Certainly the most romantic of the pre-Pearl Harbor WWII propaganda pics, this Alexander Korda project was designed to plead Britain’s case against Nazi Germany. (Even though the plot pits England against France!) Vivien Leigh & Laurence Olivier are England’s most patriotic adulterers, Lady Emma Hamilton & Lord Horatio Nelson, so devastingly handsome & glamorous, Napoleon doesn’t stand a chance. As a producer, Korda was a rare fellow, the look of the film, the superb Miklos Rozsa score and the luxurious cast, all belie his impossibly tight budget. And he had his moments behind the camera, too. Watch for a stunning parallel shot of Leigh & Gladys Cooper’s Lady Nelson, where you can see what an Edwardian beauty Dame Gladys had been. It's also a kick to see Henry Wilcoxon, a ringer for Olivier in THE CRUSADERS/’35, sharing screen time with the real thing, even the special effects remain impressive. But the Korda's films were always better when someone else directed. The usual Korda defects apply: camera set-ups that don’t quite cut together (even when he hired the best cinematographers), and a slack pace for much of the third act (as if he'd grown tired of the thing). But who cares when Larry & Vivien gaze at each other at the stroke of midnight, January 1, 1800 and he says, ‘I’ve kissed you through two centuries.’
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Michael Korda, son of art designer Vincent Korda & nephew to Zoltan & Alex, has some grand family stories on the DVD Extras, but beware of anything else he says. To wit:
- Olivier & Leigh did indeed flop on B’way in ROMEO & JULIET, but not because they were too old. Kit Cornell & Basil Rathbone had just done it, toured the States & then encored on B’way and they were, respectively, 15 years older than the Oliviers.
- His aunt, Merle Oberon, can hardly be called the star of Korda’s PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII/’33; she’s on screen for less than a minute!
- Olivier didn’t make WUTHERING HEIGHTS for Selznick, but for Sam Goldwyn, who tried to fire him.
- And Korda’s favorite Hollywood tale, an alleged affair between Danny Kaye & Olivier, long poo-poo’d by serious biographers of both men, now gets moved back a decade to 1939-40 when Kaye was a little known nightclub performer. Oh well, it is a delicious story.