Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Little Miss Echo

Must She Always Be Little Miss Echo?
by Hubert Cole, originally published in 1940

I doubt that anybody would deny that the biggest screen role-- of the past ten years has been that of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. It would be strange wouldn’t it, if the girl who eventually got the role after so much heated competition, should eventually be killed by it?

That, I believe, is just what is happening. Miss Leigh, having scored one success with Scarlett, is going to echo and re-echo the role down the ages until everybody is thoroughly sick and tired of it. Unless something is done to stop it.

I am not blaming David O. Selznick, who cast Miss Leigh as Scarlett. The rot had set in some time before that. You can trace the Scarlett character back to A Yank at Oxford. That was the time when Vivien, having played two or three colourless ingénues in quota quickies, and then having been signed up by Alexander Korda with a fanfare of windy trumpets to play another colourless role in Fire Over England, first appeared as an unprincipled hussy.

She was, if you remember, the flirtatious wife of the elderly bookseller. She had so many affairs with the local undergraduates that her long-suffering husband at last decided to move his business. But, as she triumphantly announced, they were only moving to Aldershot. It was a very nice and naughty performance, that one in A Yank at Oxford. Her wide and innocent blue eyes contrasted attractively with her less innocent behaviour. She was a kitten with fully grown claws.

On the strength of that performance she was chosen to play the ambitious Cockney girl in Sidewalks of London. (It’s funny how blurbs of publicity follow Miss Leigh around-- as in the later Gone With the Wind campaign, there was a great deal of hullabaloo about finding an entirely new discovery, which ended up with Vivien Leigh getting the part.)

The girl in Sidewalks of London was as determined and unscrupulous as the bookseller’s wife in A Yank At Oxford. She was a little more open about it. She was at less pains to hide the fact that she would ride rough-shod over any obstacles, any ordinary feelings of kindness or gratitude.

And so we come to Scarlett O’Hara. Scarlett belongs to the select few heroines in literature who are intensely interesting and intensely unsympathetic. She is an American Becky Sharp.

She has ambition without principles, strength of purpose without conscience. She was a greater, more detailed study of the girl that Vivien Leigh had already played in A Yank at Oxford and Sidewalks of London. It was as if those two previous roles had been nothing more than a preliminary tryout for the final one.

If, indeed, they had been that --and if the course of training had ended there-- all would have been well. A monster production like Gone With the Wind might conceivably call for two test pictures to give the leading lady practice. But the three pictures together, and the triumph that Vivien scored in the third, seem to be her undoing. She is typed as the tough girl; the outward seeming sweet young thing with the callous core.

That, I am convinced, is why she was cast opposite Robert Taylor in Waterloo Bridge. Somebody, looking round for a subject for Vivien’s next picture, said: “Heck, why not Waterloo Bridge? That was all about a prostitute, wasn’t it?”

And Vivien, who is allowed to have no moral scruples on the screen, was given the part. As it happens, the girl in the story isn’t primarily a prostitute-- and is even less of one than she was in the earlier version, made before the purity campaigners got such a firm hold on Hollywood.

Actually, Myra in Waterloo Bridge is a very charming young woman, though an extremely foolish one. She becomes a prostitute not through willfulness or lack of moral sense, but because she is rather stupid.

That role might have been the opportunity that Miss Leigh was waiting for. It might have been the lucky accident that would have formed a stepping stone from the past series of unsympathetic roles to a new future of more pleasant ones. It might have removed the threat that she is condemned to play Little Miss Echo for the rest of her screen career.

But I’m afraid it hasn’t. Here she is now, off again down the path of mottled morals, playing Lady Hamilton to Laurence Olivier’s Nelson in the new film Alexander Korda is producing in Hollywood.

I’m not quite sure why Korda should be making the film at this time. There is obvious publicity value in the teaming of Olivier and Vivien; there is obvious topical value in the story of a great British admiral; but there is also the strange emphasis (as far as one can judge from the advance pictures) on the intrigue with Lady Hamilton and Nelson’s strange conduct in Naples-- a very unsavoury phase of his career.

And I suspect that the primary reason why he chose the subject was that Miss Leigh is still under contract to him and he thought Lady Hamilton a sufficiently immoral character to suit Miss Leigh’s style. For Korda, like the rest of the producers, apparently now believes that Miss Leigh has only one style.

Perhaps he is right. He should know more about her work than I do. But Waterloo Bridge, at any rate, seems to suggest she can play a young woman of good impulses and healthy outlook as well as she can the other kind. It may not be entirely the fault of the producers and casting managers that Miss Leigh has travelled so far away from the sweet young thing that she used to be in her early stage and screen days.

Two years ago, for instance, she said in an interview: “Quite a number of people were surprised when I appeared as a vamp in A Yank at Oxford, and took an unsympathetic part in Sidewalks of London. But in both cases, I felt that the roles were interesting and out of the rut. Since the films have been completed and shown, the letters I have received have proved I was right. Most of these letters say how glad the writers are that I have not confined myself to pretty heroine characters.”

To that insignificant statement you can add the story, recently published, that long before Gone With the Wind was ever made-- and certainly long before Vivien was approached to play the principle role-- she gave a copy of the book to a friend and autographed it from Scarlett.

In itself, the incident means little, except that Vivien not unnaturally saw herself in a role which was bound to be one of the most important on the screen. But set beside what she said in the interview, it seems to point clearly to the fact that she herself had a preference for unsympathetic roles-- and believes that the film going public likes best to see her in such roles. I believe she has been misled-- both by herself and her correspondents.

There is no doubt she takes her career seriously and laudably aims at becoming a great actress. It is true that many great actresses have played unsympathetic parts and created great reputations in them. It is also significant that, in one of her earliest and worst films, The Village Squire, she played Lady Macbeth.

All the way through, perhaps by chance and perhaps by choice, she has veered toward near villainy, she has appeared as a cold and calculating hussy.

There have been patches when she was just a normal, nice young woman-- but she does not seem to have been particularly interested in those roles. Unfortunately, she has some reason to despise them, for they were parts of no great value: the lady-in-waiting in Fire Over England, for instance, and the heroine in Dark Journey-- though the film itself was pleasant enough.

So, by avoiding being “confined entirely to pretty heroine characters,” she seems to have dug herself into an equally treacherous rut. If I have accused her wrongly of willfully going unsympathetic on us, I am sorry. If, in fact, she is fighting against such typing, I am doubly sorry-- that she has had so little success recently.

There is a great deal of danger in stereotyping her in unpleasant parts. It is difficult-- probably impossible-- for a young actress to become great if she confines herself to unsympathetic roles. Unless Vivien Leigh breaks clean away from Scarlett O’Hara and all the other minor Scarletts, I fear she is going to find herself in the middle of a lot of grief.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Versatile Laurence Olivier

Article originally published in 1941

Versatile Laurence Olivier Stars With Vivien Leigh In "21 Days Together"
Laurence Olivier, whose latest success is as Larry Darrant in "21 Days Together," was born on May 22nd, 1907, in Dorking, Surrey, where his father was a clergyman. Laurence's early education was for the ministry, as it was thought that he would follow in his father's footsteps. The Rev. Gerard Olivier was interested in the drama, and he took his small son to see all the great stage celebrities of the day.

Laurence Olivier & Vivien Leigh in 21 Days Together

 His early schooldays were spent at a choir school in London, from where he went to St. Edward's, Oxford, and he distinguished himself there in pre-clerical subjects. He had become interested in the stage when his father took him to the theatre, and as he grew older and studied the personalites of the various people with whom he came in contact, he longed to dramatise the different characters he met. Eventually he told his father that he wanted to go on the stage. Some clerical fathers might have been upset to hear their son express such a wish, but the Rev. Olivier promptly transferred his son from the pre-ministerial St. Edward's to the Central School of Dramatic Art. His ministerial studies had groomed Laurence well in English and vocal training, and he had made one appearance on the stage when he was fifteen years old, at the Shakespearean Festival Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon; in a special boys' performance of "The Taming of the Shrew."

Laurence Olivier in The Taming of the Shrew, 1922

On London Stage
Before his period of schooling was over, he had played on the London stage. One of the early engagements was with the Birmingham Repertory Company, and he also toured in "The Farmer's Wife." Prior, to this, he had had a very lean time trying to convince casting agents that he was an actor His money got as low as seven shillings and sixpence and he was faced with a bill for a month's rent. He was determined to make good on his own and refused to ask his family for any financial help. Sybil Thorndike, who had known him as a child, secured a walking-on part for him. To gain experience he played in Sunday night shows whenever the opportunity presented itself. Even when important parts came his way, Laurence still played in as many Sunday shows as possible, and among them he created the part of Captain Stanhope in R. C. Sheriff's "Journey's End." When the play was put on at a public theatre he was offered the role, but he chose another offer which had come his way, that of playing the lead in Basil Dean's production of "Beau Geste."

Beau Geste

Two of Laurence Olivier's early stage roles were in Shakespearean productions and today the immortal bard is his favorite playwright. He feels, however, that Shakespeare's work can never be suitably adapted to motion pictures. His only experience with Shakespeare off the screen was as Orlando to Elizabeth Bergner's Rosalind in "As You Like It." He has, of course, played many Shakespearean roles on the stage, and critics have said that these have made him the superb artist that he is.

Visits America
In l929 he paid his first visit to America, playing the role of Hugh Bromilow in "Murder on the Second Floor." He made a sensational success in New York in this play, and it brought him many film offers, all of which he turned down. When he was back in England, however, he decided that he would have a try at a film career. His first picture was made in Germany and it was entitled "The Temporary Widow." He always smiles when he recalls his first day's work at the studio.

Too Many Crooks

He then played in the British films, "Too Many Crooks" and "Poliphar's Wife," and while he was experimenting with picture work he was still carrying on his stage career. It was about this time that he played in "After All," with Elissa Landi, and "Private Lives," with Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence. When the latter play went to New York, Laurence and Jill Esmond, to whom he was then married, went too. They were seen by screen talent scouts and were signed to go to Hollywood. Laurence's first American film was "Friends and Lovers." Then came "The Yellow Passport," in which he renewed acquaintance with Elissa Landi, followed by "Westward Passage," with Ann Harding.

Numerous Films
He returned to England at two days' notice in order to play opposite Gloria Swanson in her first British picture, "Perfect Understanding." Shortly after this he was signed to play opposite Greta Garbo in "Queen Christina," and he dashed off to Hollywood once more, only to find that the role had been given to John Gilbert. So back he went to England. His films since then have included "No Funny Business," "Moscow Nights," "Fire Over England," "The Divorce of Lady X," "Q Planes" and "21 Days Together."

Fire Over England with Vivien Leigh

He went back to America to play the part of Heathcliff in "Wuthering Heights," after which he was sensationally successful on the Broadway stage opposite Katharine Cornell in "No Time For Comedy." His performance in Wuthering Heights," witnessed by producer Selznick, led to his casting in the part of Maxim de Winter in Rebecca," followed by "Pride and Prejudice." Olivier has brown hair and eyes and is five feet ten inches in height. His marriage to Jill Esmond ended in divorce early last year, and soon afterward he was married to Vivien Leigh. He has always been studious, and while not at work on stage or screen he continually reads. He is an ardent devotee of gardening, at which occupation he takes most of his outdoor exercise. He does, however, also swim and ride.

Versatile Actor
Laurence is a versatile actor. He can play irresponsible youth, romantic leading men and tragic roles with equal ease. Despite the fact that he has gained great success with one or two gloomy roles, he would prefer to play comedy. Give him a gay part any day, he says.

No Time For Comedy (from Getty Images)

He is rather a silent individual, but nobody at the studio ever accuses him of being "high hat." In fact, he has his prankish moments. He is not a bit interested in seeing his name constantly in the papers; in fact, he will tell newspaper men, whenever they endeavour to interview him, that he is a boring fellow. He refuses, too, to go to places where the publicity people feel he ought to be seen because press photographers will be lurking around. The publicity department at the studio finds him quite a difficult problem at times.

In "21 Days Together," which commences a Hobart season at the Strand Theatre next Friday week, Olivier is co-starred with Vivien Leigh. Taken from the exciting works of John Galsworthy, the film has been described as one of the year's best romantic dramas.