Holiday Classics: “Lady on a Train” (1945)

From the late 1930s through the early 1940s, Deanna Durbin was one of the silver screen’s most popular young stars. After an appearance in a 1936 short subject titled “Every Sunday” showcased her stunningly mature operatic voice (opposite the more pop-oriented but equally impressive sounds of another young star in the making, Judy Garland), the 15-year-old’s contract was snapped up by Universal Studios. A string of light musical comedies starring Durbin beginning with “Three Smart Girls” followed, the success of which are credited for saving Universal from bankruptcy. But when Durbin tried to transition into more mature roles in the mid-1940s, her projects were met with more middling success. 1945’s “Lady on a Train” was one of her more successful efforts at reinventing her career (even if it wasn’t met with much fanfare at the time), as it utilized her comedic chops combined with a darker story and more adult role.

Deanna Durbin with David Bruce in “Lady on a Train”

It’s Christmastime, and San Francisco socialite and mystery novel junkie Nicki Collins (Durbin) travels to New York to visit her aunt. While on the train, she glances up from her book just in time to witness a man being bludgeoned to death in a nearby building. When the authorities dismiss her story, Nicki takes it upon herself to investigate the murder, from impersonating the deceased man’s nightclub singer lover to enlisting the reluctant aide of her favorite mystery novelist, Wayne Morgan (David Bruce).

“Lady on a Train,” based on a story by “The Saint” author Leslie Charteris, is a noir tale with screwball flair that’s buoyed by Durbin’s effervescent presence, the fun chemistry she has with Bruce, and a colorful supporting cast that includes a delightfully harried Edward Everett Horton as Nicki’s father’s employee who has been tasked by the man to watch over his daughter in the Big Apple, Ralph Bellamy and Dan Duryea as the deceased man’s scheming nephews, and future “I Love Lucy” star William Frawley, playing a police sergeant who’s more concerned with decorating his Christmas tree than listening to Nicki’s concerns.

“Lady on a Train” has its fair share of holiday imagery to justify its inclusion on your annual watchlists, but the most explicitly Christmas moment comes when Nicki, lonely on Christmas Eve, calls her father back in San Francisco and croons “Silent Night” to him over the phone. It’s an excuse to let Durbin sing (and she does a couple of other times in the movie too, more in service to the plot), but it’s also the one truly melancholy emotional beat this otherwise breezy film hits.

Dan Duryea and Deanna Durbin in “Lady on a Train”

When Durbin made “Lady on a Train,” she was married to the film’s producer, Felix Jackson. She would only make five more films after this one, unable to successfully transition her career as she grew older as her one-time rival Garland was. By 1950, she had divorced Jackson, married the director of “Lady on a Train,” Charles David, and retired with him and their children to France, where she’d live out the rest of her life in relative anonymity. But her legacy has lived on, and with every passing holiday season—with repeated annual screenings on Turner Classic Movies—“Lady on a Train” has as well. Just last month, it was released on blu-ray for the first time by Kino Lorber, on a film noir box set that also includes “Tangier” and “Take One False Step.”

Runtime: 94 minutes.

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