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Who Is Vivien Leigh? Enthralling in ‘Waterloo Bridge’ & ‘Anna Karenina’

Vivien Leigh Waterloo Bridge Robert Taylor
Vivien Leigh in Waterloo Bridge with Robert Taylor.
Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Who is Vivien Leigh?

If you don’t know and has access to Turner Classic Movies in the U.S. or Canada, you can find out for yourself this evening, Nov. 5.

It’s Vivien Leigh night. The India-born British actress would have turned 95 today.

Leigh, who died in 1967, was one of the best – and most underused – film talents of the 20th century: a mere 15 or so films as a leading lady/star during her 30+-year career.

You can’t quite tell how good Leigh could be in the British-made Fire Over England, in which she plays future husband’s Laurence Olivier’s love interest. On the other hand, her breathtaking beauty, is very much in evidence despite the heavy make-up – even though the leading female role in the film belongs to Flora Robson as Queen Elizabeth I.

Leigh has another supporting role in A Yank at Oxford (which I haven’t seen), made at MGM’s British studios. In that one, Maureen O’Sullivan, with whom Leigh had gone to school, plays Robert Taylor’s love interest.

Now, Vivien Leigh is very much the lead in Waterloo Bridge, especially considering that leading man Robert Taylor spends much of the film’s running time off-screen, fighting in World War I. The story, from a play by Robert E. Sherwood, had been previously made at Universal (with Mae Clarke and Douglass Montgomery), and it is as sappy as could be: ballerina becomes a sex worker after fiance is reportedly killed in battle. Oh, horrors!

There could be many worse fates to befall said ballerina, including getting stuck in a monogamous marriage with Robert Taylor. That said, Waterloo Bridge works because of Mervyn LeRoy’s no-romantic-holds-barred direction (he’d use a similar approach in the equally preposterous and even more effective Random Harvest), Joseph Ruttenberg’s dreamy black-and-white cinematography, Herbert Stothart’s score, and, of course, Leigh’s performance as the doomed lover. Lest I forget: the “Farewell Waltz” sequence is one of the most touching, romantic moments ever captured on film. (As an aside, Leslie Caron starred in less successful and less well-known 1956 remake, Gaby.)

That Hamilton Woman was reportedly Winston Churchill’s all-time favorite film. Vivien Leigh is excellent as the doomed Woman of the title, Lord Nelson’s married commoner lover, Emma Hamilton. Laurence Olivier’s naval hero, eye patch and all, is a whole different matter, nearly sinking the film whenever he’s on screen. The film itself is a tad too long, but this Alexander Korda production – cinematography by Rudolph Maté, production design by Vincent Korda, art direction by Lyle R. Wheeler, costume design by Rene Hubert – is a feast for the eye.

But it’s not all doom and gloom for Vivien Leigh this evening. She does find a happy ending in Anna Karenina, directed by Julien Duvivier and co-adapted by Jean Anouilh. Juz kidding.

Anyhow, Leigh was reportedly concerned that she’d be unfavorably compared to Greta Garbo, whose bloated 1935 version (directed by Clarence Brown) is considered (by some) a classic. She needn’t have worried. Though Garbo is fine as Leo Tolstoy’s adulteress heroine, Leigh is much more believable in the part. In fact, very few actresses could be as good as Leigh when it came to displaying psychological disintegration on screen. And if Kieron Moore is a weak Count Vronsky, Ralph Richardson more than compensates for it as the outragedly cuckolded Karenin. Though perceived as a failure at the time, I find the Leigh-Duvivier Anna Karenina the most effective of the 4 or 5 versions of the story I’ve seen.

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1 comment

Marcus Tucker -

Greta Garbo should have been the best in the role, after all practice makes perfect and in reality Greta played Anna Karenina in almost every film she made. Call me a heretic but I’m partial to Sophie Marceau and Sean Bean’s version.


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