Thursday, December 8, 2011

TV Bites: The Lady Vanishes

Alma Hitchcock's Crêpes Elizabeth

A shorter version of this post appears on the Criterion Collection website.

Finally, finally, finally! This is finally part two what was to be my Hitchcock double bill.

If you read the previous post on Hitchcock's The Birds, you'll know I recently got a book with some of Sir Alfred's wife Alma's recipes. And since I had all these other books on Hitchcock already out of the public library, I figured why not kill two birds as The Lady Vanishes is just being released by Criterion on Blu-Ray.

Apparently this week there are two news stories about upcoming films about Hitch. The first is a BBC flick about the whole Tippi Hedren obsession thing I discussed in The Birds post. The other is about the making of Psycho. Other than that, life is good here. Looking forward to being in Rome for New Year's and hoping you have a happy and healthy new year yourselves.

The Lady Vanishes is available for purchase from Amazon. You can also stream it for FREE @ Hulu and @ the Internet Archive.


"I never think you should judge a country by its politics. After all, we English are quite honest by nature, aren't we?"

Let's start here. Ethel Lina White was a British crime novelist in the first half of the 20th century. By far her most popular book was The Wheel Spins which she wrote in 1936. (Another of her novels, Some Must Watch, became motion pictures thrice, all entitled The Spiral Staircase, mostly notably its first incarnation in 1945 directed by Robert Siodmak.)

"The whole thing started with an ancient yarn about an old lady who travels to Paris with her daughter in 1880," Hitchcock explained the plot of The Wheel Spins. "They go to a hotel and there the mother is taken ill. They call a doctor, and after looking her over, he has a private talk with the hotel manager. Then he tells the girl that her mother needs a certain kind of medicine, and they send her to the other end of Paris in a horse-drawn cab. Four hours later, she gets back to the hotel and says, 'How is my mother?' and the manager says, 'What mother? We don't know you. Who are you?' She says, 'My mother's in room so and so.' They take her up to the room, which is occupied by new lodgers; everything is different, including the furniture and the wallpaper.

"It's supposed to be a true story," he continued, "and the key to the whole puzzle is that it took place during the Great Paris Exposition, in the year the Eiffel Tower was completed. Anyways, the women had come from India, and the doctor discovered that the [mother] had bubonic plague. So it occurred to him that if the news got around, it would drive the crowds who had come for the Exposition away from Paris. That's the basic idea of the story."

So when the book came out in 1936, screenwriter Frank Launder, who was under contract to the Gainsborough Studios in England, had in his contract an arrangement, "that I should be given the right to write one script a year and I wanted this to be it," he recalled. "But I had a rewrite to do on a film about to go into production, so Sidney was engaged to write a treatment. I then joined him and we wrote the screenplay together.”

Sidney is Sidney Gilliat, another writer at Gainsborough. They had collaborated with each other on and off since 1929's The Greenwood Tree, an early sound picture. The two had developed a strong friendship and continued to work together for many decades, including running their own production company Individual Pictures.

Once they had a script they were happy with, director Roy William Neill was assigned to direct it. Neill, who was a journeyman b-movie director, would later go to the US and helm several of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films, before passing away back home in England a year after WWII ended, in 1946. (I only mention this because some places get it backwards and say he was an American who went to England.)

What happened next was that a 2nd unit crew was sent to Yugoslavia to get some exterior shots. But when the 2nd unit director had an accident (fractured his foot, nothing too serious) for some reason the police were summoned and upon discovering they were a film crew ordered that the script first had to be approved by government authorities in case it would show their country in a negative light. And it was decided that it did and the crew were dispatched home.

Because of these hiccups, the production was halted and it looked like the script was on its way to be forgotten when Hitchcock read it in 1937 and decided quickly to abandon the projects he was developing and dive into The Lady Vanishes.

I think this is the only case of Hitchcock ever taking over a script completed for another director,” Sidney Gilliat said.

Hitchcock met with Launder and Gilliat and proposed several changes. "Their script ended when the lady is removed on a stretcher. I added the whole last sequence where the train is held in the woods and also the bit in the middle about the illusionist," Hitchcock recalled, referring to the scene in the baggage compartment where our heroes dig through the magician's bag of tricks.

"You never knew quite what Hitch was thinking,” Launder said, “because he always played his cards close to his chest. He told us he did not care for the opening and thought the last reel could be made more exciting. Sidney worked on the revisions at [Hitchcock's] home in Cromwell Road. The difference between the new opening we wrote and the one in the original script was that the pace was faster. And the last reel was certainly more exciting, with more twists and turns after we had worked on it.”

Hitchcock was, of course, drawn to the script for its action. "You must remember, that my chief appeal is an ability to work people up into a state of excitement," he said at the time. "Give me any subject to be turned into a motion pictures and I immediately judge it from the number of dynamic situations it contains. No matter how good a picture it might become in the hands of another director I toss it aside unless it has the forcefulness and violence which appeals to me personally."

But he was also drawn to its political message. Some have argued that Hitchcock avoided making overt political statements in his films but, in that same interview in 1938, he said, "[C]ircumstances have forced me into the realms of fiction. I have always wanted to make films with some sociological importance – but I have never been allowed to do so.... Again and again I have been prevented from putting on the screen authentic accounts of incidents in British life. Again and again I have suggested authentic ideas to my production chief, only to be told: 'Sorry, Hitch, but the censor's never pass it.'

"If you imply 'it can't happen here' – if you set your story in Central Europe or even make your villain a foreigner – officialdom raises no objections. But if your picture is too obviously a criticism of the social system, Whitehall shakes its head."

And Hitchcock wanted to send a message about the need for his countrymen to recognize World War II was on the horizon. One of the ways he attempted to do this was through the characters of Charters & Caldicott. He is credited with the brilliant casting against type of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, both of whom had been known for their dramatic not comedic roles previously. He said that Launder and Gilliat "had written the two English comics as silly-ass types. I decided to cast the roles against type. I found Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford, who were used to playing absolutely different parts. Later, they made a career out of their combination." (For more on Charters & Caldicott, see Background & Context below.)

The other roles were also well cast. Margaret Lockwood was under contract at Gainsborough, and was a fan of Ethel Lina White's books, so she was excited to be on board.

[White's books] were usually about an unfortunate girl on some kind of journey who found herself in trouble. When I heard that Edward Black was at last going to produce the picture, and that Hitchcock was to direct, I of course hoped to play the part," Lockwood recalled.

Michael Redgrave, who would later give us a dynasty of motion picture actors, had only had a few extra roles in films before this.

"I had just done three plays in repertory with John Gielgud's company," Redgrave noted. "At the time The Lady Vanishes was going into production I had just opened in the The Three Sisters. I was very reluctant to accept this film offer, but Gielgud, who had already worked for Hitchcock, said he thought it would be a good experience for me, and Gainsborough said I could do the test with my wife, Rachel Kempson.

They offered me a very handsome contract, but I didn't even want to do that one picture,” Redgrave continued. “To be honest, I suppose I was something of an intellectual snob at the time, and film acting here in England was not regarded very highly. No serious actor or actress concentrated on film work or appeared very often before the camera. I think Hitchcock sensed that I preferred the stage, and so he decided to cut me down to size. The first day of shooting he came over and said, 'You know, don't you, that Robert Donat wanted to play this role in the worst way.' I suppose it was meant to make me feel a little unwelcome but it didn't – I wasn't trying very hard anyway.”

There is also the story of on the first day of shooting, Redgrave felt hurried to prepare. “In the theater, we'd have three weeks to rehearse this,” he reportedly told Hitchcock. The director replied, “I'm sorry in this medium we have three minutes.”

"We finished the entire film in five weeks in late autumn 1937, in that cramped and uncomfortable studio at Islington," Margaret Lockwood recalled. "I suppose what surprised me most of all about Hitchcock was how little he directed us. I had done a number of films for Carol Reed, and he was quite meticulous by contrast. Hitchcock, however, didn't seem to direct us at all. He was a dozing, nodding Buddha with an enigmatic smile on his face.”

Lockwood also noted one of Hitchcock's little quirks. “[D]uring morning and afternoon tea break [his custom was] of throwing the crockery over his shoulder and smashing it on the floor with an air of nonchalance.”

Hitchcock later explained his reason for this: “Good for the nerves. Relives the tension. Much better than scolding the players.” Author Donald Spoto suggested this nonsense was also “a sure way to attract everyone's attention for the return to business after a short break.”

He wasn't really an actor's director,” Redgrave felt. “Maggie Lockwood is right when she says that. And everyone knew that his reputation here in England was more for preparation and technique than for working with his cast. The film didn't depend on any single performance and strangely enough this put us all at our ease. In fact, his own nonchalance made it rather easy for us. He knew where he wanted to put the camera, he knew what mood he wanted to effect. He had the whole thing visualized ahead of time, and once we got to the set, it could all be done very quickly and painlessly.”

The film was a huge hit both domestically and in the US (winning the New York Film Critics Award for best director) which helped Hitchcock negotiate a better deal for himself with David Selznick to come to America to make Rebecca.

"[Some people] might question why a message was entrusted to an elderly lady so helpless that anybody might knock her over," Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut. "Also, why the counterspies simply didn't send that message by carrier pigeon, and why they had to go through so much trouble to get that old lady on the train, with another woman standing by to change clothes, not to speak of shunting the whole coach away into the woods.... It's fantasy, sheer fantasy!"

The Lady Vanishes would be his last motion picture in England until 1972's Frenzy. Hitchcock often said it was his favorite of his English pictures. He also said at the time, "The Lady Vanishes will be the last secret agent picture that I shall make for a very long time." Two years later, however, he was back to action/spy films with Foreign Correspondent.

He also returned to White's original story for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series, entitled Into Thin Air (which you can watch for FREE @ Hulu).

There was also a highly forgettable remake of The Lady Vanishes in 1979 starring Cybill Shephard, Elliot Gould, and Angela Landsbury.

One final note. Hitchcock once pointed out, "I don't think that Launder & Gilliat were too pleased when, after the film came out, it was referred to as a 'Hitchcock picture.' I believe that's what made them decide to produce and direct their own scripts, which they have done with great success ever since." And they did, including the very Hitchcockian picture, Green for Danger (also a Criterion Collection release).


In 1944, Frank Launder & Sidney Gilliat would write, what some call, a "spin-off" of The Lady Vanishes, Night Train to Munich, directed by Carol Reed. One connection to the earlier film was that they'd resurrected the characters of Charters & Caldicott (who were their original creations, not White's).

In Gilliat's first draft of The Lady Vanishes, the duo "were intended to walk round the steamer and through the customs and that was it," Gilliat recalled. "But of course they stuck." As Launder & Gilliat reworked the screenplay, they found Charters & Caldicott taking on bigger and bigger roles.

As noted above, it was through Charters & Caldicott that Hitchcock gladly pointed a finger at the segment of the British population who were unwilling to see World War II was on its way.

To put the film in a timeline, in March of 1938, Hitler marched into Austria. The Lady Vanishes was in theaters in August. One month later, was the signing of the Munich Agreement.

As Hitchcock noted above, Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne would go on to play those roles in around ten pictures (the Criterion edition of The Lady Vanishes includes one of their films as a bonus - Crook's Tour), as well as on radio. After their deaths, Robin Bailey and Michael Aldridge played Charters & Caldicott on a successful BBC television series in the late 80's wherein the duo solved mysteries in their inimitable style.

Isabel Taylor in Albion magazine (scroll down halfway) wrote that Charters & Caldicott represented "the typical upper middle-class Englishmen abroad of the period: overgrown public school-boys, obsessed with cricket above all other concerns, vague, illogical, easily fussed, close friends but undemonstrative about it, fond of their creature comforts but usually curiously courageous and resourceful in a pinch, especially when struggling with devious Nazi types....

"[W]hen they do they behave with classic imperturbability even during the final shootout [in The Lady Vanishes, they do so] treating it as some sort of game, much like a cricket match. This, like the rest of the film, showcases their essential childlikeness, consisting of a relentless pursuit of cricket, simple self-centredness until confronted with a crisis, and stubbornness mixed with simplicity and lack of intellectual rigour."

In an article about the duo in The Guardian UK, Matthew Sweet wrote: "But if the Second World War was a battle to preserve the British way of life, that means it was also a battle to preserve British complacency, British snobbery, British amateurism, British silly insularity. And while swastikas flying over Whitehall were a real and frightening possibility, it's easy to understand why these two characters became so attractive to audiences sitting in the dark of the Essoldo [a movie theater chain at the time], dreaming of peace - dreaming of living in a country fit for fools like Charters and Caldicott."

(One of the films Radford and Wayne appeared as Charters & Caldiott was the horror classic Dead of Night. The movie is actually several shorts strung together. Another segment also starred Michael Redgrave, in the role he might be most remembered for. So it is a distant sort of reuniting of Redgrave with his Lady Vanishes costars. The segment with Charters & Caldicott was directed by Charles Crichton, who would many, many years later direct A Fish Called Wanda (which was a recent blog post here).)


Sir Alfred Hitchcock once said: “I'm not a heavy eater. I'm just heavy, and I eat.”

Hitchcock's father was grocer, so we can assume young Alfie grew up knowing his way around food. His films are filled with food and eating motifs; from the kitchen murder in Sabotage to the exotic dinner menus in Frenzy.

In my previous post on The Birds, I noted screenwriter Evan Hunter's (aka Ed McBain) account of dinner at the Hitchcocks, which was considered quite the honor in Tinseltown. Alma, Hitchcock's wife cooked, and Sir Alfred would handpick bottles from his wine cellar and regale his guests with entertaining and often macabre tales. (Though Alma was always more than just a wife - she was his collaborator and confidante.)

But that wasn't always the case. It was only after The Lady Vanishes (actually after Jamaica Inn a year later), when Hitchcock took his family to Hollywood to make Rebecca – and their house cook was inspired once there to quit (and become a chiropractor, of all things) – that Alma took up cooking.

With only cookbooks for a script, she memorized and executed my dishes to such perfection that there's been no need to hire more than an understudy for the role,” he wrote of his wife in McCall's magazine in 1956. “I would pit Alma against a chef in any of the finest restaurants. She can prepare a meal perfectly and completely – except trample the grapes for the wine, and I'd rather she didn't do that, really. The French need the business.”

We're both fond of French cooking,” he continued, “and Alma duplicates my own eating habits. When I go on a diet, which I often do, Alma faithfully loses weight with me, although she's not quite five feet and weighs less than 100 pounds. Contrary to what one might think from my measurements.... I'm simply one of those unfortunates who can accidentally swallow a cashew nut and put on 30 pounds right away.”

But he was also famously forthright about one particular food he disliked, and I'm putting that mildly.

I've never eaten an egg in my entire life,” he admitted, “an egg cooked by itself, that is. And I can't stand the smell of a hard-boiled egg.”

We should note though that Hitchcock had no problem eating dishes that contained egg. In fact, to several celebrity cookbooks he submitted a recipe for Quiche Lorraine (actually two different recipes – something to discuss another day, I'm afraid).

To Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci the director said: “I'm frightened of eggs, worse than frightened, they revolt me. That white round thing without any holes.... Brrr! Have you ever seen anything more revolting than an egg yolk breaking and spilling its yellow liquid? Blood is jolly, red. But egg yolk is yellow, revolting. I’ve never tasted it. And then I'm frightened of my own movies. I never go to see them. I don't know how people can bear to watch my movies.”

Joking aside, he seemed never to tire of the subject. In an interview with Peter Bogdonavich, he ranted, “Oh, I really do [hate eggs]. I think the smell of a hard-boiled egg is the most horrible thing in the world. How people can eat them! I knew a very big man - he was a theatrical producer - and we used to have lunch together; the hors d'oeuvre trolley would go by and, without the trolley stopping, he's stretch a hand out, pick up a hard-boiled and pop it into his mouth. Oh, really, it was most revolting. Had he popped a sardine or something - that would have been different. But an egg!"

(Please, don't hate me!) This fear of eggs may well be from whence his famous story device, the Egg MacGuffin, comes from.

The Lady Vanishes is truly one of Hitchcock's greatest films. It's fun, sweet, and holds up over 70 years later as not just an engaging romantic action/adventure, but a standard by which even films of this type today have to at least reach. There's not much food, per se, in the picture. The dining room in the small Balkan hotel is all out of food when Charters & Caldicott sit down to eat except for some cheese and pickles Miss Froy shares with them. Meanwhile, Margaret Lockwood's character and her friends have “some chicken and a magnum of champagne” brought to their room. And while there are several scenes in the dining car of the train, we don't really glimpse what the passengers are eating, except Michael Redgrave's soup. And then, of course, there's Harriman's Herbal Tea – “a million Mexicans drink it!” Sadly, and not just for the legion of thirsty Mexicans, there is no such product in real life.

So I decided to pair the film with something sweet and fun, romantic, engaging to the senses... and made with eggs. As mentioned previously, I got this book by Hitchcock's daughter, Patricia, a biography of her mother, Alma, and in it she shares recipes from the Hitchcock kitchen. And with the holiday season soon upon us, I also thought this would make a nice dish to bring to a holiday dinner party.

As always... cook, watch, eat and enjoy!

Alma Hitchcock's Crêpes Elizabeth
adapted from a recipe in Alma Hitchcock: The Woman Behind the Man, by Pat Hitchcock-O'Donnell & Laurent Bouzereau
Click for Printer-Friendly Version

Makes 10-12

1 1/8 cups all purpose flour
4 tablespoons sugar
1 pinch of salt
3 large eggs
1 1/2 cups milk
1 tablespoon butter, melted - and more for frying
1 tablespoon Kirsch (Cherry-flavored Brandy)
15-20 strawberries (depending on size), sliced or diced
sugar, for sprinkling
2 tablespoons slivered blanched almonds

Add flour, sugar and salt in mixing bowl, stir to combine. In a separate bowl, beat eggs lightly then add and milk. Now slowly add the eggs/milk to the dry ingredients. Whisk until batter becomes smooth. (According to Mrs. Hitchcock, “It should coat a spoon. If it is too thick, stir in a little more milk.”) Now, add the 1 tablespoon melted butter and the Kirsch, stir to combine. Let mixture stand at room temperature for 1-2 hours.

Heat an 8-inch frying pan to medium and add 2 teaspoons of (cold) butter. Swirl to coat pan. Add 1/4 cup batter and also swirl around. (NOTE: Expect to mess up at least one or two in the beginning until you get the hang of it.) Using a spatula, keep crepe from sticking to the sides and check to see how it looks underneath. As soon as you start seeing some browning, gently and carefully flip the crepe. When that side is done, remove to a plate.

For the rest of the crepes, you should only need about 1/2 teaspoon butter per. Repeat until all crepes are done.

Prepare a buttered, shallow ovenproof dish or pan. Turn oven to Broil.

Place about 2 tablespoons of strawberries in a row a little closer to you than halfway. Now sprinkle sugar (to taste) on the strawberries, and gently roll each crepe and place in the buttered pan. Repeat until done. Now, sprinkle the crepes with some blanched sliced almonds (Mrs. Hitchcock suggests shredding and buttering whole blanched almonds, but I got lazy on this step). Now place the pan under the broiler just until “the crepes blister.”

Serve with whipped cream or ice cream.

Hitchcock Wiki: The Lady Vanishes
The Lady Vanishes, Hitchcock's First Hitchcock Film, by Nathaniel Rich @ Slate
TCM's The Lady Vanishes Page
Charters and Caldicott, the Archetypal Englishmen Abroad: An Appreciation, by Isabel Taylor @ Albion Magazine

Hitch: The Life And Times And Alfred Hitchcock, by John Russell Taylor
Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews, edited by Sidney Gottlieb
Alfred Hitchcock: Interviews (Conversations with Filmmakers), edited by Sidney Gottlieb
Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies, by Donald Spoto
The Dark Side Of Genius: The Life Of Alfred Hitchcock, by Donald Spoto
Alma Hitchcock: The Woman Behind The Man, by Pat Hitchcock-O'Donnell & Laurent Bouzereau


  1. The Crêpes Elizabeth look delightful. The Lady Vanishes is one of my all-time favorite films--I love having Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave and "Charters & Caldicott" in the same movie. (I'm also a fan of Night Train to Munich, unsurprisingly.)

    I had no idea the original source material for The Lady Vanishes was so similar to the film So Long at the Fair, which was based on a totally different novel!