The Lady Vanishes (1938) is comprised of two separate story lines. The first is that of Iris, Gilbert, and Mrs. Froy that critiques relationships, notions of family, and life as a married woman. The second is a political parable about reacting passively to the encroaching Nazi menace, told mostly through the lens of the Todhunters and two English friends on holiday. This essay is going to focus on what I see as the real center of the film, that is Iris’s transfer from life as an unmarried maid, to life as a married woman.
The movie opens in what Mrs. Froy refers to as “the mother and father mountains” in east Europe. There Iris, a young heiress to a jam making company, meets Mrs. Froy, a governess who becomes a maternal figure for Iris. Here Iris’s eventual partner, Gilbert, is perceived as an invader and nuisance to both Iris and Froy. The wedding ceremony he practices upstairs, much like the thought of Iris’s wedding, is a disturbance, that she and Froy try to ignore. In this initial sphere Iris seems content, her friends, who act more like sisters, are a source of companionship and comfort. The Italian hotel manager serves as an inept father figure, who, despite being predominantly focused on her money, is still capable of taking care of her. Finally, Mrs. Froy as the mother comforts Iris as she travels away from this home sphere and towards her life as a married woman. What Hitchcock sets up for Iris in the mountains is a maiden identity. A place where she is considered daughter and sister rather than bride or mother.The idea of marriage bothers Iris as it means losing this first identity. She would have to leave her friends, abandon the comfort of the hotel that has served as her home, as well as its protective manager, and settle for a life that she did not choose. Her maiden name, synonymous with her identity, would be discarded so that her father can put a noble title on jam bottles. The money that previously shielded her and lent her what little protection she had, has now become a threat to her. As she becomes merely a conduit for her father to exchange wealth for prestige.
The meat of the film takes place aboard a train that is traveling from the hotel all the way to England. Here the second lady, Froy, vanishes. This is necessary, if Froy is Iris’s mother figure then she cannot join Iris in the next phase of her life as a married woman. This is Hitchcock’s greatest critique of the maternal identity: it does not allow women to maintain their relationships with their previous family. Compare this to Shadow of a Doubt. The true tragedy there is that Old Charlie cannot be part of the family’s life, and that Young Charlie’s mother must reject her first home sphere and maiden identity, which implies that young Charlie is doomed to do the same. That’s a horrible tragedy: to lose your still living parents. To force Iris away from her family, and then away from her adopted family, to take the life of a lord’s housewife for some man she never chose is really quite evil. And what’s even more insidious is that though she fears losing her home and identity as a daughter, it is her parents, it is that very same home, that pushes her towards this horrific life. Even the thing she craves, is only the lesser of two evils. As the panic builds， we catch a glimpse of possible hope in the relationship between Iris and Gilbert. In the mountains the two were enemies, But on the train Gilbert’s faith in Iris causes them to move from enemies, to partners, and eventually lovers. Iris’s attraction to Gilbert is a combination of rebellion, need, and charm. She needs him because he’s the only one who believes her, and he represents a choice that she is able to take for herself. But still doubt lingers as to how much of a choice Iris really has. One can tell a lot from a kiss, and in the end when the two finally do, it does not begin as a mutual embrace. Rather, Gilbert wraps his arms around Iris and seizes her, and she, melts into his arms and returns the affection after a moment of shock. The kiss implies that Iris may not really desire Gilbert in the way Gilbert desires her, but rather, she takes Gilbert because he is a more bearable thought. Or, worse, that Gilbert is seizing upon a woman who feels trapped, and he is in fact no better than the other people who try to control her.
We have seen Gilbert manipulate Iris before: in the hotel Iris gets Gilbert kicked out of his room. As retaliation he sets up in her hotel room. When she threatens to have him kicked out, he tells her that if she did he would merely inform the manager that he was invited to the room. The power Gilbert is able to wield over Iris due to his position as a man is demonstrated simply and undeniably.
Still there is a sense of hope in their relationship. For one thing, Gilbert’s helping Iris to find her mother figure implies that he is willing to accept Iris as both his wife and somebody else’s daughter, which I think is as important to Iris as it is to Hitchcock. For another thing we see that Gilbert really does consider Iris to be his partner. He even makes a comparison to Sherlock and Watson, a famous duo who are not only friends, but companions, and peers. But even in this cheery comparison doubt lingers. If Gilbert considers himself to be Sherlock, and Iris Watson, then does he really believe himself to be her equal? If Iris cannot find a relationship with an equal, then can she ever enjoy the freedom and support she had as a maiden? It feels as one could see the words “tonight golden curls”* in the shadow of Gilbert and Iris. The beacons of their hope cast shadows of potential horror. And even though they seem to have a genuine affection for each other, one must wonder how much of that is created from need, rather than want.
Finally in the woods the train comes to a temporary halt. Froy is discovered and freed, Iris, though she does have to say goodbye to her mother figure, can do it under her own terms. Before leaving, Froy gives her blessing to Gilbert in the form of the tune. After some excitement, the two continue on to England and their relationship blossoms in their kiss, and eventually they have their second encounter with Mrs. Froy at the tail end of the film. In the moment one questions very little, the conspiracy that moves under the movie keeps one guessing and distracted from the oddities of the relationship between Iris and Froy. But in retrospect one can feel only tiny doubts about Iris and Gilbert, do they love each other? or do they simply need each other? Can Iris ever maintain the joy she had as a maiden? And is the joy of maidenhood anything more than an illusion created by a family structure that is in fact designed to extort and abuse you? Saddest thing is this is probably one of HItchcock’s cheerier films.
*“Tonight Golden Curls” is a reference to the movie “The Lodger” one of Hitchcock’s earliest works as a director. In it, that phrase is used to subtly insinuate that the love interest of the film is in fact a modern-day Jack the Ripper.
Benton Madsen is an aspiring film writer from New York. He’s a great lover of cinema, and the power it wields to influence perception. He presently attends NYU, and can commonly be found singing opera, or playing board games when he is not writing.