Vivien Leigh biographer, Kendra Bean submits her list of five Leigh films not to miss today as her contribution to my Summer Under the Stars blogathon. Head over to Kendra’s website for more regarding her work. Also be sure to check out Kendra’s other site devoted to Leigh and Laurence Olivier.
I don’t know about you, but I was so excited to learn that TCM was finally saluting Vivien Leigh during their Summer Under the Stars program. You see, Vivien Leigh is the actress who sparked my interest in classic film (specifically through her best-known – and possibly the best known – film, Gone With the Wind), and every year since then I’d checked the Summer Under the Stars listings hoping to see her name in the spotlight. About 6 years ago, I was at a Gone With the Wind event in Georgia where Robert Osborne was one of the guests of honor. Getting up the courage to approach he who is an idol to so many classic film fans, I asked him why TCM had never honored Vivien Leigh during this popular summer marathon session. He was obviously a fan, so what gives? Osborne’s answer was that TCM couldn’t get the rights to enough Vivien Leigh films to fill a whole day.
Well, things have apparently changed because, starting at 6 am, TCM will be airing Vivien Leigh films all day. If you only know Vivien because of Gone With the Wind, this is a great opportunity to catch other facets of her talent. The line-up also includes two documentaries, giving insights into her personal life, and revealing different facets of her unique talent.
Vivien Leigh’s first love was always the theatre and this, along with other factors, resulted in her making only 19 films. But though her filmography may be small compared to many other stars of her era, her impact on film history is anything but.
Here are five Vivien Leigh films you won’t want to miss during her day on Summer Under the Stars.
5. A Yank at Oxford -This 1938 film was the first produced for MGM British under the auspices of Michael Balcon. It was also the first film to pair Vivien with Hollywood hunk Robert Taylor, playing an American student weathering cultural differences at Oxford University. Vivien is the supporting character here (her childhood friend, Maureen O’Sullivan, plays the female lead), but it was her meatiest role to that date. As Elsa Craddock, the coquettish wife of a local bookseller, she uses her feminine wiles to hook the male student population, resulting in trouble for Taylor and his friends. Although not the strongest of Vivien’s pre-Gone With the Wind British films, A Yank at Oxford is rarely shown and difficult to find. See it while you can!
4. St. Martin’s Lane – Known in America as Sidewalks of London, this film was made in 1938 but not released in the US until 1940 to capitalize on Vivien’s success as Scarlett O’Hara. Produced under the Charles Laughton-Erich Pommer Mayflower banner, St. Martin’s Lane is a quirky musical drama that tells the story of a troupe of buskers (English street performers). Charles Staggers (Charles Laughton) is the stoic leader, known by theatre-goers in London’s West End for his passionate rendition of Rudyard Kipling’s “If.” When he has a run-in with Libby, a beautiful petty thief (Vivien), he takes the girl under his wing. But Libby has big ambitions and wants to see her name up in lights at the Holborn Empire. She is “discovered” by theatrical producer Haley Prentiss (Rex Harrison) and cruelly discards her busking friends as she works her way to the top.
St. Martin’s Lane is Vivien’s first true starring part, and she runs with it. Not only is this her best pre-GWTW film, her performance as Libby foreshadows the work she did the following year for David O. Selznick. Watch this followed by GWTW for a glimpse of the evolution of Scarlett O’Hara.
3. 21 Days Together – Like St. Martin’s Lane, this film was also released after Vivien made it big in GWTW. Filmed in 1937, and shelved until 1940, 21 Days Together is based on the Graham Greene story The First and the Last, and was the second film to pair Vivien with her future husband Laurence Olivier. They play Larry and Wanda, lovers who become embroiled in a criminal investigation after Larry accidentally kills Wanda’s largely absent husband during a fight. They then have twenty-one days to spend together before Larry goes on trial for murder. The film received mediocre reviews (what wouldn’t, coming on the heels of Gone With the Wind?) and Vivien and Larry Olivier reportedly walked out of the cinema when they attended a screening in New York in 1940. However, like A Yank at Oxford, this film is a rarity, and really, it’s not as bad as you think it might be. In fact, it’s quite interesting when looked at in the wider context of Vivien’s screen career. She and Larry are adorable together, and he was also coaching her behind the scenes – keep an ear out for her rather theatrical manner of speaking.
2. Waterloo Bridge – A true gem of Hollywood wartime cinema, Waterloo Bridge is my favorite Vivien Leigh film aside from Gone With the Wind. She is again paired with Robert Taylor, this time as a shy ballerina who falls in love with a soldier becomes a lady of the night to support herself after learning her lover has been killed in battle. Mervyn LeRoy directs both Vivien and Robert Taylor to stellar performances, and they have great onscreen chemistry. It’s a beautiful film with one of Vivien’s finest performances. Highly recommended, but keep tissues handy; this one’s a real tearjerker.
1. A Streetcar Named Desire – If you want to see some great acting do not miss Elia Kazan’s 1951 screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams A Streetcar Named Desire. Vivien plays fading Southern belle Blanche DuBois in what is arguably one of the greatest performances ever committed to film. Streetcar represents the time in film history when classical acting came face-to-face with the Method, and Vivien matches Marlon Brando blow for blow. Blanche’s psychological unraveling at the hands of her brutish brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski, is truly harrowing to watch. A stellar film on all levels, it is no wonder Streetcar garnered several Academy Awards at the 1952 ceremony, including a second Best Actress award for Vivien. A must-see.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.