The 1948 British film version of “Anna Karenina” has long been condemned to the outer edges of cinema appreciation. Many critics have considered it to be woefully inferior to the 1936 MGM version starring Greta Garbo. Some film scholars tried to cheapen its appeal by linking the depiction of Tolstoy’s doomed romantic heroine to the off-screen problems encountered by the film’s star, the emotionally fragile Vivien Leigh. And some purists carp that the film barely skims the surface of the Tolstoy novel and thus is not worthy of consideration.

To answer those complaints in order: the British “Anna Karenina” is actually superior to the MGM version at every imaginable level. Vivien Leigh was not Anna Karenina off-screen – she was an actress who played a role in a film and to imagine she was injecting autobiographical emotions into her performance is rubbish. And, yes, the film is a condensed version of Tolstoy – but the novel “Anna Karenina” runs an epic length and it would be thoroughly impossible to squeeze a literal adaptation into a two-hour movie.

“Anna Karenina” took root at a time when British producer Alexander Korda was attempting to re-establish himself in postwar British cinema. Korda literally put Great Britain’s film industry on the world movie map in the 1930s, starting with “The Private Life of Henry VIII” (1933), but during World War II he shifted his operations to Hollywood. Having made his reputation in the creation of lavish productions, he sought to regain his footing with an opulent version of “Anna Karenina.” It was a daring move, since the MGM film was still relatively fresh in moviegoers’ minds and few people felt the story needed to be filmed again.

Key to the potential commercial appeal of the film was Vivien Leigh, and Korda actually lucked out in signing her at the right time. In 1947, Leigh’s husband Laurence Olivier was planning his film version of “Hamlet” but did not consider Leigh for a role in that movie. Her omission from the cast upset her, but Korda’s offer helped erase the ill-will of being left out of “Hamlet.” For audiences, the casting was a joy: since her landmark performance in “Gone with the Wind” in 1939, Leigh only made three films: “Waterloo Bridge” (1940), “That Hamilton Woman” (1941) and “Caesar and Cleopatra” (1946) – with Korda producing the first two of the trio. Leigh’s absence from the screen (at a time when movie stars routinely made three or four pictures per year) made her an elusive presence and her screen work thus become a welcomed visit by a rare guest.

Korda filled “Anna Karenina” with talent. Jean Anoulih was hired to write the screenplay, Julien Duvivier was imported from France to direct, the great English actor Ralph Richardson was cast as Karenin, Irish leading man Kieron Moore was cast as Count Vronsky, and Cecil Beaton was commissioned to design the costumes. Beaton helped drive up the film’s budget by insisting he could not locate the proper materials for his work in London – Korda sent him and Leigh to Paris for the costume creation, which in turn became an extended working vacation for them (with an emphasis on the “vacation” rather than the “working”).

The British weather also complicated the production. No, it didn’t rain – but London experienced a rare heat wave in May 1947, when shooting started, and the cast literally labored under their heavy Russian-style furs while tramping through mounds of artificial snow. (Wooden icicles were hammered to the set to help give a chilly impression.) Leigh’s biographer Anne Edwards recounted the star’s impatience and discomfort with her opulent costumes, particularly her gloves. When Leigh complained to Beaton that her gloves were too small, the infamously waspish designer retorted: “It’s not that the gloves are too small, but that your hands are too big!” Ironically, the photo of Leigh used on the cover of the Anne Edwards biography comes from “Anna Karenina” and not “Gone with the Wind.”

More uncomfortable was Julien Duvivier’s direction. The French filmmaker (best known for “Pepe le Moko”) proved to be a difficult taskmaster and both Leigh and Richardson had their separate differences with his interpretation of the story. Richardson disregarded the direction and played his role as he saw fit, while Leigh openly clashed with Duvivier, to the discomfort of the crew.

Despite these problems, what emerged in “Anna Karenina” is an intensely emotionally and truly heartbreaking drama that brilliantly captures the essence (if not the depth) of Tolstoy’s classic. The three leads were perfect: Leigh brought aching passion to her performance as the reckless and romantically foolish Anna, Richardson was sublime in the difficult role of Karenin (a man who is made the fool in an adultery scandal, but who is not a sympathetic character) and Kieron Moore was ideal as the handsome but dangerous Vronsky, who ultimately proves to be Anna’s undoing.

So why is “Anna Karenina” so poorly considered today? Maybe critics are aghast at the possibility of Leigh’s performance surpassing the legendary Garbo’s (which seems excessively melodramatic compared to Leigh’s far more naturalistic style of acting). Maybe critics cannot see Leigh as anything but Scarlett O’Hara or Blanche DuBois (her rich performances in films such as “Waterloo Bridge” or “Caesar and Cleopatra” are routinely overlooked by so-called experts). Or maybe “Anna Karenina” was considered to be too old-fashioned for postwar audiences, who did not come out en masse for it and thus doomed it to commercial failure in its day (to the point that lazy cinephiles never bothered to revisit it years later).

“Anna Karenina” opened in London in January 1948. Twentieth-Century Fox acquired the U.S. rights and the film premiered in New York in April 1948. Alas, the distributor did not maintain its rights and over time “Anna Karenina” lapsed into the public domain. Unlike other PD films that were rescued and restored, “Anna Karenina” was left an orphan. Cheap dupes have proliferated for years, which is particularly scandalous since they rob the film’s superb cinematography and detailed production design of their proper visual power.

Recently, an American publishing company announced it was packaging DVDs of films based on classic novels with new published editions of those books. Both the movies and their literary sources are all public domain, and the 1948 film of “Anna Karenina” is being packaged with the Tolstoy book for this release. Perhaps in this incarnation, “Anna Karenina” will be able to reach new audiences who are unfamiliar with the movie and the negative baggage it carried for so long. This is a marvelous motion picture and it deserves to receive recognition for being a classic of both style and substance.


IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on January 13, 2006 in Features by

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