The Lady Vanishes (1938) was released a little less than a year before the outbreak of World War II, but about a month after the signing of the Munich Agreement. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared that with this document, he had secured “peace for our time.” This will forever be despised as an act of appeasement, although I can’t say that I share that sentiment. Though Alfred Hitchcock, who directed this movie, is primarily concerned with entertaining us, yet one suspects that the movie is also being presented as a cautionary tale against such appeasement, against pacifism and complacency.
The movie begins in the fictitious, Germanic-sounding country of Bandrika, which is ruled by a dictator. A bunch of people planning on traveling by train are waiting in a hotel lobby, two of whom are Charters and Caldicott, portrayed by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, a comedy team that began life with this movie. As they wait, they express their concerns about the last report they heard, “England on the brink.” From their conversation, we wonder if England is on the verge of going to war. Eventually, we find out that they are worried about a cricket match. Pace the British, cricket is a sport the rest of the world thinks is ludicrous. And the obsession with cricket on the part of the characters that Radford and Wayne subsequently played in other movies became a trademark gag. From time to time, we see them reading about that cricket match on the back pages of the newspaper, while the serious political news on the front page is ignored. They represent the dangerous complacency of the British people.
On account of an avalanche, the train cannot continue on its way, so everyone has to seek accommodations at the hotel. Charters and Caldicott are forced to occupy the maid’s quarters, consisting of a narrow bed intended for just one person. The maid, Anna, is an attractive woman, though slightly bigger than either of the two men, whom she looks at flirtatiously when she finds out they will be sleeping in her room, much to their discomfiture. Apparently, one of the two men sleeps in pajamas and the other does not. For the sake of modesty, presumably, they share the pajamas, Charters wearing the tops; Caldicott, the bottoms. At one point, when the two men are squeezed into the bed, Anna barges right in to put her hat back under the bed and to retrieve some other articles of clothing. Charters moves his body in front of Caldicott so that Anna can’t see his nipples.
Earlier, when three young American women seem to be getting the royal treatment by the hotel manager, Caldicott dryly remarks, “the almighty dollar.” One of the women, Iris (Margaret Lockwood), is soon to be married. A friend proposes a toast, “To Iris, and the happy days she’s leaving behind, and the blue-blooded cheque chaser she’s dashing to London to marry.”
It’s an old story, a rich American woman marrying an impecunious British aristocrat for the sake of a title and a coat of arms, which apparently is more important to her father than it is to her. She refers to herself as being an “offering on an altar.” Love is not involved, but that doesn’t bother her, saying that she’s been everywhere and done everything, so she might as well get married. Once happiness has lost its charm, you might as well slam the door on it forever.
There is one bright spot about being married, however. That way you can have an affair. Adultery is fun, at least in the beginning, as we learn from another couple, Mr. Todhunter (Cecil Parker) and Margaret (Linden Travers). They are both cheating on their spouses. Todhunter had no qualms in the beginning about openly carrying on with her, but now he insists on separate rooms for the two of them. His passions having cooled somewhat, he is worried that a divorce would spoil his chances of becoming a judge.
Anyway, after Iris’s friends leave, she finds it impossible to sleep because of the noise being made by Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), the guest in the room above her. You know the type, someone that thinks it’s his God-given right to make as much noise as he wants, and who cares nothing about how much it disturbs his neighbors. And like most inconsiderate neighbors, he believes that anyone who complains about the noise he is making is the one who is in the wrong.
When he refuses to quit making so much noise, she bribes the manager to have him removed from his room, so Gilbert barges into her room and acts as if he will have to sleep in her bed, threatening to tell people she invited him to sleep with her if she complains. This forces her to call the manager and get him his room back. We know we are supposed to smile at this obnoxious behavior of his, regarding it as charming and endearing, because he is tall and good looking.
Charters and Caldicott end up at a table with Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), an elderly governess, returning to England now that her charges have grown up. She comes across as whimsical and sentimental, boring the two men with her talk about the beautiful mountains and the lovely people of Bandrika, saying, “Everyone sings here. The people are just like happy children, with laughter on their lips and music in their hearts.”
“lt’s not reflected in their politics,” Charters replies dryly, but as Miss Froy parts from them, she says that we should not judge a country by its politics, noting that the English are quite honest by nature. The implication is that the British government is not honest (and that means the government presided over by Neville Chamberlain). The idea is that the people of a country can be betrayed by their government, but that the goodness of ordinary folks will ultimately prevail, clearly a populist sentiment. This is ironic coming from her, since she turns out to be a part of the British government herself, a spy, to be exact.
She returns to her room, and just below her balcony, which is on the second floor, a man is serenading with a guitar. She drops a coin out the window for him, not realizing he has just been strangled. As we later find out, the melody being played is a coded message consisting of the vital clause of a secret pact between two European countries.
It must be a rather sophisticated code, for the simple melody is about sixteen bars long, all in one octave. If each note corresponds to a word, there is a vocabulary of about twelve words to work with. Of course, we can expand that vocabulary by taking into account the length of each note. I estimate we could increase the vocabulary to thirty-six words, given the melody we hear in the movie.
On the other hand, the notes might represent letters and numerals, and thirty-six different notes and their lengths would be just enough for every letter and numeral there is. But then, it would have to be a mighty short clause.
In either event, the code is limited by the requirements of euphony. A disagreeable combination of notes could not be serenaded on the sly, as a way of passing on the information to Miss Froy, so the number of possible combinations is constrained. And like most melodies, much of it is repetitive anyway. Notwithstanding all these limitations, the secret clause has somehow been thus encoded.
The person that strangled the man with the guitar knows that Miss Froy has the coded message, so he tries to kill her by pushing a flower pot out of a second-story window to land on her head while she is looking for her bag at the station prior to boarding the train. But Iris was bringing Miss Froy her glasses, which she dropped, and the pot lands on her head instead, giving her a concussion. Miss Froy ends up taking care of her on the train, but after Iris takes a nap, she wakes up to find her gone.
Charters and Caldicott saw Miss Froy on the train, but they pretend not to have seen her, because they figure nothing really bad could have happened to her, and they do not want the train delayed, lest it cause them to miss the cricket match they hope to see when they get back to England. Todhunter pretends not to have seen her because he fears getting involved in an inquiry that might expose his infidelity. The only one who takes her seriously is Gilbert, the noisy neighbor.
All those that are neither British nor American on that train act suspicious and untrustworthy, being either German or Italian. Whereas Charters, Caldicott, and Todhunter merely deny having seen Miss Froy, the Germans and Italians deny she ever existed. For example, when Iris asks the Italian magician and the German baroness in her compartment what happened to the lady that was sitting opposite her, they say there was no such woman. Admittedly, this lets us know immediately that they are part of a conspiracy to deny Miss Froy’s existence, but in real life, such a tactic would be both unnecessary and unwise. How much easier and less suspicious it would have been for them to say, “Oh, she got up and left the compartment a little while ago.”
Furthermore, it is inconsistent with phase two of their conspiracy, which had already been planned. When the train stops, a patient with bandages around her head is brought onto the train. Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas) is a brain surgeon, and he says he will be operating on her when they get off the train at the next stop. But in reality, the supposed patient is a woman who dresses up like Miss Froy, while the real Miss Froy is then wrapped up in the bandages and put under guard by a fake nun.
But this woman substitute contradicts the story that Miss Froy does not exist. The Italian that claimed that Miss Froy never existed now tells Iris and Gilbert that she came back. They go to see her, but it’s a different woman. As a result, whereas before, Iris was told that the bump on her head made her hallucinate the woman sitting across from her in the compartment, now she is told that there is such a woman as she described, only she’s German, not British, and her name isn’t Miss Froy.
Needless to say, if all the conspirators wanted to do was stop Miss Froy from taking the musically coded message to England, they should have strangled her and unceremoniously thrown her off the train.
Eventually, Gilbert finds evidence that Iris is right. They pull a reverse switcheroo, removing the bandages from Miss Froy and putting them on her imposter, and that woman is taken off the train at the next station. They are assisted by the fake nun, who is British, once she realizes Miss Froy is British too. In fact, as it becomes clear that Miss Froy is in danger, most of the British passengers on the train begin pulling together. Thus, the movie is optimistically saying that once the British people are shaken from their complacency, they will rally together and defeat the foreign aggressors.
The one exception is Todhunter. Though he is British, yet he wants to surrender to the soldiers trying to get control of the train, saying, “I don’t believe in fighting.” He is derided as being a pacifist and compared to Christians who got thrown to the lions. When he insists on surrendering on his own, getting off the train waving a white handkerchief, he is contemptuously shot, falling to the ground and muttering that he doesn’t understand. So much for pacifism. Of course, we all knew he was doomed the minute we found out he was cheating on his wife. Margaret is spared, however, probably because she was already separated from her husband, saying at one point that he knew he would not be seeing her again.
Miss Froy admits she’s a spy and gives the melody code to Gilbert, in case she doesn’t make it. Before she leaves the train, she says, “I hope we shall meet again under quieter circumstances.” At first, I thought this was an allusion to Vera Lynn’s song, but that apparently was not published until the following year. Because she is the last person you would expect to be a spy, her example implies that the rest of us have no excuse for not doing our part. If a little old lady can risk her life in the fight against evil enemies, dodging bullets as she runs across the countryside of a hostile nation, then we all are capable of making at least some small contribution ourselves.
When they all get back to England, Charters and Caldicott find out that the cricket match has been canceled. Iris sees her fiancé and hides from him, deciding to elope with Gilbert instead, because he is tall and good looking. Just wait until the honeymoon is over, and he returns to being the inconsiderate jerk he was when she first met him. In any event, the idea of marriage puts the “Wedding March” in Gilbert’s head, and when they get to the Foreign Office to pass on the code, he can’t remember the tune. But then we hear the tune being played on a piano, and it turns out to be Miss Froy playing it, having made it back to England after all. Apparently, she didn’t know how to decipher the code herself, or else she would have just walked in and stated the secret clause in words.
Of course, as has often been observed, she could have called the Foreign Office from Bandrika and hummed the tune over the phone.