shooting the exteriors, broke his ankle in an accident. It was not long before the police investigating the accident learned that Mr. Gunn was part of a British film crew. At the time Yugoslavia insisted on approving any film made in the country, lest it give less than stellar impression of the nation. After reading the first few pages of The Lady Vanishes, Mr. Gunn and the film crew were promptly deported. In the end the whole experience would result in Gainsborough cancelling the film.

Fortunately, Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat would find a way for the film to be made.  Mr Gilliat was working as an assistant to author and screenwriter Walter Mycroft, who knew and had worked with Alfred Hitchcock. Mr. Mycroft got the script to Mr. Hitchcock . Upon reading the script, Mr. Hitchcock cancelled all of his projects and insisted on filming The Lady Vanishes. Indeed, the director only insisted on minor changes from the original script.

As odd as it might seem now, Margaret Lockwood may not have been the only actress considered for the role of Iris. Newspapers at the time reported both Lilli Palmer and Nova Pilbearm were being considered for the part. It was Ted Black who suggested Margaret Lockwood for the role. She was  already under contract with Gainsborough and she was already popular with audiences. Alfred Hitchcock gave Miss Lockwood a screen test and she got the part. Margaret Lockwood was actually a fan of Ethel Lina White's novels, which generally dealt with young women who become involved in some sort of intrigue.

Margaret Lockwood's leading man would be Sir Michael Redgrave. The two actors did not know each and, in fact, would not meet until a charity ball at the Royal Albert Hall right before shooting commenced. It was on the first day of filming that Alfred Hitchcock decided to shoot the scene in which Iris and Gilbert (Sir Michael Redgrave's character) meet. Because of the particular scene in which Mr. Hitchcock shot them first, like their characters, then, Miss Lockwood and Mr Redgrave were somewhat unsure of each other for a short time. In the end, however, they got along quite well.  Margaret Lockwood also got along very well with Alfred Hitchcock. Having worked with Carol Reed, who was very detailed in his direction, she was pleasantly surprised when Mr. Hitchcock hardly offered any direction at all.

The Lady Vanishes was shot in a little over a month, on a shoestring budget, and shot on a set that was only ninety feet long.  Despite these hurdles, The Lady Vanishes became a critical and financial success in both the United Kingdom and the United States. In fact, it would be the success of The Lady Vanishes  that would allow Alfred Hitchcock to move to the States. Along with Bank Holiday it would also bring Margaret Lockwood one step closer to superstardom. After Bank Holiday and The Lady Vanishes, Miss Lockwood would generally play the lead in her films. What is more, she would star in some of the most successful British films of the Forties.

Of course, today Miss Lockwood is well known for playing the villainess in many films, the best known being The Wicked Lady (1945). In the Thirties, however, she was still playing sensible, down to Earth girls. In some respects, the character of Iris Henderson is no different. Indeed, she is returning to England after an extended holiday to get married. When elderly, fellow passenger Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) disappears and everyone denies her existence, however, Iris proves to be a very different character from those Miss Lockwood had previously played. In fact, she proves to be an intelligent and very capable investigator.  Iris was strong willed, determined, and independent. She corresponds quite well to Edna Best's character, Jill Lawrence, in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), and in some ways can be seen as a forerunner to even more independent heroines such as Modesty Blaise in comic strips and Mrs. Cathy Gale and Mrs. Emma Peel on the TV series The Avengers.

Bank Holiday and The Lady Vanishes were turning points in Margaret Lockwood's career. By the mid-Forties she would be the most popular star in Britain.  The films in which she appeared were among the most successful in the United Kingdom at the time, including The Stars Look Down (1939), Night Train to Munich (1943), and, of course, The Wicked Lady (1945). Of course, The Lady Vanishes may not have simply given Margaret Lockwood a higher profile, but it may have affected the sort of characters she played. Afterwards  the characters she played would tend to be independent, strong willed women like Iris.  This would hold true even after Miss Lockwood began playing "wicked ladies." Indeed, it must be pointed out that her two most famous roles, that of Iris in The Lady Vanishes and The Wicked Lady have intelligence, independence, and resourcefulness in common, even if one (Iris) is good and the other (Barbara) is evil. The far reaching effects of The Lady Vanishes may have even extended to later in Miss Lockwood's career, as barrister Harriet Peterson was intelligent and independent much as Iris was. 

In the end, then, The Lady Vanishes was a pivotal film in Margaret Lockwood's career for more reasons than being a successful film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. It did more than give Miss Lockwood a higher profile and insure success for her in the coming years. It would in many ways shape her career for years to come.


Toby O'B said...

Just read that Googie Withers passed away and this movie was in her LA Times obit.

This is a film I keep meaning to see - being a big fan of train mysteries, you'd think i'd have seen it by now.

Terence Towles Canote said...

That is so sad, Toby. I did know Googie had passed on! Anyhow, knowing your tastes, I can say you'd love The Lady Vanishes. It's one of the best train mysteries around. And one of Hitchcock's best as well.