During this isolated time of quarantine, I’ve been catching up on some of my favorite conversations with the classic movie artists that I love. One of the greatest conversations I’ve ever seen among show biz folk occurred in 1958 on Small World, a TV show created by award-winning radio and TV broadcaster Edward R. Murrow.
On this show, Murrow gathered people from all walks of life and synced them up live from their own homes in a kind of glorified Zoom chat to have lengthy in-depth discussions about all sorts of topics. In the two seasons of this show, which lasted from 1958 to 1960, Murrow spoke to a range of luminaries including John F. Kennedy, Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell, Jawaharwal Nehru, Maria Callas, Carl Sandburg, Noel Coward, James Thurber, Clare Boothe Luce, Isaac Stern, Lauren Bacall, Agnes de Mille, Harry Truman, Ingrid Bergman, and many others. But my favorite conversation that ever took place on this program happened in late December 1958 between two-time Oscar winner Vivien Leigh, pioneering producer Samuel Goldwyn, and English theater critic Kenneth Tynan.
This was a time when talk shows were really talk shows — true, in-depth conversations were possible with a minimum of commercial breaks, even in a half-hour time slot. And no holds were barred. Few people on television today (short of trashy reality TV stars) would dare to confront each other in the matter-of-fact way guests did back then, it’s almost shocking to see. And exhilarating. As far as I’m concerned, the real star of this show is 45-year-old Vivien Leigh. She comes across as brilliant, articulate, and fearless as she vehemently sides with one guest one minute and then switches sides the next based on the discussion at hand. It’s sweet to see her so fiercely loyal to her husband Laurence Olivier and also how she tries to show respect to 79-year-old Sam Goldwyn while vehemently disagreeing with him. But it’s her exchanges with 31-year-old Ken Tynan that made me see red. The critic had the effrontery, the gall, the chutzpah to question Leigh’s performances in her two most well-known roles, Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche DuBois, saying that seeing her play those characters “took him out of the story” because she was British as opposed to being from the American South. When he claims that she failed to pull it off, I was screaming in horror at my set. Leigh, by contrast, just smiled and said calmly that she guessed she needed to do better. It’s so fascinating to watch every aspect of this conversation between these four very different people. Take a look at the first part of the show:
Isn’t Vivien Leigh fantastic? I mean, I do side with the obnoxious Tynan when he talks about casting non-Chinese actors for Chinese roles — I think we’ve come a long way, thank God, since the absurdities of having people like Luise Rainer and Katharine Hepburn play Chinese peasants in major motion pictures, but I don’t agree with Tynan one bit about Vivien Leigh’s lack of suitability to play the roles for which she is so beloved. I also admire how she bristles at the idea that Scarlett and Blanche were anything alike and how beautifully she describes their differences.
In the second part of the show, Leigh, Goldwyn, and Tynan get into a discussion about how politics are embedded into the fabric of movies and culture whether we like it or not. Sam Goldwyn was busy trying to promote his upcoming production of Porgy & Bess and I’m afraid I completely side with Tynan and Leigh on this one despite Goldwyn’s insistence that politics and art are separate. Watch these amazing folks in action:
In the final minutes of the show, these incredible personalities embark on a discussion of “What went wrong in Hollywood?” To be honest, with all the jokes over the years about Sam Goldwyn’s malapropisms (e.g., “That verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on!”), I was actually quite impressed by the way Goldwyn talked about the industry and stood his ground, even if I often disagreed with his conclusions. Here the three talk about what films they think will still be known 50 years hence, and Goldwyn seems stuck on directors like Cecil B. De Mille since he sees box office as the primary arbiter of success and longevity. Needless, to say, Leigh and Tynan beg to differ. Take a look:
I’m intrigued by the fact that while I often agreed with Kenneth Tynan’s assessments, I vigorously detested him during the course of this broadcast. But who cares what he or Goldwyn does, it’sVivien Leigh’s show here, and if I didn’t already worship her going in, this would seal the deal.
Five years north of her second Best Actress Oscar for A Streetcar Named Desire, Vivien Leigh was in a precarious position as far as her movie career was concerned. She would only make two more films, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone opposite Warren Beatty and Stanley Kramer’s poignant Ship of Fools. Leigh was increasingly beset with the mental health issues that had plagued her for many years and her marriage to Laurence Olivier was crumbling. They divorced within a year of this broadcast. Leigh continued to appear on the stage and even won a Tony Award in 1963 for the Broadway musical Tovarich. Vivien Leigh sadly died in 1967 from tuberculosis at the age of 53. At the announcement of her death, the lights of every theatre in London were extinguished for an hour.
Kenneth Tynan, who at the time of this show had just started writing reviews for The New Yorker, continued to be a provocative pot stirrer. After two years at The New Yorker, he returned to London and was a powerful presence in the theater scene there, becoming the literary manager of the British National Theatre Company. He was reportedly the first person to ever say “fuck” on British television and, later in life, moved to California where he continued writing and getting involved in controversies including some sex scandals in his personal life. He developed pulmonary emphysema, and, like Vivien Leigh, died at the age of 53.
Porgy & Bess ended up being the last film that Samuel Goldwyn produced (a surprise after seeing his vitality on this show), following an illustrious career that included great movies like The Little Foxes, Ball of Fire, The Bishop’s Wife, and, one of my favorite films of all time, The Best Years of Our Lives. Born Schmuel Gelbfisz in Warsaw, Poland, in 1879, Goldwyn had quite an impressive trajectory in the business, despite all the ways people made fun of him over the years. One of the funniest moments in this show, in my opinion, is when he’s unable to remember the title of the film in which Vivien Leigh played Scarlett O’Hara. The look on Leigh’s face is priceless. Unlike Vivien Leigh and Kenneth Tynan, Samuel Goldwyn lived to the ripe old age of 94, outliving the other two by decades. Five of his grandchildren are still active in the entertainment industry, including actor/director Tony Goldwyn who recently played U.S. President Fitzgerald Grant III on Scandal.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief foray back to 1958. As for me, I can never tire of the wit, intelligence, and splendor that is Vivien Leigh.
–Danny Miller for Classic Movie Hub
Danny Miller is a freelance writer, book editor, and co-author of About Face: The Life and Times of Dottie Ponedel, Make-up Artist to the Stars. You can read more of Danny’s articles at Cinephiled, or you can follow him on Twitter at @dannymmiller.