Spotlight: Lovely Pre-GWTW Leigh (Post One)

HAPPY 100 POSTS!

Performer Desi Arnaz Being Kissed by Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance

Welcome to another Film Friday, and our special 100th post! Thanks to all the readers and well-wishers for making these first 100 posts a treat for me to both write and share. Now let’s transition from one 100th celebration to another…

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Fridays this November are dedicated to the beautiful Vivien Leigh, star of Gone With The Wind (1939) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), whose 100th birthday will occur on the fifth of this month. That’s Entertainment! is doing its part by covering five films that Vivien Leigh made before her iconic trip to North America when she snatched the role of Scarlett O’Hara away from dozens of hopefuls. Note that none of these films are Pre-Code, but they’re all Pre-Scarlett.

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Vivien Leigh was born Vivian Mary Hartley on November 5, 1913 in Darjeeling, India. Her father was an English officer in the Indian calvary. Vivian was sent to the Convent of the Sacred Heart at age six, but spent the better part of her childhood traveling around with her father, attending schools in England, France, Italy and Germany. She enrolled in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1931, but put her acting ambitions temporarily aside to marry lawyer Leigh Holman. She gave birth to their daughter, Suzanne, in 1933. Vivian returned her sights to acting in 1935 and made both her stage and screen debuts that year in London. But first, her agent advised her that a name change was in order. Vivian Holman became Vivien Leigh.

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Vivien first met Laurence Olivier in 1935, and by 1937 they were appearing together on stage in Hamlet and on screen in Fire Over England. During this time, a romance developed between the two. Leigh and Olivier left their respective spouses and co-habitated clandestinely. Leigh continued to appear in theatre and in films, garnering small acclaim for pictures like Storm In A Teacup (1937) and MGM-British’s A Yank At Oxford (1938). In 1938, Olivier was signed for the motion picture version of Wuthering Heights and went West to Hollywood. His lover followed suit and “conveniently” caught the eye of producer David O. Selznick, who was frantically searching for a Scarlett O’Hara. (You can read more about that here.) She got the role and became a part of motion picture history, even winning an Academy Award.

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In 1940, Leigh and Olivier went to New York and produced their own version of Romeo And Juliet. It was a flop and the duo returned to Hollywood to star together in That Hamilton Woman (1941). By this time, they’d both been granted divorces from their spouses and were wed on August 31, 1940. The newlyweds returned home to London in 1941. Vivien continued to work on the English stage and even toured North Africa in 1943. Her last two films of the decade were neither great successes, and Leigh faced hardships — a miscarriage and then an attack of tuberculosis. But she was able to find success in the London production of The Skin Of Our Teeth and in 1948 toured Australia and New Zealand with Olivier. In 1949, Olivier directed Leigh in the London production of A Streetcar Named Desire. She was soon cast in the 1951 film adaptation, winning great reviews and another Academy Award.

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Leigh went back to London and played both Antony And Cleopatra and Caesar And Cleopatra with Olivier, eventually bringing the alternating shows to New York. But Vivien’s increasingly erratic behaviors soon caught up with her. She had a nervous breakdown in 1953. Struggling through mental illness, Vivien continued to perform on stage with Olivier throughout the decade and did another film for Alexander Korda. She suffered another miscarriage in 1956, and her marriage to Olivier began to deteriorate. As she began an affair with Jack Merivale, Olivier began seeing Joan Plowright. Leigh and Olivier divorced in 1960.

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Leigh made another film in 1961 and toured with Merivale in 1962. In 1963, she went to Broadway and starred in the musical adaptation of Tovarich, for which she won a Tony Award. Her last film, Ship Of Fools, was released in 1965. She made a few more stage appearances, before being diagnosed with a recurrence of tuberculosis in 1967. She passed away on July 8, 1967.

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Today we’re beginning our five week series on Ms. Leigh with St. Martin’s Lane [a.k.a. Sidewalks Of London] (1938)!

 

St. Martin’s Lane [a.k.a. Sidewalks Of London] (1938)

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A street performer helps a young pickpocket find a new career as a dancer.

Starring Charles Laughton, Vivien Leigh, and Rex Harrison. Written by Bartlett Cormack, Clemence Dane, Charles Laughton, Erich Pommer, and Tim Whelan. Directed by Tim Whelan.

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This British film was released in 1938 under the title St. Martin’s Lane. It wasn’t released in America until 1940, after Leigh’s triumphant success in GWTW. The title upon the American release was Sidewalks Of London. Whichever title you prefer, this enjoyable film is sort of a My Fair Lady meets 42nd Street, only with less glamour and thicker accents. (For musical theatre lovers, this was indeed the film that inspired the Sherman Brothers’ Busker Alley.)

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Charles Staggers (Laughton), a middle-aged London street entertainer, or “busker,” who performs for pennies from queueing Piccadilly theatergoers, befriends Libby (Leigh), a runaway orphan and would-be dancer, when she steals the gold cigarette case of successful song writer Harley Prentiss (Harrison). After finding Libby hiding in a deserted house, Charles takes her in, and they form a quartet with buskers Arthur Smith and Gentry. After Charles returns the cigarette case, Prentiss visits to give him a reward, and Libby insists Prentiss interview her, introducing herself as “Liberty,” an aspiring actress. Seeing their act later on the streets, Prentiss hires Charles and Libby to perform at a dinner party. After arguing with Charles about the foolishness of busking, Libby goes to Prentiss’ party alone. At the party, a theatrical agent promises to sponsor Libby, and Prentiss takes her home and kisses her.

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Charles, who has been waiting up all night for Libby, demands an explanation, and Libby tells him that she has a new career on the stage. Charles, in a jealous tirade, tells Libby he wants to marry her, but she rebuffs him in horror, calling him a “looney” and telling him to “take a look in the frying pan.” With both his manhood and his profession humiliated, Charles takes to drink and abandons Arthur and Gentry, while Libby becomes a stage star and Prentiss’ girl friend. Their paths cross once more following the premiere of her show, “Straw Hats in the Rain.” Outside the stage door, Libby is surrounded by crowds seeking her autograph, and the drunken Charles, fighting the throng to get to Libby, is arrested for insubordination and is sentenced to four months in prison.

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After winning a Hollywood contract, Libby asks Prentiss to marry her, but he refuses, stating that he does not want to be discarded later like Charles. When Charles gets out of prison, he poses as a blind beggar, and one day, Libby, wearing a mink coat, recognizes him. Remorseful of her treatment of Charles, Libby apologizes and gets him an audition for a part in her new show. Charles earnestly recites his old monologue of Rudyard Kipling’s “If” but is rudely interrupted by Libby’s agents and producers and loses his dramatic momentum. Resigning himself to a life of busking, Charles asks Libby for her autograph, bringing her to tears, then joins Arthur and Gentry. (This summary brought to you courtesy of TCM.)

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It’s imperative that modern audiences view this film knowing that it was produced and released exclusively for a European audience. It wasn’t until Leigh became a major box office draw that the US decided to release this picture for American audiences. I’m addressing this now because British films of the ’30s have a very different feel than Hollywood’s. There is less emphasis on spectacle; there is more emphasis on intimacy. Scenes are either played smaller and quieter or bigger and louder. If you’re unaccustomed to British cinema, this can be quite an adjustment. (Indeed, the initial American review in 1940 liked the stars but found the film too British to enjoy.) I actually think it’s not as foreign as some others I’ve seen. If you sit down and watch the whole picture, there’s much to enjoy.

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I know there are Laughton fans out there, and Harrison fans too. But the primary reason modern viewers will watch this film is Vivien Leigh. She’s absolutely stunning. Behind her small frame and dainty presence lies a fire, and though hindsight is 20/20, this film shows her as a force to be reckoned with. Leigh often found her beauty a handicap, but the truth is her talent matches her beauty toe-to-toe, not competing with each other, but rather, working together.

In this picture, Leigh plays Libby, a dancer. Leigh (like Crawford) is not an excellent hoofer. But she manages to sell it — not by blinding us with her physical perfection — but with the strength of her spirit. Most precisely, one of the most exquisite sequences in the film is Laughton’s encounter with Leigh in the abandoned house. He looks on as she jubilantly and dreamily dances with the cigarette case that she has just stolen from Rex Harrison. Vivien’s essence — along with the unique lighting and the sweeping music (which I’ve only been able to find on IMDb referred to as “Vivien’s Waltz”) is magic here. Knowing what we know about her eventually tragic existence makes this whole sequence more powerful — more mystical. Vivien is more than an image on a screen; she’s a presence whose existence will never be forgotten.

Laughton has never been one of my favorite performers, but he’s always solid. Unfortunately, he and Leigh don’t have the best chemistry (they despised each other off-camera), but the narrative frames them in a way that you can’t help but root for them to reunite. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen — making for a much richer and truer story. Leigh has better chemistry with Harrison, but his part is so light and inconsequential, that it really matters very little that he’s in the picture. Though it was satisfying to see him turn down her proposal in one of the best photographed scenes from the film.

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The score, on the other hand, is surprisingly efficient and works perfectly well for the story. I’m usually not impressed by scores written for films in need of only a couple songs — they generally lack originality — but the music enhanced and made the picture better. The non-lyrical “Vivien’s Waltz” is still stuck in my head! I could see why this property yielded a stage musical adaptation.

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If you’re a Leigh film, this is a must watch. If you’re not a Leigh film, understand that you’re watching a 1938 British film starring Charles Laughton. Ultimately, it’s all about expectations. If you come in without pre-formed opinions, you might just be surprised at how enjoyable the picture is. Classic? No. Entertaining? Yes.

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Come back next Friday for the second post in our Pre-GWTW Leigh series! And tune in Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment! 

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2 thoughts on “Spotlight: Lovely Pre-GWTW Leigh (Post One)

  1. Is anybody able to tell me the name and source of the first vivien leigh photo above – she is looking down to the left and the picture is signed at the bottom right corner? I’ve looked everywhere for days and days to find where I can purchase this photo but without success. I can find it on google but I want to know who took the photo so that I can buy it.

    Please help! Thank you

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