Made to measure

After her affair with movie mogul Alexander Korda, there was never any doubt that Vivien Leigh would become famous. Charles Drazin reveals how an extraordinary screen personality was manufactured.

by Charles Drazin
The Guardian, London, June 7, 2002

During the shooting of The Private Life of Henry VIII, the actor John Loder recalled sitting next to Alexander Korda while the crew lit the scene in which Jane Seymour’s ladies-in-waiting make her bed ready for the king: “One of the young ladies was the pretty daughter of Sir Bernard Spilsbury, the famous Home Office pathologist. Korda, who had been watching her appreciatively, remarked: ‘You know, John, I would like to sleep with that Spilsbury girl, but maybe she would not like to sleep with me, and if she did, she would expect me to give her a big part and that I cannot do – so what the hell . . .’ ”

There were no such scruples, however, to prevent a brief affair with Vivien Leigh. Eve Phillips, an actress and fashion model who had worked as Vivien Leigh’s stand-in, told Thomas Kiernan, the biographer of Laurence Olivier, that she lent her flat to the pair on two or three occasions soon after Korda had signed Vivien Leigh to a five-year contract with London Films.

According to Kiernan, Leigh’s schoolfriend Maureen O’Sullivan warned her that Korda tried to sleep with every actress he put under contract. O’Sullivan, who had become a film star at Fox in Hollywood, starred in Korda’s last film there, The Princess and the Plumber. “It’s something he feels they owe him,” Maureen had told her. “He claims it’s good for business – it’s the only way he can decide which actress is best for which part. He must know an actress completely before he can really use her in films. At least, that’s what he says.”

After his brief affair with Vivien Leigh, Korda resumed his paternal attitude. Their relationship was much more significant as an example of the extraordinary calculation and care with which he would manufacture a screen personality.

Vivien Leigh’s iconic status has hidden the far-from-certain start to her career. She was less a jewel discovered than one painstakingly moulded in Pygmalion fashion. She left drama school early to marry her first husband, Leigh Holman, and had virtually no stage experience when, in 1934, she appeared in a quota quickie called Things Are Looking Up. She almost certainly got the part on account of her extraordinary beauty, rather than her acting ability. Shortly afterwards, the producer Anthony Havelock-Allan cast her in two quota films for Paramount, The Village Squire and Gentleman’s Agreement. But he was unimpressed: “I thought that her neck was too long, and she was out of proportion. You had to be careful that you didn’t put her in a dress with a low collar, which in real life she was inclined to wear, and you saw this tiny head perched like a sort of pea on top of a long neck.”

With hindsight, Havelock-Allan realised that he had made a mistake, that as a then-inexperienced producer he had overlooked the way in which careful lighting and costume design could hide such a defect. The same was true of acting ability. Leigh, he felt, was not a natural actress, but on film an acting performance could be manufactured.

On May 15 1935, Korda attended the first night of Mask of Virtue at London’s Ambassadors Theatre, the play that turned Vivien Leigh into an “instant star”. According to Havelock-Allan, it was actually Korda who put on the production in the first place. He chose a play which he knew could be quickly staged, then gave Vivien Leigh the starring role.

On a wave of carefully orchestrated publicity, Korda announced that he was giving his new discovery a pounds 50,000 contract, but with much less publicity he had her carefully coached. It was not until over a year had passed that he deemed her polished enough and – just as importantly – the circumstances favourable enough for her first appearance.

In the early summer of 1936 happenstance took the form of Laurence Olivier, with whom Vivien Leigh had fallen in love. There is a story that Korda lent his house to the two stars – who were both married to other people at the time – so that they could consummate their affair. Whether or not this is true, he certainly did everything he could to encourage the relationship by casting them as two lovers at the court of Queen Elizabeth in Fire over England, which went into production at the studios at Denham.

Olivier and Leigh did not bother to hide their rapture. Everyone connected with the production was aware of their off-screen romance. Olivier, who had impressed everybody with his athleticism, confessed that his habitual look of exhaustion was due not to performing his own stunts but to Vivien. “It’s every day, two, three times. She’s bloody wearing me out.” And in the background, Korda the matchmaker looked on with approval. “We went to him with every little problem we had,” Vivien later recalled.

The real-life romance added lustre to Vivien Leigh’s debut and soon after the film’s heavily promoted release in early 1937, word of her performance even got as far as Hollywood. “Miss Vivien Leigh in Korda’s Fire Over England is as fine a prospect for stardom as any girl I have seen in a long while,” a talent scout, Charles Morrison, cabled his boss David Selznick in February. “I strongly urge that you make an effort to secure this girl for one or two pictures a year.”

Another publicity exercise was Vivien Leigh’s ostentatious brandishing on set of the latest bestseller from America: “I’m reading Gone with the Wind,” she told the film correspondent of the Evening News. “If I brought it here, I shouldn’t be able to start working. I’ve never been so gripped by anything in my life. It’s the finest book I’ve ever read. What a grand film it would make! I’ve cast myself for Scarlett O’Hara. What do you think?”

Vivien spoke the lines, but Korda told her what to say. Since he must have known that she had already been pointed out to David Selznick, it amounted to a gentle reminder to Selznick that he ought to take her seriously. The casting of Scarlett O’Hara had been a huge publicity circus ever since Selznick first announced that he had bought the rights to Gone with the Wind. Korda realised that to have Vivien in the race was an excellent way to build up her profile, even if she didn’t get the part.

He helped to pave the way by loaning her out to appear in A Yank at Oxford, a film that Hollywood’s biggest studio, MGM, was conveniently making at Denham, where Korda could keep a discreet eye on her. “Her entire characterisation in A Yank at Oxford was worked out as a kind of screen test for Scarlett O’Hara,” recalled Eve Phillips. “Larry helped her some, but it was Korda who really coached her.”

David Selznick would see A Yank at Oxford in February 1938. “I think Vivien Leigh gave an excellent performance and was very well cast,” he commented to colleagues. Bit by bit, he was being won over. Another important move, which no doubt Korda had some hand in, was when David Selznick’s brother, Myron, became her US agent. At the end of the year Vivien Leigh finally travelled out to meet David Selznick in person.

The legend of their meeting was first set out in the Gone With the Wind souvenir programme. On a cold night in December 1938, the studio back lot was set on fire for the film’s first scene, the Burning of Atlanta. Selznick had turned out to witness this historic moment. As he watched the flames, his brother emerged from out of the shadows. “David,” he said, “I want you to meet Scarlett O’Hara.”

Vivien Leigh would have a screen test a few days later, but from that moment – Selznick would maintain – he knew that the part would be hers. Korda was soon in Hollywood to sign an extremely lucrative seven-year contract by which each year Selznick would be entitled to make two films with Vivien Leigh, and London Films one. “The lucky Hungarian has fallen into something,” Selznick wrote to his business partner Jock Whitney, “and we’re going to make a fortune for him.”

But Korda had made his luck. Ever since putting Vivien Leigh on stage in Mask of Virtue, he had done everything possible to weight the chances in her favour. Her road to stardom was one more example of the very long game that he played.

%d bloggers like this: