Spotlight: Lovely Pre-GWTW Leigh (Post Four)

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.


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.


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.

Vivien Leigh  Oscar

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.


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.


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.


So far we’ve covered St. Martin’s Lane [a.k.a. Sidewalks Of London] (1938), A Yank At Oxford (1938) and Dark Journey (1937). Today we’re featuring 21 Days Together [a.k.a. 21 Days] (1940).


21 Days Together [a.k.a. 21 Days] (1940)


After Larry Darrent accidentally kills his lover’s blackmailing husband, someone else is arrested for the crime. When he is found guilty, Larry and Wanda have just three weeks together before he must give himself up or let an innocent man go to the gallows.

Starring Vivien Leigh, Leslie Banks, and Laurence Olivier. Written by Graham Greene and Basil Dean. Story by John Galsworthy. Directed by Basil Dean.


This picture, along with Fire Over England, was one of two films completed by Olivier and Leigh in 1937, while they were still on the cusp of their new romance. Initially titled The First And The Last, it was not released until 1940, after the pair had made success in both Wuthering Heights and Gone With The Wind, respectively. In the United Kingdom, the film was retitled 21 Days; in the US, it was known as 21 Days Together. 


Larry, black sheep of the Durrant family, kills Henry Wallen, the long-missing husband of his lover Wanda, when Wallen appears at Wanda’s flat and threatens her life. After stashing Wallen’s corpse in a deserted archway in Glove Lane, Larry goes to his brother Keith for advice. Keith, a brilliant attorney in line for a judgeship, pleads with Larry to leave the country and thus spare him the embarrassment of having a brother accused of murder. Larry refuses to leave however, and returns to the alley where he meets John Evan, a defrocked minister. Evan picks up Larry’s gloves after he drops them in the street, and is later arrested for Wallen’s murder based on the circumstantial evidence of the bloody gloves. When Larry learns of Evan’s arrest, he decides to marry Wanda and live an idyllic existence in the three weeks before Evan’s trial and then turn himself in for murder. As the debased Evan resigns himself to die, Wanda and Larry try to fit thirty years of living into three weeks. On the day that Evan is sentenced to hang, Keith begs his brother to remain silent and let the condemned man die, but Larry refuses and leaves for the police station, only to be stopped on the steps by Wanda, who has read the news announcing that Evan has died of a heart attack on his way to jail. (This summary brought to you courtesy of TCM.)


The primary appeal of this film is the chance to see young Leigh and Olivier playing lovers. In fact, Olivier even plays a character named Larry — blurring the lines between on-camera and off-camera passion. Passion might be a misleading word, however, as there’s actually little heat in this mostly morbid little film. The premise is fascinating and sets itself up for some juicy drama, unfortunately little happens and SO much time is spent on the legality of the murder and other plot points that are far less interesting than seeing Olivier and Leigh share the screen together.


Most of the conflict is between Olivier and his lawyer brother, and that makes sense. But there’s little conflict between Olivier and Leigh except his vow to turn himself in and keep an innocent man from execution. The three weeks they spend together in bliss, but those eponymous 21 days account for so little of the film, and it’s almost a disappointment. I think it would have been much more engrossing if the majority of the picture fell in those 21 days — allowing for most of the action to occur between the lovers. But there’s a lot of set-up, that, while not totally uninteresting, can verge on boredom if you’re not steadily engrossed from the start.


Olivier is solid, if predictable, in his role, and despite the fire between he and Leigh in real life, there’s little fire here in Vivien’s performance. It’s interesting to note that she had much better screen chemistry with Gable and Taylor than her genuine paramour. But, as I said, seeing them together as lovers in a contemporary 1937 setting supersedes any disappointing qualms.

So, if you’re a Leigh fan, there are finer films that better showcase her talents. If you’re an Olivier fan, there are finer films that better showcase his talents. But if you’re a fan of both Leigh and Olivier, check the film out. I can understand why the film was shelved, and also why it was released in 1940 — when the lovers’ romance was no longer a secret. This is NOT a great film, but it’s not a horrendous one either. If you have 80 minutes to spare, you could spend them a lot worse than with Viv and Larry in 21 Days Together. 




Come back next week for our final Vivien Leigh Film Friday post! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment! 

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