BOOTLEG FILES 597: “The Skin of Our Teeth” (1959 British television production starring Vivien Leigh).
LAST SEEN: The first two acts of this three-act play are on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Considered lost for many years, but now only available in a truncated version.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely.
Vivien Leigh was one of the most extraordinary talents of the 20th century cinema, and also one of the most elusive. After the British actress conquered Hollywood in “Gone with the Wind,” she would only star in eight films made between 1940 and 1965. Instead, Leigh focused most of her post-Scarlett O’Hara acting in the theater, although she made one detour into live television with a 1959 production of Thorton Wilder’s satire “The Skin of Our Teeth.”
Wilder’s inspiration for “The Skin of Our Teeth” was the Olsen and Johnson revue “Hellzapoppin’,” which mixed surreal sight gags and old-fashioned burlesque into a raucous entertainment. Wilder wanted to channel the zany vibe of the Olsen and Johnson show into a provocative allegory detailing how mankind has survived through the most horrendous circumstances imaginable: the Ice Age (which seems to be occurring in contemporary New Jersey), the Great Flood (also taking place along the New Jersey seashore) and a devastating war. The original 1942 production of “The Skin of Our Teeth” featured a stellar cast including Fredric March and Florence Eldridge as Henry and Maggie Antrobus, a young Montgomery Clift as their son and the divine Tallulah Bankhead as the madcap maid Sabina. “The Skin of Our Teeth” charmed Broadway audiences and won Wilder the Pulitzer Prize.
“The Skin of Our Teeth” had its London premiere in May 1945, with Laurence Olivier directing his wife Vivien Leigh in the role of Sabina. Leigh came to adore the part, as it was among the relatively few plays where her comic skills were fully displayed. In 1959, Leigh was invited to revive the role of Sabina for the British television program “ITV Play of the Week.” Although Wilder’s play was chopped down to fit a tight 90-minute time slot, Leigh agreed to revisit Sabina for a live one-shot presentation.
A great deal of British television from the 1950s is now considered lost – unlike U.S. television, live British broadcasts were rarely saved on kinescope, thus robbing future generations of an important aspect of cultural history. Remarkably, a private collector had managed to obtain a partial kinescope of “The Skin of Our Teeth,” with the first two acts of this three-act offering preserved. The resulting work is an inventive adaptation that takes Wilder’s wild yet wise text into a distinctive television setting.
“The Skin of Our Teeth” opens with a British actor sitting at a desk while smoking a cigarette. “The author of this play, Thornton Wilder, intended that it should start with a typical American newscast,” he says, with a posh British accent. “We are not able to do this newscast. But I can give you an idea of the items that were to be in this typical American newscast.” At which point, the actor switches to a Walter Winchell-style voice and does the typical American newscast that sets up the first act at the Antrobus household in Excelsior, New Jersey, where the head of the household, George Antrobus, is expected home from his job. Mr. Antrobus is an inventor – he created the wheel and the alphabet, among other things – but the August weather is uncommonly cold, due primarily to the coming of the Ice Age. Mrs. Antrobus, their son (a young David McCullum) and daughter await the patriarch, along with a mammoth and a dinosaur (played by men in pantomime-style costumes) and the sassy maid Sabina, played by Vivien Leigh in a blonde wig.
Actually, Sabina is played by Miss Somerset, a British actress who expresses her concerns via monologues and wisecracks aimed at the viewer about the quality of the play. (Leigh plays Sabina with a flawless American accent, and her vocal shifts are startling.) At one point, a stage crew technician (complete with headset) comes on camera to confront her, and Sabina walks off stage to reveal a bank of TV cameras aimed at the set. In the midst of the first act, a group of refugees show up at the Antrobus house, and the mammoth and dinosaur are sent out into the cold in order to accommodate the people.
The second act finds the cast in Atlantic City, where George Antrobus is being sworn in as president of the Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals, Subdivision Humans. Sabina is now a reigning beauty queen who schemes to separate George from his family, but that plot is dashed when a Biblical-proportioned storm comes crashing in. Sabina continues to express her displeasure with the production, stopping the show at one point to declare her unwillingness to continue with a particular scene. George Antrobus calls out for the producer to intervene, and an off-screen voice is heard over the loudspeaker promising to come down. Sabina/Miss Somerset is upset about using television to offer material that could hurt people’s feelings. “After all, you can’t be too careful if you are going right into a person’s living room,” she insists.
I realize that I am doing “The Skin of Our Teeth” an injustice in trying to encapsulate its high points in a straightforward summary. I can state, however, that this production improves on the Wilder original by injecting a distinctively British sense of the absurd via Ellen M. Violett’s adaptation and Henry Kaplan’s playful direction. With its fast pacing and wink-and-nudge personality, this could be seen as a forerunner of the Pythonesque comedy that came to define much of British comedy to global audiences.
And, of course, having Leigh in a full-throttle comedy role is pure tonic. While no stranger to plumbing the grimmest of tragic roles, Leigh also possessed brilliant timing and a gift for clowning, especially when she vamps her way across the Atlantic City boardwalk. While it has always been a major shame that her film output was limited, it is also a shame that she did not do more filmed comedies.
“The Skin of Our Teeth” is available on YouTube in a two-part posting, albeit with an annoying time code running across the top part of the screen. There have been no plans to make this available for a home entertainment release, so this online offering is the only way (for now) to enjoy a rare Vivien Leigh treat.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.
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