Vivien Leigh, Unlucky in Love

5 Mar

As an aficionado of old films, I was recently pondering the various film roles of Vivien Leigh and wondering whether she *ever ultimately won at love. I can’t think of a film where she did that. Can you?

More than that, Vivien Leigh’s roles often stood as moral object lessons to their era, the Golden Age of Hollywood. Remember, this was the era *before the television was invented so films were the entertainment of the day. People would go to them much more often than they do today, so more of them were made. If you have only seen the Best Picture winners from that era, you have missed a lot.

Beyond her dalliances with Ashley Wilkes when she played Scarlett O’Hara, Vivien Leigh went completely over the line on several occasions and played immoral people, by the standards of her day and by the standards many people still share.

In Anna Karenina, she was a noblewoman conducting an extramarital affair. She ended the film throwing herself under a train when her lover spurned her. By the standards of that era, immorality could never be shown to pay. Those who were immoral would have negative outcomes to last the rest of their lives (or their lives would end prematurely).

I was intrigued recently, while watching her Waterloo Bridge for the first time, when she thought her fiancee was killed in World War II and blithely followed her flatmate into prostitution in order to not starve during the war. She had options. Initially, her fiancee would have sent her money; later his mother would have done so. But she referenced her pride and did not ask. When they were on the point of not eating enough to stay alive, she joined the prostitution endeavor which had already been putting bread on the table via her friend.

When her fiancee came back alive, she quickly shifted back into the elegant life of the nobility she had begun to share with him. They plainly adored one another. I wondered how the film would resolve because I knew it would not have our modern sensibilities attached to the ending. We would forgive someone who worked as a prostitute to avoid starvation; moreover we would probably still regard her soul as pure since she didn’t purposely choose the job (does anyone ever?).

But this Golden Age of Hollywood film ended with Vivien Leigh’s character having a crisis of conscience and confessing to her future mother-in-law that she could not marry her son. The young woman had crossed a line from which her relationship could not be redeemed (though presumably she understood her soul could still be redeemed . . . that was probably why she confessed).

To her credit, the mother-in-law said the entire situation had probably been partly her fault for not paying attention to the needs of the young woman when her son was reported dead. But she, too, could not redeem this story and provide it a happy ending. There was a very loving farewell between the young woman and her almost mother-in-law; there was a loving farewell as she went away from her fiancee without telling him she was about to do so.

Later on, she throws herself under a military convoy on Waterloo Bridge. Shades of Anna Karenina.

That is a very clear dividing line between Golden Age films and modern ones. When our modern films have a moral basis at all, it is that forgiveness can wipe out the consequences of *any sin. It certainly can in God’s eyes but I submit that we are unrealistic when we expect human forgiveness to reset a situation as though nothing ever happened. Actions have consequences. Some situations resolve beautifully; some do not. In either case, the person asking forgiveness has to be willing to accept consequences if they occur.

We tend to insist that other people not only forgive us with no consequences, but that they do it *immediately. We are so used to being in the driver’s seat and to treating other people as props in our personal story that we don’t notice this discrepancy in our hearts at all.

Perhaps there was a great moral beauty in the standards of the Golden Age, after all. It presented richly textured people who got to choose, sometimes wisely and sometimes unwisely.

I can only hope that Vivien Leigh’s real life marriage to Sir Lawrence Olivier brought her much more happiness than her characters ever realized.

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