Judge Bill Gibron always depends on the kindness of strangers.
Frankly, film fans, you should give a damn…
She is perhaps best known for her two Oscar winning performances. In Gone With the Wind, she was a fiery Southern belle battling to save her home and her honor. In A Streetcar Named Desire, she was a fading Dixie beauty seeking solace from her rough, working class family. For those familiar with her work in those two films, Vivien Leigh will be forever Scarlett O'Hara and/or Blanche DuBois, a woman of complex passions and subtle saving graces. That this decidedly British actress could essay such defiantly roles was just one of her many talents. She was also a scandal-plagued celebrity whose private life and the battles within same almost cost her a career. Married to fellow UK great Laurence Olivier (her second husband) and stained by the scars of both mental and physical frailty, Leigh's legacy has been boiled down to a few small signature screen appearances, and that's it. However, she was a much more meaningful face in film, one illustrated by the new box set highlighting some of the movies she made before Margaret Mitchell and sentimentalized view of the Civil War propelled her into myth.
Facts of the Case
Dark Journey (1937)
Fire Over England (1937)
St. Martin's Lane (1938)
Storm in a Teacup (1937)
Iconic actors and actresses aren't "born" out of the basics of cinema. They pay their dues, delve into and out of possible personas and production typecasts. They take risks and resort to the common and comfortable when said experiments yield insignificant results—or worse, outright industry and fan backlash. The Vivien Leigh Anniversary Collection may contain the role that convinced David O. Selznick to give the fledgling Brit a shot at Scarlett O'Hara (Fire Over England) but for the most part, it's an overview of opening volleys, a unique if often staid insight into how a beautiful ingénue is twisted and turned into something either bankable or broken. It was within these trenches where Leigh learned the ropes, established one of her more meaningful relationships (with Olivier, who she was with for over 20 years) and developed the chops that would lead to other award winning work.
Of the four films offered, Storm in a Teacup is the only true "comedy," but it's very dated and more farce-like than the screwball hits that were coming out of Hollywood at the time. The notion of a politician petitioning to have a friendly looking dog "put down" because of unpaid license fees might seem a tad intense, but everyone here plays the folly likes its fool's gold. This is probably because the entire cast is on their best behavior, turning otherwise banal banter into charming, fluffy fun. Something similar happens with St. Martin's Lane, but it's not because of our storied star. Instead, Charles Laughton walks away with this film as the struggling busker who falls for Leigh's air-headed harpy despite himself. It's sad that this incredibly talented star is shuttled aside midway through the movie for more Harrison and Leigh cow eyes, but when he returns to the dramatic fray, his impact is immediate and welcome.
As for the famed Fire Over England, it's pure period piece politeness, the kind of movie you expect from the setting, the storyline, and the staging. It's like watching a ponderous play come to life, with only the acting available to save you from substandard entertainment elements. Leigh is electrifying, but mostly because she has such amazing chemistry with her future husband. It's telling that the film's other romantic lead—Tamara Desni as Elena, a Spanish lass—can't hold a candle to what Leigh offers when she is with Olivier, though our Hispanic Miss is more or less the third piece of this proposed romantic triangle. All English accents aside, the international thriller aspects of Dark Journey, though incredibly muted by today's slam-bang standards, are still fun to watch unfurl. Leigh is excellent, though a tad unbelievable, as the double crossing double agent, while Veidt goes a good job of delivering a darkness the story surely needs.
One thing is certain: Vivien Leigh was always destined to be a star. She is often bigger than the characters or her surrounding actors, generating a kind of ethereal presence that's rare in film. She's not always great—her work in St. Martin's Lane alone can attest to that—but she's dynamic and her visage definitely draws you in. For fans of the woman and her work, you can consider these films building blocks, foundational turns that traded on her devastating beauty while digging beneath the surface to find the substance within. While Leigh was always touted as being a beauty first, a talent second, these films arguing against such a superficial assessment. As with any young performer, the future Oscar winner is finding her footing here. She had already established her stage credentials. With the four films provided here, we see the warm up to work that would come to define who Leigh was, and how we think of her today.
From a technical standpoint, these are old, mostly forgotten films, so this Anniversary Collection deserves kudos for finding such excellent examples of each. All are presented in a pre-widescreen 1.33:1 anamorphic image, and for the most part, the monochrome is clean and crisp. You have to remember that most of these movies were found in deplorable states, and that Milestone and Cohen (with the help of the British Film Institute) went about remastering these prints as best as possible. Sure, there are differences in clarity, grain, contrast, and the occasional flaw, but when you consider that these films are nearly 80 years old, they don't look half bad. On the sound side of things, well, there's not much you can do with tinny, think Mono mixes, no matter how you gussy them up. At least the four offerings here are relatively hiss-free and lack significant distortion.
As for added content, none of the films themselves inspired bonus features. Over the course of the two disc presentation we are treated to only one significant bit of added content: a 25 minute interview with one of Leigh's many biographers, Anne Edwards. Focusing on her life before Hollywood, it's an interesting personal and professional overview.
It's always been telling that Leigh's two Oscar wins came against some of the most formidable leading men in the history of Hollywood—Clark Gable (in Gone With the Wind) and Method maestro Marlon Brando (in A Streetcar Named Desire). It's almost as if the actress needed a dominating male to bring out the best in her otherwise petite if powerful persona. Interestingly enough, The Vivien Leigh Anniversary Collection illustrates this quite well. With Charles Laughton or Conrad Veidt as her onscreen partner, he's their purposed equal. With the far more sleight Rex Harrison, she hardly matters. Of course, when up against her soon to be spouse, there is much more going on than line readings and blocking. Indeed, there was always more to Vivien Leigh than "fiddle-dee-dees" and the kindness of strangers. Perhaps this collection will lengthen her already legitimate legacy beyond the obvious.
Not guilty. A fascinating look at a formidable actress's early career.
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