Like a Storm in a Teacup: The ‘Vivien Leigh Anniversary Collection’

[13 December 2013]

By Brendan Boyle

It would be so much easier to talk about Cohen Media’s Vivien Leigh Anniversary Collection if the films contained therein actually made a convincing case for Leigh’s deserving of such a four-film set. One could begin by waxing poetic on those big green eyes (which is already difficult, since all the films are in black-and-white), the jut of her chin, her ability to project a shrewd, implacable intelligence opposite actors like Laurence Olivier, Conrad Veidt, Rex Harrison, and the great Charles Laughton. Yet it’s those very same collaborators that prove fatal to this collection’s sense of purpose, if such a thing exists. They make one wonder whether Leigh is really a main selling point of these pictures at all.

Fire Over England (1936), the first and most deeply regrettable selection of the entire set, is said to be the picture that inspired David O. Selznick to bring Leigh to American shores for a massive studio epic called Gone With the Wind. It is difficult to watch Fire Over England and feel any sense of inspiration at all. Utterly lifeless, the film seems intent on embodying all the worst stereotypes of costume dramas, not least at the expense of Leigh herself, who fully earns a crack from Flora Robson’s Queen Elizabeth I calling her a “fluttering flibbertigibbet”.

Fire Over England (19XX)

Fire Over England (19XX)

The one scene in which viewers might see where Selznick was coming from reunites Leigh with her dashing love interest and the picture’s real hero, played by Laurence Olivier. After a period spent in convalescence at the estate of Spanish enemy Don Miguel, he returns and sweeps up his Cynthia in an embrace that’s kept, maddeningly, to the bottom left quadrant of a screen otherwise occupied by empty palace walls. The urge to reach through time and smack the cameraman around for a closer shot may very well have pushed Selznick to prove what a capable producer could do with the young actress.

Olivier plays a pretty tepid, blandly handsome hero, however, and Leigh would get perhaps her ideal romantic match with her very next film, Dark Journey (1937), which sees the actress as a dress shop owner and double agent selling secrets to the Germans while reporting back to her French handlers. There are no melodramatic, flibbertigibbet flourishes in her performance here, all steely confidence and quiet calculation, a perfect match for costar Conrad Veidt. A leading German agent posing as a retiree, Veidt flirts with local women shamelessly before spying Leigh from afar and turning his efforts, single-mindedly, toward winning her over.

Dark Journey (19XX)

Dark Journey (19XX)

The scene in which the lovers finally acknowledge that each has known the other’s secret all along is the perfect encapsulation of this romance between two superhumans, each performance perfectly calibrated to allow only tiny flashes of vulnerability to escape. Everything else unfolds in a rather perfunctory fashion, including the serviceable plot, with a grandiose finale at sea that should be keyed up for higher catharsis but comes off as more of a whimper.

But what a contrast between this pairing and Storm in a Teacup (1937), in which Leigh falls for the charms of a journalist played by Rex Harrison. Once again, Leigh doesn’t get to do much as the famed thespian, in his first role, steals whole scenes with his unassuming charm. The old fellow was really capable of quite an alluring wink before the eternal sneer entered his repertoire of expressions. It’s truly a good match between the two, even if Leigh’s fiery approach to their meet-cute relationship doesn’t translate to a better role in the story besides declaring her love at a convenient moment in the narrative.

Storm in a Teacup (19XX)

Storm in a Teacup (19XX)

For the first time in Cohen’s set, though, a film seems to really be firing along on all cylinders, with a script that grafts sharp political commentary onto a small-town farce with the flair of early Preston Sturges. Harrison’s reporter sets out to do an article on an ambitious Provost, played by Cecil Parker with appropriate hamminess and a sense of blinkered decency that shines through as the twists and turns of the story begin to exasperate him. The article takes an unwanted turn when Harrison gloms onto the curious story of an old woman who loses her dog in a licensing mixup, seizing the opportunity to couch a political critique of the Provost in this hoary yet appealing special-interest story.

The set’s best film by far is its final selection, here listed as St. Martin’s Lane (1938) but otherwise known as Sidewalks of London, which for the first time in this series positions Vivien Leigh as the audience’s surrogate, rather than as an opaque object of admiration or cheap comedy. As the fiercely individualist pickpocket Libby, she introduces viewers to the world of hustlers and street performers where she first meets Charles Staggers, a poor singer played by Charles Laughton in a performance so totally compelling that when the script transitions to his point of view, it seems he has wrested the film away from his co-star by sheer force of acting.

 St. Martin's Lane (19XX)

St. Martin’s Lane (19XX)

The relationship between Charles and Libby (or Charles and Vivien, if you prefer) follows a familiar show-business narrative, as Libby’s brief period performing along with Charles and his cohorts leads to her quickly being swept up by a theatrical agent (Rex Harrison, once more and with a bit less feeling). Yet the intensity of their scenes together, including a standout in which he pathetically professes his love to her embarrassment and disgust, along with visual flourishes like a scene in which he sees her name on a marquee before turning to look straight into the camera, give St. Martin’s Lane a staggering sort of energy that puts it head and shoulders above most films of its kind, let alone the remainders of the set.

For those really committed to the study of Vivien Leigh and her enduring appeal, two extras by enthusiasts will provide supplementary study: an interview with biographer Anne Edwards and the booklet, which features so much information about Leigh’s journeys between studios and the productions of the included films that one only wishes the typeface were large enough to render it readable. Otherwise, Cohen’s collection will fail to convert anyone left unconvinced by Gone With the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire; it’s a pity that out of four films selected to highlight an actress’s short-lived career, the men should end up the highlights in all of them.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/177117-vivien-leigh-anniversary-collection/