Friends and Lovers
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By 1931, 24-year old Laurence Olivier was one of the most promising young actors of the London theater. Newly married to actress Jill Esmond, he had made his Broadway debut in Noel Coward's Private Lives in 1930, appearing with Esmond, Coward, and Gertrude Lawrence. Several studios screen-tested both Olivier and his wife, with MGM, which had bought the film rights to Private Lives, showing particular interest. The studio offered them the chance to recreate their stage roles in the film version, as the unsympathetic second spouses of the story's battling exes, played by Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery. But the couple held out for a better offer. RKO, which hoped that Olivier would turn out to be another Ronald Colman, finally came through with three-film contracts for both of them.
Olivier's first film under the contract, and his American film debut, was Friends and Lovers (1931). Based on a romantic novel called The Sphinx has Spoken by Maurice Dekobra, the film was a florid melodrama about British officers in India, played by Olivier and Adolphe Menjou, ensnared by a temptress, played by Lili Damita. Erich von Stroheim is also featured in a juicy part as the woman's unscrupulous and sadistic husband.
It was not an auspicious beginning for Olivier; he was ill at ease and somewhat fey in Friends and Lovers. According to director Victor Schertzinger, "It was apparent right from the start that Olivier was completely out of his element acting in movies. He had absolutely no camera sense - my god, we often had to stop takes because he'd look at the camera in the middle of a scene. And he acted the way he did on the stage - all broad gestures and a face forever busy with expressions. He was totally unnatural, an amateur....He was uncomfortable being asked not to 'act,' but just be himself." The critic for the British magazine Picturegoer called Olivier's performance "precious." Olivier ruefully noted that Friends and Lovers "died the death of a dog" at the box office. RKO lost $260,000 on the film.
When he wasn't struggling with learning to act for the camera, Olivier was bemused by observing how far the mighty von Stroheim had fallen since his glory days as a renowned director and star of silent films. In his memoir, Olivier recalled that von Stroheim "was preoccupied with a bit of business throughout the rehearsals. To appear ultra-sinister, he was to wear a black eye patch over one eye, and a monocle over the other. But which ornament for which eye? He kept reversing black patch and monocle for Schertzinger's approval. He was a hard worker, but off the set he seemed to be distracted, worried, lost."
Olivier luxuriated in the sybaritic atmosphere of Hollywood, hanging out with old friends from England like Ralph Forbes and new friends like Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Robert Montgomery, and playing polo with other members of the British colony. He enjoyed the leisure, the climate, and the money. But there was too much down time, and his next two films - and performances - were not much better than Friends and Lovers. An even worse blow to his ego was the demand by RKO's new production chief David O. Selznick that he take acting lessons. It also may have rankled that Selznick appeared to have higher hopes for Esmond's future in films than he did for Olivier's. By the spring of 1932, Olivier and Esmond were frustrated by their film careers, and the final blow was when Selznick, trying to dig out RKO from its latest economic crisis, cut all salaries in half. Olivier was ready to chuck his American movie career and go back to England. But Selznick dangled a huge plum in front of Esmond: the key role of the daughter in the film version of the successful play, A Bill of Divorcement (1932) if she renewed her contract at the lower salary. There are different versions of what happened next. Olivier claimed that he had an appointment with Selznick, who was late. While waiting in Selznick's office, Olivier rifled through the papers on the desk and found a contract hiring Hepburn at twice Esmond's salary. Clearly, she would be playing the daughter in A Bill of Divorcement. Another version is that Esmond had indeed been considered for the part, but that the studio had already signed Hepburn, so there was no contract for Olivier to see. And a third possibility is that Olivier had, in fact, been summoned by Selznick to be told that the studio was not renewing his contract.
However it happened, Olivier returned to England and eventually, to the London stage, where he got the parts and recognition he craved. Hollywood again came calling, in the form of an MGM contract, which he refused. But he did accept an offer for one film with the studio, playing opposite Greta Garbo in Queen Christina (1933). He arrived back in Hollywood with much publicity, but the chemistry with Garbo wasn't there, and after two weeks, Olivier was fired. The next time Olivier came to the U. S. (with his new love, Vivien Leigh), he finally found the American film stardom that had eluded him eight years earlier. He was magnificent as the moody Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1939), and followed that with two more hits, Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940), and Pride and Prejudice (1940). Thereafter, although the stage remained his first love, Olivier became a popular and accomplished film actor and director.
Director: Victor Schertzinger
Producer: William LeBaron
Screenplay: Wallace Smith, Jane Murfin, based on a novel by Maurice Dekobra
Cinematography: J. Roy Hunt
Editor: William Hamilton
Costume Design: Max Ree
Art Direction: Max Ree
Music: Victor Schertzinger
Principal Cast: Adolphe Menjou (Capt. Geoffrey Roberts), Lili Damita (Mrs. Alva Sangrito), Laurence Olivier (Lt. Ned Nichols), Erich von Stroheim (Col. Victor Sangrito), Hugh Herbert (McNellis), Frederic Kerr (Gen. Thomas Armstrong), Blanche Friderici (Lady Alice).
by Margarita Landazuri