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. 


  1. Being as I am such a Vivien Leigh freak, it pains me to say I always thought her Anna one of her weaker performances. True, even her weaker performances are divine in comparison to lesser actors, and she did look ravishing. But something just felt missing for me. I don't think she really shined until the end.

    I really need to get my act together and see Bunny Lake is Missing. Great post!

  2. Bunny Lake is awesome. I love Preminger and Keir Dullea is totally insane in it.

    I agree with you about Karenina--there's really just nothing for her to do in the role. Apart from the moments of madness I mentioned, everyone seems to be going through the motions.