Vanishing Act

People who disappear without a trace always make the most compelling cold case mysteries, mainly because they baffle even the most intrepid investigators. The famous urban legend of “The Vanishing Lady” also known as “The Vanishing Hotel Room” may very well have been based on a real person but the true facts are lost to time. No matter. The strange tale, which first emerged in the early 1900s, has been appropriated by various writers and filmmakers in some form over the years such as the 1913 novel The End of Her Honeymoon by Marie Belloc-Lowndes (author of The Lodger), Sir Basil Thomson’s 1925 novel The Vanishing of Mrs. Fraser and the 1932 film The Midnight Warning. My favorite variation on this theme is the Victorian era mystery, So Long at the Fair (1950), produced by the British film studio, Gainsborough Pictures. The title comes from the English folk tune “Oh Dear! What Can the Matter Be?,” which contains the line, “Johnny’s so long at the fair.”

Johnny Barton (David Tomlinson) and his sister Victoria (Jean Simmons) enjoy a night on the town at the Great Exhibition of 1889 in Paris in the film SO LONG AT THE FAIR (1950).

Synopsis: Vicky Barton (Jean Simmons) and her brother Johnny (David Tomlinson) arrive in Paris to attend the Great Exhibition of 1889 and enjoy a night on the town before returning to separate rooms at their hotel. The following morning Vicky discovers her brother is missing. Not only is there no record of his registration at the front desk but his room doesn’t exist either. No one on the hotel staff recalls ever seeing him and in desperation Vicky goes to both the British consul and the local police chief but neither one believes her story. Determined to unravel the mystery of her brother’s disappearance, Vicky enlists the help of a sympathetic stranger, British artist George Hathaway (Dirk Bogarde), and their sleuthing efforts uncover the truth.

Victoria Barton (Jean Simmons) enlists the painter George Hathaway (Dirk Bogarde) to aid her in a search for her missing brother in SO LONG AT THE FAIR (1950).

Based on a novel by Anthony Thorne, So Long at the Fair (1950) has a premise that shares some similarities with Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) but also looks forward to the “missing person” plot devices of Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965), Flightplan (2005) and other suspense thrillers. Though leisurely paced, the intriguing narrative holds one’s interest through the unexpected but plausible resolution and the authentic period detail, lavish art direction and impeccable performances by the main characters help suspend disbelief.

The directorial duties were shared by Antony Darnborough, who was better known as a producer, and Terence Fisher who displayed a propensity toward melodramas and thrillers early in his career (Stolen Face [1952], Mantrap [1953]); Fisher would eventually attain cult status for his stylish period horror films for Hammer Studios such as Horror of Dracula [1958], The Mummy [1959] and The Curse of the Werewolf [1961].

Dirk Bogarde plays a painter in Paris who helps a woman search for her missing brother in SO LONG AT THE FAIR (1950).

Both Jean Simmons and Dirk Bogarde were rising young stars in the British film industry when they appeared in So Long at the Fair. Bogarde, who was in danger of being typecast as a hoodlum after his two previous films (Boys in Brown [1949], The Blue Lamp [1950]), remarked in an interview at the time: “…personally, I’m a little tired of spivs [British term for slackers], wide boys and junior crooks, however they come and in whatever period. I found So Long at the Fair a refreshing change after all these excursions into the shady nooks of petty crooks. For once I wasn’t sharp and sly, or imbued with the reckless daring which springs from cowardice.”

George Hathaway (Dirk Bogarde) wonders if Victoria Barton (Jean Simmons) is telling the truth about her brother or having a nervous breakdown in the mystery thriller SO LONG AT THE FAIR (1950).

At the time, Bogarde and Simmons had never appeared in a film together (and never would again) but they enjoyed a close working relationship on So Long at the Fair. Bogarde recalled, ‘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.’

SO LONG AT THE FAIR (1950) was also known as The Black Curse in some regions although that title is a total spoiler.

Simmons was equally complimentary saying, “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.”

A publicity photo of Jean Simmons from a masked ball sequence in the 1950 mystery SO LONG AT THE FAIR.

In another interview, Bogarde confessed that he actually didn’t care for So Long at the Fair, adding “but I had to do it, and at that point, I was very much in love with Jean Simmons. Rank thought it was a great idea to encourage their two juvenile stars and we were given this film which was supposed to launch our engagement. Unfortunately, by the time the film was finished Jean had fallen in love with Stewart Granger, thereby ruining the publicity effort.”

Regardless of Bogarde’s own opinion of So Long at the Fair, it did help advance his career. One of the film’s producers, Betty E. Box, was so impressed with Bogarde’s performance that she thought of him for the lead in Doctor in the House (1954), the romantic comedy that catapulted him to major stardom in England as the dashing Dr. Simon Sparrow. He appeared in at least three of the sequels (Doctor at Sea, Doctor at Large, Doctor in Distress) but tended to downplay these lightweight romantic comedies in favor of more prestigious projects like the 1958 remake of A Tale of Two Cities. There was even a brief flirtation with Hollywood in the early sixties (The Angel Wore Red, Song Without End) but it wasn’t until 1961, when Bogarde appeared in the controversial drama Victim, that he finally earned the critical acclaim and financial clout to take on more challenging and adventurous roles.

The critical notices for So Long at the Fair were generally positive with The New York Times commenting that directors Darnborough and Fisher “have chosen to have their cast speak quite a bit of dialogue in French, a circumstance which may confuse American audiences. But they have also taken the trouble to set that cast, charmingly attired in Victorian bustles and top hats, in authentically bustling, carefree and gay Parisian locales.”

Victoria Barton (Jean Simmons) can’t convince French policemen that her brother ever existed in the mystery thriller SO LONG AT THE FAIR (1950).

The film has enjoyed a revival of interest in recent years thanks to film buffs like Danny Peary, who wrote in his Guide for the Film Fanatic, “Alfred Hitchcock admired this film, perhaps because its premise is a slight variation on his The Lady Vanishes. It’s very enjoyable and suspenseful, with a clever, satisfying conclusion.” Fernando F. Croce of Cinepassion deemed it “A striking tourist nightmare, isolation and panic and key objects (a signature on a registration book, a brooch, a shilling tip for a surly bellhop) woven into an elegantly baleful grid by Terence Fisher and Antony Darnborough.” And film critic Steven Pope wrote “this superb little sleeper is briskly paced and has a likable lead duo… There is an exciting hot air balloon sequence which moves the story into a slightly darker territory, although it steers well clear of anything too morbid.”

So Long at the Fair has been released on DVD by various distributors over the years and can also be streamed on Youtube but it definitely deserves to be remastered on Blu-ray for fans of Bogarde, Simmons and British cinema of the 1950s.

Jean Simmons and Dirk Bogarde star in the Victorian era mystery drama SO LONG AT THE FAIR (1950).

*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.

Other links of interest:

http://www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/455344/index.html

http://www.powell-pressburger.org/Reviews/Simmons/PictureShow.html

https://www.loc.gov/rr/print/coll/250_paris.html

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