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The Vivien Leigh & Laurence Olivier Blogathon: The Films of Viv and Larry

In May 1935, 21-year-old Vivien Leigh became a West End sensation when she appeared in Sydney Carroll's production of The Mask of Virtue, a comedy set in 18th-century France. Attracted by the publicity surrounding her discovery, 28-year-old Laurence Olivier decided to attend one of her performances a few days before the play closed. By his own account, as soon as he saw Vivien on the stage, he felt a «sense of instant enslavement,» perceiving in her «an attraction of the most perturbing nature I have ever encountered.» That autumn, Vivien happened to see Larry in Romeo and Juliet and was mesmerized by his «virile» portrayal of William Shakespeare's tragic hero. After curtain, she visited him in his dressing room to introduce herself and congratulate him, planting a soft kiss on his shoulder before leaving. When they met again by chance at the Savoy Grill in London in early 1936, it become obvious that there was a reciprocal attraction between the two. A furtive love affair began soon afterward, although it was not really a secret; theatrical London was perfectly aware of what was going on with Vivien and Larry, and so were their respective spouses, Leigh Holman and Jill Esmond.

Meanwhile, Hungarian-born producer Alexander Korda signed both Vivien and Larry to London Films, the company he had founded in 1930. Unlike perhaps everyone else, Korda approved of their romance and certainly did everything he could to encourage it by casting them as two lovers in the Elizabethan costume drama Fire Over England (1937), based on A. E. W. Mason's 1936 novel of the same name. He did, however, advise them to be very discreet with their affections because if the affair reached the press and the public, it could jeopardize their careers and give bad publicity to the film.
Poster for Fire Over England

Directed by William K. Howard, Fire Over England is set in 1588, a time when relations between England and Spain are at the breaking point. With the support of Queen Elizabeth I (Flora Robinson), English privateers regularly capture Spanish merchantmen bringing gold from the new world. After a plot to assassinate her is discovered, Elizabeth enlists Michael Ingolby (Olivier), whose father (Lyn Harding) has been executed as an heretic by the Spanish Inquisition, to go undercover and infiltrate the court of King Philip II of Spain (Raymond Massey). Masquerading as one of the conspirators, Michael finds the names of the six English subjects in Spanish pay, but Philip quickly sees through his disguise and orders his arrest.

As Michael manages to escape home, Philip orders the Spanish Armada to set sail against England, forcing Elizabeth to gather her army at Tilbury, where they await the expected invasion. Michael meets her there and reveals the names of the traitors, receiving a knighthood for his services to the crown. When Elizabeth confronts the traitors, inviting them to fulfill their plot and kill her, they are so overwhelmed with shame for what they have done that they agree to accompany Michael on a dangerous mission to deploy fire ships in a night attack on the Armada, which is massed off the coast of England. The tactic is successful and, as a reward, Elizabeth allows Michael to marry his beautiful sweetheart, Cynthia (Leigh), one of the queen's ladies-in-waiting.

Under the working title of Glorianna, Fire Over England began filming in July 1936 at London's Denham Studios, where a large water tank was used to launch the model ships representing the Spanish Armada and the English naval defenders. The original script by Clemence Dane and Sergei Nolbandov opened with a sea battle and boarding parties; the shooting script, however, opened on Vivien and immediately emphasized her beauty and grace as she ran around looking for a pearl which had fallen off Queen Elizabeth's gown. In addition, the love scenes between Larry and Vivien were extended compared to the first draft of the screenplay, as a way to reflect on screen exactly what was happening in real life. Although Vivien's role in Fire Over England was a minor one, she was promoted in publicity materials as one of the stars, with stills of her and Larry embracing dominating the frame in several posters and lobby cards.

As Michael and Cynthia

Fire Over England was released to American audiences through United Artist on Janary 8, 1937. A month later, the film opened in British cinemas and a gala premiere was organized at the Leicester Square Theatre, which was attended by the Duke and the Duchess of Norfolk as well as some military authorities. A crowd of fans gathered outside to watch the arrival of the celebrities under a heavy rain. Although critical reviews were generally mixed, Variety called it «a handsomely mounted and forcefully dramatic glorification of Queen Bess. It holds a succession of brilliant played scenes, a wealth of choice diction, pointed excerpts from English history and a series of impressive tableaux.» Vivien was finally judged as «an actress and not merely a decoration»; «a combination of intelligence, beauty and emotional sympathy.» Apparently, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler was a big fan of the film and saw it several times, even screening it for friends and dignitaries. Fire Over England is now in the public domain and you can watch/download it here.

In May 1937, Korda assigned Vivien and Larry to a new film project, an adaptation of John Galsworthy's 1920 short story and play The First and the Last. Korda's constant interference caused great problems on the set and the two stars did not take the production seriously. In June, the producer suspended filming for a week to allow Vivien and Larry to travel to Elsinore, Denmark for a special Old Vic staging of Shakespeare's Hamlet, in which she played Ophelia and he the title role. Upon their return, they found that Korda had added new scenes to the script, written by novelist Graham Greene, and changed the title to 21 Days (1940). By the time principal photography ended, both Vivien and Larry were separated from their spouses and living together in Durham Cottage in Chelsea, which would serve as their London basis for the next twenty years.

American poster for 21 Days

Directed by Basil Dean, 21 Days begins when Larry Durrant (Olivier), the black sheep of his family, accidentally kills Henry Wallen (Esme Percy), the long-absent husband of his lover Wanda (Leigh), after the man comes to her apartment threatens her life. Larry subsequently disposes of the body in an abandoned archway and then seeks the advice of his do-good brother Keith (Leslie Banks), a brilliant attorney on his way to becoming a judge. When Larry tells him what he has done, Keith urges him to leave the country. That way, Keith's career will not be ruined by having a brother accused of murder and Larry will be safe from going to jail.

However, Larry refuses to leave and returns to the alley where he left the body. There he meets John Evan (Hay Petrie), a defrocked minister who unfortunately picks up the bloody gloves Larry had dropped on the street, which later results in him being arrested for Wallen's murder based on circumstancial evidence. When Larry learns of Evan's arrest, he decides to marry Wanda and live an idyllic existence in the three weeks before the trial and then turn himself in for murder. On the day that Evan is sentenced to hang, Keith begs his brother to remain silent and let the condemned man die, but Larry refuses and leaves for the police station. As he is about to climb the steps, Wanda stops him and tells him that she has read in the newspaper that Evan died of a heart attack on his way to jail.

One scene in 21 Days involving Vivien and Larry had to be filmed in a single evening aboard a recreational cruiser going down the River Thames. Keeping with his practice of entertaining the London press, Korda invited a contigent of film critics to join the party on the boat, where drinks and a buffet were served. Larry was not very responsive, but Vivien was «a model of courtesy and witty talk.» Caroline Lejeune of The Observer remembered that the conversation took a «strangely prescient turn» when they started talking about MGM's plans to adapt Margaret Mitchell's epic novel Gone with the Wind to the screen. Lejeune wrote: «Somebody turned to Olivier and said, 'Larry, you'd be marvelous as Rhett Butler.' [...] Discussion of the casting went on in a desultory fashion, until the new girl, Vivien Leigh, brought it to a sudden stop [...] and stunned us with the sybilline utterance: 'Larry won't play Rhett Butler, but I shall play Scarlett O'Hara. Wait and see.'»

As Wanda and Larry in 21 Days Together

Neither Vivien nor Larry enjoyed making 21 Days. Korda thought so poorly of it that he shelved it in the Denham vaults for three years, supposedly worried that the picture would harm the couple's chances for Hollywood stardom. After Gone with the Wind (1939) and Wuthering Heights (1939) turned Vivien and Larry into worldwide stars, the film finally had its London premiere in January 1940, four months before opening to American audiences through Columbia Pictures under the «cosier» title 21 Days Together. Although Vivien and Larry were highly dismissive of the film, even walking out in the middle of its debut screening at the Rivoli Theatre in New York, critics were somewhat more favorable. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, for instance, wrote: «It is gratifying to report that 21 Days Together does not let them down, nor they it, which is not generally the case with such intentionally delayed products. True, it is no deathless drama — is little more than a cultivated penny-thriller, in fact [...] But it is a highly charged 'meller,' rigid throughout with suspense and nicely laced with much tender emotion.»

Although both Vivien and Larry were now hugely popular stars, they had rejected film roles that did not appeal to them in order to star in a Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet, financed with their own money. When the play failed commercially, Vivien and Larry found themselves broke and in serious need of work. Luckily, Korda cabled them in the summer of 1940, requesting their services for a new film. Because Korda had chosen to stay in Hollywood when World War II broke out, he was branded a traitor by the British film community. Not wanting to alienate himself further, the «fiercely patriotic» producer set out to make a pro-British propaganda film to prove his loyalty to his adopted country. The story he selected was the famous love affair between sea captain Horatio Nelson and social-climbing Emma Hamilton, in a lavish costume drama originally called The Enchantress, later retitled That Hamilton Woman (1941).

Poster for That Hamilton Woman

Directed by Alexander Korda, That Hamilton Woman begins with a destitute English woman (Leigh) being caught stealing a bottle of wine and put in jail in Calais. There she tells a fellow inmate, Mary Smith (Heather Angel), that she is the former Emma, Lady Hamilton and narrates the story of her life. Emma's early years as the mistress of Charles Francis Greville leads to her meeting with his wealthy uncle Sir William Hamilton (Alan Mowbray), the British ambassador to Naples. Emma is shocked when Hamilton informs her that Charles never intended to marry her and that he sent her to Naples in exchange for money to pay off his debts. Hamilton offers Emma a new life in Naples and she agrees to stay with him, eventually becoming his wife.

One morning, they are visited by British naval officer Horatio Nelson (Olivier), who tells them that England is now at war with France. Emma quickly becomes attracted to him and is impressed by his passionate insistence on resisting Napoleon Bonaparte's dictatorial rule. After defeating Napoleon in Egypt, Horatio returns to Naples, where he falls ill and is nursed back to health by Emma, with whom he soon begins a romantic affair. His wife, Lady Frances Nelson (Gladys Cooper), vows never to divorce him, but he refuses to end his relationship with Emma. Months later, Emma gives birth to her and Horatio's daughter. When Hamilton dies and leaves Emma penniless, she and Horatio move to a home in the country, where they live happily until he is killed in the Battle of Trafalgar. Upon learning of her beloved's death, Emma succumbs to alcoholism and spirals down into poverty and oblivion.

Vivien and Larry were thrilled to be working together again, especially after being denied the chance to co-star in Rebecca (1940), Pride and Prejudice (1940) and Waterloo Bridge (1940). However, they were also eager to return to England to help with the war effort back home. Neither cared for Hollywood and they did not like socializing with most of the British actors living there, who they felt had become too Americanized. Their one consolation was that their respective divorces finally came through, thus enabling to marry. On August 30, 1940, shortly before filming on That Hamilton Woman began, Vivien and Larry tied the knot in a secret midnight ceremony at the San Ysidro Ranch in Santa Barbara, California. The only people in attendance were their close friends Ronald and Benita Colman, publicist Russell Birdwell and Garson Kanin and Katharine Hepburn, who were summoned at the last minute to serve as best man and maid of honor.

Publicity still for That Hamilton Woman

Released in Britain under the title Lady Hamilton, That Hamilton Woman was a great success upon its premiere on April 30, 1941. Although critics, particularly in England, felt that the picture turned Nelson's great naval campaigns into a pretext for a brazen love story, most of them praised Leigh's performance. Variety considered that she «hits the peaks with her delineation of Lady Hamilton,» while Bosley Crowther of The New York Times said that her «entire performance [...] is delightful to behold.» At the 14th Academy Awards, the film won the Oscar for Best Sound and received three additional nominations: Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography (Black and White) and Best Visual Effects. Reportedly, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was so delighted with That Hamilton Woman that he showed it on several occasions to staff members and even screened it for President Franklin D. Roosevelt before America's entry into World War II in December 1941. He would continue screening the film privately long after his retirement, eventually claiming to have seen it 83 times.

That Hamilton Woman was the third and final film Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier starred in together. In the words of historian Molly Gaskell, it is also the one that best «encapsulates the eternal yearning, theirs and ours, for a romantic illusion, the preferred 'truth' as created by art and given its most powerful popular form in classical Hollywood cinema.»

This is my contribution to The Vivien Leigh & Laurence Olivier Blogathon hosted by Wolffian Classic Movies Digest. To view all entries, click HERE.

Korda: Britain's Movie Mogul by Charles Drazin (2011)
Laurence Olivier by Francis Beckett (2005)
Vivien Leigh: A Biography by Michenangelo Capua (2003)
Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait by Kendra Bean (2013) | Vivien: The Life of Vivien Leigh by Alexander Walker (1994)
The New York Times review for 21 Days
The New York Times review for That Hamilton Woman
Variety review for That Hamilton Woman
Variety review for Fire Over England


  1. I haven't watched neither of the three, and until now I didn't even know aobut the existence of 21 Days Together! I hope to see Fire Over England soon, and I expect to see some sparkles between Olivier and Leigh. I love them individually AND as a couple.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)


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