Turner Classic Movies’ Vivien Leigh series comes to a close on Tuesday, Sept. 28, with four movies from Leigh’s post-Gone with the Wind period, in addition to a rerun of Gene Feldman’s 1990 documentary Vivien Leigh: Scarlett and Beyond, narrated by Jessica Lange.
TCM’s four last Leigh movies are José Quintero’s The Roman Springs of Mrs. Stone (1961), Julien Duvivier’s Anna Karenina (1948), Gabriel Pascal’s Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), and Stanley Kramer’s Ship of Fools (1965).
All are worth watching for various reasons, Vivien Leigh’s presence chief among them, but I’d say that only Duvivier’s Anna Karenina is a truly good film (though it sure has its detractors).
Based on a work by Tennessee Williams, The Roman Springs of Mrs. Stone deals with a theme much beloved by the playwright: an aging woman whose sexual urges drive her to do something not exactly bright.
There’s no point in psychoanalyzing Williams, but his obsession with aging – for women, that is – becomes an irritant after a while. In dramatic terms, Vivien Leigh’s sensitive portrayal of a lonely actress who finds herself an Italian escort (a ridiculously miscast Warren Beatty) is the saving grace The Roman Springs of Mrs. Stone.
I should add that one doesn’t quite see Vivien Leigh die in the film. But death permeates the drama and is sure to follow – likely sooner rather than later – once the story comes to a close.
I much prefer the Duvivier-Leigh version of Anna Karenina to the more prestigious 1935 MGM production directed by Clarence Brown and starring Greta Garbo. For one, Leigh’s performance is more restrained than Garbo’s, while Duvivier’s direction is more subtle than Brown’s. Also, Henri Alekan’s cinematography is nothing short of superb. None other than Jean Anouilh wrote the screenplay adaptation.
Death also permeates Anna Karenina, and this time around the Vivien Leigh character’s fate leaves no room for the imagination.
In Gabriel Pascal’s film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, Leigh is a likable, pleasant but highly theatrical Cleopatra. As the first half of the title, Claude Rains delivers a more mature, flawlessly delineated character. Shaw himself penned the screenplay.
And we all know how Cleopatra ended, though Vivien Leigh suffers no such fate at the end of this more lighthearted and less complete take on ancient history. Claudette Colbert and Elizabeth Taylor were less lucky.
Ship of Fools, initially offered to Katharine Hepburn (who declined so she could care for ailing Spencer Tracy), is both extremely well-intentioned and extremely heavy-handed. Not a great combination. Stanley Kramer’s movies not infrequently suffered from that queasiness-inducing mix.
Those with sturdier stomachs will be yelling for the axe once Jose Ferrer starts devouring the elaborate sets.
Having said that, Ship of Fools offers clear-headed performances by Oscar nominees Simone Signoret and Oskar Werner as doomed lovers, while Vivien Leigh, once again as an emotionally unbalanced aging beauty, raises the action/acting bar when she kicks Lee Marvin out of her cabin.
Leigh’s performance is simply magnificent in Ship of Fools. It’s amazing that she failed to get an Oscar nomination for it.
Two years after Ship of Fools came out, Vivien Leigh died of tuberculosis at age 53.
Schedule and synopses from the TCM website:
5:00pm The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961)
A fading stage star gets caught up in the decadent life of modern Rome when she hires a male companion.
Cast: Vivien Leigh, Warren Beatty, Lotte Lenya, Coral Browne Dir: José Quintero BW-104 mins. [Letterbox]
7:00pm Anna Karenina (1948)
Adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic tale of a woman who deserts her family for an illicit love.
Cast: Vivien Leigh, Ralph Richardson, Kieron Moore, Hugh Dempster Dir: Julien Duvivier BW-113 min.
9:00pm Caesar and Cleopatra (1945)
Julius Caesar gives the famed Egyptian queen lessons in government.
Cast: Vivien Leigh, Claude Rains, Stewart Granger, Flora Robson Dir: Gabriel Pascal C-128 min.
11:15pm Ship of Fools (1965)
Passengers on a steamship in the ’30s struggle with their tangled relations and the rise of Nazism.
Cast: Vivien Leigh, Simone Signoret, Jose Ferrer, Lee Marvin Dir: Stanley Kramer BW-150 min.
2:00am Vivien Leigh: Scarlett and Beyond (1990)
Interviews and rare film clips trace the troubled career of one of the screen’s most beautiful actresses. Hosted by Jessica Lange.
Cast: Jessica Lange, John Gielgud, Claire Bloom, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Dir.: Gene Feldman C-46 min.
Turner Classic Movies website.