Chris Hicks: Early Vivien Leigh films, before ‘Gone With the Wind,’ are fabulous

Published: Saturday, Nov. 16 2013 1:30 p.m. MST

Quite a few vintage titles, led by a Vivien Leigh four-pack, have received Blu-ray upgrades, and many more are making their DVD debuts this week. (The Warner Archive titles are available online at www.warnerarchive.com)

“The Vivien Leigh Anniversary Collection” (Cohen/Blu-ray, 1936-37, b/w, two discs, $59.98, four films, featurette, trailers; 16-page booklet with essay by Kendra Bean, author of “Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait”). Before she was cast in the much-coveted role of Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind,” Vivien Leigh — who would be 100 this month — was a respected actress in her native England, and the four very good films here represent her climb to stardom. She’s terrific, playing very different characters in each one.

All four have been in circulation for years on inferior public-domain DVD releases, owing to the films’ copyrights having lapsed. But for this edition they’ve been restored for the first time, in collaboration with the British Film Institute, and these are by far the most pristine versions available.

Leigh’s first breakout role came in “Fire Over England,” during which she met her future husband, Laurence Olivier. They are more or less romantic relief in this story of spies and counterspies in 16th century England and Spain, with Flora Robson, Raymond Massey, Robert Newton and a young, unbilled James Mason. “Dark Journey” is another spy picture, this one set in World War I, with Leigh and Conrad Veidt as agents in love but on opposite sides.

The comedy “Storm in a Teacup” casts Leigh as the daughter of a prominent politician targeted by a dashing journalist (Rex Harrison in his first starring role), leading to rocky romance. And “St. Martin’s Lane” (aka “Sidewalks of London”) has Leigh as a pickpocket with performing talent who teams up with a street entertainer (Charles Laughton), until one of her marks (Rex Harrison) becomes her benefactor. (Also on DVD, $49.98)

“All the President’s Men: Two-Disc Special Edition” (Warner/Blu-ray, 1976, PG, two discs, $19.98, new feature-length documentary, audio commentary by Robert Redford, featurettes, trailers). The classic fact-based thriller starring Redford and Dustin Hoffman as the Washington Post reporters who exposed Watergate remains a gripping story, but the real draw for this new edition is the fascinating documentary, “All the President’s Men Revisited,” narrated by Redford.

“This Property Is Condemned” (Warner Archive, 1966, $14.95). This hot-blooded Southern soap opera is more interesting for its pedigree than as a film: This marks Redford’s fourth movie, his second pairing with Natalie Wood (after “Inside Daisy Clover”), and they are put through the paces by Redford’s pal Sydney Pollack in his sophomore directing effort, adapted from a Tennessee Williams one-act play. Co-stars include Mary Badham (young Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird”), Charles Bronson, Robert Blake and Dabney Coleman.

“Tank Girl: Collector’s Edition” (MGM/Shout!/Blu-ray, 1995; R for violence, language, sex; $24.97, audio commentary, featurettes, trailer). Chaos is the order of the day in this fitfully amusing, aggressively campy sci-fi comedy adapted from a popular comic and way ahead of the post-apocalyptic curve (though it also owes something to “Mad Max”). The tough title character (Lori Petty) teams up with mutant kangaroos to prevent evil Malcolm McDowell from taking over the world’s water supply. Tries too hard, but Petty, as the punk, mouthy lead character, is all in with a take-no-prisoners performance. This Blu-ray upgrade includes new bonus features with Petty, director Rachel Talalay and production designer Catherine Hardwicke.

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