Sunday, July 10, 2011

A Cockney Scarlett: Vivien Leigh as Libby in St. Martin's Lane (1938)


Or Sidewalks of London, if that's the way you roll. Many thanks to Rachel at The Girl with the White Parasol for alerting me to the Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier Appreciation Blogathon over at Viv and Larry.com. I thought I'd look at one of my favorite and less well-known of Vivien's performances. It's from one of her last films in England before heading to California for that one big picture about the Civil War.

St. Martin's Lane was made in 1938, a quirky but heartfelt little film--but not quirky and heartfelt in that appalling sticky way that happens sometimes--about the dying art of busking in late '30s Britain. It's co-written, co-produced, and co-starring Charles Laughton. He plays the gentle-hearted, wily, but fundamentally bombastic Charles Staggers, who fancies himself a Sir John Gielgud of the London streets. On some level, he knows he's not as classically refined in his talents as those onstage, but he's happy with his mediocre living and his eccentric streetwise pals.

It's not until he meets Leigh's stagestruck Libby, a sort of theatrical but homeless prodigy, that he even becomes aware that there's anything to be dissatisfied about in his meager and gypsy-like career. Really, I'm not sure why Vivien didn't send Selznick this movie instead of Fire Over England to showcase why she'd make the perfect Scarlett O'Hara. Not only does she portray the same feisty, fiery temper and irrational desires that, like Scarlett, gives her the air of a volcano just waiting to erupt in a black cloud of crazy, but she maintains throughout that adorable likability that keeps the audience from totally condemning her character.

Because really, save for a few fine moments (that I'll talk about in a bit), the script gives us very little reason to like Libby. She starts out as a pickpocket more concerned with getting a permanent wave and manicure like everyone else than earning an honest living, and Charles is just about ready to haul her in for stealing his sixpence and a famous songwriter's cigarette case, when in a magical sequence, he comes upon her dancing to a little tune she's humming, and discovers that the stuck-up little thief moves like an acrobatic swan (I'm unsure how much of the dancing is Vivien's and the rest a double's, but in the close-ups, her upper-body movements are at least very believable).

Recognizing her innate talent, Charles recruits her for his act, and, inevitably, falls for the "silly coot." And despite the fact she tears up his room in a fit, smacks him a couple of times, looks down on his act once that dashing songwriter (Rex Harrison) enters the scene again, and more or less acts the thoughtless little ditz much of the time, we can see where the infatuation comes from.

She is, after all, Vivien Leigh. And where there's Vivien Leigh, there's charm. A while back I was discussing with someone online about how Paulette Goddard would have done as Scarlett. We both agreed she probably would have done a fine job, but I argued that she was too much the hardboiled '30s dame to make us properly sympathize with her Scarlett. In Goddard's screentests, she lacks the childlike manner bordering on pert naivete that Vivien brought to not only Scarlett but most of her roles, including Blanche, Myra, and of course Libby.

We as an audience can forgive Libby a lot because instead of a tart tease, she comes across more like a damaged child, orphaned and lost, who's had to act tough to get through life at all. It's not that she's going for the handwringing, big-eyed childwoman of D.W. Griffiths movies--that would be totally out of place in this light British comedy. Libby is certainly a spoiled child, but not one without a heart.

Let's go back to those few fine scenes I mentioned, or at least one in particular. After she tears up the room and Charles lightly jokes about it, you see her face crumple in shame, and she turns away to cry. In one of the most quietly sweet moments I've ever seen, she half-heartedly snaps, "go away!" when Charles pats her shoulder. An instant later, she hugs him. Watching Laughton's face shift from numb surprise to numb softness is melting enough, but then in-between childish gulps of breath, Libby apologizes for all the wretched stuff she's done to Charles in the one day they've known each other--stolen his sixpence, made fun of him, torn up his room-- "I'm sorry, you silly fool! I'm sorry!" And she buries her face in his shoulder.

I could be wrong--I've actually had no experience being a man--but I think most guys would have no problem forgiving her there.

The other fine scene appears at the end, and I won't spoil anything except to say it does involve a very sweet kiss. Unfortunately, one of the reasons Vivien probably didn't send this flick to Selznick was because she apparently didn't have the best time working on it. Her relationship with Laughton was chilly at best, and as this was made at the height of her love affair with that Olivier person, she was quite distracted with the relationship, and Laughton was less than sympathetic (you really can't blame him. But then again, it's Vivien, so I at least forgive her, even if he couldn't).

Whatever tensions were on on-set, Laughton and Leigh did not let it show in their performances. They both had wonderful chemistry, and made the audience feel for both of them. No small feat, since both characters want different things: Libby wants fame, Charles wants Libby. Turns out both desires are incompatible, but the sweetness these characters share can't be ignored, either.

Neither can Vivien's rare star quality. She doesn't so much act the role of Libby as she does throw herself aggressively at it, and while I'm sure the same Method devotees who sneer at her Blanche might have the same problems with her Libby (she can be a bit shrill at times, her Cockney accent wavers every once in a while), there's no denying she makes her character come alive in a way that can't be taught in an acting school, not really. Like Scarlett, Libby stands for all the ruthless ambition that survives because of that unshakable spark, that childlike conviction that she has no other choice but to make it--in Libby's case, to the stage and the tantalizing promise of Hollywood in the near future. Hm, that's promising.

8 comments:

  1. Thanks so much for contributing to the blogathon! I think this is one of her best performances. My British Cinema teacher thinks this is one of the best British films to come out of the 1930s. While it's not my favorite on Leigh's resume, there's no doubt it shows her great potential, and she and Laughton do have great on-screen chemistry. I definitely think it's the best of the films she did before going to Hollywood!

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  2. Kendra, thank you so much for coming up with this blogathon! Fabulous idea, I must say. Will this be an annual event, do you think?

    While St. Martin's Lane wasn't made on an epic scale like Gone With The Wind or That Hamilton Woman, I feel its comparatively smaller setting opened it up more to the characters. In a way, I felt sort of closer to them than you sometimes do with characters in a movie, y'know? Great performances, that's for sure. Thanks for giving my post a look!

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  3. I too watched this for the Viv and Larry Blog-A-Thon and sort of fell in love. A very charming film and Leigh is terrific in it. Laughton just breaks my heart.

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  4. Laughton is terrific. It's too bad he and Viv didn't get along, they should have made more movies together. Thanks for reading!

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  5. @Laura, perhaps I will host another one next year! I was so happy with the great turn out of participants. The posts were amazing!

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  6. You're most welcome for the link, Laura. I'm sorry I didn't bring the topic up sooner.

    You've definitely intrigued me with this film. I would agree with you that Leigh, at least in those films I've seen with her, always feels like she's worth saving, even when she acts horribly or irrationally.

    I remember being impressed by Paulette Goddard's screen tests. She looked as if she were possessed by a demon in her Ashley-seduction scene.

    A great post indeed. I'll have to check this film out.

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  7. Thank you, Rachel! And you're right, Pauline definitely had the right temperament for Scarlett, that's for sure. She looked like she wanted to eat Ashley alive. If Vivien hadn't slinked all catlike into the picture, she'd certainly have been my first choice for the role.

    And St. Martin's Lane is definitely worth a look! It's got a lot of heart and wit for a relatively "minor" film.

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  8. Durr, and by Pauline I mean Paulette. Let's not make that mistake again, guys. C'mon.

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