FILM # 5

Vivien Leigh in 1937:  personal reflections

I count her Cynthia in Fire Over England as Vivien Leigh’s first memorable screen role.  I reach this decision without being able to count The Village Squire or Gentleman’s Agreement, still unseen after many years’ searching and hoping.

When my daughter asked what I considered Vivien Leigh’s most beautiful part  —  by which she meant the role in which she was physically most beautiful  —  I dithered among the costumed beauty of Lady Hamilton, the latter day elegance of Mrs. Stone and certain close-ups of Scarlett.  Then my daughter mentioned Fire Over England, and I knew at once that she was right.  The complexion, her hair, her eyes are breathtaking.  The dainty waist, which less than two full years hence she would be discussing with Mammy, is ravishing in period gowns.  Her vivacious and expressive face is excelled only by her tear-stained cheeks.  Did her appearance in Fire Over England have anything to do with her casting as Scarlett O’Hara?  Can we ever know?

She creates a memorable part from minimal screen time portraying a young lady in waiting smitten with a dashing favorite of Elizabeth.  She is consistent in a characterization built largely on movement.  She flits.  In and out.  Between.  Invariably on the run  —  until her final stillness as she turns away her beautiful and tearful eyes, knowing she has lost her attempt to keep her Michael from a dangerous assignment.  Of course the queen must win  though a chit of a girl has had the grit  —  and the love  —  to defy her.

The always well-regarded performance of Flora Robson as Elizabeth I stands the test of time.  Laurence Olivier as Michael is, for once, close to dating, his romantic adventurousness is so over the top.  But he is Olivier, and he remains irresistible.  Raymond Massey as Philip has no opportunity for scenery chewing so is quietly effective.  A dashingly ageing Donald Calthorp is admirable as Escobar, and an unbilled James Mason is youthfully handsome and effective in three scenes.

William K. Howard has gotten strong performances from his ensemble including Morton Selten as Lord Burleigh and Leslie Banks as Robert Dudley.  The model work for the sea fighting is still surprisingly effective, and Michael’s escape from the Spanish palace after he is discovered as spy, is rip-roaringly paced and even believable.

The taste of Alexander Korda is always evident.

William K. Howard
screenplay by Clemence Dane, from the novel by A.E.W.
photography,  James Wong Howe
produced by Alexander Korda

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