Commemorating the 100th anniversary of Gone with the Wind (1939) star Vivien Leigh’s birth, the Cohen Film Collection released this incredible collection of the star’s early, pre-Scarlett O’Hara work. The Vivien Leigh Anniversary Collection, which Cohen assembled in collaboration with the British Film Institute, features four pictures Leigh made in England in 1936 and 1937, prior to becoming a household name and winning Oscars for her roles in Gone with the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Never-before-released on Blu-ray in the U.S., these films come to us fully restored and remastered on two discs, looking every bit as good as any archival titles have ever looked in HD!
The first film in the set, Fire Over England (1936), finds Leigh in a supporting role as Cynthia, a lady in waiting to Queen Elizabeth I. The film centers on the relationship between Cynthia’s fiancé, a young pirate played by Laurence Olivier, and the jealous Queen who takes a liking to the dashing young adventurer. Although the film is a tad light in terms of Vivien Leigh, the costumes are lavish, the climactic sea battle is incredible, and Olivier attacks his role with great enthusiasm, even if he occasionally comes across as needlessly whiny.
Then, Leigh shares the spotlight with Conrad Veidt (Casablanca) in the terrific Dark Journey (1937), an emotional, love/spy story set during World War I, in which Leigh plays a secret agent working for the Parisian government. Like Fire Over England before it, Dark Journey climaxes in an incredible sea battle which features amazing miniature work, as a battle ship and a submarine trade shots on the open sea. But this is just icing on the cake, really, as the chemistry between Leigh and Veidt in their romantic exchanges alone are enough to ensure our continued investment.
The third picture in this collection, and to my mind the greatest of the lot, is the 1937 comedy, Storm in the Teacup, starring Leigh alongside a young Rex Harrison (My Fair Lady). Set in a coastal Scottish town, Harrison plays an idealistic newcomer whose first assignment for the local newspaper, to interview the town’s provost, becomes a national sensation. Vivien Leigh plays the daughter of the self-important provost. The provost’s oppression of a local dog owner becomes the focus of her love interest’s story, which threatens to ruin both the provost and their prospect of a happy future together. As an early work in the spirit of Whisky Galore (1949) and Local Hero (1983), which are among my absolute favorite films, Storm in a Teacup focuses on a Scottish town full of lovable, kooky characters. Unfortunately, the picture was clearly not shot on location in Scotland, as the scenes in which Leigh and Harrison appear in distinctly Scottish locations were clearly achieved through rear-screen projection.
St. Martin’s Lane (a.k.a. Sidewalks of London, 1937), the last movie Leigh made before Gone with the Wind, closes out the collection. Here, Charles Laughton gets top billing as Charles, a street performer who partners with the beautiful, young Liberty (Leigh), only to later find himself heartbroken in the gutter when Liberty makes it big on the stage. All in all, St. Martin’s Lane is a fairly unremarkable melodrama about class struggles in England. Leigh is terrific as usual, but Laughton’s performance teeters wildly between hammy and sincere. Rex Harrison too appears in the film, but here he takes on the rather thankless role of the third wheel in the central love triangle and is given precious little screen time. That I found myself to be lukewarm on this one, however, by no means casts a shadow on the set as a whole, for the other pictures more than compensate. What’s more, I have to admit that my disinterest is likely far more rooted in my personal preferences than in the quality of St. Martin’s Lane as a work of art. I simply prefer social commentary-centered British pictures that incorporate more fantasy, such as if…. (1968) or Billy Liar (1963), over the melodramas.
The transfers of the films as collected here are stunning to say the least, and make this collection well worth the purchase, even if you already chipped in on the 2003 DVD release of these films. Granted, there are some flaws in the image and sound quality that couldn’t be helped, given the age of the materials. There is, for instance, some noticeable deterioration of the film stock resulting in an unavoidable loss of clarity, especially in Fire Over England, and St. Martin’s Lane is characterized by a somewhat muddy soundtrack. Apart from that, however, there is really only the predictably poor image quality of shots that had been run through an optical printer.
These transfers are otherwise without flaw. I could spot no visible debris, no scratching, no anything in these transfers to suggest that Cohen and the BFI let anything slide. And as presented in this collection, the grain structure of Dark Journey’s film stock is so meticulously rendered that you could almost scoop it up and chew on it. This is one more Cohen archival release that’s not to be missed!
What’s more, the set includes a 25-minute look at Vivien Leigh’s pre-Gone with the Wind career with Leigh biographer Anne Edwards, a 16-page booklet with a new essay by Leigh biographer Kendra Bean, and theatrical trailers for each feature in the set.