Spotlight: Lovely Pre-GWTW Leigh (Post Three)

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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So far we’ve covered St. Martin’s Lane [a.k.a. Sidewalks Of London] (1938), and A Yank At Oxford (1938). Today were looking at Dark Journey (1937).

 

Dark Journey (1937)

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Rival spies fall in love during World War I.

Starring Conrad Veidt, Vivien Leigh, Joan Gardner, and Anthony Bushell. Screenplay by Lajos Biro. Scenario and dialogue by Arthur Wimperis. Directed by Victor Saville.

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This odd film seemingly succeeds in spite of itself. With a fairly predictable story, a romantic pairing that lacks chemistry, and a tone that never rises above drab, Dark Journey still maintains a strange captivation — if you can force yourself to sit down and watch it.

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In the spring of 1918, Swiss modiste Madeleine Goddard returns to Stockholm after an excursion to Paris to buy dresses. Madeleine, who is a spy for the Nazis, then visits her German contacts and gives them the information she has gathered on Allied troop movements. Madeleine’s information is cleverly sewn into the gowns she transports, and the Germans believe that she is one of their top spies. Unknown to them, Madeleine is actually a French double agent, and so she resolves to learn the identity of the new German secret service section leader who is being stationed in Stockholm. While Madeleine confers with her confederates, two German citizens cross the border into Switzerland. One is Dr. Muller, who is to reorganize the spy network of which Madeleine is a part, and the other is Baron Karl Von Marwitz, a deserter from the German Navy. While at a nightclub with her frequent escort, English secret service agent Bob Carter, Madeleine exposes the trick behind Von Marwitz’s game of predicting what a girl will say after he kisses her. Intrigued by Madeleine’s beauty and cool demeanor, Von Marwitz visits her shop the next day in the company of Lupita, a Brazilian socialite. Von Marwitz quickly tires of the temperamental Lupita and begins asking Madeleine to go out with him. When she continually refuses his requests, he begins to buy all of the stock in her shop until finally she gives in.

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Madeleine gives her German contacts information about an Allied counter-offensive, then begins seeing Von Marwitz. Despite their different nationalities, the couple quickly fall in love, much to the dismay of Bob, who returns to Stockholm after a brief journey to London to investigate Madeleine’s trustworthiness. On the night Von Marwitz proposes to her, Madeleine’s faithful porter and co-conspirator, Anatole Bergen, is murdered. Shaken by Anatole’s death, Madeleine confers with Muller and the others, who tell her that the information she provided proved disastrous for the German Army. Muller orders her to go to Paris immediately and determine whether her French contacts are to be trusted. After a difficult journey, Madeleine reaches Paris, where she is secretly greeted by a French official and given the medal militaire for her service to her country. Upon her return to Stockholm, Madeleine deduces that Von Marwitz is the German secret service leader, and he reveals his knowledge that she is actually a French spy. The lovers are glad to be rid of the lies between them, but acknowledge with heavy hearts that their dream of a life together can never be realized. Madeleine rushes to Bob, who promises to help her escape from Stockholm and the Germans, while Von Marwitz is simultaneously planning her capture.

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The next day, Bob engineers Madeleine’s arrest by the Swedish police, thereby foiling Von Marwitz’s plan to apprehend her quietly. Madeleine is deported, but once the boat she is on has sailed out of Swedish jurisdiction, it is stopped by a German submarine. Von Marwitz boards and arrests Madeleine for being a French spy, but his plans are once again foiled by Bob’s cunning plans. Disguised as a tramp steamer, a British destroyer enters the scene and engages the submarine in battle. The Germans are defeated, Madeleine is rescued and Von Marwitz is captured. Madeleine is assured that Von Marwitz will not be shot, but will instead be detained until the end of the war, and with the hope of a future together, the lovers wave goodbye as Von Marwitz is taken aboard the destroyer. (This summary brought to you courtesy of TCM.)

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The plot is rather unordinary — not anything spectacular for a film in the spy genre. And the script rarely provides anything that challenges its audience to think. Of course, that’s not why we attend the cinema — all we want is to be entertained. But it’s difficult to be entertained when the picture refuses to make its mind up on HOW it wants to go about its entertaining. Are we supposed to consider the horrors and foolishness of war? Are we supposed to root for Veidt and Leigh? Are we just supposed to enjoy the film because it’s nice to look at?

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Meanwhile, the leading lovers are an incredibly unusual pair, and though I hate to say it, their romance neither evokes believability nor possesses qualities that would encourage us to “root” for its survival. More acutely, the difference in their ages does not work in the film’s favor. As a function (albeit, a tired one) in the story, the romance works fairly well, providing necessary complications to the plot and its machinations. However, there is one moment between the two that I found particularly well done — their reaction to mutually revealing the other’s top-secret identities.

The subtlety of the sequence works in its favor, but as this lifeless and low-energy rhythm pervades throughout the entirety of the picture, the film has a difficult time of maintaining momentum, which means, the film can tend to border on boredom. The trite premise almost requests a melodramatic approach, but Dark Journey is determined to achieve this tone not with excitation, but with something perhaps closer to inhibition. And while this makes some sequences strangely effective, it makes others a difficult watch.

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Of course, Leigh looks wonderful — she’s younger here than she’s been in the past two films we’ve covered — and it’s difficult to look away when she’s onscreen. And the picture, despite all the above flaws, has an engrossing quality — probably stemming from its unique tone that almost PROMISES to not be a generic spy picture. Despite a few touches near the end (like the great scene I mentioned above), it does end up being rather generic. BUT, if your expectations are adjusted properly, I can imagine that Dark Journey could make a very functional and mildly enjoyable film. Just keep yourself focused, and understand that Leigh’s doing a stellar job — despite the belabored elements surrounding her.

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Come back next Friday for another Vivien Leigh film! And tune in on Monday for the start of  whole new week on That’s Entertainment! 

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