Oh Dear! What Can the Matter Be?

jsimmons“Oh dear! What can the matter be?
Dear! Dear! What can the matter be?
Oh Dear! What can the matter be?
Johnny’s so long at the fair.

He promised he’d buy me a fairing should please me,
And then for a kiss, Oh! He vow’d he would tease me;
He promised he’d bring me a bunch of blue ribbons,
To tie up my bonny brown hair. ”
– Author unknown, 1793

British director Terence Fisher is best known for his work with Hammer Films but before he started making movies for the studio that dripped blood, Fisher edited and co-directed a number of films for Gainsborough Pictures. One of his most accomplished early directorial efforts is SO LONG AT THE FAIR (1950) starring a very young Jean Simmons and Dirk Bogarde. This absorbing thriller isn’t available on DVD in the US but SO LONG AT THE FAIR will air this coming Sunday (July 28th) on TCM at 7:15 PM PST and 10:15 PM EST. Fans of well-acted period dramas and good gothic mysteries should consider tuning in but the film will be of particular interest to anyone curious about the origins of modern British horror cinema.

Paris during the height of the Belle Époque! The Exposition Universelle, the Eiffel Tower and the Moulin Rouge! Mystery, suspense and romance! Dirk Bogarde playing a Van Helsing prototype! Young Jean Simmons looking ravishing! Disappearing hotel rooms! A hot air balloon crash! Did I mention Dirk Bogarde? These are just a few of the reasons you should watch SO LONG AT THE FAIR but the film has a lot more to recommend it.

It begins with a young British woman (Jean Simmons) and her brother (David Tomlinson) arriving in Paris by boat at the start of 1889 Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair) where the Eiffel Tower is making its grand debut. Simmons is thrilled to be staying in the City of Light and quickly makes plans to visit the newly opened Moulin Rouge where welcoming can-can dancers entertain the siblings. When they return to their hotel (coyly named The Unicorn, which hints at the innocence of the English visitors) the two weary travelers say their goodnights and go to their separate rooms. At daybreak Simmons eagerly attempts to wake her brother but finds him missing. His room has mysteriously vanished and the hotel staff claims that she arrived alone and unaccompanied by her brother. This strange turn of events naturally sends Simmons into a panic and she enlists the help of the British Consulate as well as the local police but has trouble convincing them about the seriousness of her predicament. Thankfully a handsome bohemian artist (Dirk Bogarde) comes to Simmon’s aid and the attractive young duo set out to discover what happened to her missing brother.

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Anyone familiar with Terence Fisher’s work for Hammer should be able to recognize his hand in the film. Although it was co-directed by Antony Darnborough, SO LONG AT THE FAIR has Fisher’s fingerprints all over it. The period setting and playful banter shared between the actors establishes a sense of familiarity with the characters that is typical of Fisher. The film also maintains a surprising level of suspense and mystery but it doesn’t shy away from the script’s more gruesome elements. We watch horrified when a hot air balloon carrying a beautiful girl catches fire and plummets to the ground and once the mystery of Simmons’ missing brother is finally resolved, the outcome is shockingly unpleasant. Handsome and somewhat authoritative male figures usually took the lead in Fisher’s films and were instrumental in saving the helpless heroines. Dirk Bogarde fits this mold perfectly and in SO LONG AT THE FAIR he can be seen as the predecessor to the courageous vampire hunter Doctor Van Helsing, made famous by Peter Cushing years later in Fisher’s Hammer films. Some scenes, such as the lively Moulin Rouge can-can sequence, were even repeated by Fisher in other films such as THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL (1960).

One of Fisher’s most undervalued skills was his ability to get extraordinarily effective and nuanced performances from the actors he worked with and this is plainly apparent in SO LONG AT THE FAIR. I often find it difficult to sympathize with the characters Jean Simmons portrayed but that’s not the case here. She’s perfectly charming, naïve and vulnerable as a misplaced tourist in Paris desperate to find her lost sibling. And Fisher beautifully captures both Simmons’ and Bogarde’s youthful beauty and vitality. The two actors have rarely looked as lovely. Dirk Bogarde has long been one of my favorite actors but he can occasionally come across as somewhat restrained and stiff on screen but Fisher managed to unleash the more animated and energetic aspects of Bogarde’s personality. In Fisher’s capable hands Bogarde vigorously romances his female costar, climbs in and out of windows and crashes through doors. Other noteworthy performances include Honor Blackman (aka Pussy Galore) as Bogarde’s neglected girlfriend and Cathleen Nesbit as the menacing Hotel owner. Nesbit’s eerie performance, which has her tormenting poor Jean Simmons throughout the film, recalls the sinister Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) in Hitchcock’s REBECCA (1940).

The movie benefits from the onscreen chemistry shared between the two leads. Simmons and Bogarde had become friendly before filming and the studios encouraged them to be seen out in public together in an effort to derail gossip about Bogarde’s homosexuality. Simmons said of their time together, “I thought of him as a gorgeous young man. But not really a man. He was such fun-a great giggler. I loved Dirk, and was hoping perhaps we would be married one day; but I was dreaming and fantasizing. Dirk and I were very close friends for a while but I never really knew him. I didn’t realize he was gay. In those days people didn’t talk about it.” Bogarde also thought highly of Simmons and wrote, “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 love to do a comedy with her.” Unfortunately they never got the opportunity to work together again. During the making of SO LONG AT THE FAIR, Simmons was being courted by actor Stuart Granger and once filming ended she was swept off to Hollywood where love, fame and fortune awaited her.

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If the plot of SO LONG AT THE FAIR sounds familiar that’s because it was reportedly based on an urban legend or distorted news story (take your pick) that various authors such as Alvin Schwartz, Marie Belloc Lowndes and Anthony Thorne (who shares screenwriting credits on SO LONG AT THE FAIR with Hugh Mills) have further developed. The strange story of a Paris hotel that seems to mysteriously swallow up visitors has been filmed several times beginning in 1919 when it was part of the silent horror anthology EERIE TALES directed by Richard Oswald and starring Conrad Veidt. Following the release of Terence Fisher’s 1950 film, the story was borrowed by Alfred Hitchcock for an episode of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS titled Into Thin Air (1955) and in 1961 the story was filmed again for BBC television. The BBC adaption starred Edward de Souza, which is a name that might be familiar to some Hammer fans. According to author Wayne Kinsey (Hammer Films: The Bray Studio Years), Edward de Souza was actually ‘discovered’ by Terence Fisher who spotted him on TV while watching the ’61 television adaptation of SO LONG AT THE FAIR and was so impressed that he insisted on hiring de Souza for Hammer’s update of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962). Later de Souza was cast in Hammer’s KISS OF THE VAMPIRE (1963), which coincidentally shares many similarities with SO LONG AT THE FAIR. It’s funny how these things come full circle. It’s also quite possible that Fisher was in talks with Hammer to direct KISS OF THE VAMPIRE but after his version of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA failed to find an appreciative audience he had a minor falling out with the studio. Whatever the case may be, Don Sharp was hired to direct KISS OF THE VAMPIRE but the film definitely shows some of Fisher’s influence.

Hopefully my look at this exceptional thriller will encourage you to tune in and watch on July 28th. It’s playing in conjunction with one of my favorite David Lean films, his marvelous and perfectly spooky adaptation of GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1946), which also stars Jean Simmons and should make for a terrific double feature with SO LONG AT THE FAIR.

13 Responses Oh Dear! What Can the Matter Be?
Posted By avmckee : July 25, 2013 12:43 pm

Gotta get TCM one of these days, but it’s on the most expensive cable package, of course. Thanks!

Posted By Patricia Nolan-Hall : July 25, 2013 1:42 pm

Another use of the plot was on an episode of “The Big Valley” from 1967 called “The Disappearance”. Lew Ayres guest starred.

You are so right about the atmosphere created by “So Long at the Fair”. It makes the movie a winner all the way.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : July 25, 2013 3:24 pm

avmckee – Hope you can join us soon!

Patricia – Thanks for that bit of info about the BIG VALLEY episode. I loved that show when I was a kid but I don’t remember that episode. I’m going to try and track it down now.

Posted By LD : July 25, 2013 5:41 pm

The Criterion release of THE LADY VANISHES includes an interview of Hitchcock by Truffaut. Hitchcock brings up a story of the disappearance of a woman in a Paris hotel at the time of the 1889 Exposition and how it was one of the inspirations for THE LADY VANISHES. I knew I had seen a movie with a similar plot but could not think of the title. It seems it was SO LONG AT THE FAIR. Thank you.

Posted By Gina : July 25, 2013 5:43 pm

I love this one. Thanks for the article!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : July 25, 2013 7:05 pm

LD – Glad to be of help. People often bring up THE LADY VANISHES in association with SO LONG AT THE FAIR but I personally don’t think they have all that much in common. But it’s interesting how the original story inspired Hitch so much that he was compelled to film variations on the idea. His “Into Thin Air” ep. of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS is one of my favorites from the series and it even stars his daughter, Patricia.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : July 25, 2013 7:06 pm

Gina – Thanks! I’m glad to see that SO LONG AT THE FAIR has some fans. It’s a terrific film.

Posted By Kingrat : July 25, 2013 7:38 pm

Kimberly, thanks for your engaging article on SO LONG AT THE FAIR, a charming film. As a non-fan of horror movies, I knew nothing about Terence Fisher and am glad to know more about him. I’ll watch Dirk Bogarde or Jean Simmons in just about anything, let alone a film as good as this one.

Posted By Doug : July 26, 2013 7:35 am

“The strange story of a Paris hotel that seems to mysteriously swallow up visitors” might be urban legend, but might, in part, be based on the reality of what happened during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where a man calling himself H.H. Holmes built a ‘murder hotel’, renting rooms to Fair visitors to kill and rob them.
I mentioned Holmes in a recent post here as some speculate that he want on a tour of London as Jack the Ripper. His story is told in the book, “The Devil In The White City” by Erik Larson.

Posted By Nim Kovak : July 30, 2013 12:30 am

I’m a big fan of both this film and the Hitchcock episode mentioned as well — & I just wanted to add that although it’s true that the plot differs from that of The Lady Vanishes; I would really love to see a post here or other examination of this whole incredibly fascinating sub-genre of situations which deal with the bad guys just stonewalling & completely denying the basic reality of the situation … One of my favorite sub-genres, also including for instance:

My Name is Julia Ross (& its eighties remake Dead of Winter)

Bunny Lake is Missing (yes I realize the final twist may put it in a different light, but even so …)

& of course there are the films like Gaslight (both UK & US versions), Sleep My Love, The House on Telegraph Hill & Hitchcock’s Suspicion etc., even Footsteps in the Fog perhaps speaking of Granger …

But perhaps those last are in a different but affiliated sub-genre — the whole sort-of does-my-hubby-love-me-or-is-he-trying-to-drive-me-insane category … But it’s still similar

Posted By swac44 : July 30, 2013 4:39 pm

I ended up watching this at 5 a.m. this morning, due to a bit of humidity-induced insomnia and thoroughly enjoyed it, as I suspected I would, and also had The Lady Vanishes (and, by default, its quasi-remake Flightplan with Jodie Foster) come to mind, if only for the tenuous connection of a character that disappears while others deny the existence of said character. Well plotted, and indeed horrific at times, the balloon scene gave me chills.

By a strange coincidence, I followed it up with The Scapegoat, an Alec Guinness mystery from 1959, based on a novel by Hitchock’s favourite author, Daphne Du Maurier. In this case the mystery isn’t about a person who is missing, but rather a person who is present, one person too many perhaps, when Guinness as a British schoolteacher meets his doppelganger, a British/French aristocrat, and is tricked into taking his place, not aware that he’s part of a more sinister plot. The film gets a TCM rerun on Saturday night/Sunday morning as part of Alec Guinness Day, worth checking out if you haven’t seen it before (with a great supporting role by Bette Davis as a morphine-addicted matriarch).

Posted By swac44 : July 30, 2013 4:40 pm

Just learned The Scapegoat was remade only last year, but I can’t imagine anyone topping Guinness’s well-measured performance as the two lookalikes.

Posted By robbushblog : July 31, 2013 12:28 pm

I missed another great one. it seems. I am just catching up with Morlocks posts. It’s really too bad because this movie looks like one I might have really enjoyed. Darn it all!

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