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Anna Karenina (1947)
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Anna Karenina (1947)

Producer Alexander Korda was courting the international market in the late '40s, when he launched a series of ambitious productions. The most ambitious film on his slate was Anna Karenina (1948), the eleventh of eighteen big screen versions (not to mention seven television adaptations) of Leo Tolstoy's classic tale of a woman torn between her one great love and her devotion to her son. With Vivien Leigh, still popular thanks to the success of Gone with the Wind (1939), in the title role, the production had built-in appeal. Despite impressive work from the set designer, art director and a sterling performance by Ralph Richardson as Leigh's jilted husband, the movie turned out to be an expensive flop.

The problem was timing, though not, as some suggested, because MGM's classic 1935 interpretation of the story, with Greta Garbo as the doomed wife and mother, was fresh in audiences' minds. At the time, Leigh's interpretation of the role was eagerly anticipated. The real timing problem related to the availability of the perfect actor to play Vronsky, the Russian nobleman whose love destroys Anna's life. When Korda approached Leigh about starring in the film, her husband, Laurence Olivier, was already deeply involved in filming his adaptation of Hamlet (1948). Had he been able to play Vronsky, the film might have generated the same sexual spark as the husband-and-wife team's previous collaboration for Korda's That Hamilton Woman (1941). In addition, the similarities between Tolstoy's story and the off-screen romance of Leigh and Olivier -- both of whom had been married to others when they met, fell in love and moved in together -- could have generated enough box office heat to put the expensive production into the black.

Instead, Korda cast Kieron Moore, a young Irish actor who had made a splash in a stage adaptation of Wuthering Heights (a role that had made Olivier a major screen star in 1939) before signing a contract with Korda's London pictures. Despite his talents and good looks, the 24-year-old actor was out of his league playing love scenes with Leigh. Film critic Dilys Powell would complain that he "might be playing a professional dancing partner instead of a headstrong Tsarist officer." (quoted in Ralph Richardson by John Miller).

Ironically, in 1935, Garbo had had her own problems with the actor assigned to play Vronsky - Fredric March. Finding her co-star cold and unappealing, the famous Swede had channeled all her emotionalism into her relationship with Anna's son (Freddie Bartholomew). Leigh, never noted for her maternal instincts, found her only outlet working with Richardson. But though their scenes together crackled, they also threw the film off balance.

Leigh and Korda also had problems with director Julien Duvivier. Although producer and director had collaborated fruitfully on Lydia (1941), starring Korda's wife Merle Oberon, the two disagreed about the best approach to filming Tolstoy's novel. Originally, Duvivier had collaborated with famed French playwright Jean Anouilh on an adaptation set in modern-day France that took an existential approach to the story, glorifying Anna's suicide as her only option for living a free life. Not interested in making that particular film, Korda brought in Guy Morgan to bring the adaptation more into line with the original novel. When colleagues suggested Morgan was too inexperienced for such a demanding project, Korda countered that the young man's lack of experience would make him more likely to follow orders.

Leigh had her own problems with Duvivier. Anna Karenina had come along at a point of emotional crisis in her life. She had hoped to co-star with Olivier in his film version of Hamlet, as she had on stage, only to learn that the film's producers -- and her husband -- considered her too old to play Ophelia, which went to Jean Simmons instead. The long-dreamed-of role of Anna saved her from sitting around the Olivier's country home while her resentment built. Once she got on set, however, she found herself stifled by Duvivier's insistence that her performance should be totally different from Garbo's. Before long, they were at an impasse, which had the crew on the verge of revolt until Korda returned from a trip to the U.S. and took on the role of mediator.

Fortunately, Anna Karenina's design elements were impeccable. Russian-born Andrej Andrejew supervised the sets, while the costumes were handed over to renowned designer and photographer Cecil Beaton, who had recently dressed the actors for another Korda prestige production, An Ideal Husband (1947). He and Leigh immediately hit it off, and he even agreed to design the costumes for the Oliviers' upcoming touring production of The School for Scandal. With wartime shortages still in effect in England, Beaton had to outsource construction to Paris. When he and Leigh traveled there for fittings, she had trouble getting into the corsets. He was at the point of re-cutting them himself when he realized that the fitter had put them on Leigh upside-down.

The designers won consistently positive reviews for Anna Karenina. In addition, Richardson's portrait of the husband was hailed as a masterful piece of acting. Leigh's reviews were more mixed. Some critics hailed her work as one of the most accomplished pieces of character acting they had ever seen, while others thought she was miscast. Nor did the film perform well at the box office. With the failure of Korda's other prestige pictures of the period, the only thing that saved him from bankruptcy was a series of successful re-issues of such earlier hits as The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) and That Hamilton Woman. On the personal front, when Olivier's Hamlet overshadowed Anna Karenina critically and financially, it increased the rift between husband and wife that had started when he decided not to cast her as Ophelia.

Failure hardly marked the end of the road for Anna Karenina, however. The novel would inspire adaptations in India, Argentina, Portugal and even the Soviet Union. A British television version in 1961 cast Claire Bloom opposite Sean Connery, a Vronsky who might have been the perfect match for Leigh's Anna. A U.S. television movie from 1985 teamed Jacqueline Bisset and Christopher Reeve, with acting honors going to Paul Scofield as Karenin. Most recently in 2000 Kevin McKidd, who recently joined the cast of Grey's Anatomy, played Vronsky opposite Helen McCrory in a four-part British miniseries.

Producer: Alexander Korda
Director: Julien Duvivier
Screenplay: Jean Anouilh, Julien Duvivier, Guy Morgan
From the novel by Leo Tolstoy.
Cinematography: Henri Alekan
Art Direction: Andrej Andrejew
Music: Constant Lambert
CAST: Vivien Leigh (Anna Karenina), Ralph Richardson (Alexei Karenin), Kieron Moore (Count Vronsky), Hugh Dempster (Stefan Oblonsky), Mary Kerridge (Dolly Oblonsky), Marie Lohr (Princess Scherbatsky), Sally Ann Howes (Kitty Scherbatsky), Niall MacGinnis (Konstantin Levin), Michael Gough (Nicholai), Martita Hunt (Princess Betty Tversky), Heather Thatcher (Countess Lydia Ivanova), Helen Haye (Countess Vronsky), Maxine Audley (Bit), Barbara Murray (Bit).
BW-122m. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller