Into Thin Air? Movies of disappearance and Denial

What could be more distressing than the sudden and mysterious disappearance of a loved one or family member? Probably being confronted with evidence that they never existed, and having both one’s memory and sanity thrown into doubt. This has been the disturbing premise of a number of films, which I began thinking about last weekend while watching the latest addition to this series – Fractured (2019)– which had just been streamed on Netflix. In this film, Ray Monroe (Jack Worthington) takes his daughter Perry to hospital after they both fall on a building site, and sits in the waiting room while Peri and her mother go off to get a scan. After some hours pass and they do not reappear, his questions about their whereabouts are met with a mixture of confusion, sympathy and increasingly belligerent impatience from different staff members, as the sign-in register, CCTV footage and doctors’ statements all indicate he arrived alone. Is his head injury to blame? Or is there something more sinister going on?

Fractured is a well-executed and fairly enjoyable movie, although anyone attempting to push this scenario in a contemporary setting has to find a way around the ubiquity of mobile phones and surveillance cameras which can easily be produced to prove or disprove basic facts such as these. It is notable for a film apparently set in the present day that no-one is seen using a mobile phone, and the hospital is still using VHS tapes for their CCTV recording in the emergency waiting room. Barnsley Hospital in South Yorkshire, for example, has over 160 surveillance cameras monitoring almost every public area including car parks, entrances, corridors, treatment rooms, offices and wards, and you can be fairly certain that they’re not recording everything on tape! Such disappearance films are more likely to convince if they are either made or set in the past, which is largely true of those listed below:

Unheimliche Geschichten [Uncanny Tales] (Richard Oswald, 1919)

Unheimliche Geschichten [Uncanny Tales] is a German silent film in which five short tales are linked together by a framing story set in an antiquarian bookshop at midnight, in which the figures of Death, the Devil and the Harlot emerge from paintings to tell the stories – similar to the devices used in the great portmanteau films made by Amicus in the 1970s. The first story is based on Anselma Heine’s novel Die Erscheinung [The Apparition], published in Berlin in 1912, which lays out the basic template for most of the films discussed below.

A young couple, played by two great Weimar figures – Conrad Veidt and Anita Berber – arrive at a hotel and check in for the night. He leaves her to spend the evening with friends, returning late – and drunk – to find his hotel room empty with bare walls, but puts this down to his drunken disorientation and sleeps elsewhere. In the morning, however, the woman is nowhere to be seen and his enquiries at the reception are meant with the firm insistence that he arrived alone: which is confirmed by the hotel register. The staff all deny having seen the woman. Who is telling the truth, and if they are lying, what could their reason be?

Conrad Veidt trying to get some answers from the hotel staff in Unheimliche Geschichte (1919)

Midnight Warning (Spencer Bennett, 1932)

A similar scenario forms the setting for this Pre-Code Hollywood film in which Bill Cornish (William Boyd) – a private investigator – arrives at a Chicago hotel, the Clarendon Arms, to see old friend Dr Walcott, who is mysteriously shot through the open window. The hotel management seem very cagey about discussing the matter – and why is there a human ear bone in the fireplace of Walcott’s room? The trail leads Cornish to the apartment of Erich and his fiancee Enid van Buren (Claudia Dell), who checked into the hotel with her brother Ralph two months earlier. The next morning Enid travelled to Salt Lake City to sign some papers relating to an estate she had inherited, but when she returned to the hotel the staff denied all knowledge of their stay, the hotel register is blank and the room is not as she remembers. Distressed and disorientated, Enid is taken to the ‘psychopathic ward’ of the local hospital – is she mad, or is there some truth in her story?

In comparison with the other films discussed below, Midnight Warning (aka Eyes of Mystery) is a very masculine tale, dominated by burly men standing around talking, and the casual misogyny of their attitudes is exemplified in the way that the unpleasant attempts at ‘gaslighting’ are brushed off at the end ‘for the greater good.’ Indeed, one feature that many of these films have in common is the ease with which a lone woman’s voice can be dismissed by powerful men as hysteria, over-imagination, a bump on the head or too many drinks. Sadly, this remains as true today as it did in the nineteenth century setting of the earlier films.

The story for Murder Mystery was written by Norman Battle but – like Unheimliche Geschichten above – it is based on the urban legend of ‘The Vanishing Lady’, also known as ‘The Vanishing Hotel Room’, which seems to have begun circulating in various forms in the late 19th century. It featured in Belloc Lowndes’ novel The End of Her Honeymoon (1913).

Marie Belloc Lowndes’s novel The End of the Honeymoon was published the same year as her novel The Lodger, which Hitchcock made into a film in 1927. Hilaire Belloc was her brother.

The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938)

Probably the best known version of these stories is Hitchcock’s hugely popular mystery thriller, The Lady Vanishes, which won him an Oscar for Best Director. In this film Iris (Margaret Lockwood) tries to convince fellow traveller Gilbert (Michael Redgrave in his screen debut) of the existence of an elderly woman Miss Froy (May Whitty) who has vanished from the train as they journey through Nazi Germany. No-one believes her, and the only piece of evidence that she was ever there – the trace of her name on the coach window – mysteriously disappears as they pass through a tunnel before Iris can show it to Gilbert – a typical Hitchcockian touch, but one that was retained in the 1979 remake starring Cybil Shepherd and Elliot Gould, which turns the tale into more of a screwball comedy. The BBC 2013 adaptation is perhaps more faithful to the original source material, Ethel White’s novel The Wheel Spins (1936), on which all these versions are based.

So Long at the Fair ( Terence Fisher, 1950)

The plot of So Long at the Fair is rather similar, although the reasons for the disappearance and subsequent cover-up are different, hearking back to the template used in Lowndes’ novel. This film was adapted from Anthony Thorne’s 1947 novel of the same name – the screenplay was co-written by Hugh Mills and Anthony Thorne – and tells the story of Johnny (David Tomlinson) and his sister Vicky (Jean Simmons, above) who have travelled to Paris for the World Fair of 1889. Overnight, Johnny disappears without a trace – to the extent that even his hotel room number is erased. Again, no-one believes the distraught girl until artist George Hathaway (Dirk Bogarde) is drawn into the mystery, and the two begin to investigate (falling in love as they do so.) Jean Simmons is as sweet and delightful as ever, and the film benefits from some wonderful period detail – just look at the costumes and hairstyles! – as well as a fine supporting cast that includes Felix Aylmer, Honor Blackman and Cathleen Nesbitt.

Brother and sister Vicky (Jean Simmons) and Johnny (David Tomlinson) enjoying a relaxed moment in Paris before Johnny’s disappearance: but was he ever really there?

Into Thin Air (Don Medford, 1955) – Alfred Hitchcock Presents

Diana (Pat HItchcock) looking for answers in a scene from Into Thin Air

Hitchcock returned to this theme again in 1955 for an early episode in the first run of the anthology series ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’. The script was written by Marian Cockerell, based on Thorne’s novel, although in this version British visitors to the 1889 Exposition Universelle Mrs. Winthrop (Mary Forbes) and her daughter Diana (played by Pat Hitchcock, the daughter of Alma and Alfred) check into a Paris hotel on their way home. After Mrs. Winthrop falls ill, hotel doctor (John Mylong) sends Diana to his home for medicine, but when she returns there is no trace of her mother and all the staff deny that she was ever there…. The only person who believes Diana is an Englishman from the embassy, Basil Farnham (played by the wonderful Geoffrey Toone).

Bunny Lake is Missing (Otto Preminger, 1965)

Uniquely among the films here, Bunny Lake is Missing is set in contemporary Britain, although it was based on Merriam Modell’s 1957 novel of the same name, which is set in New York. Preminger’s film moves the location to London, where American single mother Ann Lake (Carol Lynley) has recently settled after moving from New York. When she goes to collect her four year old daughter ‘Bunny’ from the local children’s nursery, the child is not there, and the supervisor has no recollection of seeing her. As the police begin to investigate, they discover that there is no ‘Bunny Lake’ on the register, no children’s clothes, photographs or toy at Ann’s house, and that ‘Bunny’ was the name of Ann’s childhood imaginary friend. Unsurprisingly, Ann’s claims seem hard to believe, and she finds herself – like several other distraught females in this post – sedated and taken away for psychiatric assessment.

Every mother’s nightmare… Ann Lake (Carol Lynley) in search of Bunny

But she is fortunate in having diligent detective Newhouse (Laurence Olivier) on the case, who persists in his investigations despite his scepticism about Ann’s story. Olivier is just one of numerous fine actors in the film, which is populated with an assortment of strange characters – an eccentric schoolmistress who claims to collect children’s nightmares (Martita Hunt) , a doll-repairer (Finlay Currie), Ann’s brother Steven (Keir Dullea) and her lasvicious landlord Horatio (Noel Coward), not to mention Anna Massey, Adrienne Corri and Lucie Mannheim.

The Forgotten (Joseph Ruben, 2004)

This film differs a little from the others in that it contains a strong science fiction element, but the same basic strands are all here – the lone woman whose insistence that her child has disappeared is denied by friends and colleagues, leading to her being treated by a psychiatrist: only for the ‘conspiracy’ to fall apart and for the victim to be vindicated – although the film offers further twists after this. It’s all rather far-fetched, but worth watching for Julianne Moore’s performance as Telly Paretta, who is convinced that her son died in a plane crash – despite the denials by her husband and best friend – and the absence of any physical evidence – that she ever had a son. While her psychiatrist continues to treat her for what he sees as an obsessive delusion, she finds support from another man (Dominic West) experiencing the same thing with regard to his daughter. What is going on?

Julianne Moore in The Forgotten

Flightplan (Schwentke, 2005)

Following the recent death of her husband David, an aviation engineer, Kyle Pratt (Jodie Foster) is travelling on a plane from Berlin to New York with her daughter Julia (Marlene Lawston) and David’s body in the hold. After she dozes off during the flight, she wakes to find that her daughter is no longer in her seat. Other passenger deny having seen her daughter – unsurprising perhaps, given the size of the plane and many of them sleeping during the night flight. But when the flight attendants try and persuade Kyle that she was travelling alone, the passenger manifest has no record of Julia, and a doctor in Berlin informs the captain that Kyle lost both her husband and daughter in an accident, the young widow begins to question her sanity….but could there be another explanation?

Following the same pattern as the earlier films mentioned above, with one explicit borrowing from The Lady Vanishes, Flightplan begins well as the suspense builds up and Jodie Foster – like Julianne Moore – puts in a convincing performance as a mother struggling to balance her maternal instincts and memories against the overwhelming weight of contradictory evidence. As the film progresses, however, the elaborate plot strains credibility somewhat, but the confined space of the plane makes Flightplan even more claustrophobic and tense than the hotel and train settings of other adaptations of the story.

Kyle (Jodie Foster) and Captain Rich (Sean Bean) mid-air in Flightplan

The Changeling (Eastwood, 2008)

Although the premise is slightly different, there is a case for at least mentioning Clint Eastwood’s film The Changeling (2008) which starred Angeline Jolie and John Malkovich. Following the disappearance in Los Angeles in 1928 of Walter, the nine year old son of single mother Christine Collins (Angeline Jolie), the LA police carry out an investigation and claim to have found him. At the public reunion laid on to generate much-needed positive publicity for the corrupt and inefficient police force, Collins realises that the boy being returned to her is not Walter. The more she protests, the more evidence is produced to disprove her claims, leading to doubts about her sanity and fitness to look after her son. Although she is incarcerated in a state hospital for assessment, her case is taken up by a pastor (John Malkovich) and gradually the truth is revealed. The film is based on real events that took place in California in 1928.

As mentioned at the start, various versions of this story were published in newspapers and journals towards the end of the nineteenth century and those interested in exploring these should read here: https://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/09/14/vanishing-lady/

Anton Walbrook and the Courtney Affair

Birdie Courtney, the mother of AW’s fiancee, in 1915

On Sunday 23 October 1938 an ‘eighteen-year-old girl’ named Maude Courtney announced to the press that she and Walbrook – whom she had known for three months – were engaged to be married. She then withdrew the statement, issuing a denial of their engagement, before announcing it again a few hours later. It was stated that official notice of their intention to marry had been submitted to St Pancras Registry Office, but within 48 hours the engagement was called off again, this time for good. What on earth was going on? And why did Maude’s mother take such a prominent role in the story? As both mother and daughter belonged to Charles B Cochran’s famous company of ‘Young Ladies’, some background may help.

Fannie Barbara Birdie Coplans was born in Canterbury in 1891, the daughter of Russian emigres from Poland named Koplanski. No occupation was given in the 1911 census and she seems to have made her debut under the stage name of Birdie Courtney in Charles B. Cochran’s revue More at the Ambassadors Theatre in June 1915, from which the photograph at the top was taken. She caught the eye of both critics and audiences, and was soon featuring prominently in the press, as well as having her portrait taken by notable society photographers such as E.O. Hoppé

Photograph of ‘Birdie Courtney’ by E.O. Hoppé from The Tatler (16 February 1916), taken while she was performing in More.
Another photograph of Birdie, this time by Bertrand Park, from The Tatler (19 April 1916)

Having been singled out from a large line-up of chorus girls for attention, it was natural that Birdie would be offered a more prominent role, and she moved from the Ambassador to the Comedy Theatre to play a number of colourful parts in Half Past Eight.

Photograph of ‘Birdie Courtney’ by E.O. Hoppé from The Sketch (31 May 1916), showing her in the butterfly costume worn in Half Past Eight.

Evidently the press were interested in Birdie in more ways than one, for on 22 July 1916 she married Mr Randal Charlton, a novelist member of the Daily Mirror‘s editorial staff, at the church of Our Lady and St Edward, Chiswick. His best man was Horatio Bottomley MP and it was quite a society wedding, with MPs and show-business personalities among the guests. Charlton (whose real name was Lister) was the author of novels such as Mave (1906) and The Virgin Widow (1908) and had been a devoted fan of music hall star Marie Lloyd. Their daughter Maude was born eight months later, on 24 March 1917. Two sons followed, Warwick in 1918 and Frederick in 1928. The latter was only three years old when Randal Charlton died in 1931, by which time Birdie had established a reputation as a writer of short stories.

Birdie in 1920, photographed by Malcolm Arbuthnot, from The Bystander (5 May 1920)

At some point Maude followed her mother onto the stage: although newspapers described her as a ‘London dancer’ and ‘one of Charles B. Cochran’s “Young Ladies”’, she seems to have worked under a stage name, doubtless to avoid confusion with the well-known American vaudeville performer Maude Courtney (1884-1959), who was a regular feature in London music halls during this period, often appearing alongside her husband ‘Mr. C’ – Finlay Currie, who later co-starred with AW in 49th Parallel and Saint Joan. It is therefore not easy to trace details of any of her stage appearance, or work out where she might have met AW. He was, however, just about to launch his theatrical career in Britain with Design for Living and had been meeting with actors, producers, theatre managers and performers since his arrival in the UK the previous January. Although Cochran’s association with dancing girls and variety shows might be taken as implying a certain frivolity, he was a brilliant showman and took his work seriously. He had gone to see Max Reinhardt’s Oedipus Rex at the Circus Schumann in Berlin, and – impressed by his imaginative use of the vast space – persuaded Reinhardt to collaborate in a staging of The Miracle in London in 1912, at which the huge Olympia hall was transformed into a medieval cathedral. Cochran had a shrewd eye for picking out stars, and worked with the likes of Evelyn Laye, Jessie Matthews, Diana Manners, Gertrude Lawrence, Noel Coward and Leonard Massine during the interwar period, as well as collaborating with Diaghilev and Oliver Messel while producing the Ballet Russes. Making no distinction between high culture and popular entertainment, Cochran staged everything from Faust to Houdini, wild west rodeos to Eugene O’Neill.

Looking rather un-Victorian, Anna Neagle wearing a striking dress by Doris Zinkeisen in The Little Damozel (Wilcox, 1933) – a film that is now sadly lost

Anna Neagle, with whom AW had co-starred in Victoria the Great (1937) and Sixty Glorious Years (1938), started her theatrical career as one of Cochran’s chorus girls. Known then as Marjorie Robertson, she had worked her way up from being a dancer and understudy for Jessie Matthews to a leading role in Stand Up and Sing (1931). Perhaps AW’s meeting with Cochran’s company came through Neagle?

Reporters seeking a statement from Walbrook about the surprise engagement were to be disappointed, as inquirers who called at his house in Holne Chase were turned away at the door by one of the servants, who told them he was ‘out of town’. Another member of the Courtney family was willing to talk, however, and told reporters that the couple were going into the country until their marriage, later this month, after which a friend was lending them a yacht on which to take a four-week honeymoon. Maude regarded Walbrook as ‘quite the most romantic person in the world and quite the shyest.’

AW in 1938. Promotional postcard around the time of ‘Design for Living’

Walbrook: ‘A Man without a Country’

Two days later, the story had taken a dramatic twist, as a large article appeared in the same newspaper headed ‘Film Star’s Wedding Vetoed. Girl’s Mother Objects. Miss Maude Courtney as ‘subject of Hitler.’ Nationality bar. Mr Anton Walbrook ‘a man without a country.’ The story went on to explain that as of yesterday, (Wednesday 26 October) the wedding was officially ‘off’. Legal advice had been taken and a formal statement issued by Messrs Henry Solomon & Co., solicitors, dated Tuesday, following a meeting between Walbrook and Maude’s family. Although aware of their close relationship, Mrs Charlton had been ignorant of their intent to marry, and made her views clear: ‘In the present state of European turmoil, I dare not think of my daughter becoming an alien, being married to a man without a country, and a subject of Herr Hitler. Maudie is of course terribly disappointed – broken-hearted. They are still friends, and if there is anyway of surmounting the barrier, the wedding will take place as soon as ever the difficulties can be straightened out. Mr Walbrook is a refugee – he had a Jewish grandmother – and Maudie is a Catholic. Her family is descended from the Plantagenets and is mentioned in the Domesday Book. It is one of the oldest families in England. How could she sacrifice this heritage to become an outcast?’ Mrs Charlton made it clear that Walbrook’s nationality was her sole objection to his marriage to her daughter, and told reporters ‘Personally, I think he is a very charming man.’

Much of this whole affair makes little sense, and carries with it more than a hint of a publicity stunt. Many of Birdie Courtney’s statements about Maude’s age and ancestry do not tally with public records: Maude’s birth certificate makes clear that she was already twenty one – not eighteen – at the time of the engagement, rendering the entire legal issue about consent a nonsense. Were the solicitors really unaware of her real age? However, given Walbrook’s longstanding dislike of media attention, the idea of a fake publicity stunt sounds almost as implausible as that of an engagement to a young chorus girl whom he had only just met. Little did he know that within a matter of days he would begin a relationship that – in contrast to the Cochran affair – would last for almost a decade. Maude eventually found a husband in 1948, while her mother remarried in 1941, but neither mother or daughter seem to have made further progress with their theatrical careers. One wonders if they retained an interest in Walbrook: did Maude ever go to see the actor on stage and feel tempted to nudge her neighbour and whisper, ‘We were once engaged to be married?’


Raus, Untoten!

My latest foray into the world of fiction is a short story, Shadows in the East , which will appear next year in the third volume of a new anthology, Raus, Untoten! published by Fringeworks.

Raus, Untoten! is – as the title suggests – concerned with the German undead: including, but not limited to, that curious creature in horror films, the ‘Nazi zombie’. The editor of the anthology, Matthew Sylvester, wanted contributors to avoid the usual cliches of the genre and try approaching the subject from from unusual angles. I am dying (pardon the pun) to see how imaginative other authors have been, but clearly there was no shortage of enthusiasm: the anthology will be published in four volumes, as follows:

Volume One – October 31st 2013
Volume Two – January 31st 2014
Volume Three – April 30th 2014 (which will include my story)
Volume Four – July 31st 2014

The authors are an eclectic mix from both sides of the Atlantic and include Warhammer novelist Graham McNeill, and choreographer David Thomas Moore.

Matthew Sylvester has also written a story for the first volume. He interviewed me the other day, and our discussion can be read on his website at http://matthewsylvester.com/2013/08/23/author-interview-james-downs

My contribution was inspired in part by my fascination with the workings of German film studios during the 1930s and 1940s, particularly the vast complex at Babelsberg, home to UFA. I have seen many photographs of the studio buildings, both interior and exterior shots, and felt that these could be the ideal setting for my story. Originally, I intended there to be much more cinematic content, with allusions to Doktor Kaligari and other film themes woven into the narrative; as the story developed, it moved in a different direction and some of this material fell by the wayside – possibly no bad thing, either. Sometimes what writers want to write is not what their readers want to read, and there comes a point when an author has to decide who he wishes to please. I am hoping the anthology will be well received and look forward to posting more news about its progress here.


‘Anton Walbrook – Star and Enigma’ exhibition

Well, it’s almost time now to close down the exhibition, ‘Anton Walbrook – Star and Enigma’, which has been running at the Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture, University of Exeter , since 5 March 2013.

For this exhibition, artist Matt McLaren produced a remarkable series of over thirty pictures illustrating scenes from some of Walbrook’s best known films, including Gaslight (1940), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and The Red Shoes (1948.)  The pictures were created by an unusual technique involving paper cut outs and miniature sets, which are then photographed. Matt recently graduated from the MA illustration programme at Camberwell Art College .

Anton Walbrook (1896-1967) – whose biography I am currently writing – was an appealing, enigmatic star, popular in two warring countries under two different names. Born Adolf Wohlbrück in Vienna , he trained under theatrical impresario Max Reinhardt and achieved great success on both stage and screen in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s, appearing in hit films such asWalzerkrieg (1933), The Student of Prague (1934) and Michael Strogoff (1935.) Leaving Germany in 1936 to escape the Nazis, he became Anton Walbrook and arrived in Britain via Hollywood in early 1937. Walbrook quickly won the hearts of British film goers with his portrayal of Prince Albert in two lavish biopics of Queen Victoria and his role in the hugely popular Dangerous Moonlight, but perhaps his best work was done in partnership with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, with whom he made four films between 1941 and 1955. His postwar career involved work for the theatre, film and television in France , Germany and Britain , including two films with director Max Ophuls. He died in Germany following a heart attack on stage in Münich but – in accordance with his wishes – his body was returned to England and he was buried near his home in Hampstead.

The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum holds a wealth of material relating to Walbrook’s life and career, including early German cinema magazines, postcards, films stills, theatre programmes and presscuttings. A selection of this material was on display alongside Matt’s artwork. As well as curating the exhibition, I provided the accompanying text. Some of my personal collection of Walbrook memorabilia will also be on display, including an original costume worn for his role as Prince Albert . Now that the exhibition has ended, I plan to use this blog to share some more of my memorabilia collection and also provide updates on my progress with the biography.