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. 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 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 soon began, although it was not really a secret; theatrical London was perfectly aware of what was going 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 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|
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|
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|
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|
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|
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|
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