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Vivien Leigh Anniversary Collection, The
Release Date(s)(1937-1938) November 19, 2013
Studio(s)Cohen Media Group
Vivien Leigh attained screen immortality at just 26 years of age with her fierce portrayal of the strong-willed southern belle Scarlett O’Hara in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind. Leigh’s steely, determined pronouncements that “I’ll never be hungry again!” and “After all... tomorrow is another day!” endeared the vain, self-centered protagonist to moviegoers, and assured the British actress a place in the international film pantheon. MGM’s search for Scarlett has since become the stuff of legend; Leigh landed the role with less than ten films under her belt, all of which were produced in her native England. In celebration of what would have been the actress’ 100th birthday, four of those vintage films made in 1936 and 1937 have been collected on the recent two-disc Blu-ray set, Vivien Leigh: The Anniversary Collection, a joint venture between Cohen Film Collection and the British Film Institute.
Leigh’s rise to fame was a quick one. In 1935, she made her West End debut in Ashley Dukes’ play The Mask of Virtue, attracting rapturous notices. The News Chronicle called her “an actress of uncommon gift,” and The Evening Standard singled out her “beauty and charm.” Manchester Guardian praised her “glamour” but noted, “To-night’s play, with its eighteenth-century surroundings, was a lovely one for her but the style of speech was a test of other qualities than being easy to look at, and the test was successfully passed.” It was only natural that the young movie industry would seek out the starlet; with just one stage appearance, The Guardian professed to fear that she might be lost to the screen. Naturally, the movies did beckon, and after graduating from bit to supporting parts all in the course of that one year, 1935, Vivien Leigh’s fifth film – and first under a major contract with London Films - began shooting in autumn 1936.
Director William E. Howard’s Elizabethan costume drama Fire Over England, a fictionalized account of the sinking of the Spanish Armada, cast Leigh as lady-in-waiting Cynthia opposite Flora Robson as Elizabeth I, Raymond Massey as Spain’s King Philip II and her future husband, Laurence Olivier, as hero Michael Ingolby. (Leigh and Oliver began their affair during production of Fire Over England. They were married between 1940 and 1960, during which time they starred in films together as well as numerous stage productions, many of which Olivier also directed.) Leigh is still in a supporting role, but the ingénue shines as the “silly” girl who catches Ingolby’s eye. By today’s standards, Fire Over England wouldn’t pass muster for historical accuracy or its special effects, but Leigh shines and her chemistry with Olivier is palpable. The English grand dame Flora Robson’s performance as the conflicted Queen Elizabeth – both regal and vulnerable – is also one of her finest. The restoration of FireOver England was plagued by problems inherent in the source film; Cohen apologizes in the enclosed booklet for “some deficiencies in the picture.” The disclaimer continues, “Elements from the British Film Institute, The Library of Congress and the George Eastman House were looked at it and it has been determined that these anomalies are in the original film elements.” The 2K restoration from the BFI’s 33MM archival print is still the best this film has looked in years, even if it’s far from flawless – there is little grain, and contrast is variable. But there are few blemishes, and the presentation is eminently watchable. Audio quality is likewise as good as could be expected.
Leigh (who was allowed for the duration of her contract to spend six months each year following her theatrical muse onstage) followed Fire Over England with another period piece, though a more recent one. Director Victor Saville’s 1937 picture Dark Journey was set in World War I, with Leigh and Conrad Veidt (The Man Who Laughs, Casablanca) as spies who embark on a doomed love affair. As fashion designer and Allied double agent Madeleine Godard, Leigh is magnetic as she becomes embroiled with Veidt, sent by the Germans to ensnare her. In her fine essay which accompanies Cohen’s Blu-ray set, Leigh scholar Kendra Bean reports that even the actors were confused by the film’s dense and complicated plot; with Leigh speaking with an English accent in Stockholm sympathizing with the Germans while working for the French, it’s not hard to see why! She comes across as quite confident onscreen, however, and makes the odd-couple romance with Veidt work. Veidt – roughly 20 years Leigh’s senior – hardly cut the same dashing figure as Olivier. Part melodramatic romance and part spy thriller, Dark Journey is brisk (at just 77 minutes’ length) and engaging. Cohen’s 2K restoration from a 35mm archival positive has heavy grain at times but is reasonably detailed and vivid. There are some pops and crackles on the mono soundtrack, but audio is acceptable for both dialogue and the score by Richard Addinsell.
The second disc of Cohen’s set begins with 1937’s Storm in a Tea Cup. Leigh’s comedic chops came to the fore on this film (co-directed by Ian Dalrymple and Dark Journey’s Victor Saville) set in a small Scottish village in which she was once again paired with an unexpected leading man. Rex Harrison – who eventually would find an iconic role of his own via My Fair Lady’s Henry Higgins - was ten years older than Leigh when he was cast as Frank Burton, a journalist who writes an unflattering article about a local politician (Cecil Parker) even as he’s falling in love with the politician’s daughter (Leigh). Both Leigh and Harrison deliver wry, witty performances in the breezy comedy which anticipates countless “rom-coms” to come. Leigh is every bit Harrison’s match as she enjoyably spars with him. Low-key and amusing, and graced with a strong and colorful supporting cast including Parker and Irish actress Sara Allgood, Storm in a Tea Cup even offers a bit of social commentary with its look at small-town politics. Cohen’s 2K restoration is sourced from the BFI’s archival material, and looks solid with grain structure intact. Audio quality is fine, as well.
The final film in The Anniversary Collection is 1938’s St. Martin’s Lane, known in the U.S. as Sidewalks of London. (In between Storm and St. Martin’s, Leigh was loaned out for A Yank at Oxford and The First and the Last. The latter was shelved until 1940, however, by which point the entire world knew Vivien Leigh.) Director Tim Whelan’s St. Martin’s Lane starred Charles Laughton as busker (street performer) Charles “Charlie” Staggers and Leigh as Libby, the pickpocket-urchin whom he takes under his wing and into his act. Harrison reteams with his Storm co-star as Harley Prentiss, a suave, dignified composer who falls in love with Libby. The distinguished company also included Tyrone Guthrie, the English theatrical director and impresario whose legacy includes founding The Stratford Festival of Canada and Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theatre. Laughton gets the chance to play both comedy and tragedy in this bittersweet film, especially as we’re led to believe a relationship might blossom between Charlie and Libby when in fact she’s more than willing to take up with Harley and pursue fame. In her final pre-Gone with the Wind film, Leigh is also captivating, making clear the ambitions and hunger of her Cockney character. St. Martin’s Lane, if clichéd, is a charming and rare look at the busker culture, and still fascinates on that level. The movie had a second life as the source material of Disney legends Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman’s Broadway-bound musical Busker Alley. Though the pre-Broadway production with Tommy Tune as Charlie closed out of town, it has subsequently been staged with Jim Dale in the lead. The 2K restoration has been sourced from archival material held at the BFI, and is variable, with certain scenes sharp and clear and others softer. Again, this is likely attributable to the source material available. St. Martin’s Lane does look better than it has in the past. Audio here is the weakest of the four films in the set, which is unfortunate as music plays such a prominent role in the picture.
Only one bonus feature has been included on this release, a 25-minute documentary entitled Before She Was Scarlett O’Hara in which Leigh biographer Anne Edwards discusses the young actress’ early life and career. Kendra Bean fills in more gaps with her enlightening, detailed six-page essay in the booklet. Vivien Leigh died tragically in 1967 at just 53 years of age, the victim of the chronic tuberculosis which she had been fighting since the mid-1940s. Yet during a career made even more impressive by the fact that she also combated bipolar disorder, the Oscar and Tony-winning Leigh remained a paragon of both beauty and brains – a star, yes, but also a true actress. The films in The Vivien Leigh Anniversary Collection might not be among her best-remembered, but they all showcase the versatility and vivacity of a British national treasure who belonged to the world.
– Joe Marchese