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Sunday, 21 September 2008

The Ghost Train (1941)

Something easily forgotten is that the curse of sequels and remakes is hardly a new phenomenon. This English film dates back to 1941, but amazingly was already the seventh version of the film, after initially being a play written by Arnold Ridley. The first version looks like it's silent and Austrian: Der Geisterzug, possibly started by Michael Curtiz before moving to Hollywood in 1926. The film was released the following year. Then came versions from England, Romania, Hungary, England again (a TV movie from 1937) and Holland. This one would appear to be the definitive version, as well as being the last one until the Danes made Sp√łgelsestoget in 1976.

This ghost train is a vehicle for Arthur Askey, playing himself, of course, though the character's name is Tommy Gander. Like Askey, he's a fast talking vaudeville comedian, full of quick witticisms and no end of fooling around. He's on his way by train to a regular slot on the stage in Newquay, but stops the train after he loses his hat out of the window. Initially that just serves to introduce him and cause annoyance to everyone on the train, but we soon discover it serves another purpose: the delay causes Gander and seven other passengers to get stranded at a remote station for the night because they've missed their connections.

As the title would suggest, there's a ghost story here, and sure enough the station is apparently haunted. Years ago, an old conductor died in the waiting room after failing to change the lines over. The ensuing special rushing through from Truro therefore takes the wrong track right into the river, killing all aboard. Apparently anyone who sees the ghost train is fated to die, and it would seem that the stationmaster who tells everyone the story does so, returning twenty minutes later to die himself. The tension builds as a young lady arrives with her brother in hot pursuit. He claims that she's delusional but she just has to see the ghost train.

As you might expect from classic English cinema, the cast are top notch even though I haven't heard of many of them. Askey appears alongside his long term radio and screen foil, Richard 'Stinker' Murdoch, who of course is as annoyed with him as the rest of the passengers. I've seen some of these actors elsewhere: the delusional young lady is Linden Travers, Mrs Todhunter from The Lady Vanishes, and her brother is Raymond Huntley, apparently the first actor to play Dracula on stage. I know him from more recent horror films, like Hammer's version of The Mummy. He was also a regular in many classic British comedies: Ealing comedies, Carry Ons and on to the St Trinian's movies.

Other passengers include a doctor played by Morland Graham; Betty Jardine and Stuart Latham as a young couple (who get some of the best subtle lines); Kathleen Harrison as a maiden aunt who gets her first taste of alcohol; and a pair of cousins played by Peter Murray-Hill and Carole Lynne. Lynne is probably the most famous member of the cast, beyond Askey himself, though not as a film actress as she only made one further film. She worked mostly on stage throughout the forties and fifties, but in 1946 she married Bernard (future Baron) Delfont, then a theatrical manager (and member of the Grade dynasty: Lew Grade was his brother and Michael Grade is his nephew). As Lady Delfont she did a lot of charitable work for various entertainment charities, including the Entertainment Artists Benevolent Fund, which she served as life governor.

The story is a solid one. While it's not difficult to see through the shenanigans (in many ways it really does play out like an episode of Scooby Doo), the suspense is kept pretty taut as ghost stories go. While most of it faded from my memory years ago, I still remembered this as a decent suspense film of the time and it still holds up today. Even Askey's antics are surprisingly palatable today, given that vaudeville is probably the the comedic form that has dated the most. Given the references to the war, I'm sure liberties were taken with the original play, but I wonder how this translated into Romanian, Hungarian or silent Austrian...

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