Film: So Long at the Fair (1950)

May 13, 2016 | By

SoLongAtTheFair_posterFilm: Good

Transfer:  n/a

Extras: n/a

Label:  n/a

Region: n/a

Released:  n/a

Genre:  Suspense / Drama

Synopsis: The morning after arriving for the Paris Exposition, a young British lass discovers her brother has disappeared from the hotel, with no one acknowledging he ever existed.

Special Features:  n/a




Please note: this review is filled with rampant spoilers!


Producer Antony Darnborough took two pokes at directing in 1950, starting with The Astonished Heart and So Long at the Fair, albeit co-directing both with the aid of then-newcomer Terence Fisher, who had already proven his own by directing five films following a lengthy tenure as an editor. Whereas Fisher eventually became Hammer’s premiere horror director by the late fifties, Darnborough oddly disappeared from filmmaking after 1956.

Perhaps Darnboroug’s fling in the director’s seat was an experiment, but at least So Long was blessed with a fine cast of fresh-faced talent who themselves would enjoy fairly robust careers. They are the chief reason the film is worth a peek, because the story starts off as a slow-burning mystery and then suddenly becomes a drama when the big twist is revealed in the final ten minutes.

The setting is almost as intriguing as the plot: the morning after checking into a small Paris hotel, young Vicky Barton (ravishing Jean Simmons) finds none of the staff remembers her older brother Johnny (David Tomlinson) with whom she arrived, and his room has mysteriously disappeared. After seeking help from the police and the British Consulate, her lone witness – a friendly chambermaid – dies in an incendiary balloon disaster during the opening ceremony of the 1889 Paris Exhibition.

With no one willing to help her, the virtually penniless woman is taken to the train station by the hotel’s concierge for a trip back to England, where she’ expected to deal with her loss and wavering mental state on her own. Convinced the concierge (Marcel Poncin) and hotel owner (Cathleen Nesbitt) have murdered her brother, she tracks down a dashing British, Paris-based painter named George Hathaway (skinny Dirk Bogarde) who not only saw her having dinner with her missing brother, but borrowed some funds from Johnny.

Still lacking tangible evidence, sympathetic George checks into the suspicious hotel, does some snooping, and snatches some check stubs and Vicky’s missing broach from the hotel safe. He’s convinced there’s a secret hotel room on the second floor, and with a disguise, Vicky follows George back to the hotel where they enter the mysterious room that’s been walled up and shuttered from sight.

When the pair smash through the fake wall and startle the hotel staff, the police chief (Austin Trevor, sporting a slippery French accent) arrives, and Vicky eventually discovers her brother was whisked away after being diagnosed with the Black Plague.

The reason for all the subterfuge? Fearing mass hysteria from international visitors and a huge drop in business, Johnny was dispatched to a local convent for treatment, and a cover-up was put into play to ensure the financial needs of the hotel, as well as the Paris Exhibition, weren’t threatened.

There are many implausible actions within this Victorian-set urban legend, such as the police chief’s sympathies for the hotelier’s drastic maneuvers, but in moments of Great Commercial Risk, the hotelier’s actions were understandable. Moreover, constructing a fake wall in a hallway that’s more than likely to be traveled at night by guests is preposterous, as is assembling wooden slats, plaster, and wallpaper that would alert guests, day or night.

There’s also the revelation that the hotel has been doing this for some time – walling up the rooms of infected guests – which one presumes would lead the local police to wonder why a certain percentage of guests check out with delusions of missing spouses or siblings, as well as weird claims of missing citizens from various consulates (and never mind a hotel’s dwindling supply of available rooms and monthly profits).

Darnborough manages to evoke Paris in spite of a limited budget, but the lack of a broader scope – in terms of more characters to address some of the aforementioned plot headaches – makes the film’s dramatic thrust uneven. When the chambermaid dies in the balloon disaster, there’s merely a disappointing shrug from observers (’oh darn!’) and the story moves on. The sudden death creates a suspicion of an elaborate murder planned by the hotelier, but the finale simply pegs the event as a freak tragedy, much like a plane crash during an air show.

Benjamin Frankel’s score is 10% effective when circumstances are starkly dire, but much of his material consists of a bizarrely ebullient theme that inappropriately treats Vicky’s search for answers like a fanciful tour through Paris.

Of note among the able cast is Honor Blackman (Goldfinger), playing a snotty cream puff with whom George has had a minor dalliance, and Cathleen Nesbitt as the scheming hotelier.

The basic story (allegedly stemming from an oft-told urban legend) was compacted and remade in 1955 as “Into Thin Air” (Season 1, Episode 5) for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series, with the director’s daughter Pat Hitchcock playing the Vicky variant, arriving in Paris from India with her already queasy mother. After Pat’s sent on a wild goose-chase for medicine by the hotel doctor, she returns to find the room changed, the hotel staff similarly ignorant, and seeks aide from the local British consulate.

A bureaucrat helps her unearth the truth, and like the Darnborough’s finale, favourable sympathies are given to the hotelier, this time by the chief British official. Why so simpatico? Why, the hotelier was just acting on behalf of a paranoid French government to safeguard the economic security of the Paris Exposition. The real insult never addressed in the teleplay? Pat’s mother dies soon after the doctor’s visit, and no one had any intention of informing the daughter nor consulate of the tragedy (nor where to grab the presumably incinerated remains).

Both feature film and teleplay prove that not all lurid hooks lead to fulfilling finales….



© 2016 Mark R. Hasan



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