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Although Vivien Leigh left Hollywood in the early '40s, before she could do much work within the studio system, her early British films give fans a taste of how she would have functioned as a contract star. Case in point is the 1937 comedy, Storm in a Teacup, a rare British foray into the screwball genre, in which she proves she could be as pixilated as such American stars as Jean Arthur, Claudette Colbert and Carole Lombard. With her beauty and wit, she's perfect casting as a headstrong heiress tamed by love. As an extra bonus, the film offered Rex Harrison his first big-screen starring role, as a very British version of the fast-talking newsmen played over here by the likes of Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Lee Tracy.
The plot seems a mere trifle: a hot young reporter (Harrison) stuck in a sleepy small town in Scotland pumps the plight of a local woman (Sara Allgood) who can't afford her dog's license into a national story. As he takes on the small-town tyrant (Cecil Parker) who refuses to back down, he finds himself falling for the man's daughter (Leigh). Deeper than any synopsis would suggest, the original German play Storm in a Water Glass by Bruno Frank was actually a subtle jab at the rise of Fascism. Scots writer James Bridie reset it in Scotland under the title Storm Over Patsy, and it did well on the British stage. A U.S. production by the Theatre Guild had a limited run, with Allgood stealing scenes as Mrs. Hegarty, as the film was opening.
For Leigh, Storm in a Teacupoffered a respite from her on-and-off romance with Laurence Olivier. He was appearing as Hamlet on London's West End, and she frequently went straight from the soundstage to the theatre to watch his performance, without stopping home to see her husband and daughter. During the day, she threw herself into her first leading comic role, though there were limits to how screwball she was willing to be. She had no problems with a scene in which she enters her limousine with a child's lollipop stuck to her derriere, but she refused to take a pratfall. When director Victor Saville suggested that Hollywood stars like Katharine Hepburn or Joan Crawford would have done it without quibbling, she responded, "I am an English actress," which settled the matter.
For Harrison, the film offered the chance to learn what film acting was all about. After a few small parts in the early '30s, he had landed a meaty supporting role in Alexander Korda's production Men Are Not Gods (1936). Unfortunately, the film's German director, Walter Reisch, had only a shaky command of English, which hampered his work with the actors. Rather than help Harrison adjust his stage-trained work to the screen, he simply made the actors deliver their comic dialogue slowly enough that he would understand it. The result was ponderous to play and watch, and did little to help Harrison's career. Working with Saville, however, taught him what he could do on screen. Not only did the British director understand the material better than Reisch had, but he maintained a more congenial set, encouraging the actors to relax. Harrison would write in his memoirs "...he made you uncare, so that you started to unwind, to speak the lines casually and naturally, and to think for the camera. It was really Victor...who started me out, and not by saying anything, simply by being himself."
The only problem Harrison had making Storm in a Teacup was a massive crush on his leading lady. With Leigh unable to talk of anything but her love and admiration for Olivier, he knew his feelings would never be returned. Instead, he provided a willing ear and comforting shoulder. They would remain friends long after the picture finished, and he would be a frequent guest at the Olivier estate after Leigh finally married him.
For Saville, Storm in a Teacup marked the ending of an increasingly uncomfortable relationship he and Korda had formed with United Artists. Although the deal called for UA to help fund and distribute four films, they would end it with this, their third collaboration. Problems started during casting, when UA executives tried to keep Korda from using Harrison because of his bad performance in Men Are Not Gods. When the film opened to strong reviews in England, UA did little to help it or even acknowledge its success. When another of the distributor's films was doing badly in a British theatre, they pulled it and showed Storm in a Teacup in its place, which improved box office. But they charged the new profits to the other film. In the U.S., they released the Saville-Korda films to a minor theatre on 42nd Street. The New York Times would not review Storm in a Teacup until months later, when it finally got an engagement at the Little Carnegie, a prominent art house. Then Frank Nugent wrote "After the recent barrage of Hollywood slapstick and genteel lunacy, it's a rare treat to find excuse for honest laughter again." Even the trade press noticed UA's poor treatment of Saville's films. The Hollywood Reporter pointed out that though the pictures were being dumped in lesser houses, they were among the best reviewed British releases in New York.
United Artists did little to remedy the situation, but MGM production chief Louis B. Mayer took note of Saville's success record. He also knew Saville had acquired the screen rights to A.J. Cronin's medical novel The Citadel. He met with Saville in London to purchase the rights and hire him to produce films at MGM's London studio. The arrangement started with The Citadel (1938), which offered Harrison a meaty supporting role, and continued with one of the British studio's biggest hits, Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939).
Storm in a Teacup would come to be regarded as a minor British classic, often hailed as the first genuine British comedy of the sound era. With Leigh's and Harrison's rise to stardom, Korda would reissue it successfully in 1943 and 1948. It also provided a major boost to Leigh's career. During shooting, Saville contracted the flu, which kept him off set long enough for screenwriter Ian Dalrymple to earn a co-director credit for his assistance. During his illness, Saville read a lot. When he returned to the set, he recommended a recent novel to Leigh, stating that the leading role would be perfect for her if she weren't English. Hollywood would surely never look overseas when it came time to cast Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939).
Producer-Director: Victor Saville
Screenplay: Ian Dalrymple, Donald Bull
Based on the play Storm Over Patsy by James Bridie, adapted from the play Storm in a Water Glass by Bruno Frank
Cinematography: Mutz Greenbaum
Art Director: Andre Andrejew
Score: Frederick Lewis
Cast: Vivien Leigh (Victoria Gow), Rex Harrison (Frank Burdon), Sara Allgood (Mrs. Hegarty), Cecil Parker (Provost Gow), Ursula Jeans (Lisbet Skirving), Gus McNaughton (Horace Skirving), Arthur Wontner (Fiscal), Ivor Barnard (Watkins), Scruffy the Dog (Patsy).
by Frank Miller
Vivien: The Life of Vivien Leigh by Alexander Walker