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Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh found their greatest co-starring vehicle on screen when they did their patriotic duty for England by appearing in the1941 historical romance That Hamilton Woman. The stage and screen's most famous unmarried lovers brought a special luster to the story of one of history's greatest love affairs while also providing a glamorous cover to the film's true message -- a paean to the heroic wartime spirit of Great Britain. Made as the island nation was fighting for survival in the early days of World War II, and before the U.S. entered the battle, the film proved a valuable tool for bolstering patriotic sentiments at home and inspiring sympathy among the country's allies. In fact, the film's propaganda was so effective, it almost got producer-director Alexander Korda booted out of the U.S.
Korda's mission in Hollywood in the early days of the war was as much political as it was industry focused. Naturally he was pursuing production opportunities away from Great Britain's wartime restrictions and without having to shoot exteriors around air raids and military maneuvers. In addition, he wanted to be on hand to help manage the career of actress Merle Oberon who was his wife. He had also been asked by Prime Minister Winston Churchill to use his business offices in New York as an information clearing house for British Intelligence and to come up with a film that could help with the war effort. Added to that was a personal goal. Korda wanted to re-team Olivier and Leigh, whose romance had blossomed while working on his Fire Over England (1937) back home. Beyond his personal fondness for the couple, he knew they were in financial straits at the time. Although both were popular in the U.S., they had turned down film roles that didn't appeal to them in order to star in a Broadway run of Romeo and Juliet, produced with their own money. When the production failed financially, they needed work.
After Korda rejected a film about Elizabeth I's romance with the Earl of Essex, which would have miscast the young and beautiful Leigh, and a screen version of Shakespeare's Henry V, which didn't have a large enough role for her, Churchill suggested the story of Admiral Nelson and Lady Hamilton. According to legend, he even wrote some of Nelson's more political speeches about the need to stand up against dictators. Though the admiral was referring to Napoleon, the reference to Hitler was obvious. The film, however, was not a political diatribe and Korda cleverly had the screenplay focus on the romantic story. This masked the propaganda while also providing a showcase for Leigh, who was clearly the bigger star on the strength of her success in Gone with the Wind (1939).
The cash-strapped Korda had to get money from his wife to start shooting, but that didn't stop him from demanding the best. When his brother Vincent, who served as the film's production designer, created a massive library to serve as the main setting in Naples, Korda demanded it be changed overnight into a bedroom to better fit the film's romantic elements. For the naval battles, Vincent constructed a fleet of miniature ships -- just large enough for a props man to lie inside to fire the miniature cannons and manipulate the sails. As Korda shouted directions from a raised platform, technicians in fishing waders moved the boats in a pool of water that came up to their chests. The largest ship had a deck for love scenes between Olivier and Leigh, though she became so seasick from the rocking motions the crew created that she required Dramamine to get through the scenes without becoming nauseous.
Olivier was intrigued by the opportunity to play a hero not in the Hollywood mold, and particularly relished the chance to play scenes after Nelson had lost a hand and an eye in battle. Yet he couldn't get a definitive answer on which hand and eye had been injured. After the production crew failed to dig up the information, Korda remembered that an old acquaintance, a retired opera singer living in Van Nuys, California, had played the admiral in a turn-of-the-century operetta. They brought him to the set as a consultant only to learn that he didn't know the answer either. All he could remember was that he had gotten bored during the show's run and switched sides each night to keep his performance fresh.
Leigh and Olivier were happy to be working together again, after failing in several attempts to get Hollywood producers to cast them opposite each other in films such as Rebecca and Pride and Prejudice (both 1940). But they were also eager to get back to England to help with the war effort at home. Neither cared for Hollywood, and they didn't like socializing with most of the British actors working there, who they felt had become too Americanized. Their one consolation was that they were married a month before filming began (they had both recently divorced their first spouses). That Hamilton Woman is their only film together as husband and wife.
Korda was so rushed getting the picture into production that he didn't have a complete script when shooting started. Often the actors were being handed scenes the night before and sometimes even the day they were shot. That also meant he had not submitted the script to the Production Code Administration (PCA) for approval. When the film was finally finished, he screened a rough cut for PCA head Joseph Breen, who told him it could not be shown in most U.S. theatres because of the leading characters' adulterous relationship. Korda and Breen argued vehemently over the love story, with Korda using history as his defense while Breen questioned the entire focus of the film. The latter felt the movie glorified their affair at the expense of his marriage, with his wife (played by Gladys Cooper) presented as cold and uncaring. Finally, working with Breen, Korda shot a scene in which Hamilton admits to his father that he knows the relationship is immoral but is too much of a coward to leave Lady Hamilton. Korda hated the scene so much he had it cut shortly after the picture's release.
By that time, however, That Hamilton Woman was a major hit. Although critics, particularly in England, felt that the picture turned Nelson's great naval campaigns into a pretext for a tawdry love story, most of them praised Leigh's performance. Churchill was so thrilled with the picture he showed it repeatedly to staff members and even screened it for President Franklin Roosevelt before America's entry into World War II. He would continue screening the film privately long after his retirement, eventually claiming to have seen it 83 times.
Even disguised as a romance, the film's political message came through clearly. Although that helped sell it to British audiences in the midst of the London Blitz (and Soviet audiences, who made it the nation's first foreign film hit), it caused some consternation in Washington, particularly among conservative senators and congressmen trying to keep the nation out of war. A House committee had already questioned Hollywood producers about pro-war propaganda in films such as Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) and The Sea Hawk (1940). When they subpoenaed Korda, many thought he was about to become a scapegoat for their anger at Hollywood. There was even talk of his being deported. His appearance was scheduled for December 17, 1941, but five days earlier the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, plunging the U.S. into World War II and putting an end to the investigation.
Producer-Director: Alexander Korda
Screenplay: Walter Reisch & R.C. Sherriff
Cinematographer: Rudolph Mate
Art Direction: Vincent Korda
Score: Miklos Rozsa
Cast: Vivien Leigh (Emma Lady Hamilton), Laurence Olivier (Lord Horatio Nelson), Alan Mowbray (Sir William Hamilton), Sara Allgood (Mrs. Cadogan-Lyon), Gladys Cooper (Lady Frances Nelson), Henry Wilcoxon (Captain Hardy), Heather Angel (A Streetgirl), Miles Mander (Lord Keith), Luis Alberni (King of Naples).
by Frank Miller