If you’ve been following this blog for a while and know my tastes well, it shouldn’t be a mystery that one of my favourite national cinemas is the one from the UK, especially the classics from the 30s until the 60s. That is why Terence’s Rule, Britannia Blogathon that he is hosting on his blog A Shroud of Thoughts is one of my favourite blogging events. This is the seventh edition of the event, which used to be called the British Invaders Blogathon.
After exploring the work of Anthony Asquith, Alfred Hitchcock and Carol Reed (talk about an exciting trio), I’m back this year with a review of the underrated 1950’s classic So Long At the Fair, directed by Hammer director Terence Fisher and Anthony Darnborough, and starring Jean Simmons and Dirk Bogarde. I hesitated between that and another of Simmons’ features, The Clouded Yellow (Ralph Thomas, 1950). Maybe next time! For now, we’ll admire the chemistry of Simmons and Bogarde instead of the one between Simmons and Trevor Howard.
So Long at the Fair takes place in 1889’s Paris, during the Universal Exhibition. That year also marked the inauguration of one of the most famous landmarks in the world: the Eiffel Tower. English siblings Victoria “Vicky” (Jean Simmons) and Johnny (David Tomlison) Barton are on a visit to Paris and planning to stay there a few days. After arriving in the city by boat, they register at the Hotel de la Licorne (Unicorn Hotel). Vicky, who is eager to enjoy Paris’s nightlife as soon as possible, convinces her brother to take her out for dinner and then to go to the famous Moulin Rouge. Johnny is tired, but the good brother he is agrees while making compromises. Back at the hotel, Vicky goes to her room, and Johnny stays downstairs for a drink. There, he meets George Hathaway (Dirk Bogarde), a painter. He has taken his girlfriend, Rhoda O’Donovan (Honor Blackman), and her mother (Betty Warren) back to the hotel. They were also at the Moulin Rouge, and Vicky had bumped into George before leaving the hotel for the restaurant. George needs change for a 100 franc note to pay the carriage driver. Johnny, pleased to help a fellow from home, lends him 50 francs and gives him his name and room number for an eventual reimbursement.
The following morning, when Vicky goes to her brother’s bedroom to wake him up, the room in question seems to have mysteriously disappeared and Johnny along with it. Room number 19 (Johnny’s room) has vanished. Mysterious. When she tells the situation to manager Madame Hervé (Cathleen Nesbitt) and then to her brother, Narcisse (Marcel Pontin), they both claim that: first, she arrived alone, and second, that room 19 doesn’t exist, and that this number corresponds to the bathroom. That is overly absurd and evident for Vicky (and us) that they are lying. Even the rest of the hotel’s staff is backing their lies. But why would something like that happen? Even the British consul and the police can hardly help Vicky since she doesn’t have much proof. The poor lady is pretty much alone. What was to be a fun holiday in Paris turns into a nightmarish search for her brother until she receives a note from George (on behalf of Rhoda) with the money he owned Johnny. The message is addressed to him. After making the Hervés believe that she is taking the train back to London, Vicky, instead, goes to George’s place. Happily for her, he remembers meeting Johnny. They can now work together to figure out what happened to him. Was he kidnapped, killed, ran away? The rest of the story will tell us.
So Long at the Fair was based on the novel of the same name by Anthony Thorne1, itself inspired by an urban legend of the 19th century entitled The Vanishing Lady or The Vanishing Hotel Room.2 The old story inspired various works. Talking of “vanishing lady”, there are resemblances with Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. That could explain I liked the film so much! However, the outcomes of both stories differ considerably. Still, it is interesting to observe the resemblances between both plots. Someone mysteriously disappears, and others pretend she never existed, that Vicky has been travelling alone, and Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) never met an elderly lady named Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty). Both ladies are also helped by a young British gentleman to investigate: George in So Long at the Fair and Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) in The Lady Vanishes. They both happen to master some form of art. George is a painter while Gilbert plays the clarinet. The films’ mains characters are also British visiting a foreign country (the fictional Bandrika in Hitchcock’s film and France in Fisher and Darnborough’s film). And the “villains” are locals. But the comparisons stop here. The Lady Vanishes has more humour but So Long at the Fair has some as well.
When watching the film for the first time, its suspense fully immerses the spectator. However, watching it a second time while aware of the ending allowed me to see it with a new perspective. Indeed, when one knows the end, it is now interesting to give ourselves the challenge or play the game of finding clues that could have ring a bell on what happened to Johnny.
[SPOILER ALERT] Indeed, we notice how, during their night out, Johnny doesn’t look very well, and Vicky constantly observes that he seems tired. It serves as a clue that Johnny might be covering something serious. The scene when he rings his bedroom bell as if there was an emergency goes in the same direction. If you saw the film and know how it ends, you’ll agree that it’s a bit ironic that I’m writing about it during the covid pandemic (!), but I swear that is a pure coincidence! [END OF SPOILER]
Paris is a city that has been romanticized a lot in films and not without reason. It is indeed a place that makes people dream and attracts a lot of tourists. It is known as the City of Love. Moreover, the year of the Universal Exhibition certainly was a golden one for the French capital. However, I found it noteworthy how the film goes against this idea of perfection, which is how Vicky initially feels the city. The dreamy life doesn’t last long, and Paris shows some of its darker corners. That is not only marked by Johnny’s disappearance, but even the universal exhibition turns into a nightmare when a terrible accident happens. But we feel that Vicky is mostly unlucky and, if none of this had happened, she would have enjoyed her trip to Paris the way she expected it.
But, despite Paris offering an unexpected journey (not in the good sense of the term) to Vicky, one thing we can appreciate from the film is the beautiful on-location shooting.3 Not only do we see more popular corners like the Eiffel tower, but we are also taken in lesser-known corners that have their charm. The interiors, however, were filmed at Pinewood Studios, and the interior decors were designed with care for detail by Cedric Dawe and George Provis.4 One of my favourite locations in the film is George’s studio apartment with large windows and a view of the city.
One of So Long at the Fair’s qualities is also its cast composed of A-class British actors. At the time the film was released, Jean Simmons was 21. While that was an appropriate age for the role she was playing – the one of a young lady with a long life ahead of her – Jean Simmons shows a new maturity in this film. It propelled her to another level after starting her career as a teen actress in pictures like Give Us the Moon (Val Guest, 1944), Great Expectation (David Lean, 1946) and Hamlet (Laurence Olivier, 1948). The Clouded Yellow was made the same year and showed that maturity and transformation even more. Jean, educated at Aida Foster School in London, was moulded into that well-spoken young lady and always showed a pretty elegance.5 So Long at the Fair is, in my opinion, one of the best examples of it. She also learned, through the previous years, to convey various emotions and touch our sensibility to its fullest. At the beginning of So Long, the way she admires Paris makes us want to admire it with her and, later, her despair makes us want to enter the screen and console her. 1950 was Jean’s last year in the UK. She then moved to the USA and became under contract with the controversial Howard Hughes.6 It’s important to watch both her American and her British films as these have their respective qualities. However, Jean always shined wherever she was.
It seems that Dirk Bogarde was carefully chosen for the role of George Hathaway. Not only because of his acting talent and charm but also because his pairing with Simmons was perfectly on point. Indeed, the two actors have a chemistry that makes us wish they would have made more films together. What I also liked about his character and his performance is that not only he can reassure Vicky but the audience as well. If we feel lost like the young lady, as soon as the two more officially meet, and he believes her story, we feel an immense relief. He projects a feeling of comfort and reassurance and also has a soothing attitude. Both actors appreciated each other’s company while working on the film. Indeed, Dirk Bogarde said of his co-star: “Jean is about the sweetest girl you could wish to meet and all you read about her being natural and unsophisticated is absolutely true. She has a great sense of fun, and one of these days I would like to do a comedy with her”. 7 Jean said of him: “He was such fun – a great giggler. I loved Dirk, and was hoping that perhaps we would be married one day; but I was dreaming, I was fantasizing…I never really knew him. I didn’t realize he was gay – in those days people didn’t talk about it”.8 So, Dirk’s desire to make a comedy with Jean unfortunately never happened (what a delight it would have been!), and Jean married Stewart Granger the same year.
Despite his small appearance as Johnny Barton, David Tomlinson is a highly appreciable actor. Most people will remember him as Mr Banks in Mary Poppins (Robert Stevenson, 1964). However, prior to that, he appeared in some underrated British films such as this one but also Quiet Wedding (Anthony Asquith, 1941) or Sleeping Car to Trieste (John Paddy Carstair, 1948). I admired Cathleen Nesbitt as the austere Madame Hervé. Not only does she plays her role to perfection, but she was able to speak good French. As a matter of fact, the actress received her education in France at the Sorbonne (9), which would explain her facility, not only to speak French but to speak it with a convincing accent. She and French actor Marcel Poncin form a hard-to-read pair. So Long at the Fair was an early role for Honor Blackman and, while she plays a small part, it is hard not to acknowledge her promising talent. Plus, her character is one that is hard not to like. She is fair, friendly, has a lot of self-assurance and, overall, seems to be of good company. Finally, Felix Aylmer, who also has a small role, is always appreciated and his acting game is well-calculated as usual.
To fit well the ambience of glamorous 19th century Paris during what was better known as La Belle Époque, Elizabeth Haffenden designed gorgeous costumes. These are pretty and reflect the time-period and its elegance but are not too extravagant either. Just what Victoria Barton needs. My favourite piece of clothing is probably the black lace mask that she wears toward the end of the film. Elizabeth Haffenden also designed the costumes for various Gainsborough melodramas such as The Man In Grey (Leslie Arliss, 1943) and Fanny by Gaslight (Anthony Asquith, 1944). It proved that she had the eye for period costumes. She was also behind the costumes for Ben Hur (William Wyler, 1959) and A Man for All Seasons (Fred Zinnemann, 1966) and won Oscars for both pictures. (10) (11) While I was not familiar with her name, it goes without saying that she had a prolific career.
On its release, So Long at the Fair was a box office success (12) and overall received favourable reviews. (13) It is interesting that director Terence Fisher later worked on Hammer Horror films whose aesthetic were far different from a film like So Long at the Fair. On his side, Anthony Darnborough’s other work, although I have not seen them, seem to be more in the same league as So Long, although he more often worked as a producer than as a director.
Luckily for those who haven’t seen the film yet, it is available on YouTube! However, a minor problem is that the few scenes in French are not subtitled. Of course, it was not a problem for me as it is my first language, but for someone who is not familiar with the language, it could be an issue. However, these are not numerous and brief. And the attitude of the characters and their emotions are good enough clues. I also observed that the relevant words they use are some that are pretty much the same in French and English, such as “train” or “police”. In other words, this shouldn’t completely prevent you from appreciating the film.
It was an immense pleasure to watch this film again and discuss it in this article. If you wish to discover more amazing British pictures, I invite you to take a look at the other entries that were written for this blogathon here.
Many thanks to Terence for hosting this highly appreciated event again!
(1) “So Long at the Fair,” Wikipedia, accessed September 25, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/So_Long_at_the_Fair.
(2) “The Vanishing Lady and the Vanishing Hotel Room,” Quote Investigator, accessed September 25, 2020. https://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/09/14/vanishing-lady/.
(3) “So Long at the Fair: Trivia,” IMDb, accessed September 25, 2020. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0042980/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv.
(4) Ibid. note 1.
(5) “Jean Simmons,” Wikipedia, accessed September 25, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Simmons.
(6) Adam Bernstein, “English actress was known for her roles in films ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Elmer Gantry’,” The Washington Post, January 24, 2010, https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/01/22/AR2010012205323.html
(7) Dirk Bogarde cited in Jeff Stafford, “So Long at the Fair,” Turner Classic Movies, accessed September 25, 2020. http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/159333%7C0/So-Long-at-the-Fair.html.
(8) Jean Simmons cited in Jeff Stafford, “So Long at the Fair”.
(9) “Cathleen Nesbitt,” Wikipedia, accessed September 25, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cathleen_Nesbitt.
(10) “The 32nd Acamedy Awards (1960) Nominees and Winners,” The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, accessed September 25, 2020. https://web.archive.org/web/20110706094204/http://www.oscars.org/awards/academyawards/legacy/ceremony/32nd-winners.html.
(11) “The 39th Acamedy Awards|1967,” The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, accessed September 25, 2020. https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/1967.
(12) Andrew Spicer, Sidney Box (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), 211, Google Book.
(13) Jeff Stafford, “So Long at the Fair”.