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The On-Screen Success of Leigh and Olivier

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier were breathtakingly beautiful, immensely talented and, for a time, happily married to each other. She won Oscars for “Gone With the Wind” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.” He won one for “Hamlet.”

The duo are the subject of a two-part British miniseries, “Darlings of the Gods,” which airs Thursday and Friday on the Arts & Entertainment Network.

Anthony Higgins and Mel Martin portray the golden couple, who are at the height of their careers when the drama starts in 1945. But their marriage is falling apart at the seams amid Leigh’s violent mood swings spurred on by her insecurity and dependence on alcohol. In order to save their marriage, Olivier and Leigh set out with the Old Vic acting troupe on a tour of Australia. Their dream trip soon turns into a nightmare.

Happily, none of their personal troubles ever seeped into their performances. If you don’t want to see their very private lives turned into a very public melodrama, why not watch some of Olivier and Leigh’s films that are available on video?

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Most film fans have seen Leigh’s best-known work, notably A Streetcar Named Desire” ($19.95, Warner Home Video), Gone With the Wind ($89.95, MGM/UA Home Video), and Rebecca ($19.98, Key Video). Ditto for Olivier’s Hamlet ($19.95, Paramount Home Video) and Richard III ($14.98, Nelson Entertainment).

Here then is a look at their earlier films. Many are in the public domain so they are available on a number of video labels (Beware: The cheaper the video the worse the quality of the print, usually).

Olivier and Leigh teamed on-screen for the first time in 1937’s Fire Over England (public domain), in which the two play illicit lovers at the court of Queen Elizabeth I. In real life they also were illicit lovers, both married to others at the time. Their passionate performances spark this rather stuffy British-made costume drama about the British-Spanish conflict during the 1500s. Flora Robson co-stars as Queen Elizabeth, and see if you can spot a young James Mason in an unbilled role.

The same year, Leigh was seen to good advantage in the melodrama Dark Journey (public domain). Set in World War I Stockholm, “Dark Journey” finds Leigh as a young dress-shop owner who becomes a secret agent for England and Germany. However, her cover is blown when she falls in love with a handsome German baron (Conrad Veidt of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “Casablanca” fame), who just happens to be the head of German Intelligence.

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The Divorce of Lady X (public domain), a 1938 Technicolor comedy produced by Alexander Korda, gave the 31-year-old Olivier a chance to strut his comedic stuff. He plays a handsome attorney who is forced to spend the night in a hotel room with a beautiful woman (Merle Oberon), whom he thinks is married. Ralph Richardson and Binnie Barnes also star in this inspired silliness.

Leigh gets to sing and dance in 1938’s Sidewalks of London, a.k.a. “St. Martin’s Lane,” ($19.95, KVC), a fairly entertaining musical-drama about a busker, or street entertainer (Charles Laughton), and his young protegee (Leigh), who uses and abuses every one she knows to get ahead in show business. Rex Harrison also stars.

In the early 1930s, Olivier had come to Hollywood to seek his fame and fortune. But the films he made, including “Yellow Ticket” and “Westward Passage,” were dreadful flops and he soon returned to England.

In 1938, he came back to star in Wuthering Heights ($14.98, Nelson Entertainment), Samuel Goldwyn’s adaptation of Emily Bronte’s romantic novel about the tragic love affair between the brooding Heathcliff and the beautiful Cathy. Olivier became a full-fledged movie star and received his first Oscar nomination for his dynamic, sexy Heathcliff. His “Divorce of Lady X” co-star Oberon is a radiant Cathy, and the supporting cast features a young David Niven, Geraldine Fitzgerald and Leo G. Carroll. William Wyler directed this classic, voted best film of 1939 by the New York Film Critics.

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Although Leigh is best-known for her Oscar-winning turn as Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind,” her personal favorite was the 1940 MGM production Waterloo Bridge ($24.95, MGM/UA Home Video). First filmed in 1931, “Waterloo Bridge” is a tear-jerker based on Robert Sherwood’s hit play. Leigh gives a lovely performance as a fragile ballerina in London, who meets and falls in love with an American soldier (Robert Taylor) during an air raid. Their happiness, sadly, is is short-lived and Leigh ends up on “the primrose path” --which in contemporary terms means she becomes a prostitute.

The Oliviers made their last, and best, film together in 1941 when they starred in the hauntingly romantic, historical drama That Hamilton Woman ($14.98, Nelson Entertainment). The Alexander Korda production chronicled the ill-fated romance between Lord Admiral Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton. Get out your handkerchiefs for Leigh’s final scene.

By coincidence, “That Hamilton Woman” airs on KTTV early Monday morning.

The Oliviers divorced in 1960. Leigh died in 1967 at age 53; Olivier passed away 22 years later at age 82.

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“Darlings of the Gods” Part I airs Thursday at 6 and 10 p.m.; Part II airs Friday at 5 and 9 p.m. on A&E.;

“That Hamilton Woman” airs Monday at 2:30 a.m. on KTTV.


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