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21 Days Together

21 Days Together(1940)

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teaser 21 Days Together (1940)

Producer Alexander Korda's 21 Days Together was the second teaming in less than a year of then-secret lovers Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier. Based on John Galsworthy's short story and playThe First and the Last, it's about a couple who tries to cram a lifetime's worth of happiness into three short weeks. Olivier plays Larry, the n'er-do-well younger brother of prominent attorney Keith Durrant (Leslie Banks). At the beginning of the film, Larry accidentally kills the long-missing husband of his mistress Wanda, played by Leigh. After another man is arrested for the murder, Larry and Wanda quickly marry, intending to spend the 21 days before the innocent man's trial living intensely before Larry turns himself in to authorities.

Directed by veteran Basil Dean with a screenplay by Graham Greene, the film seemed to have all the makings of a hit. But as Greene later noted in his own review of the film in The Spectator, "Galsworthy's story was peculiarly unsuited for film adaptation," since it included some plot twists that were forbidden by the censors. "For the rather dubious merits of the original, the adaptors have substituted incredible coincidences and banal situations." Both Greene and Dean blamed the problems on Korda's meddling, and Dean claimed he had never even seen a rough cut of the film. Neither of the stars' performances is impressive. Olivier is hammy and over-emotes, as if playing to theater audiences in the balcony. Leigh is at times hysterical and her line readings are oddly stilted, perhaps because the character is supposed to be an immigrant. But she does not use an accent, so her speech patterns are odd and off-putting. However, Leigh's beauty is dazzling, and an extended sequence when the couple takes a trip to the seaside is genuinely cinematic. Worried that 21 Days Together would harm the couple's chances for Hollywood stardom, Korda shelved the film.

A lot happened in the lives and careers of the stars in the three years between the production of 21 Days Together in 1937, and its release in 1940. Their affair had begun shortly before Leigh and Olivier, both stage stars and both married to others, began shooting Fire Over England (1937), and intensified during the filming of 21 Days Together. They moved in together soon after the latter film wrapped. In late 1938, Olivier went to Hollywood to play Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Leigh quickly followed, determined to snag the role that every actress in Hollywood wanted: Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind. How she won the part, showing up on the first night of shooting and enthralling producer David O. Selznick, is the stuff of legend. The two films made Olivier and Leigh worldwide stars, and Korda decided to capitalize on their success by finally releasing 21 Days Together in 1940. Friends claimed that the couple saw the film in New York, walked out, and never saw the film all the way through.

Critics were kinder than the stars in their assessment of the film. "It is gratifying to report that 21 Days Together does not let them down, nor they it, which is not generally the case with such intentionally delayed products," wrote Bosley Crowther in the New York Times. "True, it is no deathless drama--is little more than a cultivated penny-thriller, in fact.... But it is a highly charged 'meller,' rigid throughout with suspense and nicely laced with much tender emotion."

Director: Basil Dean
Producer: Alexander Korda
Screenplay: Graham Greene, based on John Galsworthy's story, "The First and the Last"
Cinematography: Jan Stallich
Editor: Charles Crichton
Art Direction: Vincent Korda
Music: John Greenwood
Principal Cast: Vivien Leigh (Wanda), Laurence Olivier (Larry), Leslie Banks (Keith), Francis L. Sullivan (Mander), Hay Petrie (John Evan), Esme Percy (Henry Wallen), Robert Newton (Tolly), Victor Vietti (Antonio)
75 minutes

by Margarita Landazuri

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