St. Martin’s Lane/The Sidewalks of London 1938 Directed by Tim Whelan. Bittersweet film about characters of London’s busking community. Charles Staggers (Charles Laughton) is a longtime reciting busker who must once have been a working actor. As is tradition, he performs for queues outside theaters with musician partners Arthur Smith (Gus McNaughton) and Gentry (Tyrone Guthrie, in a rare film performance). Charlie lives poor, but manages and seems affably resigned.
One night, he watches runaway/pickpocket Liberty, known as Libby (Vivien Leigh) steal the cigarette case of journalist (and gentleman) Harley Prentiss (a very young Rex Harrison) at a coffee bar. Charlie chases her into the grand house where she’s squatting to retrieve the case and sees her dance. He takes her back to his digs and sleeps in a chair, returning the case to police as if found. Libby joins the busking troupe. Charlie falls in love. Harley comes calling to thank him for the cigarette case and promises to stop by the “show’s” debut.
He’s taken with Libby. In fact, he brings wealthy friends to see the buskers, inviting Charlie and Libby back to the house for a party. Libby goes alone, flirts with Harley and meets an agent who promises her a role “inside.” She rises, Charlie descends. A proud poignant end. (No cliché tragedy.) Leigh was difficult to work with. In Alexander Walker’s biography of her, Larry Adler is quoted as saying, “She didn’t like Charles (Laughton) and he didn’t like her. But he was much more professional.” Rent on Amazon Prime.
Gone With the Wind 1939 From the novel by Margaret Mitchell. Directed by Victor Fleming. If you haven’t seen this several times…well, I don’t know what. Perhaps it’s been awhile…The American South during and after the Civil War through the lives of plucky spoiled, belle Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) who unconditionally loves upright Ashley Wilkes (Lesley Howard) even after he marries his cousin, the gentle Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland).
Pursued and repeatedly rescued by profiteer-with-a-conscience Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), Scarlett adapts as the war crashes around them, but never learns. Hugely entertaining.
Filming was delayed for two years because of Selznick’s determination to secure Gable for the role of Rhett Butler, and the “search for Scarlett” led to 1,400 women being interviewed for the part. The original screenplay underwent multiple revisions, original director George Cukor was fired shortly after filming began and was replaced by Fleming, who in turn was briefly replaced by Sam Wood when Fleming took some time off due to exhaustion. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Waterloo Bridge 1940 Adapted from the play by Robert E. Sherwood. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. In flashback during WWII, Army Colonel Roy Cronin (Robert Taylor) recollects falling in love with ballerina Myra Lester (Vivien Leigh) whom he had planned to marry. They meet during an air raid and she invites him to the theater. Though ballet mistress Madame Olga (Maria Ouspenskaya) forbids the relationship, Myra sneaks out. Roy has to leave for the front and tells Myra his family will look after her until he returns. On the day she’s meant to meet his mother, the young woman reads his name among the dead.
To keep life and limb together, Myra turns to prostitution. A year passes. Offering herself to soldiers, she sees Roy who had been in a prisoner of war camp. He joyfully takes her home to the family. At first, things seem resolved, but Myra can’t get past her guilt. Leigh’s fragility makes her character painfully sympathetic. Because of the Motion Picture Production Code, the heroine was here changed from a chorus girl. In 1956, the film was remade as Gaby with Leslie Caron and John Kerr. Rent on Amazon Prime.
A Streetcar Named Desire 1951 Adapted from Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-Winning play. Directed by Elia Kazan. A sizzling production. With nowhere else to go, middle-aged school teacher Blanche Dubois (Vivien Leigh) arrives at the New Orleans apartment of her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando -perfection in the role). Blanche is disparaging about both the poor apartment and Stanley’s brutish manners. Stella is glad to see her, but her sister and husband are immediately antagonistic.
Blanche lies about her situation, aggrandizes the past, and interferes in the couple’s relationship. Mitch (Karl Malden), one of Stanley’s more gentlemanly poker buddies, is taken in by Blanche’s defenseless, ladylike demeanor and seen by her as a last chance. Stanley’s not about to let it happen. There are accusations of thievery, a rape, and powerful exhuming of a troubled past. Blanche is reduced to wrenching confusion.
Once again, The Motion Picture Code required substantial change from the original source. In the original play, Blanche’s husband committed suicide after he was discovered having a homosexual affair, ostensibly setting her on the emotional path we observe. This reference was removed from the film, the rape scene is cut short, and the ending has changed. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Dodsworth 1936 Based on Sidney Howard’s stage adaption of the Sinclair Lewis novel. Directed by William Wyler. Highly recommended. A thoughtful adult love story in a superb production. Somewhere in the Midwest, self-made man Samuel “Sam” Dodsworth (Walter Huston) sells his auto business to retire with no plans other than taking his wife, Fran (Ruth Chatterton), to Europe. On the crossing they meet divorcee Edith Cortright (Mary Astor) who appreciates Sam’s curiousity and enthusiasm and an Englishman (David Niven) who makes a pass at the overtly flirting Fran. She runs.
Abroad, Fran imagines herself a sophisticate. She repeatedly extends their trip, living well, acquiring increasingly obvious suitors, imagining a new, exciting life. Sam goes home thinking his wife will follow. Instead she makes plans to leave him. While waiting for the divorce, he knocks around Europe and again runs into Edith. They understand one another, but when Fran finds her plans dashed… Rent on Amazon Prime.
The Maltese Falcon 1941 Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett. Directed by John Huston (his directorial debut). Perhaps THE classic noir detective mystery. San Francisco private detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is hired by client Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) to find her missing sister who’s involved with a man. Things don’t add up. Spade’s partner is murdered. Wonderly disappears, then shows up with a new name. Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) offers the detective $5,000 to find a “black figure of a bird,” then pulls a gun on him to search the room.
Cairo and Wonderly, now O’Shaughnessy, apparently know one another. Both know Gutman, alias the “Fat Man” (Sydney Greenstreet) who relates the history of the Maltese Falcon offering Spade $25,000 for the bird and a quarter of the proceeds from its sale. No one can be trusted. Guns and knives are respectively drawn. Spade acquires the bird whose secret comes out at the end.
Hammett once worked as a private detective for the Pinkerton Detective Agency in San Francisco, and used his birth name “Samuel” for the story’s protagonist. “Spade has no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been, and, in their cockier moments, thought they approached.” (Hammett) Rent on Amazon Prime.