A curious thriller: So Long at the Fair

Prior to moving out to California and Hollywood, Jean Simmons was primarily in British films. This makes sense given that she was British. So Long at the Fair is one of those movies. Depending on your age and interests, however, you may recall her best as Rear Admiral Norah Satie in Star Trek: The Next Generation (Episode: The Drumhead).

So Long at the Fair (1950)

Directed by Antony Darnborough and Terence Fisher

A curious little gothic romance, So Long at the Fair is an intriguing thriller starring a young and fetching Jean Simmons as Vicky Barton, a woman who finds herself in Paris during the 1896 Exhibition with her brother who mysteriously disappears in the night.

It’s similar to 1944’s Gaslight, which starred Ingrid Bergman, in that the main character, in this case Simmon’s Vicky, thinks — or rather, knows — one thing is true but everyone around her says it is not. In Gaslight, Bergman’s character (Paula) questions her sanity.

In So Long at the Fair, Vicky questions the people around her as she’s convinced there is some kind of conspiracy.

In both movies we, as an audience, know the truth (or some of it) but watch as the hero (or heroine) unravels what is happening.

David Tomlinson as Johnny Barton and Jean Simmons as his sister Vicky.

It’s great thriller material. In So Long at the Fair, Vicky and her brother Johnny (David Tomlinson) stay at a hotel in Paris. They eventually go to bed in their separate rooms. In the morning, Johnny is missing. As is the room he was staying in!

Compounding that bizarre happening, when Vicky questions the hotel’s husband and wife managers, they have no recollection of Johnny and insist there is no such room as the one Vicky says her brother had (number 19).

No one else in the hotel recalls seeing her brother and there is no evidence he was ever there — even the record books don’t have a mention of him.

A distraught Vicky now heads off to find someone who can help her — a young English-speaking woman in French-speaking Paris — but first must convince whoever that might be that her brother actually existed.

Dirk Bogarde as George Hathaway comes to the aid of Vicky.

Fortunately, she eventually finds help in a very young Dirk Bogarde as George Hathaway, a young Englishman in Paris working as an artist. Together, they eventually uncover the truth.

In movie terms, that truth is both clever and far-fetched at the same time. I liked the film’s ending, but confess I can’t decide whether it is good or just silly.

Most of the film has a period thriller/horror movie atmosphere, sans the monsters, screams and ghastly creatures. It’s effective and is aided by the costume drama aspect.

This gothic quality works very well but I do have one quibble with it, as I do with most movies with this approach: the portrayal of women, in this case of Jean Simmon’s Vicky.

While Bogarde is the movie’s hero in that he takes charge and helps uncover the mystery, Simmon’s Vicky is the real hero in story terms — she’s the focus; the main character.

Cathleen Nesbitt as the rather unnerving Madame Hervé looking down on a distraught Vicky.

But as is usually the case in movie’s such as these (especially older ones), she’s hero-as-victim. And a victim who stays victim to the end because she is always dependent — first on her brother then, later, on Bogarde’s George.

Inevitably, her character is weak, weepy and often near-hysterical.

This isn’t a criticism of Simmon’s performance. It’s a complaint about how the character is drawn. Jean Simmons is quite good in the movie, especially given how the role is written. But I would have preferred a stronger character, especially if we had seen a transformation into strength as the story played out.

But this is a movie from 1950 and by and large that kind of thing didn’t happen.

For the most part, this is a fun, great-looking movie. It may stretch credulity to some degree, but that is fine. It’s not trying to be a historical document. It simply wants to entertain and it succeeds in doing that.

A few final asides …

Vicky Barton (Jean Simmons) keeps running into dead ends as she tries to get answers to her brother's disappearance.

This is a British film, via Pinewood Studios, and one of the excellent aspects of it is that the story is set in Paris.

Many of the characters are, therefore, French. The movie allows them to speak French, no subtitles, as they would in reality. Vicky speaks only a few words of French, and many of the characters she meets only speak French.

The movie does a very nice job of making the movie comprehensible to an English-speaking audience without resorting to sub-titles or the fortuitous ability of everyone in Paris to speak English when encountering Vicky. It has a nice quality of reality in this respect.

The movie also gives us Cathleen Nesbitt as Madame Hervé as the hotel manager, a performance along the lines of Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca. She’s quite effective in a eerie way. There is also Marcel Poncin as Narcisse, her husband, giving a very nice performance as the weasel-like husband under the thumb of Madame Hervé.

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