1938 – Starring Charles Laughton, Vivien Leigh, Rex Harrison, Larry Adler – Directed by Tim Whalen – Written by Clemence Dane
A Cockney, sidewalk performing, Quasimodo
Rex Harrison – younger and, for once, not irascible
That is the essence of St. Martin’s Lane. The title comes from a street in England where the opera house, theatres and various cafes and stores that cater to the theatre-going public, are situated. However, there was concern that Americans would not be aware of this association (I wasn’t aware), so the title of the movie was changed to Sidewalks of London when it was released in the US.
The movie stars Charles Laughton, was co-produced by Charles Laughton and was co-written (though un-credited) by Charles Laughton. He wanted his wife, Elsa Lanchester, for the role opposite him, but Alexander Korda (kind of a British David O. Selznick, except he was also a director) offered to finance the film if Laughton would cast Korda’s new discovery instead: Vivien Leigh.
Apparently, Vivien Leigh did not like working with Laughton anymore than he liked working with her, though he was evidently more professional about it – helping her with her lines and so on; though he also cut down her part so the film would focus more on his character.
In the film, Charles Laughton plays Charlie, a busker (a busker is a sidewalk entertainer who performs for those waiting in line for the theatre) who’s specialty is proclaiming the classics on the streets. Vivien Leigh is a pickpocket named Liberty. When Charles Laughton catches her in the act and chases her, he later discovers that she also has a great gift for dancing and gives her a place to stay and incorporates her into his new act. However, Rex Harrison is a composer who runs across her (she stole his cigarette case) and wants to help her become professional, working inside rather than outside.
Charlie is not really like Quasimodo, but it made me think of it (though he did go on to play him in the film version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in 1939). It’s not so much because he is physically repulsive to people, as he’s a ham, twice Liberty’s age, who falls in love with her, whose love is not returned, and looks ridiculous in the eyes of others.
Liberty, however, is like a warm-up for Scarlett O’Hara. Vivien Leigh would do Gone With the Wind the very next year, proving once again that she can play unlikeable characters in a likeable way. That’s how she gets away with such ruthlessness. As Liberty, she is a little nicer than Scarlett; she does recognize Charlie’s worth as a person. However, she intends to be a star and become a star and she has the same appealing manner, ruthlessness of intent and fiery temperament as Scarlet (she manages to break quite a few of Charlie’s dishes).
I recently watched GWTW and a documentary about the making of the film, and I was impressed at how well Leigh had done; when she seemed to have come out of nowhere. She had only had three starring roles before GWTW, but seeing her early films, I can definitely see how people could have thought she could play Scarlett.
It was also interesting to see Rex Harrison. I’d mostly seen his later films, where he is usually irascible and a superior pill (My Fair Lady and Dr. Doolittle). In this film, however, he has none of his usual crankiness and plays a fairly nice, straightforward fellow who is in love with Liberty, but discovers, like Charlie, that she loves her career more. There was supposed to be more of a romance between them, but that was part of the story that Laughton took our when they cast Vivien Leigh.
Notes: Leigh must not have cared for this role much, because when she sent a film for David O. Selznick to watch when she was trying for the part of Scarlett she sent Fire Over England (an Elizabethan drama), where she was not the leading lady. But that was the film where she met and fell in love with Laurence Olivier, and perhaps she wanted to prove she could do costume dramas, too.
Also appearing in the film is Larry Adler as one of Charlie’s busker friends. I’d never heard of him before, but Larry Adler was a famous and magnificent harmonica player. I looked him up on youtube, and it is amazing the things he can do with that tiny instrument.
An example of the amazing things Larry Adler can do on his harmonica. He is playing “Summertime” by George Gershwin, from the opera “Porgy and Bess” and talks about how he tries to mimic the sound of the human voice when he plays.