Starring Vivien Leigh: A Centenary Celebration at the National Portrait Gallery

Vivien Leigh by Bassano Ltdby Bassano Ltd, April 1935

“[Vivien Leigh] is, I should say, the most important recruit British films have ever had . . . She is still not at all keen on going to Hollywood. She could go any day if she said the word. It’s up to the English studios to develop her over here.”  —  Picturegoer, April 3, 1937

In celebration of Vivien Leigh’s centenary (the actress was born on the 5 November 1913) and the 75-year anniversary of Gone With The Wind (released in December 1939), London’s National Portrait Gallery is hosting Starring Vivien Leigh small but perfectly-formed photography exhibition dedicated to the star. The images explore the film and theatre career of Leigh and are timely reminder of the actresses’ legacy; not just in Hollywood but within the London theatre scene. As the first British actress to win an Oscar – and for her role as the quintessential Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara – Leigh feels very ‘Hollywood’, and it’s easy to overlook her less touted achievements on stage, including productions such as The Doctor’s Dilemma, The Happy Hypocrite and The Skin of Our Teeth (TV).

Dame (Esmerelda) Cicely Courtneidge on the set of 'Things Are Looking Up' (group including Vivien Leigh) by George Woodbine, for  Daily HeraldDame (Esmerelda) Cicely Courtneidge on the set of Things Are Looking Up (group including Vivien Leigh) by George Woodbine, for Daily Herald 24 August 1934

Gone With the Wind propelled Leigh to international stardom, but before Scarlett, Leigh had appeared in several British film productions, on screen and stage. During the 1930s the British film industry operated very much in the shadow of the Hollywood studio system and British stars were encouraged to emulate and recreate the glamour associated with movie stars. As the wife of a London barrister (with an exotic childhood in British India), Leigh regularly appeared on the pages of (British) Harper’s Baazar and Vogue, where her sophisticated and tasteful ‘image’ began to be cultivated. One of Leigh’s earliest films The Village Squire (1935), played up to her society girl image; the actress had perfected an upper-class accent that immediately marked her out as movie star material. However, it was Sidney Carroll’s 1935 theatrical production of The Mask of Virtue that bought overnight success and a contract with Alexander Korda.

Vivien Leigh as Lady Hamilton in 'That Hamilton Woman' by Laszlo Willingeras Lady Hamilton in That Hamilton Woman by Laszlo Willinger, 1941

Korda was one of the most important players in the British film industry and had founded Denham Studios in 1935. He was well-placed to introduce Leigh to Hollywood, although he felt obliged to follow the rules set out by bigger industry; including developing stars that could be ‘understood’ by Hollywood. Leigh’s glamorous look and foreign upbringing called for exotic, alluring and enigmatic roles that were at odds with the more homely personas of Korda’s other home-grown stars. Leigh was always destined to emigrate across the pond, and the British films she was cast in (Storm in a Teacup, Dark Journey, St. Martin’s Lane) only underlined this inevitability. In short, Leigh was just too glamorous for inter-war Britain.

Vivien Leigh by Angus McBeanby Angus McBean, bromide print, 1952

How Leigh came to win the role as Scarlett is hotly contested, but the exhibition suggests that Leigh had been determined to play the role from 1937, when the novel was published in Britain. She commissioned Angus McBean, a theatre photographer, to take a series of photos depicting her as Scarlett, intending to send the portfolio to producer David O. Selznick in Hollywood. It’s unclear if it was that action which cinched the role, but one thing is for sure – it initiated a working relationship with the photographer that was to last for  the rest of her career. In fact, many of the exhibition’s images were taken by him.

Vivien Leigh 5unknown photographer, 1955

Vivien Leigh 6

Personal circumstances may have prevented Leigh from becoming the Hollywood or British movie star she could have been, but  with Gone With the Wind Leigh she achieved a cultural status that wasn’t really reached by any other British actress of her generation. If further proof of her contribution were needed, consider that, in August 2014, the V&A museum acquired Leigh’s archive, from letters to visitor books, scripts and photographs. Also included are her diaries, begun as a 16-year-old in 1929 and maintained until her death in 1967.

Further reading: Vivien Leigh, An Intimate Portrait by Kendra Bean
Image source: National Portrait Gallery


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