The Ghost Train (1941)

Today I am doing one of my very occasional reviews on a film. The Ghost Train was originally a play written by Arnold Ridley in 1923, though it didn’t hit the stage until 1925, when it ran for 18 months. 1927 also saw its first film adaptation and novelisation. Given how early on in the Golden Age this story was produced, I am curious as to how much it influenced mystery writers of the era, as it includes several iconic mystery/suspense tropes.

According to good old Wikipedia:

‘Ridley was inspired to write the play after becoming stranded overnight at Mangotsfield railway station (a now “lost station”, on the defunct Midland Railway Company’s main line), during a rail journey through the Gloucestershire countryside. The deserted station’s atmosphere, combined with hearing the non-stop Bath to Gloucester express using an adjacent curved diversionary main line to by-pass Mangotsfield, which created the illusion of a train approaching, passing through and departing, but not being seen, impressed itself upon Ridley’s senses. The play took him only a week to write.’

In a nutshell, the film focuses on a group of passengers stranded at a rural train station, miles from any village. It is late at night, it’s raining, and they have missed their connection. There is nothing else to do but wait 9 hours for the next one. It is perhaps unfortunate that the station they are stuck at is reputed to be haunted, due to a tragic accident which took place there 40 years ago when a train crashed off a bridge. The situation gets more trying as the night wears on and things take a decidedly dramatic turn at the end.

Overall Thoughts

I think this is a story which is difficult to neatly categorise. The opening credits with ominous music set up a sinister tone and I enjoyed how the camera viewpoint is that of a train going along a track. However, this eerie note quickly dissipates into comedy afterwards, with Tommy Gander, a comedian, taking centre stage. He pulls an emergency cord, for instance, simply in order to collect his hat which had blown out of the window. Since this character is being played by an actual comedian, Arthur Askey, I wonder whether more comedic skits were added to the plot. It is because of his character’s earlier antics that the passengers miss their connection and are forced to stay at an isolated rural train station.

At this point I thought things would become more sinister again, yet Tommy Gander’s comedy hijinks suppress this part of the story, even once the station master has shared the ghost story associated with the station. It is not until the station master, (having left them to go home), mysteriously returns and collapses that a ripple of tension resurfaces. Although again Tommy’s hobby of winding people up squashes it flat.

It is not until the final quarter of the film that the mystery element of the plot is able to dominant the proceedings, with a sighting of the ghost train and the disappearance of a body no less. The change in tone from comedy to dramatic mystery is swift and some of the characters begin to re-assess their previous experiences at the train station. I enjoyed this reassessment and my little grey cells began to wonder what had been going on. It is a shame really that this part of the story is compressed into such a small section of the film, as I feel if given more screen time, it could have been developed into a fully fletched mystery film. Nevertheless, the ending holds some interesting surprises, as I had predicted it would go one, when in fact it went in another direction.

I know it sounds like I did not enjoy the film, but I did. It is just that I can see how it could have been done better. The story is slow to start and it takes a while for the problem of the piece to come into focus. Furthermore, I think the comedy focused beginning and middle could have been shortened, though I appreciate the inclusion of Askey may have affected the script. I have not read or seen the play version, so I don’t know how much of that comedy is from the original story. Shifting the story to a WW2 context works quite well and plays into the solution of the original story. How the finale is played out also differs between the two versions but not in a detrimental way I think.  

It is possible to catch this film on Youtube and it can also be bought cheaply as a DVD and I am definitely interested in watching a theatre production at some point.

Rating: 4/5

12 comments

  1. I’ve watched this movie a few years ago, but found it too flimsy, as a mystery, to slap together a review. You’re correct that the (dated) comedy squashed that aspect of the movie. Only thing that made me laugh was his line to the silent parrot, but only because it came out of left field and was unlike any of the other comedy bits in the movie. That was the only time he actually delivered like a comedian.

    By the way, the story the movie is based on is listed in Adey’s Locked Room Murders and is what brought it to my attention. Yeah, I know, surprising. 🙂

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    • ha yes it’s not like you to indulge in reading locked room mysteries. I guess the disappearing body is the locked room aspect. In the film not much is done with it, but I wonder if it is more of a thing in the original play.

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  2. Having seen the original play (in a good amateur performance) some years ago, I remember that there was a comedy element, but it was well integrated with the ghostly and sinister side of the plot. I suspect (although I’ve not seen the film) that it was adapted as a vehicle for Askey.

    Arnold Ridley is, of course, now much better known for playing Private Godfrey in “Dad’s Army”.

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  3. Askey was a radio star and his act doesn’t translate onto the screen. He becomes very annoying very quickly. As you say, there’s the possibility of a creepy film there. But the supreme chills and laughs film is the Cat and the Canary (the 1939 version with Bob Hope). The Terror (1938) has its moments and The Ghost of St Michael’s (1941) with Will Hay is worth a watch too. I’m new to literary GAD shenanigans though, so thank you for your amazing blogsite.

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  4. It’s very likely that the Will Hay film “Oh, Mr. Porter”, although not directly based on “The Ghost Train”, was strongly influenced by it.

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  5. I pointed this film out to my husband after reading your post and we decided to order a copy. We like old films and I think we will like it well enough. I will let you know.

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  6. Two of the supporting actors are perhaps of interest. Richard “Stinker” Murdoch was Askey’s straight man on the radio show and i thought did a decent enough job in the latter part of the film. People may remember him as Uncle Tom in Rumpole of the Bailey and also was the narrator of the “fuzzy felt” Moomins.He also had two long running radio comedy series which are replayed periodically on the BBC 4Extra, Much Binding in the marsh and Men from the Ministry.

    The other is Raymond Huntley who became one of those actors who always seemed to turn up in 1950s British films as a pompous solicitor or bank manager and had a recurring actor role in the original Upstairs Downstairs.

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    • Yes I had seen online that Murdoch was a familiar working partner of Askey. They did seem to pair up a great deal in the film for various skit scenes. However, I did not know anything of Murdoch’s career, so that was interesting to learn about. Rumpole to Moomins is quite a range lol

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