Oh dear! What can the matter be?

“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.
– 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 Lights 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 attempts to wake her brother but finds him missing. His entire room has mysteriously vanished and the hotel staff claims that she arrived alone and unaccompanied by her sibling. 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 dashing bohemian artist (Dirk Bogarde) comes to Simmon’s aid and the attractive young duo set out to discover what happened to her missing brother.

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. A hot air balloon carrying a beautiful girl catches fire and plummets to the ground in a horrifying crash. 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 so lovely. Dirk Bogarde has long been one of my favorite actors but he can occasionally come across as somewhat restrained, cold 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, the two actors 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.

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 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 exhibits some of Fisher’s influence.

I hope 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.

by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written for Turner Classic Movie’s Movie Morlocks