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“They can’t possibly do anything to us. We’re British subjects.” One of the delights of The Lady Vanishes is the wit with which it pins down this form of insular mind-set. The passports may say “British,” but these are specifically English people, with not a hint of Welsh or Scottish or Irish, taking the train back home through a politically turbulent Europe in the late 1930s, sitting down to afternoon tea in the dining car punctually at 4:00 p.m. in the English manner. In the film’s series of international encounters, this Englishness is represented admiringly (by the lady of the title, Miss Froy), satirically (by Charters and Caldicott, obsessed with the fortunes of England in cricket and expecting all foreigners to speak their language), and searingly (by the craven Todhunter, whose confidence that “they can’t possibly do anything to us” is followed by humiliation and death).
But while the English-foreign opposition is a dominant structure in the film, there are equally strong oppositions and clashes between the English. “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him”: George Bernard Shaw wrote this in 1912, in the preface to Pygmalion (and he didn’t intend to exclude women). The encounters among the English in The Lady Vanishes are a set of variations on this theme. Shaw’s play centers on differences in accent and on the class distinctions they represent, and class is a likewise dominant theme in Hitchcock’s film, the basis of the savage behavior that underlies its comedic surface.
Meeting Hitchcock in Hollywood a few years after The Lady Vanishes, John Houseman found him to be “a man of exaggeratedly delicate sensibilities, marked by . . . the scars from a social system against which he was in perpetual revolt and which had left him suspicious and vulnerable, alternately docile and defiant.” The son of a tradesman, Hitchcock was exposed to the subtle brutalities of the English class system from an early age, both in his own education and as a precocious London theatergoer fascinated by the work of such anatomists of English society as Shaw and John Galsworthy. Like any British filmmaker of the period, he could hardly have avoided class issues when he began as a director in 1926, and his films show a consistent sharpness in handling them, in particular the tensions created by relationships across a class divide, as in the silent films The Lodger (1927) and The Manxman (1929) and the early sound films Murder! (1930) and The Skin Game (1931). The latter, from a play by Galsworthy, offers the most savage representation of class hostility in all of Hitchcock’s films, through the depiction of the vicious enmity between a family of old money, the Hillcrists, and one of new money, the Hornblowers. The class analysis in the first five films in the director’s celebrated thriller sextet is more oblique, partly because of the use of several non-English protagonists, including Canadian Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps; in The Lady Vanishes, his penultimate film before leaving for Hollywood, it’s as if he has saved up all the sensitivities and resentments noted by Houseman and worked them organically into the story, perhaps with Galsworthy in mind and certainly with the dazzling assistance of his new screenwriters, Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, and a cast that is ideal in every particular.
Key distinctions are laid out with superb economy in the early hotel scenes that precede the train journey. The idle upper class of Charters and Caldicott and the new money of Iris Henderson and her friends despise each other at first sight. Iris is returning by train to get comfortably married to Lord Charles Fotheringale, mainly, it seems, because “Father’s simply aching to have a coat of arms on the jam label”; her companions raise a glass to her and “to the blue-blooded check chaser she’s dashing to London to marry.” A perfectly cynical class alliance between money and title is thus sketched out. The patrician lawyer Todhunter is desperate to protect his status at all costs and refuses all contact with his inferiors. While the train speeds Iris back toward her loveless marriage, her attempt to solve the mystery of Miss Froy’s disappearance is blocked by the obstinate intransigence of her countrymen, working in unconscious collaboration with the forces of European fascism that have kidnapped her.
Clearly, this gave the film an especially potent meaning for the England of 1938, a time when the ruling classes were still working to appease Hitler and a class-stratified country was patently unready to pull together effectively if war should nonetheless become unavoidable. The native cinema’s habitual concern with class became even more focused at this time, whether in obsessive celebration of the system, as in Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939), or in the sharper analysis of Shaw. Pygmalion itself was filmed in 1938 and had its London premiere in October, exactly one day before The Lady Vanishes, and the two were revived together soon afterward in a peculiarly felicitous double bill. Unashamedly schematic and didactic, Pygmalion foregrounds its theme of the hierarchies of accent and the class system; The Lady Vanishes enacts them, plays them out, in a triumphant comedy-adventure that, in the words of Philip French, “comes up dazzlingly fresh every time.” At the climax, the characters fight their way out of the morass of snobbery. The worst offender dies; the cricketing drones are shocked into good sense. A new character, introduced on the train as a foreign nun in the service of the fascists, turns out to be a civilian Englishwoman and weighs in heroically; no one even remarks on her lower-class London accent. And Iris, at the last, abandons Charles for Gilbert, unraveling the deal between money and title that was so carefully set up.
Gilbert’s own class status is quite hard to read, because, like Miss Froy, he never flaunts or discusses it, but he seems, also like her, from his voice and manner and from what we infer about his background, to belong slightly above the middle of the middle class. Her governess role would have been one of the few respectable employments open to an independent woman; he remains unbothered by his family’s recent material decline. What is crucial is that neither of them is in the business of hating or despising anyone else, whether English or foreign, on sight or on hearing them talk, and we can rejoice unreservedly in Iris’s final embrace of them both. In the last triumphant resistance on the train, class differences have not been set aside, far from it, but they no longer get in the way. This vision of hard-won solidarity is what made The Lady Vanishes such a salutary film for the England of its time, and it is integral to its unfading status as a great fable of Englishness, the dark side and the light.
Charles Barr’s many publications on British cinema include books on Ealing Studios and English Hitchcock. He taught for many years at the University of East Anglia, where he is now Emeritus Professor of Film and Television Studies, and has also worked in the U.S. and Ireland. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection's 2007 DVD edition of The Lady Vanishes.