David O. Selznick’s much-publicized search for the star of “Gone With the Wind” culminated in early 1939 when he presented to the world Vivien Leigh.
Or, rather, presented to most of the world: Leigh (1913-67) had spent the previous four years building up a reputation in Britain as a promising screen actress. Her work on film ended up truncated for various reasons, including regular returns to the stage and, less happily, repeated bouts of bipolar disorder and tuberculosis. By the time “Gone With the Wind” opened, half her film credits were already behind her.
Four of these early films have been restored for Blu-ray in a boxed set from Cohen Media Group in collaboration with the British Film Institute. For American moviegoers who got their first glimpse of Leigh on the porch of Tara, “The Vivien Leigh Anniversary Collection” offers an intriguing survey of a blossoming talent, no less glamorous but far more tentative.
Paradoxically, though, her gifts became clearer as her British film roles took her further from the lush melodrama that would make Scarlett O’Hara such an indelible screen presence. Leigh showed an increasing ability to convey ambivalence even as her parts grew frothier.
The series begins unpromisingly with “Fire Over England” (1937), one of the two films that sold Selznick on her as Scarlett. (The other was “A Yank at Oxford,” which featured a screenwriting touch-up by F. Scott Fitzgerald but is not included here.) A turgid costume drama that builds a sort of platonic love triangle around Elizabeth I (Flora Robson), “Fire” marked Leigh’s first pairing with Laurence Olivier, who buckles all sorts of swash as a sea raider. Not even the fact that the two stars, married to others at the time, began an on-set affair is enough to enliven the stilted pageantry, in which Elizabeth slaps her wasp-waisted lady-in-waiting (Leigh) and calls her “a flaunting flibbertigibbet.” Where’s F. Scott when you need him?
Leigh was billed behind Robson in “Fire” but moves up to leading-lady status in the spy film “Dark Journey,” which was released less than a month later. Here, she hops across Europe as Madeleine Goddard, a French double agent masquerading as a stylish dress-shop owner in the waning days of World War I. Leigh herself said she could make little sense of the script, and her confusion over the cloak-and-dagger intrigue is understandable. But she has a charming rapport with Conrad Veidt, who plays Madeleine’s paramour and an enemy spy, and the director Victor Saville sees to it that the film’s 77 minutes fly by.
While the two previous films used earlier wars as proxies for the turmoil that seemed all but inevitable in Europe, “Storm in a Teacup” makes its political points more deftly by folding them into a provincial romantic comedy. Here, Leigh’s character has returned to the quaint Scottish town of Baikie to help her father win an election. His tyrannical, almost fascistic dealings with a pathetic plebeian and her dog, however, earn the ire of a crusading newspaper reporter, played by a jarringly young Rex Harrison. And although breezy comedy does not play to Leigh’s strengths, she shows considerable growth as she depicts her conflicting impulses toward her family, her conscience and her heart.
This ambivalence gets an even stronger workout in “St. Martin’s Lane,” a smaller-scale 1938 melodrama about love and betrayal among the buskers of London’s streets. Leigh dances and cavorts gamely as a gamine named Liberty. Along the way, she draws the attention of a self-destructive older street performer (Charles Laughton) and a swanky composer (Harrison) who introduces Liberty to the upper classes.
(Theater fans will relish a rare appearance from the legendary director Tyrone Guthrie as a lanky street musician.)
By this point in her young career, Leigh – whose contract with the British producer-director Alexander Korda stipulated she could devote half of each year to stage work – had learned how to draw from her characters a range of emotions, from grasping ambition to coquettish charm to heartlessness to remorse: a perfect template for Scarlett O’Hara. No wonder Paramount Pictures kept “St. Martin’s Lane” out of American theaters (where it was eventually renamed “Sidewalks of London”) for a year.
By that point, “Gone With the Wind” had opened. The saucer-eyed beauty at its center needed no further introduction.