Wednesday, December 25, 2013

THE VIVIEN LEIGH ANNIVERSARY COLLECTION: Blu-ray (Alexander Korda/London Films 1937-38) Cohen Media Group

When Vivien Leigh stepped before the Technicolor cameras for her American debut in David O. Selznick’s Gone With The Wind (1939) she forever put a period to what had come before it. Leigh will always be known as the fiery southern belle, Scarlett O’Hara; an iconic and immortalized performance standing head and shoulders above most everything else in the history of grand divas. The tragedy is that Scarlett O’Hara has all but obliterated Vivien Leigh as a peerless actress elsewhere; her reputation coming to a full stop with Selznick’s masterpiece: Vivien Leigh. Scarlett O’Hara. The end.
While some may also resurrect her as the definitive Blanche Du Bois in Elia Kazan’s film version of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), the rest of Vivien Leigh’s movie career remains something of a blur; buffeted by less than stellar flashes of her initial promise snuffed out in mostly forgettable movies made near the end of her career and long after the exquisite bloom of her youth had been worn down by the personal and professional implosions of life. Yet Vivien Leigh ought to be remembered in her prime and for a lot more than GWTW. Need proof? Consider Cohen Media’s Vivien Leigh: The Anniversary Collection – a 2 disc compendium of Leigh’s formidable pre-Scarlett efforts: 4 classic and very classy movies made for Alexander Korda: the eminence gris of British cinema.
In retrospect, Leigh’s patrician beauty and Korda’s exemplary challenge – to outdo Hollywood by making movies on par with their production values – seems to fit very snugly, hand in velvet glove. Yet, Korda’s initial impression of Vivien was less than flattering. Indeed, she was still a bride with a baby when Korda dismissed her as an actress lacking any sort of ‘break out’ appeal. It ought to have been a crushing blow to the young mother; this outright rejection from on high, and, from a man who usually knew his stuff inside and out. Instead, Vivien regrouped and went on the stage, determined as ever. She had a colossal success in The Masque of Virtue; proving she had the necessary ‘presence’ plus to command an audience. Korda now came to her, perhaps chaste of his preconceptions, and offering Leigh a very plum role in his glossy production of Fire Over England (1937); a ravishing period/costume drama set in the stately court of Elizabeth I.
Viewing Fire Over England today, one immediately feels Vivien’s brewing desire to be a great actress from deep within; her passion for the work and, perhaps more directly her co-star, the impossibly drop-dead gorgeous Laurence Olivier, for whom she would leave her husband and young daughter. There’s no getting around it. Director William K. Howard’s Fire Over England is a movie tailor-made for Vivien’s launch into super stardom; a king-sized endeavor with a stellar cast and elegant production and costume design by Lazare Meerson, René Hubert and Roland Gillett. Clemence Dane and Sergei Nolbandov’s screenplay, based on the novel by A.E.W. Mason, gets a little muddled along the way, wallowing in its fumbled swashbuckler scenario. But the enterprise clings together because it sparks obvious romantic chemistry stirring between Leigh and Olivier – ably abetted by Flora Robson’s towering performance as the proverbial ‘fly in the ointment’ , herein reconstituted as England’s ‘virgin’ queen. Cinematographer, James Wong Howe, who would soon come to America to augment many a classic movie on this side of the Atlantic, displays a level of superb craftsmanship herein, filling the screen with discerningly composed master shots and a compendium of adoring close-ups showing off our young romantic leads at their most startlingly virile and sensuous.      
Vivien Leigh is Cynthia, a rather scatterbrain/love-struck lady in waiting to the austere Queen (Flora Robson), presently embroiled in a quagmire of palace intrigues; the Spanish Armada plotting to invade her tiny isle. Conspirators are everywhere. From the wily Spanish Ambassador (Henry Oscar) to the scheming courtier, Sir Hillary Vane (James Mason), Elizabeth’s throne is experiencing the first signs of a very nasty palace coup.    
It’s 1588 and relations between Spain and England have reached a critical impasse. The queen’s chief advisors, Lord Burleigh (Morton Selten), and paramour, Sir Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (Leslie Banks) offer their advice, though precious little in the way of a concrete counteroffensive against the brewing storm clouds of war. On the home front, Burleigh’s stunningly handsome daughter, Cynthia is a constant source of regret to the aging monarch who cannot help but appreciate how her own withering beauty is at odds with Cynthia’s youth and vitality. Moreover, the queen has become rather enamored with Michael Ingolby (Laurence Olivier), the strapping son of her loyal friend, Sir Richard (Lyn Harding). Richard’s ship, with Michael aboard, is taken by the Spanish fleet led by Don Miguel (Robert Rendel). Owing to their lifelong friendship and mutual respect, Miguel allows Richard to spare his son’s life by affording him the opportunity of a daring escape. Michael swims ashore, barely conscious and shortly thereafter is nursed back to health by Miguel’s daughter, Elena (Tamara Desni).
Naturally, Elena is smitten with this dashing young swain – a flirtation briefly reciprocated, despite Michael’s attachment to Cynthia back home…that is, until he learns his father has been burned alive as a heretic in the name of the Inquisition. Miguel’s news infuriates Michael, who denounces the bloodthirsty savagery of the Spanish in general, and Miguel and Elena in particular, before fleeing back to England aboard a small fishing boat. This, of course, breaks - then hardens - Elena’s heart. In England, Michael thwarts an attempt on Elizabeth’s life during a public gathering, urging her to smite Spain’s menacing threat of invasion before these dissensions can spread and infect the whole European hemisphere. Michael also swears an unswerving loyalty to the crown.
Sir Robert confronts Hillary Vane with the accusation that he is a spy for Spain; a move forcing Vane to attempt an escape. He is killed and Burleigh hatches a plot. The crown will send Michael to the Spanish court in Vane’s stead to learn the identities of the rest of the conspirators still lurking about Elizabeth’s court. Michael’s initial introduction to King Philip II of Spain (Raymond Massey) goes off without a hitch. But when Elena discovers the ruse, for Michael’s disguise is rather thin, she struggles with conflicted emotions before confiding in her husband, Don Pedro (Robert Newton). Alas, Philip has seen through the charade already and Pedro elects to afford Michael another opportunity to escape in order the shield Elena from suspicions of being a heretic.
Michael’s daring escape is countered by Philip ordering the Spanish armada to set sail for England. Elizabeth amasses her troops at Tilbury and Michael arrives there to divulge the names of her traitors. He is knighted and ordered to confront the six who plotted to murder Elizabeth. Against Cynthia’s wishes, Michael goes off on his most dangerous mission yet; to fire bomb the Spanish armada off the coast of England. The venture is successful and Elizabeth reluctantly allows Michael and Cynthia to wed, ordering all mirrors removed from her rooms as she prepares to receive her adoring subjects.
Fire Over England is an exuberant drawing room melodrama that desperately wants to be an Errol Flynn-styled swashbuckler. It doesn’t really rise to this level of action or adventure. But the performances are so universally skillful throughout, the settings so meticulously crafted and the camera work as impeccably avowed, one can easily overlook the narrative shortcomings and simply appreciate the movie for what it is; a ravishing spectacle with considerable ‘fire’ lurking beneath the Elizabethan collars and cuffs. Leigh and Olivier smolder throughout; he, perhaps, just a wee over excitable at times (chalk it up to youth and inexperience), but Leigh remaining rock-steady and even lyrical in spots in her desperate longing to become Michael’s wife.
Alexander Korda was unquestioningly impressed by Vivien’s performance, as were the critics.  His next move was to assign her a more contemporary role in Victor Saville’s Dark Journey (1937); an often profound and consistently intense WWI espionage drama that, once again, falters in its third act. Vivien is cast as double agent, Madeleine Goddard, a French spy pretending to work for the Germans using a false front as a successful businesswoman of a respectable couturier is Stockholm. Our story begins in 1918, the last year of the war. A German U-boat stops a Dutch freighter, taking prisoner one of its passengers for being a Belgian spy. The Germans also suspect Madeleine for a brief moment. In Stockholm, Madeleine meets her contacts by attending a private fitting of some of the latest fashions with vital information against the Allies sewn into the fabric of each gown.
Meanwhile, retired German Navy veteran, Baron Karl Von Marwitz (Conrad Veidt) has just arrived in Sweden; a wily bon vivant who charms the ladies at a local nightclub, though he is suspected by some of his former colleagues as being a deserter. Seated at a nearby table with her English secret service handler, Bob Carter (Anthony Bushell), Madeleine quietly observes as Karl uses an old parlor trick to seduce various woman at the club. Brazilian socialite, Lupita (Joan Gardner) is particularly intrigued, and made severely jealous when Karl takes more than passing interest in Madeleine instead. But Karl’s charm fails to work its magic on Madeleine, especially after she exposes the secret to his trick. The next day, Karl and Lupita visit Madeleine’s shop and Karl once again baits Madeleine with amorous prospects. Again, she refuses the invitation, and continues to do so for several days thereafter until Karl begins to lose interest. When he finally does give up, Madeleine changes her mind – always the woman’s prerogative.
Soon the pair becomes inseparable. Madeleine and Karl are seen everywhere. Karl is obviously more than smitten. In fact, he even proposes marriage. But their whirlwind romance is thwarted when Madeleine’s German co-conspirator, Anatole Bergen (Eliot Makeham) is found brutally murdered. Madeleine’s German handlers order her immediate return to Paris after information she provided them proved utterly disastrous for the Germany army. In Paris, Madeleine is awarded the Médaille militaire for bravery and shortly thereafter returned to Stockholm by the French to continue her work. Madeleine and Karl’s romance reaches its critical moment of truth when, after a night of carousing, capped off by a rather humiliating confrontation at the nightclub, each quietly confides that the other is a spy working for the opposite side. However, these confessions come with a bitter realization; that Madeleine and Karl’s plans for an idyllic life together can never be.
Not long after Madeleine turns to Bob for protection, knowing that Karl will plot against her. Bob arranges for a rather public spectacle to play out – Madeleine’s arrest: her shop brimming with eager patrons who have been brought there with the deliberate false promise of a liquidation sale. The deportation spares Madeleine’s life. But her ship is intercepted in neutral waters by a German U-boat with Karl aboard. The plan is, of course, to arrest Madeleine for being a French spy and take her back to Germany. Instead, a British destroyer engages the U-boat and Karl is the one taken prisoner for being a German spy. As Madeleine learns of Karl’s fate – mere imprisonment for the duration of the war - she calls out to him in the fog. She still loves him and will wait for his release, thus ensuring that even in war their love has endured.
Dark Journey is rather tautly scripted by Lajos Biró and Arthur Wimperis. Conrad Veidt’s early career had been promising, cast in German movies as the suave intercontinental lover with a penchant for slightly deviant romantic folly. While his inevitable exile from Germany at the start of WWII to escape the Nazi regime brought him to the attention of English and American film audiences, regrettably, his thick German accent usually recasting him as the quintessential Nazi villain rather than the romantic lead. In Dark Journey Veidt’s public image is clearly in transition. He’s a fascinating actor to observe, with stern and very expressive eyes telling so much more than mere dialogue allows. In fact, without even trying, Veidt’s performance tends to dominate the movie. Vivien holds her own. But hers is decidedly the less flashy part. The other unusual aspect of the film is its uncharacteristic lack of any romantic thread interwoven into its grand narrative of timely espionage. The relationship that awkwardly evolves between Karl and Madeleine is fairly pedestrian; its best moment the ‘confession scene’ where Karl tells Madeleine about herself and she reciprocates by exposing him as a German spy. One senses the tenuousness in their love; perhaps even with a hint of insincerity between them; their loyalties divided between the individual and the state.
Clearly sensing the need to test the breadth of Vivien’s talents further, Korda next cast her in Storm in a Teacup (1937), by far the most featherweight – if utterly delightful – film featured in this collection. Co-directed by Ian Dalrymple and Victor Saville, Storm in a Teacup is an exquisite drawing room comedy based on Bruno Frank’s hilarious play, ‘Sturm im Wasserglas’ adapted by James Bridie. Our story concerns a dog – Patsy – and the cumulative wrath of Baikie; a tiny Scottish community brought on the head of Provost William Gow (Cecil Parker) after he refuses to extend a helping hand of tolerance to Patsy’s owner, Honoria Hegarty (Sara Allgood) who cannot afford to pay for the dog’s license.  Gow is a rather haughty and exclusive windbag with aspirations to ascend the political ladder as Scotland’s first Prime Minister. Rex Harrison is Frank Burdon, an aspiring newshound who taps into this minor event, whipping it into tabloid backlash after being assigned by his editor, Horace Skirving (Gus McNaughton) to cover an entirely different story.
Vivien is Victoria Gow, the Provost’s rather pert daughter, newly returned from finishing school. Victoria suspects her father – a widower - has begun an extramarital affair with Lisbet Skirving (Ursula Jeans), Horace’s wife; the pair carrying on right under Horace’s nose and seemingly without shame and Horace’s complicity. In the meantime, Frank’s negative article on the Provost has given rise to a groundswell of animosity impacting Gow’s chances for political ascendance. While police officer, McKeller (Edgar Bruce) looks after Patsy for Honoria, William prepares to entertain Lord Skerryvore (Robert Hale) at his stately home with a grand dinner party to gain his favor as the ideal political candidate. Regrettably, the evening is a disaster after Frank stages a rather daring canine assault; hundreds of dogs let loose on the Provost’s home barking, jumping up on the guests and the furniture and transforming the evening’s courtly gathering into a rambunctious three-ring circus.
Forced into a trial to resolve the matter, Frank attempts to explain his position to Victoria, whom he is deeply in love with, but who will have none of his elucidations. As a result of Frank’s articles in the paper the once nearly destitute Honoria has since become a wealthy woman through the philanthropy of her peers. She is reunited with her beloved Patsy through generous public donations. Seeing the good that Frank’s writing has done, and realizing she is, in fact, also in love with him, Victoria perjures herself on the witness stand by declaring she and Frank are married, thereby unable to give testimony against her husband. William is incensed by his daughter’s actions, but concedes the trial to save her reputation.  In the final moments, Frank and Victoria are seen driving off together in a convertible jalopy, having vindicated Victoria’s claim by getting married for real.
Storm in a Teacup is a fairly charming farce with Rex Harrison at his insolent best. The initial cute meet between Victoria and Frank says it all; he peeling off a sticky sucker that she has sat on from her butt before inquiring if the finishing school she’s been sent to has ‘finished’ her off yet.  Frank doesn’t have much use for human hypocrisy (I like him already). When asked what the Provost’s political stance is – and told that it is ‘Scotland for the Scots’ – he rather impertinently declares, “Why? Does somebody else want it?” Indeed, in viewing the movie today, one is acutely aware how much more Storm in a Teacup is Harrison’s gig than Vivien’s. And Harrison is having an undeniably good time as the razor-tongued crusader for the little guy; his enlightenments made at trial full of the actor’s superb comedic timing and inherent wit to make even the most basic line of dialogue seem pointedly funny. Cecil Parker overplays his hand and outstays his welcome. It’s both refreshing and a relief to watch as all of his Provost’s self-appointed worldly pomposity is repeatedly deflated by the point of Frank’s poisoned pen. Vivien’s part in this amusing and quirky comedy of errors is decidedly thankless; the straight man (or woman, as this case may be), unable to see the merriment for the chaos that surrounds her and quite simply remaining dissatisfied with virtually every and all aspects of her life until Frank comes along to rescue from her abstemious self.  
By now, Vivien Leigh was a name above the marquee in her native England. She could have so easily gone on making movies there. Except that Laurence Olivier, who had become her lover after Fire Over England had now gone on ahead to America to forge a new film career abroad, signing with agent Myron Selznick (David O.’s brother). In hindsight, the void left behind from his departure seems to have impacted Leigh’s performance in Tim Whelan’s St. Martin’s Lane (rechristened as Sidewalks of London, 1938 for its North American release): an exuberant snapshot of London’s west end at the turn of the last century. St. Martin’s Lane is a cornucopia for proud buskers and wily peasants parading past the theater façades; a cavalcade richly teeming with fascinating lives and aspirations set just beyond the yellowing cast of footlights.  
At least in hindsight, the plot knocked together by screen scenarists Bartlett Cormace, Clemence Dane, Charles Laughton, Erich Pommer and Tim Whelan – that of a relative unknown rising through the ranks to become an international star of both stage and screen on both sides of the Atlantic  - seems to foreshadow Vivien’s present and, then, future aspirations. She really is quite marvelous as the uncouth Cockney thief, scheming, ambitious to a fault and destined to make her mark as one for the ages. Leigh’s angst of separation from Olivier has been translated herein into a noted defiant strength and needling fortitude.  She won’t give in, give up or settle for second best; a quality destined to, at once, set her apart though ultimately alienate from her contemporaries. And despite being cast opposite Rex Harrison and the formidable scene-stealer Charles Laughton, St. Martin’s Lane belongs to Vivien Leigh. Her lower class Libby, hammers out the enigma of a stage presence rechristened ‘Liberty’ (just, one word…like Garbo, as Leigh’s resourceful heroine points out early on), giving us insight as to just how ruthless she is willing to be to get exactly what she wants. 
Charles Laughton is Charles Staggers, a middle-aged busker amusing the Piccadilly theatergoers with his overwrought recitations of famous poetry while his two cohorts, Arthur (Gus McNaughton) and Gentry (Tyrone Guthrie) strum their instruments as backup. After swiping a farthing from Charles’ cap, the urchin, Libby (Vivien Leigh) escapes to a nearby coffee stand where she meets London composer, Harley Prentiss (Rex Harrison).  Her joie de vivre is infectious and thoroughly captivates Harley, enough for Libby to steal his gold-plated cigarette case, though not before Charles witnesses the theft and makes chase to retrieve it.
Escaping to the interior of an abandoned but elegant manor house, Libby performs a devastatingly lyrical and celebratory dance, one interrupted by Charles who demands Libby return the cigarette case. He creates a scene, thereby altering a local bobby to their presence. Instead of turning Libby in Charles takes pity on her, the two returning to his squalid attic flat some time later. Libby is grateful for a warm place to sleep, but in the morning makes a spectacle by smashing Charles things when he attempts to keep her locked in his room. Libby rechristens herself ‘Liberty’, forming a new busking act with Charles, Arthur and Gentry that once again garners the attention and praise of Harley, who invites her to come and dance for a small group of his friends at a house party he is giving later that same evening.
Libby wows the hoi poloi with her seemingly effortless routine and Charles gets a theatrical agent to take an interest in jumpstarting the girl’s career. Returning to Charles’ flat with her good news, Libby is heart sore when Charles leaps into a jealous tirade, awakening the rest of the boarding house with his angry outcries. Undaunted, Libby pursues her career under Harley’s tutelage; her star ever rising until, at long last, she is the much adored and equally sought after actress of her generation. Recognizing how right Libby was, Charles succumbs to strong drink and self-pity, hiding from Arthur and Gentry. He attempts to reconnect with Libby outside the stage door after her show. But the mob of thronging admirers, clamoring for autographs, drowns him out and Charles is arrested for disturbing the peace and given four months in prison.   
After learning of an offer to go to Hollywood, Libby rather forwardly asks Harley to marry her. She is promptly turned down, Harley explaining he will not become another Charles – just another rung on the ladder of success Libby is determined to climb. Not long thereafter, Libby encounters Charles, newly released from prison and impersonating a blind man to garner badly needed monies. After admonishing him for his deceptions, Libby encourages Charles to try out for a small part in her new play; plying the producers ahead of time with the shared understanding that they will hire him no matter what. But the audition is a rather embarrassing disaster; Charles suddenly realizing that his performance is overwrought and decidedly out of tune with what’s expected of him in the ‘legitimate’ theater. Succumbing to his own humiliation, and with a renewed understanding that he will always be a busker at heart, Charles asks Libby for her autograph, thus bringing her to tears.  He returns to the streets, and Arthur and Gentry, picking up where he left off before he and Libby had met.
St. Martin’s Lane is a bittersweet valentine to the nameless toiling for their art never to see anything in the way of public recognition as the fruits for their labors. Leigh and Laughton are superbly matched; her rather callous clawing at the brass ring of fame counterbalanced by his innate passion for a level of artistry he can never attain, though nevertheless respects and admires from afar. In its own subtle way the movie questions where the greater art lies; in the streets of London, as presented by the Charles of this world who clearly feel it in their bones, or in the ‘legitimate’ theater where the yardstick of success clearly equates to a more superficial form of celebrity. Leigh brings to the role a certain heightened sense of self, an almost frustration, crying out ‘see me’.
Indeed, across the Atlantic, in Hollywood David O. Selznick screened a print of St. Martin’s Lane while suffering his own quandary in the casting of his ideal Scarlett O’Hara – and this from a formidable roster of American talent that uniformly failed to impress him as much as Leigh’s brief moment in St. Martin’s Lane, when she takes to the floor of the abandoned mansion for a minute and a half of nimble-footed brilliance that, at least in retrospect, conveys all of the fiery grit of Selznick’s southern vixen. For Vivien, Gone With the Wind was both a new beginning and the beginning of the end. One can argue that Vivien Leigh’s Hollywood career never quite lived up to Scarlett’s expectations or potential. The bar had, in fact, been set very high. And while there are undeniably other movies in the actress’ canon worthy of distinction (1940’s Waterloo Bridge comes immediately to mind), Leigh and Hollywood, like St. Martin’s Lane’s Libby and Charles, somehow operated at different levels of artistic integrity; Vivien increasingly dissatisfied with the roles she was being asked to play.
Cohen Media has rather apologetically advertised each of these transfers as ‘2k restorations’ at the mercy of the ravages of time and surviving archival materials. In point of fact, a good deal of restoration work has been done. The results, alas, are less than perfect, and in some cases, nowhere near pleasing. Fire Over England looks the best of the lot; albeit with slightly boosted contrast that, at times, obliterates the mid-register of tonal grays. There is a shocking lack of film grain, I suspect, from some undue DNR liberally applied. The image is just this side of waxy but not a deal breaker in my opinion. Overall, the image is quite sharp with a good smattering of fine detail solidly represented. But there are also some annoying edge effects that crop up midway through, shimmering detail in clothing, and this persists for about half the movie. Dark Journey suffers from exactly the opposite inconsistencies; heavy grain (occasionally looking slightly digitized), muddy contrast levels, and, a softly focused image lacking in any sort of visual distinction and/or clarity. Close-ups are appealing, but long shots are very blurry.
Storm in a Teacup contains a distressing level of edge enhancement. The image teeters between a slight blurriness and made artificially crisp. Again, contrast seems ever so slightly bumped up. Finally, St. Martin’s Lane looks fairly good, occasionally with weaker than expected contrast levels. But what’s happened to its audio? What a mess! Strident to the point of being distracting, with a glaring hiss and pop, yet muffled during its musical portions. I just can’t figure this one out. Surely, there are mastering tools available to the audio restoration expert that could have alleviated a goodly amount of the aforementioned distractions and evened out the audio at a relatively pleasing decibel level. Extras are limited to a brief and truncated interview with Vivien Leigh biographer, Anne Edwards and some extensive liner notes provided by historian/author Kendra Bean.   
Bottom line: I’m sincerely torn about recommending this release. I absolutely loved the movies and Vivien Leigh’s performance in each is truly a revelation. I can respect the fact that less than perfect archival elements have survived, and, as I said before – work has been done to spruce up what’s there. What I cannot abide are the digital intrusions (edge enhancement, shimmering of fine details brought on by sloppy remastering efforts) that ought to be a thing of the past by now. This isn’t the first ‘experimental hi def transfer of a vintage catalogue release. The transfers in this lot leave much to be desired in my opinion and that’s a disappointment considering it is highly unlikely we will ever see these titles brought to hi-def again in better incarnations. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
Overall – 4.5

Fire Over England    3.5
Dark Journey     3
Storm in a Teacup     2.5
St. Martin’s Lane     2



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