A vamp at Oxford

Big events are beginning to shape in the studios for Vivien Leigh, whose recent progress is graphically described

By Max Breen
Picturegoer, April 9, 1938

About fifteen months ago, as the crow flies, I wrote an article about one of the greatest problems of our studios–Vivien Leigh. I don’t mean to suggest by that that she’s a problem child; there’s certainly no trace of so-called “artistic temperament” about her–no kicking, scratching, or biting, not a camera smashed, not a newspaper man sent limping with a black eye.

The problem in those days was two-fold. Part One ran “What is to be the future of Vivien?” and part two, following immediately, was “Why in thunder, if he isn’t going to avail himself to her services, did Alexander Korda sign her to a £50,000 contract?”

Say it slowly, masticating well. Fifty…thousand…pounds.

It’s a mouthful, even if you’re a Martha Raye, and the very size of the mouthful made the problem more acute.

Well, Part One is to a great extent ironed out, and that rather tends to dispose of Part Two, as I shall hope to demonstrate.

At the time I speak of, Vivien had been on contract to Korda for eighteen months, and most of that time she had been kicking her heels in dangerous idleness–dangerous because, to a young actress, idleness is apt to breed one or more of four undesirable elements; a) a smouldering sense of injustice, b) complacency, c) boredom, d) rust.

Then, quite suddenly, Alex Korda seemed to realize he had an expensive “frozen asset” on his shelves and he proceeded to thaw her out rapidly in three films whose production almost overlapped–Fire Over England, Dark Journey and Storm in a Teacup.

Cat your mind back to these (I hope you saw them, they’re very important films).

In the first she provided a highly decorative love-interest opposite the hero, Laurence Olivier, whose affections she shared with Tamara Desni. Vivien’s chief business was to look “period” and heartbroken.

She did that all right, without it imposing any terrific strain on her considerable acting ability.

In Dark Journey she was a kind of youthful French Olga Pulloffski, whose technique consisted of appearing somber and inscrutable except for the occasional (oh, but most rare) softening toward Conrad Veidt.

Most women, I suspect, would consider it an east matter to soften toward Conrad Veidt.

Anyway, she took that in her stride, and with only about a fortnight’s “breather” she leapt into comedy–that highly successful and withal distinguished Storm in a Teacup.

Now just in case there are any shreds left blowing about of the ancient and fallacious superstition that being in a comedy necessarily entails being funny, let me dispel them.

As far as my memory serves me, in that whole film Vivien Leigh scarcely had a funny thing to say.

She had to spend the first half of the story being indignant with Rex Harrison on account of Cecil Parker, and the second half being indignant with Cecil Parker on account of Rex Harrison.

For the rest, apart from the dramatic moment when she committed perjury at the trial, all she had to do for her living was to appear sufficiently attractive to make her seem a prize worth the young man’s winning.

And this, I may state, must have cost her no effort at all, for Vivien is extremely agreeable to the eye and ear.

Well, that was the status quo (Latin for that’s that!) when I last laid down my pen on this comedy subject, and although it was satisfactory to know that she was working and therefore preserving the distinguished talents from the moth and rust that corrupt, no one could pretend that there was anything in all this that might appreciably advance her career. In these three films she was rather the garnishing than the nurturing element.

However, things have been a-brewing and a-doing since then; Vivien has played in no fewer than three pictures since that one was completed–and for three different companies.

The one she made for the parent stable was The First and the Last. the Galsworthy story which was produced and directed by Basil Dean, but under the Korda banner.

About this production there has been one of the solemn hushes that occasionally descend upon a production like an impalpable pall hen you least expect them; little has been bruited about concerning it; visitors were not encouraged on the set, and so far we have not been invited to view the finished production–if, indeed, the production is finished.

This story is one of the few of the old maestro’s that I have never read and I admit to being a little hazy about the whole thing.

So that is an unknown quantity, as far as I am concerned, and if my memory of algebra serves me right, in the case of an unknown quality, X marks the spot.

However, United Artists (who coyly unveil the works of Korda to an expectant world) may suddenly decide to show it to us one of these days; stranger things have happened. And when they do I shall rally round for a look-see, because I was intrigued by the Olivier-Leigh combination in Fire Over England, and they are at it again in The First and the Last.

After the Basil Dean production a significant thing happened. Vivien went to work for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Mind you, I use the phrase “went to work” in the American rather then the English sense. Actually she did not have to go at all, since M-G-M were making A Yant at Oxford right there in her home studio, Denham.

But the significance lies in the fact that it was the first time, in the course of nearly three years on contract to Alex Korda, that she had been “farmed out” to any other company, and that started something.

Actually, her role in A Yank at Oxford is not a very large one; however, not only is it the first “vamp” part she has been asked or allowed to play on the screen, but also it’s a key-role, inasmuch that she starts all the trouble that leads up to the dramatic climax.

She plays “Elsa Craddock,” the flirtatious wife of an Oxford bookseller, the type of young woman who just cannot refrain from throwing down a challenge to the responsive male.

Elsa has been described as “Literature’s gift to the undergraduate,” and I shouldn’t be surprised if this film set a great many callow students combing Oxford for Craddock’s entirely mythical bookshop.

Up to the moment of committing these words to the awful majesty of print, I haven’t had an opportunity of seeing that film; but I saw on the studio floor several scenes involving out little friend Vivien at work on the susceptibilities of undergraduates, and believe me, she could vamp a pillar-box clean of the “High”.

But the most important thing about this role is that it may be regarded as her first screen character part (as distinct from juvenile leads) and, as such, it paved the way for her current effort, which is likely to be of the utmost importance to her career–the role of a cockney waif in St. Martin’s Lane for Mayflower Productions at Elstree.

Here she comes again under the wing of the cinematic genius who was her producer in Fire Over England–Erich Pommer–and here, also, she forsakes milk-and-watery society juvenility for the strong red wine (or should the smile be nourishing stout?) of slum drama.

As the gutter-snipe who is rescued by queue entertainer Charles Laughton, Vivien has, as far as I know, the first real big chance of her screen career.

And is she seizing it?

I’ve seen her on the studio floor and I was impressed; but I was still more impressed, when, in the company of my colleague G.E. Cousins, I sat in the private theatre at the studio and watched some of the “rushes” being run through.

We were both very much struck by the sense of characterization which this girl must have had tucked away, waiting for a chance to employ it.

But there was something else besides.

Ever since I first saw Vivien Leigh on the screen (it was a supremely unimportant role in the Cicely Courtenage picture Things Are Looking Up) I have been conscious of her inner fire; but for years that fire has seemed to smoulder, a sultry, almost sullen glow that threatened to burst into leaping flame at the first breath of encouragement.

And now that breath has come, and Vivien has suddenly become Vivid.

When george Cukor, the famous Hollywood director of Camille was over here last year, he described to me the sort of actress he wanted for the heroine of Gone with the Wind, which he was–and still is–to direct for Selznick.

I asked him then if he had seen Vivien Leigh on the screen; he said he had and that she was very beautiful, but she seemed to be a little static, not quite sufficiently temperamental for such a fiery role.

I can’t help feeling that if he were to see her in St. Martin’s Lane he might reverse his opinion: for that matter, although there is strong evidence in support of Paulette Goddard getting the coveted role, it isn’t finally cast…

We shall see.

Meanwhile, Vivien is enjoying herself thoroughly, after a long period of wearing beautiful and expensive clothes in the studio, it must be a relief to wear a shabby and grubby coat and skirt in which you can just squat down whenever you like, without worrying.

But still greater is the relief of finally having at last really got into her stride as a screen actress.

Vivien is ambitious; not particularly for money (being quite content to rub along bravely on the £50,000 in which Alex Korda doles out to her) but for the success as an actress, and i believe the fulfillment of her ambition is in sight.

There seems to me a strong possibility that in the future, A Yank at Oxford may be remembered, not as Robert Taylor’s first British film, but as the picture which afforded a certain young screen actress her first real chance to act.

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