Spotlight: Lovely Pre-GWTW Leigh (Post Two)

Welcome to another Film Friday! Today’s post is dedicated to the beautiful Vivien Leigh, star of Gone With The Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire, whose 100th birthday occurred 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). 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 motion picture history, even winning an Academy Award.

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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 (1940). 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. Vivien was soon cast in the 1951 film adaptation, winning great reviews and another Academy Award.

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She 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. They 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 at the age of 53.

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Last week we covered St. Martin’s Lane [a.k.a. Sidewalks Of London] (1938). Today we’re featuring A Yank At Oxford (1938).

 

A Yank At Oxford (1938)

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A cocky American student runs into trouble when he transfers to the famed British college.

Starring Robert Taylor, Lionel Barrymore, Maureen O’Sullivan, Vivien Leigh, Edmund Gwenn, and Griffith Jones. Screenplay by Malcolm Stuart Boylan, Walter Ferris, and George Oppenheimer. Original story by Leon Gordon, Sidney Gilliat, and Michael Hogan. From an idea by John Monk Saunders. Directed by Jack Conway.

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Our starlet of the month plays the second female lead in this MGM-British production that stars Robert Taylor as a hubristic American runner attending Oxford on scholarship who meets and falls in love with the prissy Maureen O’Sullivan, sister of Taylor’s athletic rival. Leigh plays the married coquette with whom Taylor’s rival has been consorting. It’s not a large role, but it’s a memorable one. (Incidentally, Leigh’d go on to play Taylor’s love interest in 1940’s remake of Waterloo Bridge.)

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Dan Sheridan has spent so much time and money helping his son Lee in his collegiate athletic career that he is in danger of losing his small town newspaper. When Dean Williams of Lakedale State College offers Lee a Rhodes Scholarship to Cardinal College at Oxford, Lee is overjoyed, but turns it down so that he can help repay his father. Dan gets the badly needed money from banker Ben Dalton, however, and Lee is on his way, cheered on by his local friends and fans. After arriving in England, Lee makes such a fool of himself bragging about his athletic triumphs that Paul Beaumont and his friends Wavertree and Ramsey trick him into leaving his train before Oxford to avoid a non-existent reception committee at the station. This introduction to Oxford makes him want to leave, but Scatters, his “scout,” convinces him to stay on. Soon he starts to date Beaumont’s sister Molly, study and win track meets.

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When he is told to rest rather than enter a relay race, Lee pushes Paul aside at the last moment and wins, but in retaliation for unsportsmanlike conduct, the entire college takes his pants at a hazing. Blaming Paul, Lee looks for him at a tavern. In a scuffle, Paul is blamed for hitting the dean of Cardinal, even though Lee threw the punch. Because Wavertree thinks that he saw Paul do it, Paul is scorned by his friends when he says that Lee did it. Though slightly ashamed of himself, Lee lets Paul take the blame and becomes the new class favorite. Lee tries to make amends with Paul and to defend him to Molly, but Paul will not accept his overtures.

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One night, however, Lee is able to do Paul a favor when he hides Elsa Craddock, a married woman with whom Paul has been having a clandestine affair, in his own room. Rather than expose Paul, Lee accepts the blame when Tom Craddock arrives, and is therefore sent down by the dean. Though saddened to leave Oxford, Lee is overjoyed at the parade that his fellow students offer him until he sees his father, who has come to England to watch the big crew race against Cambridge. Dan knows that Lee loves Molly too much to be seeing another woman and so, with the help of Elsa, Molly and Wavertree, Lee is reinstated. Elsa tells the dean that Lee was merely being a gentleman and that it was Wavertree whom she was seeing. Wavertree, who wants to be sent down to gain his rich uncle’s approval, is overjoyed, and Paul and Lee are reconciled in time to win the big race together with the happy Molly and Dan cheering them on. (This summary brought to you courtesy of TCM.)

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A Yank At Oxford is a moderately entertaining, albeit, stale story that capitalizes on many unoriginal cinematic tropes — the most obvious being the discourse between the snobby Brits and the cocky Yanks. Additionally, there’s the requisite collegiate athletic drama — here it’s track and crew instead of football. There’s the boy-meets-girl subplot with Taylor and O’Sullivan as stark opposites; added conflict is that Taylor’s main rival is O’Sullivan’s brother. Meanwhile, the cast is uniformly solid. Taylor makes the admittedly unlikable protagonist worthy of some audience investment, especially during his occasional moments of ingenuity.

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O’Sullivan also does her bit well, playing the weakly designed love interest simply and effectively. More notably, however, many of the other seasoned actors turn in amusing performances — chief of these is Edmund Gwenn as the stodgy dean of Cardinal. Surprisingly, Barrymore is a rather odd and futile addition to the film, making little of a part that symbiotically gives him little with which to work. Essentially, that can be said of the entire production, which never seems to elevate itself into anything particularly noteworthy, and more importantly, anything more than mildly entertaining. Well… there IS one factor that manages to add some sparkle to the proceedings…

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Yes, I’m speaking of Vivien Leigh, whose medium-sized role allows her to look attractive, introduce some humor, and factor peripherally in the plot. Now, this is Vivien Leigh month on That’s Entertainment!but my intention isn’t just to singularly praise and broadcast her unique charms in every single post. But even with a conscious mission to view the film objectively, I find it difficult suppress the glaring insistence that she is the brightest spot in the whole picture.

Leigh plays a flirtatious bookshop owner who, despite having an elderly husband, manages to sneak some fun in on the side with Taylor’s athletic rival, Griffith Jones. But it’s in her scenes with Taylor that she particularly shines. It is not Leigh’s skills as an actress that make her scenes memorable (simply because the film requires little of her in those regards). It’s not even her undeniable beauty that make her scenes memorable. It’s simply her totally mesmerizing presence — unlike any other being caught on film. And I mean this without hyperbole, for every star seems to brings a presence unique to his/her work. Some just happen to bring something a little bit extra. This can be said of Leigh.

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And in a film with little else of the same caliber — of equal strength — as the blazing Vivien Leigh presence, it becomes a cinch for the actress to dominate Taylor and O’Sullivan and Barrymore. (I don’t mean physically, but in regards to her unbeatable X factor.) She becomes more than miscellaneous — in fact, she’s the most memorable thing about the whole picture. So, in essence, unless you’re a major fan of one of the others stars in A Yank At Oxford, there’s only one reason to watch this film: Vivien Leigh. On those grounds, it’s wholeheartedly recommended.

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Come back next Friday as we cover another Vivien Leigh film! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week!

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