Vivien Leigh died on July 8, 1967, at age 63. We honor her by reposting Kendra Bean’s loving tribute to this seminal star.
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“[Vivien Leigh] is, I should say, the most important recruit British films have ever had. . . . She is still not at all keen on going to Hollywood. She could go any day if she said the word. It’s up to the English studios to develop her over here.” — Picturegoer, April 3, 1937
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On February 29, 1940, Hollywood’s elite gathered in the famous Cocoanut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel to celebrate the 12th annual Academy Awards. It was a night of many firsts in Hollywood history. Gone with the Wind swept the show with a then-unprecedented ten awards, including Best Picture. Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Academy Award for her moving performance as Scarlett O’Hara’s Mammy, and at the age of twenty-six, Vivien Leigh collected the first of her two career Oscars for bringing Margaret Mitchell’s heroine to life. Leigh had been up against some of the top stars of the studio era including Greta Garbo and Bette Davis. Just as she had run away with the part of Scarlett, Leigh again beat out strong competition to become the first British winner in the Best Actress category. Later that night, Peter Stackpole photographed her placing her statue on the fireplace mantle in her Beverly Hills home. This photo, printed in the March 11, 1940 issue of Life magazine, captures Leigh on the brink of international stardom. It also exemplifies what Richard Dyer terms the “myth of success”: the popular notion that “American society is sufficiently open for anyone to get to the top, regardless of rank.”1 The odds of a young, unknown hopeful making it on the big screen were slim even in the 1930s. That such an aspirant — and a foreign one, at that — should win the most coveted and publicised female role in Hollywood history was next to impossible.
Gone with the Wind is certainly the film that propelled Vivien Leigh to international stardom. So ingrained has the legend of her as Scarlett remained in popular memory for the past 72 years that any recognition of external forces, such as the influence and guidance of studio moguls (both Hollywood and British), has been essentially overshadowed. Leigh did not simply appear out of the blue as the very visage of Margaret Mitchell’s heroine, as many contemporary fan magazines, posthumous biographies about Leigh, and modern documentaries about the making of the film suggest.2 Rather, her transformation from British unknown to Hollywood legend can be attributed in part to the grooming she received as a contract player for Alexander Korda in the 1930s, and perhaps to a greater extent, how she shaped her own identity. My aim for this article is to reexamine the prevalent Vivien Leigh/Scarlett O’Hara myth by exploring how her star persona was generated during the early phase of her film career in Britain between 1935 and 1938, thus revealing the dynamics of the 1930s British film industry that paved the way for her eventual success in Hollywood.
During the first half of the twentieth century, the British film industry operated very much in the shadow of the Hollywood studio system, both in terms of trying to compete and attempting to shape a national identity.3 British stardom was based on the Hollywood template, but British stars themselves were never archetypes in the Hollywood sense. To quote Geoffrey Macnab, “They lacked mystique. Many of the most successful (Fields, Formby, Balfour) were not popular because they were glamorous and aloof, but because they were homely and accessible.”4 It is possible to argue that, to a certain extent, the opposite was true for Vivien Leigh. She would go on to typify the Southern belle in four of the six films she made in Hollywood: Gone with the Wind, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, and Ship of Fools. But even in Britain she embodied a glamorous mystique.
A major publicity technique employed in both the Hollywood and British star systems was the use of biographical information to add an “additional dimension to the screen image.”5 Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe are two commonly used examples of how this method functioned. Kelly’s image as a cool and somewhat aloof “lady” was supported by details of her wealthy upbringing, whereas details of Monroe’s tumultuous childhood and her work as a pin-up model (most notably for Playboy) cemented her image as a sex symbol.6 A similar approach to biographical exploitation was used on Vivien Leigh in the 1930s. Her childhood in British India coupled with her cat-like facial features and preference for “queer” colored clothes and “barbaric” jewelry led British Vogue to brand her a “little gypsy” in 1937: “If you want a label for her type, call it exotic.”7 She was featured in popular women’s magazines modeling glamorous designer clothes for Victor Stiebel, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Edward Molyneux. Her regular presence in publications such as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and The Sketch was in line with her fashionable Mayfair lifestyle as the wife of a London barrister. Her cosmopolitan education in Europe was also often emphasized in fan magazines. Picturegoer attributed her promise as a rising talent as much to studying languages in Italy, acting in Paris, and at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art as they did to Korda’s influence.8 Details such as these are true to an extent; they were utilized by Korda in the press, but this picture was wholly created by Leigh.
She was born Vivian Mary Hartley in Darjeeling on Guy Fawkes’ Night, 1913 to a British father and a mother of ambiguous (possibly part Indian) origins.9 Biographer Hugo Vickers paints an intriguing picture of Leigh’s adolescence. As a young child, she was sent to convent school in London and was separated from her parents, who remained in India, for long periods of time. According to Vickers, the loneliness she experienced in this strict environment fostered insecurity and a need to pretend. Although her education suggests her upbringing was rooted in the British upper class, her stockbroker father suffered badly in the market crash of 1929, thus downgrading the Hartleys’ economic and social status. After completing school on the continent, Leigh led a nomadic existence, shuffling between relatives and social clubs in England, and often living out of a suitcase. Her marriage to barrister Leigh Holman (from whom she adopted her stage name) at age nineteen provided her with the means to better her position and to develop an air of sophistication and taste that would remain part of her image for the rest of her life.10 Leigh started out in films playing bit parts in 1935 Gaumont and Paramount quota quickies, and her self-made image is apparent from the outset. For example, one of her earliest films, The Village Squire (Reginald Denham, 1935), shows her speaking in a very affected upper-crust accent. In subsequent films, her accent is slightly toned down, but it retains a non-regional clarity that later proved important when her films were exported to the U.S.
Leigh’s overnight success as Henriette Dunesquoy in Sidney Carroll’s 1935 theatrical production of The Mask of Virtue brought her instant and all-encompassing distinction, including a film contract with Korda. Because this initial success came on the stage rather than on screen, it afforded Leigh the opportunity to publicly align herself with the idea that acting in the theatre was culturally superior to acting in films—an attitude that was prominent amongst classically trained British actors of the time. In the summer 1935 issue of The Theater Illustrated Quarterly, Leigh addressed her newfound theatre-going fans, clearly articulating this stance:”One final word to theatre folk. The films will never take me quite away from the stage . . . And the direct personal meeting with an audience means more to me than all the celluloid contacts in the world, whatever they mean in money and whatever they mean in fame.”
This tension between the perceived validity of theatre versus film would play a major role in both the critical reception of Leigh as a performer (particularly in Britain) and the way she was marketed — as well as the way she marketed herself — as a star throughout her career.
It might be said that being under contract to Korda was both an advantage and disadvantage for Leigh’s career in Britain. On the one hand, she became exportable. Korda had established himself as the foremost mogul in the British industry, founding Denham Studios on funds from Prudential Insurance, an American company that offered financial backing based on the overseas success of his 1933 film The Private Life of Henry VIII, starring Charles Laughton. Korda’s impact on British cinema at this time is summarized by his nephew, David: “What Alex brought to the British film industry in the early 1930s was a series of large-scale films that could compete on the world market and that were not dependent on the British box office for their success; they had appeal all over the world.”11
Just as his films had a crucial link to Hollywood and the world market, so too did his stars. He established a repertory-like company that proved important to the emergence of a British star system, and, as such, his stars were subjected to a form of typecasting.12 Detrimentally, Leigh’s glamorous look and foreign upbringing led Korda to consistently cast her in roles that figured her as exotic and cosmopolitan, rather than in those that would have allowed her to become a major “home-grown” star like Gracie Fields or Anna Neagle.
British stars of the 1930s form what Street refers to as “an interesting cultural backdrop to the politics of consensus, the dominant response to the Depression, appeasement and the relocation of industry.”13 Gracie Fields has often been mentioned in this context. She represented the working class, and her music hall image was symbolic of the middlebrow, defined by Lawrence Napper as an ethos that was embodied by audiences who “blurred boundaries of class, space and culture.”14 Although Leigh herself is an example of such cultural change, it is difficult to describe her star image as symbolizing any prevalent notion of national identity. If anything, her screen persona was middlebrow by association. This is best illustrated in Look Up and Laugh (Basil Dean, 1935) and Storm in a Teacup (Victor Saville, 1937), where her characters Marjorie and Victoria use their wealth and social standing to help solve the problems facing their middle-class friends (Fields and Sara Allgood, respectively), thus restoring happiness and order.
When examining Leigh’s early career, it is even difficult to align her star image with that of other Korda contract players. She shared a similar background with actress Merle Oberon. Oberon was signed because of her exoticism (she was half-Indian, although she desperately attempted to cover it up using make-up, voice lessons, and fabricated stories about her childhood in attempt to make her more British), but she was rarely cast in roles that emphasized this. Instead, she was typed as an English rose, thus eliciting unfavorable reviews from British critics who equated “unimaginative casting” with unimaginative acting.15 In the case of Leigh, there seemed to be little intention on anyone’s part to mould her as a quintessentially British star. This became particularly evident when Korda cast her as a French spy living in Stockholm who is really working for German intelligence in Dark Journey (Victor Saville, 1937).
What seems like Korda’s most earnest attempt to directly align Leigh with middlebrow values is also his biggest failure in this sense. As Libby in St. Martin’s Lane (Tim Whelan, 1938), she is a cockney waif (complete with irregular Cockney accent); a singer and dancer who gets picked up by Charles Staggers (Charles Laughton) and his busking troupe before being discovered by a rich songwriter called Harley Prentiss (Rex Harrison) and made the star of a West End revue. The rags to riches Cinderella story fits in with middlebrow ideas of upward class mobility. However, Libby is also a professional pickpocket who will do anything she can, including using those who care for her (Charles, the other buskers), to get to the top of the professional ladder. She is petulant, cruel, and independent. She willingly promotes herself over the rest of the troupe, and when Charles reveals his affections for her, she spurns him in much the same cruel way Scarlett spurns Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. Simon Callow compares Leigh’s interpretation of Libby to Louise Brooks’s Lulu in Pabst’s Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box, 1929): “She contains within her the spirit of anarchy, a real danger and unpredictability, that is almost Lulu-like: a daemon, a siren, a pussycat with the sharpest claws and a tongue that spits like a lynx.”16 This thoughtful comparison calls to attention the fact that this film, although concerned with portraying working-class British characters, had a significant European element due to the influence of independent producer Erich Pommer. Libby does not truly embody ideas of nationalism; she is ultimately non-British. That real “British” role belongs to Charles, who believes that honesty and hard work will keep the busking profession (which he has no aspirations to leave) alive.
Leigh’s performance in St. Martin’s Lane is both a literal and metaphorical precursor to Hollywood, and is the closest opportunity to a true star part that she was offered during this period. Like Leigh herself, Libby’s ultimate goal is to become successful on the legitimate stage, and on a global scale. When Prentiss tracks her down to recover the cigarette case she pinched from him in an earlier scene, he becomes intrigued by her beauty and determination to become famous. He offers to do a write-up of the buskers, and Charles allows Libby to be the interviewee. Her answers to Prentiss’ questions are reflective of Leigh’s own determination to succeed as an actress:
Prentiss: “Miss Liberty — Liberty what?”
Libby: “Just Liberty, like Garbo, see? Looks better on a billboard.”
Prentiss (reading what he has written): “Liberty, as she prefers to be called, will not always be content with the life of the streets. Is that the line?”
Libby: “That’s the line. My ambition is to dance in every capital in Europe, starting with the Holborn Empire.”
Given Leigh’s alluring persona and Korda’s tendency to cast her as non-British in nearly all of her films, it is possible that her development as a star would have flat-lined had she not made the journey to Hollywood. As indicated by Picturegoer, Korda seemed to think that Leigh at least had the potential to be successful in Hollywood. However, the British films she acted in during the 1930s only allowed her to develop to a certain point. Ultimately, the failure for Vivien Leigh in the 1930s was her resistance (both her own doing and Korda’s) to fit in with dominant notions of middlebrow culture during the inter-war years. Perhaps, as Geoffrey Macnab suggests of Merle Oberon, Leigh was “too glamorous for the prim tastes of 1930s [British] film-makers.”17 David O. Selznick would pick up where Korda’s influence left off, and the year after St Martin’s Lane was released in Britain, Leigh would indeed prove to be one of, if not the most important recruit in British cinema history.
In her examination of the lasting cultural appeal of Gone with the Wind, Helen Taylor notes that Leigh “won the longest, most prestigious female role in Hollywood’s most ambitious, epic film at the climax of its ‘golden age’ when the star system was most fully developed and films were financed, promoted and celebrated on individual star names.”18 Clark Gable received top billing on all promotional materials including posters and marquees, and Leigh was again publicized as a discovery, a Cinderella-like figure. But her name had actually been tied to Scarlett since as early as 1937. Alongside Korda’s assistance, Leigh independently contributed to her own publicity campaign, hiring noted theatre photographer Angus McBean to photograph her in her best Scarlett fashion, and then personally sending the images to Selznick.19 The producer reported seeing her in Fire over England, Sidewalks of London, and the British MGM film A Yank at Oxford (Jack Conway, 1938) but expressed little interest at the time.20 It should be noted that Sidewalks of London and the 1938 film 21 Days Together were not released in the United States until 1940, when Paramount chose to capitalize on Gone with the Wind‘s success.
It is difficult to answer precisely how Leigh eventually ended up with the part. Taylor calls her an “inspired choice,” her contribution being the “English ‘class’ derived from her own background and also from the aristocratic, quasi-royal associations of herself and Olivier.”21 The class association may be accurate, but I would argue that the associations of her relationship with Olivier had little to do with Leigh actually being chosen for Scarlett. There was much speculation about the couple’s romantic status in the American press in 1939, but moral values were strict when it came to adultery, as evidenced by the Production Code, and it has often been noted in retrospect that Selznick would not allow details of Leigh’s private life that might generate any negative publicity — including her affair with Olivier — to come to light until after the film premiered.22 Such tactics possibly contributed to the fairytale aura that the Leigh/Olivier romance would assume later, but in the beginning, Leigh was kept under close watch by Selznick. The Hollywood fan magazine Silver Screen summed this up best: Leigh was “taboo as far as the writing profession is concerned. You could probably snare the jewels out of the Tower of London quicker than you could snare an interview with Vivien Leigh.”23
Leigh’s nationality proved more problematic than her status as an unknown. Cinemagoers could not believe that a British girl had been chosen to play such an iconic American character. Hollywood gossipmonger Hedda Hopper called Selznick’s decision “ludicrous . . . Why not [call the] House of Parliament in England and say: ‘Well, you’ve won again!'”24 This attitude reflects the “isolationist cultural ethos in the United States [at the time] and considerable anger about ‘foreign’ actors taking Hollywood’s best parts.”25 To combat the opposition, Selznick changed tactics and publicized Leigh as an experienced actress with the talent to succeed in the role, rather than just a pretty girl who had gotten the ultimate lucky break. “No Cinderella magic raised Vivien to fame,” declared Paul Harrison of the New York Times. “She won Scarlett O’Hara role with hard work.” Harrison uses her stage performances rather than her British films to vouch for her expertise, illustrating the divide between the Hollywood and British industries at the time. Echoing Hopper’s declaration above, Leigh’s success in Gone with the Wind can be seen as a kind of victory for Britain. The film elevated Leigh to an international cultural status that would not be reached by any other British actress of her generation. In an attempt to have the best of both worlds, Korda sold her contract to Selznick while still retaining her for one British picture per year.26 The situation did not quite pan out as planned. Personal and political circumstances would prevent Leigh from fully realizing her potential as a Hollywood film star, and her newfound fame and association with Scarlett O’Hara would become a double-edged sword when she returned to the British screen during the Second World War.
- Richard Dyer, Stars (London: BFI, 1979), 42. [↩]
- Alan Dent, Vivien Leigh A Bouquet (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1969); Hugo Vickers, Vivien Leigh (London, New York, Toronto: Little, Brown, 1988); Alexander Walker, Vivien: The Life of Vivien Leigh (London: Grove Press, 1987). [↩]
- Sarah Street, British National Cinema (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), 121. [↩]
- Geoffrey Macnab, Searching for Stars: Stardom and Screen Acting in British Cinema (London: Cassell, 2000), 177. [↩]
- Thomas Harris, “The Building of Popular Images: Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe,” in Stardom: Industry of Desire, ed. Christine Gledhill (New York: Routledge, 1991), 42. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- “Vivien Leigh Plays Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind,” July 1, 1939. [↩]
- Max Breen, “Here Comes Vivien!” Picturegoer Weekly, January 30, 1937. [↩]
- Vickers, Vivien Leigh, 3. [↩]
- Ibid, 21. [↩]
- David Korda, foreword to The Korda Collection: Alexander Korda’s Film Classics by Martin Stockham (London: Boxtree Limited, 1992), 8. [↩]
- Macnab, Searching for Stars, 66. [↩]
- Street, British National Cinema, 123. [↩]
- Lawrence Napper, British Cinema and Middlebrow Culture in the Interwar Years (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2009), 9. [↩]
- Ibid., 66. [↩]
- Simon Callow, Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor (London: Methuen, 1987), 127. [↩]
- Macnab, Searching for Stars, 66. [↩]
- Helen Taylor, Scarlett’s Women: Gone with the Wind and Its Female Fans (London: Virago Press, 1989), 82. [↩]
- Angus McBean, Vivien: A Love Affair in Camera (London: Phaidon, 1990), 14. [↩]
- Rudy Behlmer, ed., Memo From: David O. Selznick (New York: Viking Press, 1989), 190. [↩]
- Ibid., 86. [↩]
- Ibid, 85. [↩]
- Elizabeth Wilson, “That Gay Southern gGal from London,” Silver Screen, September 1939. [↩]
- Hedda Hopper, “Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood,” Los Angeles Times, January 16, 1939. [↩]
- Taylor, Scarlett’s Women, 85. [↩]
- Charles Drazin, “Made to Measure,” The Guardian, June 7, 2002. [↩]