Tuesday, November 5 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of talented beauty Vivien Leigh, and as you’d expect, TCM will celebrate with a full day and then some of her films. It’s a good lineup, too—though (some of you won’t believe what I’m about to say) I do wish they’d chosen to screen some of her lesser-known films during prime time instead of what is perhaps her most famous movie, 1939’s epic tale of the South Gone With the Wind (10:15PM, which makes it prime time for the west coast and near bedtime for many on the east), one most have seen (or should have seen!); still, they’ve chosen some fine examples of the actress’ work, and I promised to give you a heads-up regarding the highlights. I’ll be setting my DVR for several of these myself.
Astoundingly, this British talent, who suffered cruelly with mental and emotional difficulties, was never quite sure her success was due to her acting ability instead of her beauty, which all must admit was incredible, head and shoulders above even the most pulchritudinous stars of her (or any) age. Marrying Laurence Olivier may or may not have exacerbated her fears, but to anyone willing to sit and absorb some of her work, Leigh’s skill was apparent quite early, requiring only a little honing. She brought not only talent, but her own tremendous vivacity, fueled by some internal fires, to each role she played, thus bringing to life every character she played—it is a true shame there were not more of them.
Growing up, of course, I was most familiar with Leigh from the aforementioned Gone With the Wind, a role for which Leigh was perfect, if far too beautiful (I believe Mitchell’s first lines note that Scarlett was no beauty). But over the years I’ve been able to view many of her other films, and they’re a revelation of her incredible talent, one of great breadth and depth that make it look easy, though she must have worked hard to overcome her insecurity. Vivien Leigh’s beauty is undeniably arresting—but her gifts as an actress surpass even her glorious appearance.
Of them all, though, if you’ve only time for one, the first film of the day—1940’s affecting Waterloo Bridge—is the one you must see, you must.
Unfortunately, I could not find postable clips or trailers for every film, but I’ve found some other interesting things regarding Leigh, and those I’ve interspersed through the reviews of her films. It’s rather fun to see what a spitfire she was in real life! Don’t worry, there’s a little Gone With the Wind love for you to enjoy, too—and there’s even a clip of Leigh cutting a rug tucked in here.
What’s your favourite Vivien Leigh film?
Waterloo Bridge ’40
Our contemporary cynicism and nihilism robs us of much beauty and much of our humanity that responds to sentiment, so do your best to put that aside in order to enjoy this tragic romance. Waterloo Bridge is actually one of the films I think I’d have loved to see in prime time this evening, but set your DVR for it. Mervyn Leroy directs this tearjerker, one that is sentimental, yes, but in the near best way, I think—thanks in no small part to its stars, Leigh and Robert Taylor, who play their parts so wonderfully well.
Waterloo Bridge is what I would call a painfully beautiful film; the performances and story are heart-wrenching but so tenderly wrought that we happily allow ourselves to be wounded for their sake. Keep your Titanic; it hasn’t the gentleness, charm, or poignance of Waterloo Bridge.
Personally speaking, this is my favourite Vivien Leigh performance. After her portrayal of the steel-spined, fire-breathing, Jezebel-like Scarlett in Gone With the Wind the year before, in Waterloo Bridge she turns in a truly exquisite, luminous performance as Myra, a ballerina who meets a handsome young soldier (Taylor) on Waterloo Bridge during an air raid. Taken with one another, they quickly fall in love and are preparing to wed when he
is shipped out.
Fired from the ballet company for, as best as I could tell the last time I saw the film, falling for the Colonel, Myra and her best friend (also fired for defending Myra) Kitty struggle terribly to simply survive in London during the war, unable to find jobs, when Myra reads a notice in the newspaper that her fiance has been killed. Collapsing into a terrible illness and abandoned by her fiance’s family, she recovers to find that Kitty has become a prostitute in order to care for her (some may snort or smirk, but in wartime London, this was hardly an impossibility).
Having utterly lost her love, dignity, and thus will to live, and feeling some responsibility for what her friend has become, Myra, too, turns to street walking just to keep a roof over their heads and to repay Kitty for the terrible step she took to save her. The railer calls the choices she makes “the easiest way”, but considering Myra for who she was, to become a prostitute was perhaps the hardest, most awful choice she could have taken, and I’m sure you, dear reader, will concur.
What happens next you can probably guess—but it is all so marvellously done, it is yet another film we could never, ever make today. Waterloo Bridge is, in my opinion, an absolute “Essential”, as TCM calls some films, one everyone should see.
As always, Leigh is jaw-droppingly gorgeous in the film, but her powers as an actress surpass the surface beauty. She could relay her character’s thoughts and emotions through facial expressions, and more impressively, through her eyes, like few actresses ever have, truly bringing the character to life; we are drawn to her vulnerability and sheer, fragile humanness. To watch her in this film especially is a revelation everyone should have the privilege of enjoying, particularly considering the change in her face from beginning to end. Myra is the complete opposite of Scarlett O’Hara in every way in Waterloo Bridge, and it is a truly magnificent performance on her part—one for which, I think, she ought to have won an Academy Award or at least nominated.
Taylor, too, is excellent in the film, and I’m saying that as someone who is known for regularly mocking his stentorianism in post-1940 films. Though a big star when the film was made, he risked being typecast as a goofily passionate romantic lead, and he was already being criticized as a one-trick-pony with no real acting chops. The deeper part of Colonel Roy Cronin provided him with a chance to prove the critics wrong, and he succeeded admirably.
Both actors threw themselves into their parts for the film, making it all the better for it. Also starring are Maria Ouspenskaya as Roy’s mother, Lucile Watson, Virginia Field as Kitty, and C. Aubrey Smith and featuring a lovely, Oscar-nominated score from Herbert Stothart. Please watch this one—and please allow yourself to be touched by it. We can only wear our armor for so long, after all; a heart of stone is no thing to have, not even today.
Anna Karenina ’48
Leonard Maltin, whose capsule reviews & ratings TCM uses on their site, calls this one “turgid”—but come on, Maltin. Have you read Tolstoy lately? Good golly! I re-read Anna Karenina last year, and though it’s good, let’s face it: Russkies can be wordy, baby (or as I like to say, ‘rich’). The screenwriters had a whole lot to work with, as I’m sure we all remember from our lit classes, and all things considered, I’d say this is a fair boildown to the essence of Tolstoy’s work. Some of the nuances are gone, yes, and many of the story elements and even some of the novel’s loveliest scenes—but again, for a 113-minute take on the novel, I think a decent job was done.
Just as importantly, it’s enjoyable to watch even though we all know what’s coming. Can I get an ‘amen’ out there?
As the title character, Leigh turns in another fine performance as the title character—particularly when it comes to Anna’s interactions with her cuckolded husband (Ralph Richardson, who is very good). Indeed, we begin to wonder why they’re breaking up, because they bring one another to life. Even Anna’s scenes with her little boy are more touching than the scenes with Vronsky, the man who drew Anna from home and family (but I repeat myself). Kieron Moore just did not have the chops to play against such a dynamic actress as Vivien Leigh, and thus what should be some of the most powerful scenes fall a bit flat. Oops. I wouldn’t say Leigh was miscast, as others have—just that she was in many ways playing to a puppy dog when she ought to have been playing to someone nearer her equal in skill and spirit.
Still, the sets and costumes are a feast for the eyes, and there is a bizarre ‘comfort factor’ in this tragic romance—by which I mean it is a story we’re all familiar with, we all know where it is going, and thus we can sit back and pay more attention to the other things that make a movie interesting—sort of like picking up on details in a movie we’ve seen a dozen times. The sets were designed by Russian Andrej Andrejev, and Cecil Beaton did the Paris-made costumes. Yum!
Fire Over England ’37
A film I’ve not seen since childhood despite valiant efforts to catch again when it airs, perhaps if I play my cards right I can catch Tuesday! Flora Robson plays the great Queen Elizabeth fighting to save her nation from a Spanish invasion (note to Spain: bad idea), sending a Sir Francis Drake-like spy, Sir Ingolby (Laurence Olivier) to infiltrate the court of Spain’s Catholic King, Philip II (Raymond Massey), whose hope was to see, well, fires of destruction over heretical England. Nice folks, those Spaniards, yes? Our birthday girl is one of the Queen’s ladies in waiting, a rather flibbertigibbety one at that, but one who captures the eye of Ingolby even so.
The “history” is fly-by-night, but Fire Over England is, if I recall correctly, truly great fun to watch, and frankly, the budding romance between married-to-other-people Olivier and Leigh is only a small part of that. The costumes, sets, story, and especially Robson’s superb performance as Queen Elizabeth I make it a terrific pleasure. I read that Robson is better as Good Queen Bess than Bette Davis was, and hope to see for myself—though as a big fan of Flora Robson and remembering her performance in The Sea Hawk , I must say I would not be surprised to find the praise to be true; as Jay Carr writes,
…above all, ruling on camera as she rules in the story, Robson’s splendid Elizabeth I. Quite outdistancing other Elizabeths of the period, including Bette Davis, she’s the most fully realized character in the film and became the gold standard for scores of film Elizabeths, right down to today’s reinvention by Cate Blanchett and the modern Elizabeth of Helen Mirren. In contrast to the ever insecure beauty, Leigh, Robson’s much more solid career arose from the look in her wise eyes that proclaim her awareness that she wasn’t a beauty.
…She projects size, command, authority and generosity, every inch a queen when she refuses to cower under the superior numbers of the Spanish forces arrayed against her, rallying the English, and casting an indulgent eye over the romantic impetuosity of her younger subjects in love. Graham Greene, then a movie critic, complained in print that there would be no such goings-on before Good Queen Bess. But he misses the point here. She’s a wise Queen Bess as well as a good one, with a large heart, unshriveled by that fact that her job has become her life. No wonder Hollywood leaped at the chance to have Robson reprise her QE I in The Sea Hawk (1940).
Of course, it’s Leigh’s day today, but fear not: though but a handmaiden to the Queen, she’s sure to stand out when the sparks begin to fly between she and Mr. Olivier. Throw in a little bit of swashbuckling and some opulent costumes, and this is a popcorn flick of the best sort!
That Hamilton Woman ’41
This, the tale of Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson’s scandalous adultery with Lady Emma Hamilton, was reportedly Sir Winston Churchill’s favourite film. (Rumour has it that Churchill ghost-wrote Nelson’s speech to the House of Lords, too, but I’m not sure about that myself.) It is probably the propagandic aspect of the movie that so charmed Churchill—remember, England was battling the Nazis at the time, and it was hoped the film revival of Nelson’s world-famous victories would boost the spirits of the British people in uniform and out.
As you might expect, the movie plays fast and loose with actual history, and it even drags a bit during the second half, but it is the only film Leigh and Olivier made as a married couple, there are three superb performances, exciting sea battles, and sets and costumes (Leigh’s in particular) that make the fanciest wedding cake you’ve ever seen look like a half-smashed four-day-old Hostess special.
Still, it is great fun to watch—if for no other reason than Leigh’s skills as a film actress finally and clearly surpassed that of her talented husband, which may indeed account for the fact that they never made another film together. Leigh’s Emma is vibrant and natural, while Olivier as Nelson is a bit wooden and still very “stage-y”, something audiences of the time were sure to notice.
I also wish to eagerly point out to you the excellent portrayal of Emma’s cuckolded husband, Sir William Hamilton, by Alan Mowbray. He’s just terrific in the part, and we end up feeling compassionately sorry for him, much more so than for Nelson’s wife, the latter being portrayed as the queen of shrews and harpies. (Interestingly, in real life, the Hamilton and Nelson families all spent some time in the same house together—talk about tension thick enough to cut with a knife!).
A Streetcar Named Desire ’51
Just letting you know this one is on; honestly, it is difficult for me to watch due to the subject matter and the cruelty of Stanley (Brando) toward Blanche (Leigh)—and because Blanche was so like the mentally and emotionally fragile Leigh, particularly at this time in the actress’ life. I just can’t watch it.
Storm in a Teacup ’37
I don’t believe I’ve seen this, but Leigh stars alongside Rex Harrison (a favourite of mine, as you know) in this comedy. While crusading against a two-faced cold-blooded Scottish bureaucrat (but I repeat myself!), journalist Harrison falls for his daughter (Leigh, of course). There is apparently a lot of British humour in the script, something I know will cheer many of you as much as it does me, and there’s an irreverent courtroom scene, too. Bring it on! Cecil Parker and Sara Allgood star as well.
Dark Journey ’37
Another British film, a romance featuring international intrigue, features the rather unlikely pairing of young Leigh with Conrad Veidt, both as spies in World War I Stockholm. Leigh, a French double agent, is suspected by the Germans of passing secrets to the French; Von Marwitz (Veidt) is sent by the Germans to sniff out any betrayal by the comely dress shop owner and finds himself taken by her charms even while doing his best to learn who she really is. The two begin a romance even as the English start doubting Madeline’s real alliance and the German net closes in. After a journey to Paris and back, she begins to suspect Von Marwitz is German secret service and on to her. The couple must choose between romance and love of country.
At the time, before Casablanca and Thief of Baghdad, Veidt was a top star in Germany. Even more surprising to many is that Veidt, who so often portrayed Nazis and other Germans of poor moral repute, had a Jewish wife; both fled Germany when the Nazis began to attain power, and the actor was not in the least sympathetic to the muderous and evil ideology coming out of that country. After becoming a British citizen in 1938, Veidt wrote “Jude” on his race identification card to show solidarity with his wife, and even when working in America sent great deals of money to England to aid the war effort.
The film is considered a classic by many, but Leigh—still new to the camera—was rather confused by the film’s plot and wasn’t accustomed to working on camera just yet. Even so, it’s easy to see Leigh’s abilities—easy, and fascinating. This is, unlike That Hamilton Woman, a Neville Chamberlain-esque appeasement film, but worth seeing for the subtly fascinating story and fine acting.
Caesar And Cleopatra ’45
Our last film is one that I suspect many watch and don’t understand and therefore hate. It has a few rough spots, but I find it thoroughly enjoyable and a fine tongue-in-cheek teasing of the British upper crust. The cast, led by Leigh as Cleopatra and Claude Rains as Caesar, had fun with it, and we should too; don’t take it too seriously, turn your brain on (something today’s films rarely require audiences to do, depending as they do on pure explosion, pure emotion, or a combination of the two), and enjoy.
Based on George Bernard Shaw’s play (he wrote the screenplay), it’s half-movie, half-stage show, offers a lot of Brits in togas, fabulous sets, and an unusual performance by Leigh—who, terribly, miscarried during the production, something she forever blamed upon the director. Even so, I thought she made a fun Cleopatra. This was not, I don’t think (seriously doubt, truly), meant to be historically accurate, but witty and enjoyable. That Cleopatra is not a nymphomaniac sex bomb is, really, a bit of a relief somehow.
Also starring Stewart Granger (left aloft when everyone took cover as a German bomber flew by and dropped a bomb 200 feet from the set), Flora Robson, and Cecil Parker, Caesar And Cleopatra is a lighthearted romp that should be given (another) chance. Rains is a fine Caesar (though as you might imagine, there’s no real fire between the leads, it’s somehow still watchable), and personally, I like and never fail to enjoy the film despite not being a particularly avid fan of Shaw (who was a nasty old eugenicist beast).