Lady on a Train is that unique film, a Screwball/Christmas/Musical/Mystery. Actually, it’s not technically a musical, but because the film stars Deanna Durbin, the girl who reportedly saved Universal Studios (the home of Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy) from bankruptcy in the mid 1930s with her frothy musicals, the film manages to provide three songs for her to sing during the course of her investigations.
Nikki Collins (Deanna Durbin) is on a train, coming into New York City from San Francisco to visit her aunt during Christmas. She is reading what appears to be a rather thrilling pulpy mystery (with eleven murders so far!) when she looks out her train window and sees a man murdered in a nearby building. She goes to the police, but they don’t believe her, so she goes to the author of the pulpy mysteries, Wayne Morgan (David Bruce), and tries to enlist his help. He gets dragged in, willy-nilly, while she discovers that the man who was killed was a not-so-nice business man named Josiah Waring. She sneaks into his house, just in time for the reading of his will.
She also runs into the family, which consists of Aunt Charlotte (Elizabeth Patterson) and his two nephews, Arnold Waring (Dan Duryea – his usual, delightfully creepy self) and Jonathan Waring (Ralph Bellamy). There are also two men who work at the house, a certain Mr. Saunders (George Courlouris) who walks around the now shut-up mansion looking menacing with a white cat draped over his arm, and Danny (Allen Jenkins), who works under Mr. Saunders and also seems to be in on whatever secret Mr. Saunders seems to be in on.
At the house, however, Nikki is mistaken by the family for a night club singer named Margo Martin, to whom Josiah Waring has left everything he owned. Also while in the mansion, Nikki finds some slippers with blood on them that proves that a murder did take place and not just an accident, as the police believe. She smuggles the slippers out of the house and goes to the nightclub to masquerade as Margo Martin.
It’s an extremely fun movie, with a fairly good mystery, as well. It’s not in Agatha Christie’s class, but still manages to obscure who the killer is so that you are never 100% sure (I’ve seen some mysteries where I can pick out the villain the moment he/she walks into the room).
Deanna Durbin does a good job playing a young lady with an active imagination and great tenacity, somewhat naïve, always gung-ho, who is never much perturbed by events – she just keeps on investigating and ad-libbing and quite casually dragging people into it with her. Durbin had a beautiful, operatic voice, and the highlight song is her rendition of “Silent Night,” which she sings over the phone to her father, while Danny stands outside her room, about to steal the slippers back. He is so affected by the song that he has to wipe tears out of his eyes before he can go on with his work and conk several people on the head.
A real scene stealer (as he always is) is Edward Everett Horton, who is Mr. Haskell, the manager of her father’s New York Office who is supposed to be looking after her while she is in New York, though he keeps losing sight of her and gets himself punched in the eye, hit on the head twice and runs about looking for her and even has to bail her out of jail.
David Bruce plays Wayne Morgan, a somewhat hen-pecked boyfriend who’s model girlfriend makes him apologize several times a day for some reason or another. He is an enthusiastic writer – he likes to act his book out while dictating, falling on the floor and clutching his stomach – while his acerbic secretary hopes that she can trash his notes rather than type them. He is also game to help Nikki or fight some villains, though he is often more inept than useful, at one point taking the gun away from the brother who is trying to help Nikki and giving it to the murderer.
And of course there is Dan Duryea, the wonderful, snarky, snaky, menacing Dan Duryea. When he is at the nightclub with his aunt and brother, Aunt Charlotte is shocked that Jonathan (her favorite nephew, whom she is almost too fond of – she can’t stand Arnold) would dance with Nikki, since he ought to be in mourning and not living it up. Dan Duryea turns and looks at her and then says innocently to the waiter, “I’ll have a martini, please.” Aunt Charlotte gives him a highly reproachful glance. “With a black olive in it.” He then says to the waiter. It’s a very Duryean line and the way he says it is hysterical.
It’s the kind of film with people running around, chasing villains, being caught by villains, losing slippers, stealing slippers, murder and lots of mayhem. It’s also the kind of film where Nikki, when her dress is torn when she is locked into the real Margo’s dressing room, stops to change her dress (and hair) before looking for a way out. She then breaks through the one-way mirror and emerges to sing a Cole Porter song.