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Sidewalks of London (1938, aka St. Martin's Lane), a show business drama at the lowest rungs of the London entertainment ladder, is a Charles Laughton film. As star, co-producer (with Erich Pommer) and uncredited co-writer, he shaped this film around his gift for outsized characters, dramatic recitation, blustery sentimentality and quiet tragedy. But the bright light of this "star is born" tale is Vivien Leigh, the spunky beauty of the British screen whose star was ascending just like Liberty, the character she plays in the picture. It was only her third major leading role (along with a few significant supporting parts) and it became her final stepping stone to winning the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939), the movie that made her an international star.
"In London, an evening's entertainment begins in the streets," explains the opening credits as the film takes us into the culture of buskers, the street musicians, singers, dancers and other performers who pitch their talents to crowds and passers-by in front of cinemas and legitimate theaters. Laughton's Charlie Staggers, who specializes in reciting poems and monologues, meets Leigh's Liberty (no last name) when she snatches his earnings and runs, but retribution is the last thing on his mind when he sees her dance and he takes her in, calling her his "new leading lady." He puts together a quartet with a couple of busker buddies (one of them played by Larry Adler, one of the most celebrated harmonica players of the 20th century) and "The Co-Operators" are a hit, with Libby (as Charlie dubs her) dancing lead and the three men providing support with their harmonies and synchronized steps. But the ambitious Libby has bigger dreams. "If we was any good, we'd be in the theaters, not outside them cadging for coppers," she complains to Charlie, and follows songwriter and theatrical impresario Harley Prentiss (Rex Harrison) into legitimate theater while leaving behind the heartbroken Charlie (who loves this girl who is half his age).
Apart from the melodrama of unrequited love and show business maneuvering, St. Martin's Lane is also a lively street picture set in the intersection where struggling performers and hustlers meet high society and theater folk. Buskers are treated as little better than beggars, muscled by the cops and disdained by the society crowds who favor the "legitimate" entertainment of the theater and music halls; for these reasons, Liberty sets out to break through the wall between "inside" and "outside" performers. The real-life busker group The Luna Boys, whose act gets prominence in a scene after the cops drive The Co-Operators off their pitch, also served as technical advisors. Location shooting in Cambridge Circus, Shaftesbury Avenue, Piccadilly Circus and St. Martin's Lane adds to the atmosphere of authenticity. .
The role of Liberty was originally intended for Laughton's wife, Elsa Lanchester, but Laughton quickly compromised when Alexander Korda offered financing in return for casting Leigh, his new starlet. According to their biographers, Laughton and Leigh didn't like each other and Laughton cut down Leigh's role (including an excised romantic subplot with Harrison) to play up his own, giving himself the spotlight as the pathetic clown wallowing in rejection and self-pity.
Leigh's Cockney accent is unconvincing at best but her sassy performance is dynamic and she is entrancing as the dancing dreamer, theatrical ingnue and finally the confident stage star managing the press and her fans with utter professionalism. There is a fire in her eyes and behind her radiant smile and angelic face is a ruthless drive. "She is phenomenal," observed Laughton biographer Simon Callow, "which is always better than being competent or solid." Laughton embraces the hammy excesses of Charlie's big, broad dramatic recitations while playing the doting mentor in love with his beautiful protg with a sad hopefulness. Nonetheless it was Leigh whose career was boosted by the film. Hollywood offers started coming in but she held out for the role that would make her fame and, like Libby, she got it. As for St. Martin's Lane (renamed Sidewalks of London for the United States), its release was held up until after Gone with the Wind made Leigh a Hollywood star.
Producer: Erich Pommer
Director: Tim Whelan
Screenplay: Bartlett Cormack, Clemence Dane, Charles Laughton, Erich Pommer, Tim Whelan (writers)
Cinematography: Jules Kruger
Art Direction: Tom Morahan
Music: Arthur Johnston
Film Editing: Robert Hamer, Hugh Stewart
Cast: Charles Laughton (Charles Staggers), Vivien Leigh (Liberty 'Libby'), Rex Harrison (Harley Prentiss), Larry Adler (Constantine Dan), Tyrone Guthrie (Gentry), Maire O'Neill (Mrs. Such), Gus McNaughton (Arthur Smith), Polly Ward (Frankie), Basil Gill (Magistrate), Helen Haye (Selina).
by Sean Axmaker