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. 

3 comments:

  1. This is definitely the best role Vivien got in the 1930s aside from Scarlett O'Hara and it provides her the first chance to showcase both her dramatic talents and beauty. As usual, this was a great review! I think I'll watch this film tonight :)

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  2. Yeah, I was really impressed with her in this, being totally unfamiliar with anything she did pre-GWTW. I didn't even know she could sing or dance or anything. It's a very charming film--I wish it was better known.

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  3. I thought i spotted Lawrence Olivier as a singer/guitar player in one scene, as Liberty is just embarking on her stage career.
    i your response appreciated
    Earl Palansky - eapalansky@shaw.ca

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