EARLY VIVIEN LEIGH
FILM # 4
FOUR YEARS BEFORE THE WIND
The Birkenhead Market is fighting for its life, trying to survive an attack by big business aided by government bureaucracy. Marjorie (Vivien Leigh) and Gracie (Gracie Fields) are sitting behind a low counter in the Market with one of the stall mongers. Another monger arrives with a banner for advertizing and promoting the Market. Marjorie and Gracie stand to unfurl it, and eventually the face of Vivien Leigh is totally obscured by the flag though the face of Gracie Fields remains visible above the edge of it.
You can be sure that in 1935 Look Up and Laugh was a Gracie Fields film, not a Vivien Leigh film. Remember the headmaster in The History Boys scoffing “Gracie Fields!” when learning that one of his teachers was discussing her with his class? But English music hall patrons, theater lovers and moviegoers never scoffed. I can’t improve on Ephraim Katz’s characterization in his Film Encyclopedia: “The spirited, undaunted personality [Gracie Fields] portrayed in her broad screen comedies sparked optimism into the lives of British audiences during the Depression years. She was the top box-office draw and the highest paid actress in Britain for most of the decade. Her popularity was so great that Parliament was once adjourned early so that members could go home to listen to one of her radio broadcasts.” (Katz, 1st ed.)
At one point towards the climax of the story Gracie hops into a two-seater plane with a pilot-friend, and off they fly to the town and town hall where a group of suits are debating the future of Birkenhead which has been the center of her father’s life. When the plane crashes through the roof of the hall, then through the ceiling of the meeting room (just after the chairman has said that solutions don’t fall from the sky), Gracie quips: “I just dropped in to talk about the Market.”
That is what the humor is like and what the film is like. Gracie Fields is always over the top (grinning into the camera, even winking at us), but she makes us accept it all. There is a scene I always dread when she and three of her Market cohorts attend, and ruin, the grand opening of the expanding department store that hopes to expand the Market out of existence. This is a mean sequence of comic violence in which the four destroy the store’s most expensive displays and spoil the opening ceremonies. But Gracie Fields keeps us laughing, Gracie along with some inventive writing (Joseph B. Priestley gets a screen credit) and some shrewd editing.
Part of this sequence is a planned concert appearance by a well-known opera diva. We watch the distinguished audience assemble. In long shot we see the lady on stage singing. We get a sinking feeling that the lady is Gracie Fields. Then a close shot of the stage confirming our suspicions, then a cut to the opera star locked in her dressing room, pounding on the door. Back to the stage with a close shot of Gracie spoofing an aria. Good film timing.
So…..what can Vivien Leigh do in the face of Gracie Fields and this kind of comedy? What she does is play her part. She is the daughter of the villain who runs the department store; but she is engaged (almost) to Gracie’s brother whose stammer is supposed to be amusing. She is called on to be as naturalistic as she can in the context of slapstick and the broadest kind of comedy. In the story she is a turncoat and joins the Market crowd and their efforts against her father to save their way of life. Two years down the road in Storm in a Teacup she will again play the daughter of a problem father against whom much of a town is turning. But that father is played by lovably bumbling Cecil Parker who remains likeable.
Here she is as cute as an ingenue can be while never never descending to cuteness. Cute — on the way to what in just three years would become her ravishing beauty. She is cute in some unusual ’35 dresses and devilish hats, one of which she triumphantly waves in a moment of Market victory. And she already has the walk — the most graceful carriage in the history of movies and a lot of stage history, too. Julia Ormond’s galumphing about in My Week with Marilyn is not just insulting. It is inaccurate.
Vivien Leigh does everything she is supposed to do with charm and grace. In the next to last scene, a public inauguration of the Market’s grand reopening and a celebration of the healing of civic wounds, Vivien Leigh as Marjorie is on the dais, carrying flowers. She gives a flawless, wordless performance of someone participating in a public function: enjoying moments of it; letting her attention wander at other moments; then bringing her attention back to her father as Master of Ceremonies. She could not be better but now has only these things to do. The script has lost interest in her character and does not even trouble to wrap up her little romance with Gracie’s brother. Did the script perhaps lose interest because director Basil Dean did? According to Barker’s authorized biography of Vivien Leigh, Dean did not like her and believed she had no future. She had been excited about this project compared, say, with her first three film appearances. Look Up and Laugh was a Gracie Fields starrer and should be a popular commercial success. Vivien Leigh told Felix Barker that Gracie Fields used to comfort her: “Don’t worry, love, you’ve got something.”
Please make note that imdb offers an excellent brief but knowledgeable review of Look Up and Laugh by Arne Andersen. It has excellent information on the musical numbers in the film. (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Look Up and Laugh
screenplay Joseph B. Priestley, Gordon Wellesley
NEXT POST Friday November 16
See you at the movies,