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Before they were an item, before they were a couple, before they were man and wife, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh starred in Fire Over England (1937). It's fun rubbish, an Alexander Korda production with the Spanish Armada played by model ships in a tank in Denham Studios, and more intrigues in boudoirs than at court. Today, it's chiefly remembered for the benevolently dominating Queen Elizabeth I of Flora Robson. But in its time the fires of the title, intended to refer to the fate of England in the eyes of Spain's Catholic King Philip II, hovered over the newly kindled romance between Leigh and Olivier, each married, but not to each other, in a time when scandal mattered, in the wake of Edward VIII abdicating the British throne to marry Wallis Simpson, the divorcee he loved.
Leigh, born Vivian Mary Hartley in Darjeeling, India, in 1913, was new to acting, new to her professional name. Rejecting her agent's suggestion that she call herself April Morn, she exchanged the "a" in her name to the more chic "e" and took as her stage name the first name of her first husband, Leigh Holman. She and Olivier knew one another slightly from the London stage world, but while he was regarded as England's acting heir apparent, she was dogged by lifelong anxiety that her fortunes were more a matter of her looks than her acting ability. This did not help her lifelong bipolar disorder. She was a beauty, whose appeal was enhanced by her ivory skin and green eyes, which flashed with vivacity, mischievous and headstrong.
Not here, though. She plays an 18-year-old lady in waiting to the queen, something of a featherbrain, who spends a lot of time mooning over Olivier's dashing hero, Sir Michael Ingolby. A fictional stand-in for Sir Francis Drake, he's off saving England by undertaking a dangerous spying mission before leading the pre-emptive strike in smaller, more maneuverable English ships that turned the tables on Philip and his fleet. The fires over Tilbury, off the English coast, come from Spain's galleons aflame, payback for the Spanish Inquisition's earlier burning at the stake of the Olivier hero's captured naval officer father. He has most of the fun here, including the boudoir stuff with the daughter of a Spanish admiral, paving the way his escape to England, not once, but twice.
Olivier was sexy, but in a brooding way, not a swashbuckling way. He draws you into his character's smoldering complexity. He's physical when he has to be, hurdling balustrades and brandishing his cutlass, but never quite with the flair of a Fairbanks, a Lancaster or even an Errol Flynn. Leigh made film history as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939) and, to a lesser extent, as the febrile Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), a role she played on the London stage. In Fire Over England, she's alluring, but it's understandable that David O. Selznick, watching the film, wasn't immediately moved to cast her as the tempestuous Scarlett. (That came later, when Selznick's brother and Leigh's American agent, Myron Selznick, shrewdly maneuvered Leigh onto the Gone with the Wind set, and leapfrogged Leigh over potential Scarletts Paulette Goddard, Jean Arthur and Joan Bennett by posing her with green eye shadow accenting her catlike eyes, against the Burning of Atlanta).
Still, Korda sensed what he had in her. He reshaped Fire Over England to open not with the naval battle that preceded the rout of the Armada, but with Leigh's handmaiden fluttering about the court, agitatedly looking for a pearl that had dropped off the gown Elizabeth was about to wear. She's all cream in silk, and one can appreciate the increasing degree of conviction that crept into her clinches with Olivier's busy hero whenever they snatch a moment from the affairs of state.
Their real ardor enlivens the pseudo-history and air of studio artifice. Still, it won't do to patronize the film's screenful of solid professionals at work under the guiding hands of pioneering ex-UFA producer turned German refugee Erich Pommer and director William K. Howard Morton Selten's loyal old Burleigh (grandfather to Leigh's Cynthia), Leslie Banks's loyal Leicester, Raymond Massey (Korda's saturnine Canadian-born house villain) as King Philip, and the rest of the Korda contract players. And above all, ruling on camera as she rules in the story, Robson's splendid Elizabeth I. Quite outdistancing other Elizabeths of the period, including Bette Davis, she's the most fully realized character in the film and became the gold standard for scores of film Elizabeths, right down to today's reinvention by Cate Blanchett and the modern Elizabeth of Helen Mirren. In contrast to the ever insecure beauty, Leigh, Robson's much more solid career arose from the look in her wise eyes that proclaim her awareness that she wasn't a beauty.
Her self-awareness is used to witty, worldly effect in Fire Over England, when her Good Queen Bess can't suppress a flash of jealousy at Cynthia's youthful charms when Michael is obviously attracted to them. "This mirror is old and tarnished," she says, putting it from her and banning all mirrors from her sight, leaving no doubt that she knows it's her royal self of which she speaks, not the mirror. Yet she's anything but a bitter old Miss Haversham here. She projects size, command, authority and generosity, every inch a queen when she refuses to cower under the superior numbers of the Spanish forces arrayed against her, rallying the English, and casting an indulgent eye over the romantic impetuosity of her younger subjects in love. Graham Greene, then a movie critic, complained in print that there would be no such goings-on before Good Queen Bess. But he misses the point here. She's a wise Queen Bess as well as a good one, with a large heart, unshriveled by that fact that her job has become her life. No wonder Hollywood leaped at the chance to have Robson reprise her QE I in The Sea Hawk (1940).
Meanwhile, it seems more than coincidence that a number of Leigh's twenty film roles were in costume romances Scarlett O'Hara, Emma Lady Hamilton, Cleopatra (with a Knightsbridge accent!), Anna Karenina (ditto!). Could she have felt more comfortable time- traveling to other eras? Increasingly, she fell prey to debilitating bouts of depression. Her last film, Ship of Fools, came in 1965. Divorced from Olivier in 1960 (they married in 1940), she died in 1967. Knowing and frequently reminded by the world -- that she did not have a talent of the magnitude of her husband's cannot have failed to take a toll. There is struggle in her characters' self-dramatization. Too bad she was unaware, or unable to realize, that the vulnerability that informed her acting was a strength, inviting empathy. She had more than beauty and light-handed sophistication to draw upon, and when she was not unwell, you hope her ambitious nature allowed her to realize how good she could be.
Producer: Erich Pommer; Alexander Korda (uncredited)
Director: William K. Howard
Screenplay: Clemence Dane, Sergei Nolbandov; A.E.W. Mason (novel)
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Music: Richard Addinsell
Film Editing: Jack Dennis
Cast: Flora Robson (Queen Elizabeth I of England), Raymond Massey (King Philip II of Spain), Leslie Banks ('Robin', the Earl of Leicester), Laurence Olivier (Michael Ingolby), Vivien Leigh (Cynthia), Morton Selten (Lord Burleigh), Tamara Desni(Elena), Lyn Harding (Sir Richard Ingolby), George Thirlwell (Mr. Lawrence Gregory), Henry Oscar (Spanish Ambassador), Robert Rendell (Don Miguel), Robert Newton (Don Pedro), Donald Calthrop (Don Escobal), Charles Carson (Adm. Valdez).
by Jay Carr
Vivien Leigh: A Biography, by Anne Edwards, Simon & Schuster, 1977
Vivien: The Life of Vivien Leigh, by Alexander Walker, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987
Laurence Olivier: Confessions of an Actor, an Autobiography, Simon & Schuster, 1982