Category: vivien leigh

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Keep Calm and Put the Kettle On

Over the past year or so I’ve really fallen in love with the films of writer/producer/director team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.  Their production company, “The Archers,” often worked in conjunction with J. Arthur Rank to release some of the best British films of all time.  You may recognize some of these titles: Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death, Peeping Tom, I Know Where I’m Going, The Thief of Baghdad, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, etc.  In 1941 they did a propaganda film called 49th Parallel which starred Leslie Howard, Laurence Olivier, Eric Portman, Glynis Johns, and Powell and Pressburger recurring actor Anton Wolbrook.  The film centered around a German U-boat that strands its occupants in Canada during WWII.  The German soldiers seek refuge in a seried of small hide-outs in attempt to cross the border to the still-neutral United States.  Larry played a French-Canadian fur trapper named Johnny (complete with accent!).

The movie was filmed at London’s Denham Studios in 1941 and was edited by soon-to-be-famous director David Lean.  Though Powell and Pressburger made eight films in support of the British war effort, 49th Parallel was one of only two of these films to get financial backing from the British government (the Ministry of Information Film Division was run by Kenneth Clark, father of Colin Clark).  The film’s success would transform Michael Powell’s career, and British cinema on the whole.  Historian Bruce Edder explains in his Criterion essay:

Director/producer Michael Powell and screenwriter Emeric Pressburger made a movie that defied the limits of filmmaking in wartime. In the midst of crippling travel restrictions, they crisscrossed the Atlantic and the length and breadth of Canada, covering more than 50,000 miles making their film. In the face of a British film industry that was close to collapse, they forged ahead with a topical thriller of two hours’ length, with a cast drawn from all over the world. They assembled from all of this a film filled with such beauty, vision, and vibrancy, that it was taken to heart by American audiences in a way that no British film before it—including Hitchcock’s celebrated thrillers—ever had been.

The quality of Powell and Pressburger’s achievement also inspired J. Arthur Rank, head of Britain’s General Film Distributors and its parent company, the Rank Organization, to expand production. While other British studios were cutting back on operations, Rank used 49th Parallel and its success in America (where, by Powell’s estimate, it netted an unheard of $5 million in box-office receipts) as the basis for establishing independent production companies headed by Powell and Pressburger (The Archers), David Lean (Cineguild), and Filippo Del Giudice and Laurence Olivier (Two Cities) resulting in such celebrated films as Stairway to Heaven, Henry V, In Which We Serve, Odd Man Out, Oliver Twist, Black Narcissus, and The Red Shoes.

Michael Powell (L) and Emeric Pressburger

I really like this movie and I’m glad it’s gotten the Criterion treatment, along with several other Powell and Pressburger films. If you get a chance to see this, I’d also highly recommend watching the features on the bonus disk.  They include a short film Powell did with Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson about life in the Fleet Air Arm from 1943, and a fabulous documentary called A Very British Affair which is all about the careers of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.  This documentary established Michael Powell as one of my favorite people.  The guy was hilarious!

I actually made this post so that I could share the following photos.  Larry Olivier made this film in between stints helping Vivien Leigh serve drinks to soldiers at canteens and making rousing speeches.  Vivien often visited on the set, and according to at least one Hollywood magazine, Larry would look to her for encouragement with his lines.

keep calm and put the kettle on
Going through the dalies

My favorite Powell and Pressburger film of them all is A Matter of Life and Death (Satirway to Heaven) from 1946 starring David Niven, Roger Livesey, Marius Goring, and Kim Hunter.  Watch it, it’s amazing!

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Review: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

From February 18-21, The American Cinematheque put on an Elia Kazan retrospective at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.  This past Saturday, I met up with my friend Mark and his friends Will and Jay for dinner at the French Quarter restaurant in the French Market in West Hollywood.  We talked of films and politics, book projects and my upcoming trip to London for school.  Afterword, three of us went over the Hollywood for a double bill of Kazan’s Baby Doll and A Streetcar Named Desire, both starring Karl Malden, and both based on Tennessee Williams plays.

Baby Doll was a film I’d only seen bits of pieces of on TCM.  It was quite a racy little number.  In between films, there was a Q&A session with Carroll baker, the lead actress in Baby Doll, which was really interesting.  Then, it turned out Oscar-winning actress Patricia Neal (Hud) was in the audience!  A lot of people crowded her to get her autograph.  Millie Perkins, star of the 1959 film The Diary of Anne Frank was also there.  I love when remaining old celebrities come out of the woodwork for these kinds of events.  Only in Hollywood!

My main reason for attending the screening was to see A Streetcar Named Desire on the big screen for the first time.  It has been one of my favorite films since I discovered Vivien Leigh ages and ages ago.  This is such a powerful movie and Vivien is a tour-de-force as Blanche.  Much like her first turn as a southern belle in Gone with the Wind 11 years prior, Vivien’s Blanche absolutely steals the show.  It seems to be the general consensus among a lot of people that Marlon Brando is the one to watch in this film, but not so.  Seeing it in the theatre, when one is forced to pay attention, it is easy to see that the heart and soul of the story is Blanche, and the heart and soul of the film is Vivien.  She and Brando have great onscreen chemistry, but it is Vivien’s wounded butterfly that demands the most attention and sympathy.

Vivien first played Blanche on the London stage in 1949, where she was directed by Laurence Olivier.  At the same time, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden, and Jessica Tandy were being directed by Elia Kazan on Broadway.  When Vivien was offered the role in the film due to her commercial appeal, she is reported to have had initial difficulty integrating herself with a cast of Method actors, and she and Kazan often disagreed on how they thought Blanche should be portrayed.  Some regard Streetcar as the best thing to happen to Vivien’s career, while others (mainly those close to her) regarded it as the biggest mistake due to her own mental problems, which were beginning to get out of control around the time Streetcar was filmed.  Whatever the case, it is without a doubt one of the best screen performances of Vivien’s career, and one of the best screen performances in film history (*author’s opinion).

What I’ve always loved about Streetcar is that this is a film that relies solely on the strength of the actors’ performances, our attention is always on the characters.  I guess this is why three of the four leads won Oscars, there was little to no room for not being up to perfection in this film.

Streetcar is a sad film that is pretty tough to watch sometimes (not because it’s boring, but because it’s harrowing seeing a person descending into madness).  Kazan gets laurels for making it a great artistic achievement, and the cats gets cheers for being AMAZING.  If you love films, or Vivien Leigh, or anyone and you have yet to see this movie, please do.  It ranks among the best.

This review was terrible.  Apologies!

Rating: 5 stars

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“I’d like to thank the Academy…”

The 82nd Academy Awards are fast approaching.  Soon the day will be upon us when a movie about blue alien people will be named Best Picture and Sandra Bullock and “Oscar winner” will be said in the same sentence.  All the while, quality films like Jane Campion’s  beautiful Bright Star have been completely ignored in favor of box office returns.  I’m off track already.  What was this post going to be about?  Oh, yes!  This is actually a tribute to my favorite Oscar-winning couple.

Did you know that Vivien Leigh and Laurence are one of only TWO couples in the history of motion pictures who both won an Academy Award while married to one another?  This is a true story (the other couple is Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward).  Between them, they had 5 Oscars.  Now, unless your name is Meryl Streep, good luck living up to that amount of awesome.

Vivien Leigh won her first of two Academy Awards in 1940 for her portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind.  The ceremony was held in the famous Coconut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles.  The Ambassador was recently demolished to make way for a much-needed inner-city school, but if you drive by the site where it once stood on Wilshire Blvd, you can still see part of the front entrance amidst a bleak landscape of bulldozed dirt.

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Criterion Favorites: That Hamilton Woman

All of the posts this week are my contributions to the For the Love of Film: the Film Preservation Blogathon that is being put on by the Self-Styled Siren and Ferdy on Films in effort to raise money for the National Film Preservation Foundation.  As film lovers, we should all be aware of how delicate film is and how much of it has been lost due to improper preservation.  Luckily for all of us, there are individuals who have made careers out of restoring and archiving movies so that we are able to enjoy them, and so will future generations.  To donate to the National Film Preservation Foundation, please click HERE.


Continuing with the Criterion love, today’s film recommendation is very fitting with the theme of www.vivandlarry.comThat Hamilton Woman, Alexander Korda’s propaganda piece involving the real-life adulterous affair of Lord Horatio Nelson and Emma Hamilton, was released in the United States in 1941.  It was as much a propaganda picture as an exploitation of Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier’s immense popularity and appeal at the time.  Watching it for the first time with the commentary track by British historian Ian Christie, I learned quite a bit about the production of the film as well as the fascinating story of the real Nelson and Lady Hamilton.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill supported the film and even sent cables to Korda in Hollywood with suggestions for its title.  The main goal of That Hamilton Woman was to make a strong attempt at convincing then neutral America to take up arms with England in the fight against Germany.  Christie noted that Hungarian-born Korda was the best person to make such a patriotic British film because he was one of the only people who wanted to revolutionize the British film industry at the time.  Korda wanted his production company, the famed London Films, to focus on topics that were essentially British, filming adaptations of British authors and looking at British history–something  British producers hadn’t really done up until this point.

Because the crux of the story is the adulterous affair between Nelson and Emma Hamilton, and because it was filmed in Hollywood, Korda had Joseph Breen and the Production Code to contend with.  Vivien Leigh’s Emma is a perfect example of how a sinful woman is made to pay the consequences for her lifestyle choices under Breen’s code.  This was executed brilliantly by the film’s cinematographer, Rudolph Maté, who played heavily with lighting and the use of shadows to convey mood.  There is a great scene toward the end of the film where after dinner in London with the Hamiltons and Nelsons, Lady Nelson (Gladys Cooper) and Emma are talking with one another and we see Lady Nelson bathed in light in the background while Emma, in the foreground, is a silhouette in shadows.  We know Emma is the home-wrecker despite being the film’s heroine.  The idea that being a bad girl will lead to disastrous consequences is apparent from the very beginning of the film when we see Emma as she was after Horatio’s death, poor and old, stealing wine from a shop in France and being violently arrested and thrown in prison (which really happened).  Another facet of the Nelson/Hamilton love story that was tactfully worked around by Korda was the fact that Emma Hamilton had Horatio Nelson’s love child.  In the film we know Emma is pregnant when she faints after Nelson’s speech at the House of Lords, but the child is never shown (although according to production stills from the film, at least one scene with Emma and her daughter Horatia was in fact filmed but left out of the final version).

It’s a wonder that this film was able to achieve such a sense of cinematic style, because it was filmed in only six weeks and on a limited budget.  The famed art director Vincent Korda (Alex’s brother), can be thanked for making diamonds out of coal.  To save money, Alex Korda wanted to have the bulk of the film shot in one interior set.  Vincent magnificently designed Sir William Hamilton’s estate in Naples, complete with Mount Vesuvius smoking in the background to give audiences a sense that this was Italy and not a Hollywood back lot (although as Christie explains, Vesuvius couldn’t actually be seen from any such villa in Naples). Vincent Korda also designed the naval battle scenes, which are quite impressive considering this film was made in 1941. Another person who added to the glamor of the film was costume designer Rene Hubert who utilized many paintings of the real Nelson and Emma Hamilton in creating his costumes.  Apparently the real Nelson and Emma Hamilton were big fans of making statements with their fashion, and loved dressing up, so this works wonderfully for Leigh and Olivier’s characters in the film.

In 1940/41, Vivien Leigh’s star had eclipsed Olivier’s on screen, due to her popularity after Gone with the Wind.  She and Larry had just been married a couple weeks before the start of filming, and after having lost a fortune in their failed production of Romeo and Juliet on stage, accepted the offer to do That Hamilton Woman in large part because it would provide them enough money to go back home to London for the duration of the war.  Vivien is clearly the star of the film and is much more natural and luminous on screen than her husband.  However, their portrayals give wonderful contrast to one another, and the audience really gets a sense of the fact that despite this torrid love affair, Nelson’s first loyalty is to the British crown, and he is most concerned about saving Europe from the tyrannical Napoleon.

Emma Hamilton by George Romney and Vivien Leigh by Bob Coburn

It has been said that That Hamilton Woman was Winston Churchill’s favorite film and that he showed it to everyone, including FDR.  It is unclear how much patriotic sentiment his film raised in American audiences upon its release, but my guess is that its greatest appeal was the fact that it starred Hollywood’s dream couple.  At any rate, just a month after the film’s theatrical release, the Japanese bombed Pearl harbor and America was thrown into the war.

The London Films library has since been sold to Granada Media, which is where Criterion picked up this film for their collection.  I was so glad when I heard Criterion was going to be releasing this movie because my old Sam Goldwyn VHS was not very good quality, and I don’t even own a VCR anymore.  The restoration is decent.  Although we can still see light scratches in the film, it doesn’t in any way detract from its watchability, and it is suggested that this was part of the original print that was retained when the film was transferred to digital.  I have read that there wasn’t much that could be done with Miklós Rózsa’s beautiful score because it was on monotrack.

That Hamilton Woman is a beautiful film on the whole and it is by far the best of the three films that Vivien and Larry did together.  If you are interested in Alexander Korda films or the Oliviers in general, I’d highly recommend this film.

Available for purchase on Criterion: yes

Available for streaming on Netflix: no

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Everybody Else’s Girl

London’s National Portrait Gallery recently added some new Vivien Leigh photos to their online collection, which in itself always makes me really excited because they hide these things away and don’t display them for the public in the museum, so whenever they do put new ones up on the website, it’s like a discovery for me.

There are some beautiful sets of Vivien in the 1930s, but please allow me to flail over this particular one right now.  This set by Cyril Arapoff taken around 1936, is one of the most ethereal things I think I’ve ever seen.  I absolutely love the contrast of the lighting and shadows, and the fact that Vivien is not all dolled up.  Tricia commented on my personal blog yesterday that the expressions Vivien has in these photos are almost somber.  I have to agree. But look at how beautiful she is, and the contrast between the beauty of her face and her sweater, which is very plain in black and white (even though $10 says it was a bright color), is great.  Despite the grainy quality (or maybe because of it), these feel very modern to me, and this might be my new favorite set of Vivien.  They’re so different than most of the portraits we see of her.  Ah, variety!  The spice of life.

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