So Long at the Fair (1950)
Director: Anthony Darnborough, Terence Fisher
Cast: Jean Simmons, Dirk Bogarde, David Tomlinson
Synopsis: A young woman visits Paris with her brother only to discover the following morning he has gone missing and the hotel staff have no recollection of his presence.
WARNING! This review contains SPOILERS!
There are two sources for this British mystery, one of two movies in 1950 for which producer Anthony Darnborough received co-directing credits with Terence Fisher. The first is a popular urban legend in which a mother and daughter visit the Paris exposition only for the mother to fall ill shortly after arriving. The hotel doctor sends the daughter to his house to fetch medicine for her mother, but when she returns the doctor and hotel staff insists she arrived alone and that they never saw her mother. The other source, which was possibly derived from the same origins, was Richard Oswald’s 1919 portmanteau movie Weird Tales (Unheimliche Geschichten) in which Conrad Veidt finds himself in a similar predicament.
In So Long at the Fair, it’s gamin young ingenue Jean Simmons who finds herself at the centre of some mysterious conspiracy. She plays Vicky Barton, who is travelling to Paris for the 1889 exposition with her brother, Johnny (David Tomlinson). She’s not very experienced, bless her, and she’s beside herself with excitement at visiting Paris for the first time. Johnny’s a lot more worldly-wise than his little sister, and isn’t quite as keen to visit the tourist traps in the way that Vicky is. Particularly, I imagine, if their prices are inflated for the occasion in the way in which they are for special events these days. Presumably, this sequence is as much about setting up a sense of time and place, and of Vicky’s inexperience, although the film was shot at Pinewood Studios, so the spirit of Gay Paree during La Belle Epoque is never truly evoked, despite a visit to the Moulin Rouge and a typically raucous performance of the Can Can. Strangely, It seems as if there was some kind of hole in censorship laws of the 1950s that permitted women to push their bottoms pertly into the air to show their knickers during these dances in a way that would have earned the movie an instant ban had it taken place in any other surroundings.
During their night out, Vicky notices young artist George Hathaway entertaining his friend Rhoda O’Donovan (Honor Blackman) and her mother (Betty Warren). Hathaway is portrayed by Dirk Bogarde in the typically foppish manner which restricted his most effective performances to a particular type of character. He is, for example, noticeably absurd when attempting to portray a rough, working class villain such as the one who did for dear old PC Dixon in The Blue Lamp. And George notices Vicky, too, which comes in handy when Vicky awakens the following morning to discover that her brother Johnny has mysteriously disappeared.
In fact, Johnny hasn’t just disappeared — he never existed at all, according to the shifty couple who run the hotel in which Vicky is staying. Madame Herve (Cathleen Nesbitt) insists that Vicky arrived alone the night before, as does her husband Narcisse (Marcel Poncin) and the hotel porter (Eugene Deckers) who carried their bags. They even show Vicky a plain wall where her brother’s room used to be. Of course, we know from the outset that the couple are lying because we’ve met Johnny and saw him booking in with his sister, which means that Vicky’s story is never in doubt, a fact which restricts the mystery element of the story, but which is also pretty much unavoidable. We know who the bad guys are the moment they insist Johnny never existed, all we need to see now is just how Vicky proves they are lying, an outcome which is never for one moment in doubt, and which tempers much of the suspense inherent in the story.
The police are sympathetic, but unable to do anything until Vicky can provide proof that Johnny was with her. But how can she do that? Enter the foppish Hathaway, who borrowed some money from Johnny in the lobby of the hotel late the night before. Hathaway had Rhoda return the money in an envelope to the hotel reception desk for Johnny to collect. But when the receptionist is forced to deny that Johnny is staying there, she slips the envelope containing the money — complete with a note inviting Johnny and Vicky to his apartment for drinks — under Vicky’s door. At last, Vicky has a way of proving her brother was with her, and quickly pays a visit on the accommodating Mr. Hathaway.
I try to avoid spoilers in reviews whenever possible, but this is one of those occasions where the twist in the story has such a major impact on the viewer’s opinion of its worth that it’s impossible to review So Long at the Fair without revealing just why Johnny disappeared in the night. So stop reading now if you haven’t seen the movie…
It turns out, you see, that Johnny has somehow contracted the black plague, and that he has been secretly spirited away to a hospital for treatment. The reason for all the subterfuge is purely economic: an outbreak of the plague on the eve of the Exposition would be a disaster. This immediately calls up two questions. Firstly, why didn’t they just explain the situation to Vicky and take her along with her brother? And, secondly, is it not likely that she would also have contracted her brother’s illness, as would any number of the people he mingled with on their night out together? Did nobody stop to think that the Exposition, which attracted over 32 million people to Paris over five months, would immeasurably speed up the spread of the disease across Europe?
Simmons makes an appealing and sympathetic damsel in distress/heroine, but Bogarde is insipid as her hero and potential love interest. Nesbitt and Poncin also make an enjoyably sinister pair of villains who place financial gain over the lives of others. Together, they generate an atmosphere of indistinct oppression which is never less than believable, and the screenplay (by Hugh Mills and Anthony Thorne) does a good job of establishing the sense of isolation and panic an inexperienced girl in Vicky’s position would feel. This isolation is enhanced by the smart decision to have all the French characters speaking their native language to one another without subtitles, so that those who don’t speak French will share the heroine’s frustration and anxiety. To be honest, the French spoken is pretty basic, and I suspect some of the actors might have learnt their French lines phonetically, but it strengthens So Long at the Fair immeasurably. Unfortunately, however, some might have difficulty getting over that ending…
(Reviewed 6th September 2013)