Sunday, December 01, 2013

Vivien at 100

To celebrate Vivien Leigh's centenary the British Film Institute have had a season of her films showing at the National Film Theatre and I have finally caught up with two of her harder-to-find films.

To start the season there was a talk by Richard Stirling which considered "the three iconic roles of an actress who still fascinates modern audiences.  Three iconic roles comprise the legend of Vivien Leigh: Scarlett O’Hara, Blanche DuBois and ‘Lady Olivier’ (that is, her public image during her famous relationship with Laurence Oliver)"

Sadly it was all rather dull with Stirling looking and sounding like he had stepped out of a bad Rattigan touring production from the 1950s.  Soon after he started I found myself staring at the back of the head of the person in the row in front of me, just waiting for the lights to go down for the next film clip.

The first film I saw was A YANK AT OXFORD (1938) starring Robert Taylor and directed by Jack Conway in which Vivien was fourth-billed, playing the flirtatious Elsa Craddock, forever on the prowl for handsome new students.  She sets her cap at the newly-arrived Lee Sheridan (Taylor) while also being paid attention by Paul Beaumont (Griffith Jones) who dislikes the brash Sheridan.  Needless to say there is a 'nice' girl on hand for Sheridan to pursue, namely Beaumont's sister Molly (Maureen O'Sullivan).

It is the sort of film that weekend afternoons are made for and, apart from treading water about two-thirds of the way in, was a delightful 30s MGM star vehicle - among it's many writers was an unbilled contribution from F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Robert Taylor was perfect for the role of Lee, brash and engaging with an easy charm.  In the supporting cast there were noticeable contributions from Edmund Gwynn as the exasperated head of the College and Griffith Jones, it was also nice to spot Richard Wattis and Ronald Shiner in unbilled acting roles.

Vivien was a delicious minx, her star quality making it impossible to watch anyone else when she was onscreen and happily, she was not given a judgemental comeuppance, but moved by her disapproving husband (Noel Howlett) to a new life - near the Colchester army barracks!  Her flighty, calculating Elsa certainly paves the way to her role in the coming year, Scarlett O'Hara.

By the time of THE DEEP BLUE SEA (1955), Vivien had won 2 Academy Awards, had mastered Shakespeare, Sheridan, Tennessee Williams and Thornton Wilder on stage and married Laurence Olivier.  However the marriage was under strain due to her fluctuating health issues, both physical and mental.

Bearing all this in mind, in hindsight, it was a brave decision to take on the role of the suicidal Hester Collyer in the film version of Rattigan's 1953 play.  It wasn't a happy set seemingly with Kenneth More, reprising his stage role as her feckless lover Freddie, unhappy that Peggy Ashcroft was not reprising her stage role and director Anatole Litvak taking Vivien to task to get her where he felt was the right mind-set.

I have waited for YEARS to see this.  For reasons that are still obscure - despite the introductions by the woman who put the season together and the producer of the Terence Davies version - the film has lapsed into obscurity with no company claiming ownership.  We are not talking a little known film: it was the UK's first Cinemascope production, a co-production between 20th Century Fox and the Korda's London Films, More won the Venice Film Festival Award for Best Actor and apart from Leigh, it co-starred Eric Portman as the mysterious Mr. Miller and Emlyn Williams as the husband Hester left for her ex-RAF lover.  But I have had to wait until now to see it.

It was worth the wait.  Vivien was heart-breaking as a woman at her wit's end, unable to cope with the loss of a lover who she has given everything up for.  Over the course of a day we follow Hester recover from a desperate suicide attempt to acceptance of what life has in store.

Interestingly More's performance is the one that has not aged well.  He gives his usual slightly hammy and over-ingratiating performance, only in the final scene throwing some shade.  Emlyn Williams was sympathetic as Sir William but the performance that really shone was Eric Portman's as Miller, the enigmatic doctor, struck-off and jailed for a year for an un-named misdemeanour.  His modernity of acting style made the audience sit up when he appeared.

As usual there was great fun to be had with the supporting cast: Dandy Nichols as Mrs. Elton the concierge of the house, Arthur Hill as Freddie's pilot friend and Miriam Karlin as a Soho barmaid.  Sid James popped up as an aggressive Soho pimp and Moira Lister was an odd casting choice as Hester's tarty neighbour.
But more importantly....I've finally seen it!
There is still time to see the digital remastering of GONE WITH THE WIND... shall I go Constant Reader?

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