For Your Consideration: The Year Classic Film Made a Comeback

“Awards! All this town does is give awards! Best Fascist Dictator, Adolf Hitler!” – Woody Allen, Annie Hall

If by chance you are unfamiliar with how the Awards season works, here’s a brief outline: Studios tend to release their real Oscar contenders (i.e., films with any sort of non-mainstream artistic merit) until the year’s final Quarter when, badda bing badda boom, theatres find themselves gorged with posters fairly grafittied by four stars and gratuitous praise– all of which prominently feature the words BEST FILM OF THE YEAR in bolded Times New Roman.  Courting the attentions of voting members of the Academy and industry guilds, these films bottleneck around Thanksgiving, just in time for the first in a long slew of awards nominations. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association unofficially kicks off the Oscar race with the Golden Globes, followed in quick succession by the major industry guild awards, The PGA, DGA and SAG, all of which have a heavy influence on the Oscar outcome (the DGA has failed to predict the best director Oscar only 7 times in the past 60 years). The BAFTAs roll around in early February and, by then, the hotly contended Oscar race has been wined and dined until the Academy members’ votes have been more or less… secured.  If this sounds like a well-oiled political machine, that’s because it is. By the time Oscar night rolls around, the odds are so firmly fixed that there are few, if any, surprises.

But.

What does surprise me this year, with Awards season just now kicking into high gear, is that fact that four of the films garnering the most amount of critical accolades are in fact nods to classic film.

I’m talking about, of course, Simon Curtis’ My Week With Marilyn, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist.

From Simon Curtis, in his feature film directorial debut, comes My Week With Marilyn, featuring Michelle Williams taking on (arguably) *the* pop culture icon of the 20th century. The story centers on the filming of Laurence Olivier’s tumultuous production The Prince and the Showgirl where a very young man (Eddie Redemayne) grabs a job on the shoot, meets Marilyn Monroe, and ends up spending a week with her at a guest cottage. And yes, it’s based on a true story. Or at least, a memoir. I’m sure I’m not alone in being rather, shall we say, protective when it comes to portrayals of Marilyn since stereotype and sensationalism so often cheapen the woman behind the image. My Week With Marilyn is a flawed film about a flawed woman, and I suppose that’s what makes it work so well.  Williams may not be Marilyn’s doppleganger, per se, but what Williams absolutely commands is the fragility and loneliness that so consumed Marilyn. The film may lack somewhat in plot, but is entirely forgiven by performance. It is also, let’s be honest, total eye candy for classic film lovers. We get to revel in the early golden years of Pinewood Studios, and are treated to appearances by such classic film luminaries as Laurence Olivier (a solid Kenneth Branagh) Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond), Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), and even Jack Cardiff (Karl Moffat)! Although charming and sentimental, My Week With Marilyn relies on neither.

Marion Cotillard and Owen Wilson in MIDNIGHT IN PARIS ; Jeff Daniels and Mia Farrow in THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO

Woody Allen’s unapologetically sentimental Midnight in Paris was released earlier this year, but has enjoyed a recent For Your Consideration awards campaign that has put it squarely in Oscar contention. The film, in many ways, mirrors Allen’s 1985 The Purple Rose of Cairo: in Cairo an unhappy housewife sought relief at her local theatre, while Paris tells the whimsical tale of an idealistic Hollywood screenwriter (Owen Wilson) who, while on holiday with his very ‘L.A.’ fiancee (Rachel McAdams), finds creative freedom and whirlwind love in 1920s Paris. Literally. A mysterious black taxi cab pulls up  in front of his hotel and whisks him away to a hole in time– make that a watering hole in time. A left bank cafe whose regulars are the none other than the artistic superstars of the ‘20s: Ernest Hemingway, Salvidor Dali, Cole Porter, Gertrude Stein, the Fitzgeralds– and a beautiful young flapper (Marion Cotillard). While Midnight in Paris is not technically a ‘Hollywood’ movie, and lacks the gut-wrenching stomach punch that makes Cairo such a classic, Paris is still the sort of fanciful grown-up fairy tale that hearkens back to a day when studios were still brave enough (and young enough) to take creative risks– it is a film that could only be made by a  a classic film enthusiast like Allen.

Rather like Allen’s cineaste colleague Marty Scorsese…

Asa Butterfield in HUGO; Harold Lloyd in SAFETY LAST

Like Allen, this proud New Yorker has chosen the City of Lights for his family-friendly offering. Hugo is currently being packaged and marketed as a Holiday family film of feel-good fluff.  Talk about false advertising. Sure, Hugo is family friendly, but it is hardly Holiday fluff. Scorsese, a masterful storyteller, has created a  dazzling film that, at its core, is a lesson in film history, a case for film preservation, and an unabashed love letter to the cinema. (As if one could expect anything less from Marty, cineaste supreme and film preservation champion.) Orphaned when his clockmaker father (Jude Law) is killed in a museum fire, Hugo takes to minding the clocks at a grand Beaux Arts train station, ducking the comically villainous policeman (Sacha Baron Cohen) by weaving in and out of secret nooks and crannies. Just as the clocks never stop ticking, neither does Hugo’s sharp mind– nor his light fingers– which deftly scrape the station for scraps of food and scraps of junk from an old man’s joke shop (a fantastic Ben Kingsley). The boy is desperate to repair a broken automaton, which is his last tangible connection with his father, and is convinced that the automaton is holding a secret message. He’s right… kind of. With the help of spunky, wide-eyed adventuress Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), who happens to be the crotchety old joke shop owner’s niece, Hugo unlocks much more than he imaged. It is 1931 and young Hugo is a movie lover– movie going being one of his favorite pastimes with his late father– and he introduces them to Isabelle who has been banned from the movies by her uncle. They gasp and laugh in wonder at Harold Lloyd hanging from a clock in Safety Last (a feat Hugo mimics later in the film) and, it soon becomes clear why Isabelle’s uncle is so opposed to them. The man is none other than Georges Méliès, the first great artist of the cinema, and also the first true casualty of the film business. In a wondrous stretch of visual narrative, Scorsese recreates Méliès’ magical early days of invention and inspiration in dazzling 3D that is a tremendous thrill for film fans. Scorsese’s vivid recreation of A Trip to the Moon (1902) itself is worth the price of admission. Méliès, broken and shadowed by oblivion for so many decades, finds a new beginning through Hugo’s large blue eyes, just as Hugo finds a surrogate father figure in Méliès. They, in effect, fix each other. Too sugary sweet? Maybe, but hardly superficial, and like the classic films that so inspired Scorsese, the result is magic. Will kids bite Scorsese’s clever bate, which is so obviously geared at introducing classic films to a new audience? One can only hope…

Jean Deaujardin in THE ARTIST; Fredric March in A STAR IS BORN

And finally, from French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius comes a film not set in Paris, but rather Hollywood 1927 during the onset of sound.  The Artist is a silent film, shot in black and white in 4:3 aspect ratio and worked from a scenario– not a script. Which means The Artist is The Real McCoy. Whimsical, gorgeous, and at times, just plain magical.

Trust me, no one was more skeptical than I going into The Artist. Just who did this Michel Hazanavicius think he was, anyway? What could he possibly know about silent filmmaking. I am happy to say that my misgivings were ill founded. Hazanavicius is completely in control here.

He is highly fluent with the grammar of silent film narrative. Occasionally, perhaps he understands it a little too well– Hazanivicius’ formulaic setup keeping me from being completely immersed in material. (And total  immersion is what silent film is all about– being completely absorbed in the pure magic of shadow and light). A film critic friend of mine shrugged when I mentioned this, replying that “silent melodramas were all pretty formulaic.” I bit my tongue. In fact, I have decided to bite my tongue about all of my nitpicks with The Artist. (i.e., Kinograph Studios not doing a sound test on its stars until 1929 when sound had in fact already taken over.) because this is NOT a historical film, it is a silent melodrama set in Hollywood.

And who cares that George Valentin (Jean Dujardin)’s tragic story is actually A Star is Born 3.0 (although the performance does, I say, give Fredric March some serious competition.) the fact is he nails it. And when we finally do hear Valentin’s voice, in the final seconds of the film, the fact that he has a French accent is a marvelous kick.

What is also exciting, for silent film enthusiasts, is the reaction of the audience. At a time when the theater going experience is becoming more and more insular, the shared experience of a dark theater becoming less and less of a cultural pasttime, it was so wonderfully (I hate the overuse of this word but no other will do) organic to hear nothing but music and laughter for 90 minutes. (And speaking of music, classic film fans will swoon over the fact that the film’s emotional climax relies entirely on Bernard Herrmann’s haunting score from Vertigo!)

And also, vindicating. An art form over 100 years old still has the power to entertain and charm mainstream audiences… hopefully, the critical success of The Artist means that someone will come along with the balls to prove that silent film also has the power to enlighten!

We've Been Liebstered! (I didn't know what it meant either…)

The Liebster AwardThe Kitty Packard Pictorial has been Liebstered! C’est a dire, we’ve been presented with the “Liebster Blog” award from one of our favorite fellow film fanatics, The Lady Eve Sidwich, the cinemaven behind The Lady Eve’s Reel Life. Take a sampling of her recent posts and you’ll see exactly why this blog stands so well out of the crowd. From a profile of legendary art director Lyle Wheeler, to a portrait of early Hollywood playground Catalina Island to serious critical analysis of rarely seen screen gems, Eve’s Reel Life is  at once intelligent and academic, yet wonderfully entertaining.

Thank you so much Eve for singling us out– MWAH!

RULES:

There are always rules, but the rules are actually the real fun of these web awards since they allow you the opportunity to recognize fellow bloggers who, let’s be honest, the spotlight should always be on. In this case, I am to choose five.

To the five blogs mentioned below, the rules dictate you link back to the Pictorial, and pick five other blogs on who to give the award…

1. SHADOWPLAY. David Cairns is a genius. And I mean that quite literally, without the least bit of hyperbole. This guy really is the genuine article. By following his blog, you’re liable to bounce from a D.W. Griffith melodrama to 70s Blaxploitation to  modern effects epics and back again, unified by a singular, uncompromising wit that makes this blog, well … genius. (I defy you NOT love a post about KING KONG entitled “The Skull Island Follies of 1933”)

2. SILENT VOLUME. Chris Edwards’ Toronto-based Silent Volume is so much more than just another blog.   Edwards cuts through the crap, calls a spade a spade, and his encyclopedic knowledge of  silent film, as well as his keen sense of politics, make his posts opinionated but fair.  He writes with energy and relevance– bearing truth to his blog’s motto: this medium is not dead. With  Edwards around, silent film is not only  alive– it is full of life.

3. VIV AND LARRY. London-based blogger Kendra has created one of the most decadent, swoon-worthy blogs on the internet, bar none. An ever-evolving love sonnet to the classical patron saints of 20th Century theatre, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, Viv and Larry is more than just eye-popping gorgeousness. Respectful, insightful and at times even provocative, Viv and Larry is the Savoy Hotel of fan tributes.

4. HOLLYWOOD REVUE. Angela’s Hollywood Revue slogan is “Where We’re Always Ready for Our Close Up” and that’s just what she specializes in: insightful profiles of favorite Hollywood faces and films big and small. The reason to get up close and personal with Angela at her blog this month is her day-by-day coverage of Turner Classic Movie’s Summer Under the Stars festival. We are now midway through August and she is still going strong, producing solid feature film reviews on a daily basis.

5. DEAR OLD HOLLYWOOD. Robbie’s blog is a real treasure. In many ways, Robbie is a cinema archaeologist. Since 2009, he has been exhaustively documenting Southern California filming locations of many of movies great and small—classic and even, well … not so classic. But more than that, the ever-inquisitive Robbie takes us to former stars homes, watering holes and haunts. In my opinion, he does more to make old Hollywood a tangible reality than any other blog around.

We’ve Been Liebstered! (I didn’t know what it meant either…)

The Liebster AwardThe Kitty Packard Pictorial has been Liebstered! C’est a dire, we’ve been presented with the “Liebster Blog” award from one of our favorite fellow film fanatics, The Lady Eve Sidwich, the cinemaven behind The Lady Eve’s Reel Life. Take a sampling of her recent posts and you’ll see exactly why this blog stands so well out of the crowd. From a profile of legendary art director Lyle Wheeler, to a portrait of early Hollywood playground Catalina Island to serious critical analysis of rarely seen screen gems, Eve’s Reel Life is  at once intelligent and academic, yet wonderfully entertaining.

Thank you so much Eve for singling us out– MWAH!

RULES:

There are always rules, but the rules are actually the real fun of these web awards since they allow you the opportunity to recognize fellow bloggers who, let’s be honest, the spotlight should always be on. In this case, I am to choose five.

To the five blogs mentioned below, the rules dictate you link back to the Pictorial, and pick five other blogs on who to give the award…

1. SHADOWPLAY. David Cairns is a genius. And I mean that quite literally, without the least bit of hyperbole. This guy really is the genuine article. By following his blog, you’re liable to bounce from a D.W. Griffith melodrama to 70s Blaxploitation to  modern effects epics and back again, unified by a singular, uncompromising wit that makes this blog, well … genius. (I defy you NOT love a post about KING KONG entitled “The Skull Island Follies of 1933”)

2. SILENT VOLUME. Chris Edwards’ Toronto-based Silent Volume is so much more than just another blog.   Edwards cuts through the crap, calls a spade a spade, and his encyclopedic knowledge of  silent film, as well as his keen sense of politics, make his posts opinionated but fair.  He writes with energy and relevance– bearing truth to his blog’s motto: this medium is not dead. With  Edwards around, silent film is not only  alive– it is full of life.

3. VIV AND LARRY. London-based blogger Kendra has created one of the most decadent, swoon-worthy blogs on the internet, bar none. An ever-evolving love sonnet to the classical patron saints of 20th Century theatre, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, Viv and Larry is more than just eye-popping gorgeousness. Respectful, insightful and at times even provocative, Viv and Larry is the Savoy Hotel of fan tributes.

4. HOLLYWOOD REVUE. Angela’s Hollywood Revue slogan is “Where We’re Always Ready for Our Close Up” and that’s just what she specializes in: insightful profiles of favorite Hollywood faces and films big and small. The reason to get up close and personal with Angela at her blog this month is her day-by-day coverage of Turner Classic Movie’s Summer Under the Stars festival. We are now midway through August and she is still going strong, producing solid feature film reviews on a daily basis.

5. DEAR OLD HOLLYWOOD. Robbie’s blog is a real treasure. In many ways, Robbie is a cinema archaeologist. Since 2009, he has been exhaustively documenting Southern California filming locations of many of movies great and small—classic and even, well … not so classic. But more than that, the ever-inquisitive Robbie takes us to former stars homes, watering holes and haunts. In my opinion, he does more to make old Hollywood a tangible reality than any other blog around.

Larry, Vivien and Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca

Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine in Alfred Hitchcock's REBECCA (1940).

(This post is in conjunction with the blog Viv and Larry’s Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier Blogathon.)

Early in the summer of 1939, when principal photography on David O’Selznick’s soon-to-be masterpiece Gone with the Wind had finally finished, Vivien Leigh boarded a plane and headed to New York to be reunited with Laurence Olivier. She was spotted by gossip columnist Louella Parsons who promptly reported that Olvier had signed on to play the role of Maxim deWinter in the film adaptation of Daphne duMaurier’s novel Rebecca, and that “All of Vivien Leigh’s brave plans to return to England for a stage play will go a-glimmering,… for she is now mentioned for the role of the wife opposite her very good friend Laurence.”

Power producer David O Selznick  bought the rights to DuMaurier’s darkly romantic novel in June 1938, at a time when he was deeply entrenched with pre-production on Gone with the Wind. Alfred Hitchcock was assigned to direct in September of that year (it would be his first Hollywood production and put him on the Selznick payroll) and by May 1939 Laurence Olivier was  brought on board. But it was only after Selznick’s pleading with Ronald Colman to play the part fell through, and Hitchcock ruled out Leslie Howard (“too academic for the romantic angle”) and William Powell (his American accent was too “dangerous.”)

Yet the casting Olivier was a stroke of brilliance.

Larry as Du Maurier's tortured murderer Maxim de Winter

Larry’s well known ambivalent attitude towards Hollywood filmmaking manifested itself in Maxim’s un-apologetically obstinate nature. The casting process deeply obsessed Selznick (see Gone with the Wind) which is why the role of the nameless Mrs. de Winter had, by June of 1939, still not been cast.

If you asked Larry, however, the casting was quite obvious. Vivien Leigh, his girlfriend of two years, and the lead in Selznick’s baby Gone with the Wind, was going to play Mrs. de Winter. Larry and Vivien were still several months off from having their deeply passionate affair recognized by law (they were in divorce proceedings with their respective spouses) and the opportunity to make a film together, as they were both now working in Hollywood, carried away their romantic hearts with excitement.

The problem, of course, was that there was no way that Leigh, fresh from her role as Scarlett, would have been taken seriously as the naive, reticent,  self-conscious Mrs. deWinter. Had Vivien’s film career  developed differently, I personally feel that Leigh did possess the fragility necessary for the role– but in June 1939 the role was simply not right for her.

And Selznick told her so– as well as Larry– over two cables sent to their ocean liner while the couple vacationed.

According to Terry Coleman’s biography, Olivier, “Selznick went on for three hundred words, assuring her that the same care, patience and stubbornness about accurate casting that had put her in “the most talked–of role of all time in what everyone who has seen it agrees is the greatest picture ever made,”  made it necessary for him to tell her that she would be as wrong for the role in Rebecca as the role would be for her. Signed, “affectionately, David.”

He was more direct with Olivier:

“I know you must be disappointed, but Vivien’s anxiety to play role has in my opinion been largely if not entirely due to her desire to do a picture with you.” She hadn’t been interested until she knew he was playing Maxim and they would both be working in Hollywood. The cable was signed “Cordially, David.”

Vivien circa 1939. At the time, her heart beat only for Larry, and his only for her.

But there was something else.

David O Selznick had fallen in love with Olivia de Havilland’s little sister, Joan Fontaine.

Their relationship, according to most modern sources, is supposed to have remained to platonic, but there is no questioning Selznick’s obvious affection for the pretty blonde. Ever the perfectionist, it is to Selznick’s credit that he did not cast Fontaine straight away– he did have reservations about her ability– but finally informed her that she had been cast as Mrs. de Winter and to please report for fittings straight after the Labor Day holiday, 1939.

As history has amply recorded, Olivier was far from happy about the decision. It would be the second film in a row that he was to have a contentious relationship with his leading lady (his work with Merle Oberon in Wuthering Heights, off screen, was fraught with tearful arguments) and he made no attempt to hide his displeasure with Fontaine.

Although, as history has also recorded, perhaps it was less Larry’s moody brooding on set that set Fontaine so terribly off her guard, and more Hitchcock’s capitalizing of the ill feelings on set and manipulating her accordingly.

Fontaine later said that “[Hitchcock] was a Svengali. He controlled me totally. He took me aside and whispered, ‘Now kid, you go in there and you do this and that.’ And then he would say, “do you know what so-and-so said about you today? Do you that Olivier doesn’t want you in this role? Well never you mind  you just listen to me….He seemed to relish the cast not liking one another, actor for actor, by the end of the film.

All of this is not meant to condone Olivier’s un-sporting behavior at having lost out to working with his beloved, but it is to perhaps put it in to context. Perhaps, more than anything, it is necessary to step back and understand precisely how passionate Vivien and Larry’s relationship was at that particular point in time. Still illicit in legal terms, their love had been gestating and blossoming into an extraordinarily passionate relationship– unhealthy in some ways, very healthy and very needed in others– the fact of which is made quite evident in surviving letters and telegrams from the 1939 period.

For example, Larry penned the following letter of excruciating remorse at having missed a phone call from her not long before his being cast as Maxim de Winter:

I was too miserable even to cry. I was dying to ring up and say, O Vivling my darling forgive me, please forgive me. I’m so sorry, Mummy darling.  My throat does ache for you so my beloved darling Vivien child, Mary child, O how I reverence you, wrap you in mental cotton wool and put you on the mantelpiece and burn candles to you.

Vivien and Larry as Romeo and Juliet

This is the sort of love we’re talking about here, and in light of this it is easier to understand the stormy nature of Olivier’s behavior. Watching the film today, with Hitchcock’s meticulously calculated long shadows and startling closeups, the tremulous back story really serves it well. The unease between Maxim and Mrs. de Winter keeps the viewer on tenterhooks for nearly all of the film– it is, indeed, only in the final minutes that the cold melts from Larry’s deep, stormy eyes and we can actually feel the affection between the two.

Had Vivien been by Larry’s side, it would have taken a greater actor even than Olivier to pretend that he was, even in the smallest sense, not thoroughly enraptured with her. Because, regardless of how their relationship would end, for this period in their lives Vivien and Larry were not so much a couple as they were one.

(The pair would go on to produce Romeo and Juliet on Broadway not long after, a critical and financial failure, and then return to Hollywood to film That Hamilton Woman in 1941– a great financial success.)

VivAndLarry is a classy, sophisticated blog dedicated to the life, love and art of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. The Pictorial is a major fan of the blog’s truly original, unique and reverent work and we are proud to have been able to participate in their Blogathon!

Larry, Vivien and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca

Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine in Alfred Hitchcock's REBECCA (1940).

(This post is in conjunction with the blog Viv and Larry’s Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier Blogathon.)

Early in the summer of 1939, when principal photography on David O’Selznick’s soon-to-be masterpiece Gone with the Wind had finally finished, Vivien Leigh boarded a plane and headed to New York to be reunited with Laurence Olivier. She was spotted by gossip columnist Louella Parsons who promptly reported that Olvier had signed on to play the role of Maxim deWinter in the film adaptation of Daphne duMaurier’s novel Rebecca, and that “All of Vivien Leigh’s brave plans to return to England for a stage play will go a-glimmering,… for she is now mentioned for the role of the wife opposite her very good friend Laurence.”

Power producer David O Selznick  bought the rights to DuMaurier’s darkly romantic novel in June 1938, at a time when he was deeply entrenched with pre-production on Gone with the Wind. Alfred Hitchcock was assigned to direct in September of that year (it would be his first Hollywood production and put him on the Selznick payroll) and by May 1939 Laurence Olivier was  brought on board. But it was only after Selznick’s pleading with Ronald Colman to play the part fell through, and Hitchcock ruled out Leslie Howard (“too academic for the romantic angle”) and William Powell (his American accent was too “dangerous.”)

Yet the casting Olivier was a stroke of brilliance.

Larry as Du Maurier's tortured murderer Maxim de Winter

Larry’s well known ambivalent attitude towards Hollywood filmmaking manifested itself in Maxim’s un-apologetically obstinate nature. The casting process deeply obsessed Selznick (see Gone with the Wind) which is why the role of the nameless Mrs. de Winter had, by June of 1939, still not been cast.

If you asked Larry, however, the casting was quite obvious. Vivien Leigh, his girlfriend of two years, and the lead in Selznick’s baby Gone with the Wind, was going to play Mrs. de Winter. Larry and Vivien were still several months off from having their deeply passionate affair recognized by law (they were in divorce proceedings with their respective spouses) and the opportunity to make a film together, as they were both now working in Hollywood, carried away their romantic hearts with excitement.

The problem, of course, was that there was no way that Leigh, fresh from her role as Scarlett, would have been taken seriously as the naive, reticent,  self-conscious Mrs. deWinter. Had Vivien’s film career  developed differently, I personally feel that Leigh did possess the fragility necessary for the role– but in June 1939 the role was simply not right for her.

And Selznick told her so– as well as Larry– over two cables sent to their ocean liner while the couple vacationed.

According to Terry Coleman’s biography, Olivier, “Selznick went on for three hundred words, assuring her that the same care, patience and stubbornness about accurate casting that had put her in “the most talked–of role of all time in what everyone who has seen it agrees is the greatest picture ever made,”  made it necessary for him to tell her that she would be as wrong for the role in Rebecca as the role would be for her. Signed, “affectionately, David.”

He was more direct with Olivier:

“I know you must be disappointed, but Vivien’s anxiety to play role has in my opinion been largely if not entirely due to her desire to do a picture with you.” She hadn’t been interested until she knew he was playing Maxim and they would both be working in Hollywood. The cable was signed “Cordially, David.”

Vivien circa 1939. At the time, her heart beat only for Larry, and his only for her.

But there was something else.

David O Selznick had fallen in love with Olivia de Havilland’s little sister, Joan Fontaine.

Their relationship, according to most modern sources, is supposed to have remained to platonic, but there is no questioning Selznick’s obvious affection for the pretty blonde. Ever the perfectionist, it is to Selznick’s credit that he did not cast Fontaine straight away– he did have reservations about her ability– but finally informed her that she had been cast as Mrs. de Winter and to please report for fittings straight after the Labor Day holiday, 1939.

As history has amply recorded, Olivier was far from happy about the decision. It would be the second film in a row that he was to have a contentious relationship with his leading lady (his work with Merle Oberon in Wuthering Heights, off screen, was fraught with tearful arguments) and he made no attempt to hide his displeasure with Fontaine.

Although, as history has also recorded, perhaps it was less Larry’s moody brooding on set that set Fontaine so terribly off her guard, and more Hitchcock’s capitalizing of the ill feelings on set and manipulating her accordingly.

Fontaine later said that “[Hitchcock] was a Svengali. He controlled me totally. He took me aside and whispered, ‘Now kid, you go in there and you do this and that.’ And then he would say, “do you know what so-and-so said about you today? Do you that Olivier doesn’t want you in this role? Well never you mind  you just listen to me….He seemed to relish the cast not liking one another, actor for actor, by the end of the film.

All of this is not meant to condone Olivier’s un-sporting behavior at having lost out to working with his beloved, but it is to perhaps put it in to context. Perhaps, more than anything, it is necessary to step back and understand precisely how passionate Vivien and Larry’s relationship was at that particular point in time. Still illicit in legal terms, their love had been gestating and blossoming into an extraordinarily passionate relationship– unhealthy in some ways, very healthy and very needed in others– the fact of which is made quite evident in surviving letters and telegrams from the 1939 period.

For example, Larry penned the following letter of excruciating remorse at having missed a phone call from her not long before his being cast as Maxim de Winter:

I was too miserable even to cry. I was dying to ring up and say, O Vivling my darling forgive me, please forgive me. I’m so sorry, Mummy darling.  My throat does ache for you so my beloved darling Vivien child, Mary child, O how I reverence you, wrap you in mental cotton wool and put you on the mantelpiece and burn candles to you.

Vivien and Larry as Romeo and Juliet

This is the sort of love we’re talking about here, and in light of this it is easier to understand the stormy nature of Olivier’s behavior. Watching the film today, with Hitchcock’s meticulously calculated long shadows and startling closeups, the tremulous back story really serves it well. The unease between Maxim and Mrs. de Winter keeps the viewer on tenterhooks for nearly all of the film– it is, indeed, only in the final minutes that the cold melts from Larry’s deep, stormy eyes and we can actually feel the affection between the two.

Had Vivien been by Larry’s side, it would have taken a greater actor even than Olivier to pretend that he was, even in the smallest sense, not thoroughly enraptured with her. Because, regardless of how their relationship would end, for this period in their lives Vivien and Larry were not so much a couple as they were one.

(The pair would go on to produce Romeo and Juliet on Broadway not long after, a critical and financial failure, and then return to Hollywood to film That Hamilton Woman in 1941– a great financial success.)

VivAndLarry is a classy, sophisticated blog dedicated to the life, love and art of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. The Pictorial is a major fan of the blog’s truly original, unique and reverent work and we are proud to have been able to participate in their Blogathon!