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During the five-week British production of Dark Journey (1937), 22-year-old Vivien Leigh wrote a letter to a friend in which she sounded a bit overwhelmed by the art of film acting: "There's so much to remember," she wrote, "whether you are overstepping the chalk marks or leaning back too far or turning your face the wrong way -- it is difficult to think of all these things and be sincere at the same time in what you are saying."
Though Leigh had made a few film appearances already, Dark Journey was her first true leading role, and she was still learning the ropes. She also was not director Victor Saville's first choice for the film. For this espionage tale set in Stockholm during World War I, in which a male German spy falls for a female French spy as they attempt to outwit one another, Saville had Conrad Veidt set for the male lead. When Saville learned that American starlet Miriam Hopkins was in Paris, he traveled there and convinced her to take the female lead. When he brought her to London, producer Alexander Korda stole her away for a film he was then casting (Men Are Not Gods, 1936). Saville protested, but Korda said, "Don't worry, Victor, I have the perfect leading lady for you, a young and most beautiful actress who has just completed a small part in Fire Over England (1937). Her name is Vivien Leigh."
Leigh and Veidt were both under contract to Korda and his London Films production company. Saville had just entered into a deal whereby Korda arranged a loan for Saville to produce and direct a handful of films for Korda to distribute. They would be shot at Korda's Denham Studios. Saville later wrote: "The following eighteen months gave me more satisfaction than any period in my fifty years of picture making. My arrangement with Korda meant full autonomy; it was up to me to choose my subjects, make them my own way. I was completely responsible and under no supervision. My loan was for 320,000 pounds, for which I was to deliver four films." Dark Journey was the first.
Saville had been nursing the idea for Dark Journey for some time in his head; now was a chance to make it. He discussed his story idea with American writer John Monk Saunders, a friend who happened to be in London at the time. Saunders offered story input, as did Korda's story editor Lajos Biro. Saville went to Sweden to research the script, and while there he befriended a retired vice navy admiral who had run the Swedish counterintelligence bureau during the war. "Not only did he give us loads of correct information that we could hang our storyline on," Saville recalled, "but I lured him to England to act as a technical adviser. He kept our wartime Stockholm correct in all details."
Vivien Leigh, in the same letter mentioned above, admitted that she didn't fully understand the complicated storyline of this film. She enjoyed working with Saville, however, because he was almost always satisfied with the first take, especially on Leigh's close-ups. Leigh photographed exquisitely in Dark Journey, not a big surprise considering her stunning natural beauty, but she was certainly helped by the work of legendary French cinematographer Georges Perinal, working here with the fine American cinematographer Harry Stradling. But Leigh saw the film as a personal failure because to her, it was not a good representation of her acting. She couldn't understand her character or the plot even when she saw the finished product, and she had no interest in being appreciated simply for her physical beauty.
This was the first of several films that Conrad Veidt made under contract to Korda. Veidt had acted in dozens of German films over the previous 17 years and was a major romantic star. Soon he'd be one of Korda's two biggest stars (along with Charles Laughton) and working with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger on some of their key early films like The Spy in Black (1939), Contraband (1940), and of course The Thief of Bagdad (1940), Veidt's only color film appearance. Hollywood and Casablanca (1942) eventually followed, but Veidt would die of a heart attack in 1943.
Dark Journey received strong notices on both sides of the Atlantic. In America, the film was distributed by United Artists but did not get a wide release. Still, critics loved it, with The New York Times declaring it "swift, colorful and engagingly tangled." Variety praised the "beautiful photography," "carefully thought-out direction," and "some really thrilling encounters."
The picture was reissued in 1953 as The Anxious Years.
Producer: Victor Saville, Alexander Korda (uncredited)
Director: Victor Saville
Screenplay: Lajos Biró, Arthur Wimperis
Cinematography: Georges Périnal, Harry Stradling, Sr.
Art Direction: Andrew Andrejew, Ferdinand Bellan
Music: Richard Addinsell
Film Editing: Hugh Stewart
Cast: Conrad Veidt (Baron Karl Von Marwitz), Vivien Leigh (Madeleine Goddard), Joan Gardner (Lupita), Anthony Bushell (Bob Carter), Ursula Jeans (Gertrude), Margery Pickard (Colette), Eliot Makeham (Anatole Bergen).
by Jeremy Arnold
J.C. Allen, Conrad Veidt: From "Caligari" to "Casablanca"
Michelangelo Capua, Vivien Leigh: A Biography
Anne Edwards, Vivien Leigh: A Biography
Roy Moseley, Evergreen: Victor Saville in his Own Words
Jeffrey Richards (editor), The Unknown 1930s: An Alternative History of the British Cinema 1929-1939
Hugo Vickers, Vivien Leigh
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