July 10, 2011

Viv and Larry Blog-a-Thon: Odds and Ends

This entry is part of the Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier Appreciation Blog-A-Thon hosted by Kendra of VivAndLarry.com

The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone is a pretty torpid film--bored and boring--and I considered, briefly, ripping it apart in a full-length blog entry but then became so disenchanted with re-visiting the film, I decided to gather Mrs. Stone & some of these lesser Viv and Larry triumphs in a catch-all "left-overs" post: Odds and Ends.

Yesterday, I covered a Larry film that was plagued with bad accents, so today I thought it would be only fair to review a Viv one: The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. Mercifully, Leigh herself is not the one committing the sin. That dubious distinction falls to a very young Warren Beatty, attempting an Italian accent that is, truly, one of the worst I have ever heard in a film. Beatty plays a lazy Roman gigolo named Paolo who seduces and exploits Leigh's Mrs. Stone, a famous actress experiencing a midlife crisis. As far as midlife crises go, I suppose one could do worse than to fall into bed with Warren Beatty, circa 1961.

Seriously, good job there.

Vivien Leigh, to her credit, is still pretty smoking hot playing a woman who's a good deal older and more fragile than herself, still a fearsome talent and incredible beauty. Unlike Leigh's most famous roles playing feisty, kittenish heroines, Mrs. Stone is a shrinking violet, retreating to Rome in the wake of a disastrous theatrical performance and declining career.

Mrs. Stone retreats to Italy because, I suppose, the country was en vogue among Americans in the '50s & '60s and Warner Bros. thought it would sexy to set a film there. There is little motivation for Rome as a destination besides its fashionable status among filmgoers. 

Karen Stone, indeed, seems to be experiencing the kind of existential malaise that would be better suited to an Antonioni film. Her wanderings around Rome, including encounters with a dirty young drifter who stalks her window, are exactly the kinds of mysterious/glamorous goings-on best exemplified by Antonioni's so-called Alienation Trilogy. Rich and drifting, she really has no ambitions in life. She was once a famous and talented actress and now she doesn't even have that. So, what?

When Monica Vitti meanders amidst Roman architecture--all blonde hair and blank expression--we buy it. But, here it's hard to care about any of the characters or what petty issues they're going through. Perhaps Leigh needed an Italian director--an Antonioni, Visconti, de Sica--to really capture how adrift and uncertain the her character feels. The Rome presented in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone is more an Italian picture postcard for American audiences looking for a breezy, foreign vacation than a living, breathing evocation of a city; despite its on-location shooting, the film never achieves a sense of place or atmosphere. 

The scenes that work best in communicating what I think it longs to convey--the sway the city has on Mrs. Stone, its subtle seduction and gradual corruption--are those that feature the drifter. These scenes are silent and stand in stark contrast to the scenes with Beatty's Paolo who, while damned attractive, just won't shut up. 

Eventually, his horrible accent, deplorable behavior towards Leigh and utter lack of character motivation--all Paolo does is loaf around, for Pete's sake!--is too much for Mrs. Stone, and us, too. Paolo ditches Mrs. Stone and letting her curiosity get the better of her, she finally invites the drifter in for a drink (and presumably, more). If the preceding film had any of the dramatic impact of its final scene, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone might have been a worthwhile endeavor. As it is, its final moments amount to too little, too late. 


While her husband was directing and starring in Hamlet, Vivien Leigh was starring in her own prestigious literary adaptation, Anna Karenina. Although not as successful as Olivier's definitive staging of Shakespeare's masterpiece, Karenina is a fitfully engaging adaptation, mostly due to some striking photography and good performances from Leigh as Anna and Ralph Richardson as her jilted husband. Besides these factors, the film is rather stiff and stuffy; only the scenes of Anna's premonitions of her own death, evoking a spooky 19th c. spiritualism, manage to suffuse the adaptation with real life. 

The St. Petersburg's upper crust indulge in some chic spiritualism.

Director Julien Duvivier was certainly no hack, having been one of the foremost figures in the Poetic Realism movement in France along with more famous names like Rene Claire and Jean Renoir. After WWII, he was having trouble getting steady work in France, so he mostly worked as a director-for-hire in Hollywood and the UK. Ever-reliable Viv and Larry producer & patron Alexander Korda, not being an idiot, recognized in Duvivier and cinematographer Henri Alekan (also a Frenchman who had just shot La belle et le bete for Jean Cocteau and would later lens Wings of Desire for Wim Wenders) would lend some much needed visual flare to the potentially creaky costume drama. This, they did. 

The scenes where Karenina's burgeoning madness comes to a head are visually thrilling and subtly eerie. The drawing room scenes of bourgeois social niceties are significantly less involving. Part of this stems from the poor casting of Irish actor Kieron Moore as Count Vronsky, the supposedly dashing and irrestitible young man who sweeps Anna off her feet. As cute as Moore is in the role, he comes across as something of a 3rd or 4th rate Robert Taylor/John Gilbert type. He is fine to look at, but lacks any screen magnetism and is totally unbeleivable as a man for whom Anna would sacrifice her family, her social position, and her life. 

Handsome but vapid. Sorry, dude.

With little to work with, Vivien Leigh does well, but it's a part she had played more convincingly in better films before and the whole thing has a rather warmed-over feeling. 

With the passing of time, the film hasn't faired very well, especially with the 1935 Garbo version having become, in the hearts and minds of most cineastes, the definitive adaptation of Tolstoy's epic romance. This is perhaps why the Leigh/Korda version is seldom discussed in film circles. Before doing research for this blogathon, I hadn't even heard of it. In light of the Garbo/Gilbert/Clarence Brown, another adaptation only 13 years later must have seemed unnecessary (decades later, even more so). Of course, Anna Karenina has been adapted steadily on stage, screen, and television in the years since and with yet another iteration in the works, it seems there is no stopping them. 

All of this comes with a word of warning: the version I saw (the version available on DVD in the U.S. [my copy came from Netflix]) is the 111 minute version, cut down from a considerably longer 139 international version. Undoubtedly, that extra half an hour changes the tenure of the film considerably. Of course, I don't know what is in that other version. Personally, I would have liked to see more of Levin (my favorite character), and a greater emphasis on the Russian political climate (the U.S. version has none). For the sake of runtime, and perhaps to simplify the novel for audiences, the entire film is staked on Anna's romance with Vronsky. In theory, this works well in foregrounding Leigh's considerable star power, but in practice falters because of Moore's lack of screen presence and because there is very little to care about in Anna's stakes. We are meant to root for her, but from the first her marriage to Ralph Richardson is on the rocks (being obviously ill-matched), that it is as hard to get invested in their reconciliation as it is to cheer on the young lovers.


Bunny Lake is Missing is a film I like a whole lot and would love to delve into more deeply at another time. Unfortunately, due to time constraints and the fact that Olivier simply isn't in it very much, it's relegated here to truncated consideration. 
Ostensibly a mystery concerning the disappearance of a young girl, Bunny Lake is a delightfully deranged film which lists among its many perversions: incest, child kidnapping, sadomasochism, and the most bizarre '60s Freudian psychology this side of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho

Ann (Carol Lynley) and Stephen Lake (Keir Dullea) are Americans living in London. They are brother and sister but behave like man and wife. When Ann's daughter Bunny (whom we don't ever see) goes missing after her first day at school, we're faced with an almost impenetrable mystery: what happened to Bunny Lake? The film sets about answering the question in a roundabout way. First we must determine if the girl ever existed at all. 

There is much to say about this film's many interesting aspects, but for the sake of brevity and thematic adherence, this overview will focus on Olivier's role in the picture.

Laurence Olivier plays the pivotal role of Superintendent Newhouse, the police inspector investigating the disappearance. With the film's coterie of weirdos, eccentrics and kidnap suspects, it first appears that Olivier has been cast to provide some much needed gravity and stability that often threatens, with its Freudian neuroses and wide-angle lenses, to strain credulity and descend into hysteria. Calming interviewing the suspects and questioning Ann, Olivier's Supt. Newhouse seems a rational and professional sort of fellow, merely here to do the job and get on with it.

However, Oliver's choices in a few key scenes point to some subtle, almost imperceptible nuances in the characterization. Watching the film a second time, one might conclude that Newhouse is just as crazy as the rest of 'em! For example, during the early stages of the investigation, neither Newhouse nor the audience knows what has happened, and it seems the Police Superintendent are satisfied with investigating all possible and probable leads without committing to any.

In one scene, it seems that Newhouse suspects Ann and allows Stephen and his fellow detectives to interrogate her. Stephen keeps badgering Ann, pestering and confusing her (we still don't know at this point whether Stephen or Ann is telling the truth). 

All three men seem to be accusing Ann. Preminger's framing of this scene (and many others) intimate guilt and accusation almost subconsciously, so that the viewer, who, again, does not know the kidnapper's identity or the fate of the child until the climax of the film, shifts their identification from character to character, often having to grapple with contradictory stories and questionable motives.

The viewer's natural inclination, I believe, would be to automatically latch onto Olivier's character as the go-to identification figure. In so many films, it is the investigator in whom we trust and follow to lead us through a mystery. Newhouse is never so outrageous that we suspect he has any nefarious motivations, but he is never quite the strong and upstanding presence we might expect. For example, while questioning the cook at the nursery school when Bunny disappeared, Newhouse becomes distracted by the junket she is preparing for the children's lunch. It turns out Newhouse is something of a foodie, fixating on junket, sipping the sherry offered by the the matron of the school, and meeting Ann at a bar for a drink.

It is this scene at the bar where perhaps it becomes clear that Olivier's Newhouse is something of a genius police detective, however distant or distracted he may seem. It comes later in the picture when Newhouse (and the audience) has come to suspect that perhaps Ann is full-bore nuts and her daughter never existed at all. Newhouse is charming, offering Ann sandwiches and brandy and conversing socially, subtly needling her for more and more information on Bunny, Stephen and her childhood. 

Watch Olivier (and The Zombies) in action, starting around the 4 min. mark.

Adding to the weirdness of the entire picture, but especially this scene, the '60s rock band The Zombies are playing a performance on the bar television. A strange choice of product integration, but the jangly, Brit pop band lends a disquieting undercurrent of youthful jubilee to Ann's rather horrifying tales of childhood (that doll funeral--eek!) 

The fact that the bartender changes the channel from a news report on the missing girl to the rock performance underlines the casual dismissal of almost all involved (and from Preminger himself) in actually ever finding the girl. When the mystery is finally concluded, Bunny Lake is treated with indifference. The last twenty minutes or so shifts entirely from Newhouse & the police investigating to Ann taking up the mantle herself and turning into something of an action heroine as she comes face to face with the kidnapper and takes back her child. In point of fact, Olivier's Inspector basically disappears and the "official" investigation into becomes an intensely personal quest for Ann--sort of a psychoanalytic therapy session in action. Bunny Lake is Missing is an interesting and slippery sort of film that always keeps you guessing, shifting allegiances and identification. The casting of Olivier--a gigantic figure in British film--is a stroke of brilliance as Supt. Newhouse is someone the audience instantly feels comfortable trusting. Olivier is charming and calmly paternal throughout, even when he investigatory methods may strike us as odd, indifferent, or even cruel. 

"The play's the thing": Olivier's Shakespearean Trilogy

This entry is part of the Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier Appreciation Blog-A-Thon hosted by Kendra of VivAndLarry.com

Before I started this blogathon, I knew very little about Laurence Olivier beyond what everyone knows about Laurence Olivier: that he was a great actor. Some say great Shakespearean actor. Some say great stage actor. Some say the greatest actor of all-time. The emphasis is, anyway, on acting.

But after watching Olivier's Shakespearean trilogy, Henry V, Hamlet, and Richard III, I was astonished (well, maybe not astonished, but certainly impressed) with what a brilliant director he was. Maybe I'm overstating things because of my ignorance of Olivier's directorial output; after all, all three films were released by the Criterion Collection and it's not like Olivier is some unknown, obscure figure in international film. But in the online film community, there's very little chatter (that I've observed) over Olivier-as-director or his incredible Shakespearean films. Perhaps this is a reaction to the predictable critique against Shakespearean films as "non-cinematic" (rubbish) or the impulse to give William Shakespeare's words total authorship over any staging of his plays (tempting, but still rubbish). Perhaps it is the third charge, that Olivier's interpretations of Shakespeare, both on stage and in film, are so classically definitive that they're better left unmentioned for fear anyone else attempting to stage the works will inadvertently ape them. You see a little bit of this reactionary impulse in Kenneth Branagh's Henry V and Hamlet which, if you watch them back to back with Olivier's, seem to purposefully be ducking where Olivier dodged. 

Whatever the reason, here's the truth: these are damned good films. Really good. Maybe an eighth-grader being forced to sit through 137 minutes of Technicolor Henry V in English class wouldn't think so, but they damned well are. And if you will allow me another dim-witted observation: that William Shakespeare was no slouch either. As brilliant as his works are, one must only watch a terrible rendering of Shakespearean verse to know how truly skilled Olivier was in making his own stagings so successful. 

There is so much to say about these three films, all directed and produced by Olivier within the span of 11 years, but I must limit myself to a few targeted observations otherwise I would just ramble more than I already have. 

Foregrounding authorship/Establishing narrative metaphor in Henry V (1944)

The first of these films is Henry V, produced in 1944. Olivier was hesitant to direct the picture himself, first approaching his Wuthering Heights director William Wyler, then Carol Reed who demurred and suggested Terrence Young. Eventually, Olivier had to take the reins himself. There was pressure to get the film done before the end of WWII. Like That Hamilton Woman, Henry V was to be an important propaganda piece in the war effort. 

Henry V is indeed a spectacular production filmed in Technicolor which in 1944 was by no means a common occurrence, especially in a British film industry that had to ration as much as it could. Indeed, the film was so tightly budgeted that most of the soldiers' armor was cloth or cardboard painting to look like metal. The film's trailer advertises the color photography and boasts "a cast of thousands!", many of whom were servicemen borrowed from battle to playact combat as medieval French and English soldiers. 

With its exciting battle scenes, spectacular color photography and distinguished literary pedigree, it's clear that Henry V was a hugely important production. There was a lot riding on this.

To ensure that 1944 audiences, especially American audiences, could attune themselves to the complicated diction, arcane political conflicts and historical background, Henry V has an embedded narrative structure. The film begins with a title that announces the title of the play, its author and where and when it will be performed (in the year 1600, at the Globe Theater in London). The flyer than pulls away from the screen, floating on the breeze as the camera pans across a huge model of Elizabethan-era London. We see the Thames, the little rolling hills, cathedrals and neighborhoods that made up that great metropolis 300 years prior, before settling on the Globe Theater.

In another long take, the camera descends into the Globe which is packed with theater-goers there to watch Henry V. The play is introduced with its own title on a board being held by a member of the theater troupe.

The Chorus (Leslie Banks) comes out onto the stage and addresses the gathered Elizabethan audience, and the 1944 film audience directly into the camera:

In the play, The Chorus entreats the theater audience/reader to use their imagination to go back in time to 1415 for the events of the Battle of Agincourt. Olivier gives us a rendering of this play-within-a-play, inviting the camera backstage where the actors playing actor gather before coming out on stage. The first appearance of Olivier himself is as the Elizabethan actor readying himself before appearing on stage to play Henry. (In a cute bit of business, Olivier-as-Elizabethan seems nervous, coughing before his grand entrance.)

Olivier's Henry V is as much of an Elizabethan movie as it is a medieval movie, as it is a WWII movie. He edited much of Shakespeare's play to tailor it to wartime sensibilities, making Henry a saintly king, much less blood-thirsty and warlike than he is in the play.  With fully three time periods at work in the picture, it's a delicate balancing act to suss out where Olivier & co. have edited the text or accentuated set dressing and production design to privilege one element over another. 

The bulk of the movie is in this medieval setting. Here, Olivier & co. have constructed a fully artificial world that takes its visual cues from medieval painting, notably "Les Tres Riches Heures," the only remaining illuminated manuscript of the period. The art style in these texts is flat, lacking dimension or depth of field; there are no shadows or voluptuousness in the architecture or design. The film reflects this style. The costumes were designed with period-appropriate fabrics and the dyed the bright colors reflective in medieval art.

Pages from "Les Tres Riches Heures" next to stills from Olivier's Henry V

"This is a tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind": Hamlet (1948)

Hamlet is a film with so many superlative elements that I had a hard time deciding what I should single out in this entry. Olivier's definitive performance? The stellar supporting cast? Inevitably, one element stands out above the others, and this is the photography. Shot by cinematographer Desmond Dickinson, Hamlet is the single film in the trilogy in black and white. Although it's tempting to attribute its cinematically striking results to sheer genius on the part of Olivier & co., the truth of the matter is the production couldn't get its hands on any Technicolor stock. Filming took six months, and at that length, Technicolor would have proved financially prohibitive. Of course, it's unimaginable now to envision gloomy Elsinore rendered in vivid color. 

And gloomy it is. Doom and gloom from the get-go. The obscure and suggestive production design reveals a castle enshrouded in fog, entombed and isolated. Of course there are ghosts here. The lighting is supernatural, the photography is straight out of James Whale; Hamlet's opening scenes are pure horror movie.

Complementing the black and white photography is Olivier's own pale visage, the white hair and pallid skin, perpetually clammy, accentuate the film's stark contrasts. 
Unlike the direct address to the camera in Henry V and later in Richard III, Hamlet's asides and soliloquies often begin being spoken aloud but then become an internalized monologue, as if Hamlet, in his grief and later in his affected madness, had just trailed off, indifferent to the effect of his ramblings. The internalized voice-overs take on an air of psychological melodrama that would not be out of place in a film noir. Indeed, I think many aspects of of the film speak to a familiarity with the current (1948) film cycle; their is a noir-ish subjectivity to Olivier's interpretation, a stripped down revenge thriller with a hefty emphasis on madness and psychological manipulation. In this light, Hamlet himself can be seen as a noir-ish unreliable narrator. 

In the film's best scene, the play-within-a-play, Olivier's camera makes several graceful camera moves that capture with ruthless efficiency the fiendish application of his trap. Watch each time camera tracks behind Gertrude and Claudius and how the entire mood and tenor of the scene changes between the first and second sweep: 

"...the crown so foul misplac'd": Richard III (1955)

Olivier's Richard III is probably the most drastically edited of his three Shakespeare films. Its entire first scene is taken from Henry VI, the play's pre-cursor. Therein, essential information is conveyed to the viewer lest they be totally confused as to the royal line of succession. Richard III was already a prominent character in Shakespeare's historical plays and an Elizabethan audience would be familiar with what had transpired, which is why Richard III begins in medias res. Everything in Olivier's version is stripped down to its narrative base--the play is called Richard III and Richard is calling all the shots. The film works best when Olivier is delivering his character's asides and soliloquies straight down the barrel: he ingratiates us into his nefarious conspiracy and my goodness, is it delicious. 

Olivier's charm as Richard the devious hunchback maybe works too well. I, for one, never cared how many friends he drowned, grieving wives he wooed, or children he murdered--as long as he kept us in the loop. The famous "winter of our discontent" speech is brilliant as written and spectacular as performed. Olivier's economical camera movement is as intuitive and graceful as it is quietly thrilling--forcefully punctuating key lines and moments--and brilliantly retreating from Richard where a less sure-footed director would track in for a close-up. Look at the way Olivier walks away from the camera to underlines Richard's deformity and how he invites the viewer to track his ramblings across the stage while the camera sits still. Just great. Well, just watch it for yourself: 

In the latter part of the speech, Olivier nimbly sets up what will be the defining visual symbol of the film: the crown. The crown, both as abstract representation of power, and as literal, physical object of desire, is the central concern of everyone in the film, not just Richard. It is his ambitions we are privy to, but no one is inured against lusting for the crown; he just does it best. I imagine the crown kind of like the rugby ball and all the players are determined to smash against each other to get it.

The film even begins with a title card that announces

and then cuts to the coronation ceremony:

Richard III is perhaps the least subtle film of the three in clearly deliniating its protagonists' intensions (even more so than Hamlet's deceptive revenge). You can be sure that whenever a crown appears, some serious stuff is about to go down.

Which makes Richard wearing the crown into battle (a humorous image with his hooked nose and pageboy haircut, let's be serious), more pointedly tragic where its absence on top of the royally misshapen head signals sure defeat.

The film's final image echoes its first, the crown being raised to grace a new head. The sparseness of the framing underlines the futility of all Richard's scheming. In the timeline of the film, he was King for only a few minutes before receiving his comeuppance in battle.

July 9, 2011

"You better look in the frying pan!": Sidewalks of London (Tim Whelan, 1938)

This entry is part of the Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier Appreciation Blog-A-Thon hosted by Kendra of VivAndLarry.com

Sidewalks of London, which came to me via Netflix under the UK title St. Martin's Lane, is a charming little gem of a movie and probably the single most delightful discovery of this blog-a-thon. 

St. Martin's Lane is a bustling street on the edge of Convent Garden where all manner of street performers and panhandlers gather to entertain and hustle the crowds of shoppers, cinema, and theater-goers that line the streets every night. Charles (Charles Laughton) is one such busker whose claim to fame is a stirring recitation of Rudyard Kipling's "If." Vivien Leigh plays a charming, big-eyed street urchin of the Dickensian sort with dreams of becoming a legitimate dancer on the London stage. After stealing Laughton's tips and lifting the cigarette case of a wealthy lyricist named Prentiss (Rex Harrison), Laughton follows the little pickpocket back to the abandoned mansion she's squatting in. Believing she's alone, Leigh celebrates her newfound wealth by smoking Prentiss' fancy cigarettes, dancing around the dusty digs, a pie-eyed dreamer without a care in the world. Charles is taken with her immediately and sensing real talent in the girl, invites her back to his modest apartment promising to train her and hone her performing skills. The girl's youth and beauty and Charles' age, girth and childlike innocence assure the audience there won't be any funny stuff.

The film was conceived as a star vehicle for Charles Laughton who had already achieved Hollywood fame in films like Mutiny on the Bounty and Les Meserables and an Academy Award for Best Actor for The Private Life of Henry VIII in 1933 (produced by the ever-present Alexander Korda). Vivien Leigh was still on the up-and-up, splitting her time between the London stage and a few starring and supporting roles in British films, including her first with Olivier, Fire Over England (1937) the year before Sidewalks of London; she was still a year away from attaining international superstardom as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind. Parenthetically, the US release of Sidewalks of London was delayed until 1940 to capitalize on Leigh's post-Scarlett popularity.

The film also features a pre-fame Rex Harrison as Leigh's love interest. The two had been paired the year before in Storm in a Teacup. Considering the success Leigh and Harrison would later achieve, it's rather charming to see a title card like this, that lists them as supporting the big star Laughton (who also served as uncredited co-producer).

Sidewalks of London was directed by Tim Whelan, a veteran writer of Harold Lloyd's best comedies (Girl Shy, Safety Last!, The Freshman) who gained traction as a director while living in England in the '30s and '40s. A few years after this picture he would be called in to assist with Korda's epic production of The Thief of Baghdad. Whelan's silent comedy pedigree is evident in Sidewalks of London, which is slimly-scripted but rich in characterization, comedic business and pathos. The opening of the film features some very nice tracking shots running up and down the titular lane, showing us the crowds lined up in front of the theaters, indifferent to the street performers like Laughton who busy performing their hearts out. Shooting in real West London locations lends the film a detailed verisimilitude even as the story (and Laughton's performance) are steeped in nostalgic sentimentality.

Local flavor from location shooting.

The film works best in its first half which showcases the talents of the London buskers and immerses us in their charming, if shambolic, lifestyle. We're treated to plenty of street-performer humor, as in an early scene when Leigh gets a bite to eat at a snack shack, sitting next to a man in blackface having a cup of coffee. This is when she first meets Harrison's Prentiss and as the two make eyes at each other, the man in blackface just sits there, natural as anything, smoking a cigarette and drinking his coffee.

Charles and the girl, who he's dubbed Libby, join two other street performers to form a more organized singing and dancing revue. Charles figures there is strength in numbers and a cooperative group will give Libby a chance to shine. Among the manifold charms of Sidewalks of London is the scene in which Charles Laughton tries to dance: 

He's a might more successful charming Libby (and the audience) with a show of ventriloquism:

While Charles is seemingly happy tutoring Libby (and Laughton is dominating the film, all disarming cockney bluster and charm), Leigh is quietly threatening to walk away with the entire thing. Flighty, charming and alluring as ever, Whelan, perhaps sensing his leading lady's imminent stardom, gives Leigh plenty of star-making, abover-the-title close-ups like this one:

Obviously, it's no startling revelation to say Vivien Leigh was one of the most beautiful actresses to ever grace the screen, but her performance in Sidewalks of London is one film in a career full of evidence to testify that effect. In fact, a word of warning to anyone attempting a Vivien Leigh movie marathon: steel yourself against her charms for fear of becoming consumed with violent jealousy that you will never, ever look even half as good as Leigh did on her worst day. Some things are just unfair.

The unattainability of Leigh's beauty, coupled with Libby's emerging talents (and Prentiss' unmistakable interest in her), create complications for Charles who has--surprise!--been harboring less than paternal feelings for her the whole movie. While Charles is content to remain a humble busker, Libby as greater aspirations, telling Prentiss she'd like to be billed on stage under her adopted moniker, Liberty. Liberty what, he asks? "Just 'Liberty.' Like Garbo. Looks better on a billboard." Lured by Prentiss' wealth (I don't think Harrison wears anything but a tuxedo the entire movie), Libby can no longer abide Charles' heretofore charming poverty (lacking a proper mirror, he shaves with a frying pan). 

Charles finally confesses: "I want to marry you!" Libby/Liberty is horrified. "Have you gone out of your mind!" she says. "You better look in the frying pan!" Ouch.

Here, the film enters a more conventional and less satisfying stage. Libby leaves Charles for Prentiss, gaining stardom on the stage, in short order becoming a typically gauche prima donna. Heart-broken, Laughton gives up on busking all together, becomes an alcoholic and just generally skulks around, trying to get Liberty to notice him again.

Charles the alcoholic. No longer the funny man, Laughton's busker gets the kind of villainous/monstrous close-up that would later dominate his screen persona. 

During the sequence of Libby's "fame" montage, Sidewalks of London shifts from working class comedy/melodrama to full-blown musical. The musical numbers themselves are well-staged although not entirely convincing, especially because at this point, the audience is less invested in Leigh's success than they are in pitying Laughton. Apparently, this is the result of Laughton's dislike for Leigh personally: he trimmed much of her love story with Harrison which resulted in the lopsided treatment of her character as a heartless bitch and Charles as a poor sap.

Charles tries to make one more go of it, performing "If" in front of Libby, Prentiss and some producers for a film she will be making (yes, Hollywood comes a-calling). Finally invited inside a theater, Charles' final bid for respectability is constantly interrupted by members of the audience, by the commotion backstage and from people generally being rude, ignorant to the importance of the audition to the bum onstage.  At least when he was performing outside the theaters, the audience kept its indifference to itself. Libby, moved to tears by Charles' straining performance (addled by alcoholism and grief), urges him on. No use. Charles wasn't meant for stardom, he was meant for the streets. Libby comes around, apologies for her behavior and even gives Laughton a little kiss. She's redeemed in the mind of the audience and Charles is allowed to go back to what he does best, busking.

Sidewalks of London has a lot of elements of other pictures--it's sort of half Beauty and the Beast, half Pygmalion--but lack of uniqueness is not patch on the charm of its lead performances and Whelan's capable and adroit direction. Less maudlin than Limelight and considerably shorter than My Fair Lady (marginally less grating accents, too), it's something of an unrecognized gem that deserves more attention from cinephiles than it gets. Leigh is wonderful as the aspiring songstress, but it's Laughton especially who will break your heart.