Cast & Crew
Sally Ann Howes
Stefan and Dolly Oblonsky have had a little spat and Stefan has asked his sister, Anna Karenina, to come down to Moscow to help mend the rift. Anna's companion on the train from St. Petersburg is Countess Vronsky who is met at the Moscow station by her son. Col. Vronsky looks very dashing in his uniform and it's love at first sight when he looks at Anna and their eyes meet. Back in St. Petersburg they keep running into each other at parties. Since she has a husband and small son, they must be very discreet if they are going to see each other alone.
Sally Ann Howes
Anna Karenina (1947)
The problem was timing, though not, as some suggested, because MGM's classic 1935 interpretation of the story, with Greta Garbo as the doomed wife and mother, was fresh in audiences' minds. At the time, Leigh's interpretation of the role was eagerly anticipated. The real timing problem related to the availability of the perfect actor to play Vronsky, the Russian nobleman whose love destroys Anna's life. When Korda approached Leigh about starring in the film, her husband, Laurence Olivier, was already deeply involved in filming his adaptation of Hamlet (1948). Had he been able to play Vronsky, the film might have generated the same sexual spark as the husband-and-wife team's previous collaboration for Korda's That Hamilton Woman (1941). In addition, the similarities between Tolstoy's story and the off-screen romance of Leigh and Olivier -- both of whom had been married to others when they met, fell in love and moved in together -- could have generated enough box office heat to put the expensive production into the black.
Instead, Korda cast Kieron Moore, a young Irish actor who had made a splash in a stage adaptation of Wuthering Heights (a role that had made Olivier a major screen star in 1939) before signing a contract with Korda's London pictures. Despite his talents and good looks, the 24-year-old actor was out of his league playing love scenes with Leigh. Film critic Dilys Powell would complain that he "might be playing a professional dancing partner instead of a headstrong Tsarist officer." (quoted in Ralph Richardson by John Miller).
Ironically, in 1935, Garbo had had her own problems with the actor assigned to play Vronsky - Fredric March. Finding her co-star cold and unappealing, the famous Swede had channeled all her emotionalism into her relationship with Anna's son (Freddie Bartholomew). Leigh, never noted for her maternal instincts, found her only outlet working with Richardson. But though their scenes together crackled, they also threw the film off balance.
Leigh and Korda also had problems with director Julien Duvivier. Although producer and director had collaborated fruitfully on Lydia (1941), starring Korda's wife Merle Oberon, the two disagreed about the best approach to filming Tolstoy's novel. Originally, Duvivier had collaborated with famed French playwright Jean Anouilh on an adaptation set in modern-day France that took an existential approach to the story, glorifying Anna's suicide as her only option for living a free life. Not interested in making that particular film, Korda brought in Guy Morgan to bring the adaptation more into line with the original novel. When colleagues suggested Morgan was too inexperienced for such a demanding project, Korda countered that the young man's lack of experience would make him more likely to follow orders.
Leigh had her own problems with Duvivier. Anna Karenina had come along at a point of emotional crisis in her life. She had hoped to co-star with Olivier in his film version of Hamlet, as she had on stage, only to learn that the film's producers -- and her husband -- considered her too old to play Ophelia, which went to Jean Simmons instead. The long-dreamed-of role of Anna saved her from sitting around the Olivier's country home while her resentment built. Once she got on set, however, she found herself stifled by Duvivier's insistence that her performance should be totally different from Garbo's. Before long, they were at an impasse, which had the crew on the verge of revolt until Korda returned from a trip to the U.S. and took on the role of mediator.
Fortunately, Anna Karenina's design elements were impeccable. Russian-born Andrej Andrejew supervised the sets, while the costumes were handed over to renowned designer and photographer Cecil Beaton, who had recently dressed the actors for another Korda prestige production, An Ideal Husband (1947). He and Leigh immediately hit it off, and he even agreed to design the costumes for the Oliviers' upcoming touring production of The School for Scandal. With wartime shortages still in effect in England, Beaton had to outsource construction to Paris. When he and Leigh traveled there for fittings, she had trouble getting into the corsets. He was at the point of re-cutting them himself when he realized that the fitter had put them on Leigh upside-down.
The designers won consistently positive reviews for Anna Karenina. In addition, Richardson's portrait of the husband was hailed as a masterful piece of acting. Leigh's reviews were more mixed. Some critics hailed her work as one of the most accomplished pieces of character acting they had ever seen, while others thought she was miscast. Nor did the film perform well at the box office. With the failure of Korda's other prestige pictures of the period, the only thing that saved him from bankruptcy was a series of successful re-issues of such earlier hits as The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) and That Hamilton Woman. On the personal front, when Olivier's Hamlet overshadowed Anna Karenina critically and financially, it increased the rift between husband and wife that had started when he decided not to cast her as Ophelia.
Failure hardly marked the end of the road for Anna Karenina, however. The novel would inspire adaptations in India, Argentina, Portugal and even the Soviet Union. A British television version in 1961 cast Claire Bloom opposite Sean Connery, a Vronsky who might have been the perfect match for Leigh's Anna. A U.S. television movie from 1985 teamed Jacqueline Bisset and Christopher Reeve, with acting honors going to Paul Scofield as Karenin. Most recently in 2000 Kevin McKidd, who recently joined the cast of Grey's Anatomy, played Vronsky opposite Helen McCrory in a four-part British miniseries.
Producer: Alexander Korda
Director: Julien Duvivier
Screenplay: Jean Anouilh, Julien Duvivier, Guy Morgan
From the novel by Leo Tolstoy.
Cinematography: Henri Alekan
Art Direction: Andrej Andrejew
Music: Constant Lambert
CAST: Vivien Leigh (Anna Karenina), Ralph Richardson (Alexei Karenin), Kieron Moore (Count Vronsky), Hugh Dempster (Stefan Oblonsky), Mary Kerridge (Dolly Oblonsky), Marie Lohr (Princess Scherbatsky), Sally Ann Howes (Kitty Scherbatsky), Niall MacGinnis (Konstantin Levin), Michael Gough (Nicholai), Martita Hunt (Princess Betty Tversky), Heather Thatcher (Countess Lydia Ivanova), Helen Haye (Countess Vronsky), Maxine Audley (Bit), Barbara Murray (Bit).
BW-122m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller
Anna Karenina (1947)
Anna Karenina (1948) - Vivien Leigh stars in the 1948 Film Version of Leo Tolstoy's ANNA KARENINA
Garbo was luminous. Leigh is lustrous. Henri Alekan, the great cinematographer, makes Leigh's Anna pearly. Even as dreary rain beats against the windows of a room, echoing her unhappiness as her lover's passion wanes, a shaft of sunlight illuminates her face. In the film's penultimate moment, when Anna seems almost relieved to have chosen to throw herself in front of a train, Alekan has her look up into a swaying railway station lantern when, at last drained of agitation, she croons, "Why not turn out the lights when there is nothing more to be seen?" It's the opposite of the shaky dolly shot Alekan used to convey her romantic swoon at locking eyes earlier at the same train station with Count Vronsky, the lover she didn't realize would prove callow.
The film understands, as not all comers to Tolstoy's novel do, that it isn't a romance about star-crossed lovers as the film's promotional material describes it. Launched by the actual suicide of the rejected mistress of a landowner Tolstoy knew, Tolstoy reimagined that event as a story about a woman who thinks she's entering into a passionate union with a man who's bringing to it the depth and intensity she is. Kieron Moore, the Irish-born actor who plays her military lover and enjoyed a long career into the '70s, hasn't got a chance here. He comes on strong, manly and melty-eyed, then retreats when he realizes he can't live in the world he wants to keep living in when Anna's stiff-backed husband won't divorce her and free her to remarry. What's remarkable about the book, published in novel form in 1876 after being serialized in newspapers, is the ruthless clarity of Tolstoy's grasp, in a romantic age, that sex withers without context. The passion here is short-lived, at least on Vronsky's part, because it has no place to go in a gilded birdcage society.
It was a theme to be explored by Ibsen and Shaw and precursor after precursor to women's lib gifted, intelligent women living lives of benign incarceration in domesticity, not being allowed to enter a world where men had many outlets and essentially lived their lives outside the home. We see this in Anna's lightweight brother, Stefan (Hugh Dempster), whose superficial extramarital fling is got over with Anna's help and social deftness. He isn't playing for keeps. Neither is Vronsky, who loves Anna, but doesn't want to be greatly inconvenienced by it. Anna does play for keeps, and it costs her. We can only speculate on the degree to which Leigh, who suffered from bipolar disorder, identified with Anna as it became clear that she was literally about to be left out in the cold. The old Spanish-speaking woman selling flowers for the dead and foreshadowing Blanche DuBois' death in the 1951 Streetcar is uncannily foreshadowed by the hallucinatory figure of a bearded old man spooking Anna, a similar harbinger of death. And of course Leigh had played a woman who ended her life by jumping under the wheels of a bus in Waterloo Bridge (1940).
The production did not enjoy a smooth launch. Leigh and Korda had hoped that Laurence Olivier, Leigh's lover, then husband, would play Vronsky. He begged off, claiming he couldn't, owing to preparations for his Hamlet. Perhaps the fact that Vronsky is so innately unsympathetic influenced his decision. As played by Moore, handsome but wooden, Vronsky all but evaporates as the film proceeds, given little more than irritability and a trapped feeling to play against Anna's desperation and still-grand passion. Karenin, Anna's cuckolded husband, comes close to stealing the film with the shadings brought to that seemingly unsympathetic prig by the masterful Ralph Richardson, who used Karenin's pain to make his attitude seem to result from more than wounded ego and revenge for being publicly humiliated, especially when he reverses roles with Vronsky after Anna falls ill, and Karenin takes her back only to have her run off with Vronsky again, finally hardening his attitude.
The adaptation Guy Morgan helped Duvivier and Jean Anouilh bring it from France to a cinematic Russia deftly trims problematic material from the novel. Wisely, it makes Karenin's actions seem to arise from hurt, not, as in the novel, Karenin falling under the sway of a fraudulent mystic. With the arrogance of the rich land-owning aristocrat he was and the genuine angst Tolstoy felt over his existential predicament and religious and political idealism, the great writer spent his life rewriting Christianity becoming revered as the moral model for Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. There must have been times when his playing at being one of his own peasants became a little much. Duvivier and the film allude deftly to this in the figure of the novel's autobiographical Tolstoy figure, narrator and moral pilgrim Levin (Niall MacGinness). When the young princess (Sally Ann Howes) Vronsky dumped to be with Anna, swallows her pride and journeys to Levin's estate to tell him she'll marry him after turning him down, Levin is seen working in the fields with his peasants, dressed in muzhik gear!
Anna Karenina is able to use a lot of visual shorthand for the stifling society where human feeling was subordinated to social position and privilege. Most of the points are made with suffocatingly ornate décor and costumes Leigh, feeling insecure, clashed frequently with costume designer Cecil Beaton, according to her biographer, Anne Edwards. On one occasion, when she complained that her gloves were too small, he replied that her hands were too large! On another occasion, when Leigh, famous for her tiny waist, complained that her corsets were squeezing her to death, it was discovered that they had been put on upside down! The uncomfortable fit served as a metaphor for the film. Set against the heavy décor, the overdressed characters seem part of it, not living, breathing people. Fatally, the film too often becomes an analogue of the stilted society the Christian anarchist Tolstoy was castigating on behalf of a Russia deciding whether to modernize or cling to old authoritarian models. "Bringing new passion and emotion to the greatest love story ever penned," gushed the film's posters. If only!
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by Jay Carr